Arthur Musah is a Ghanaian-Ukrainian engineer-turned-filmmaker whose latest film, Naija Beta, has been scooping up prizes at African film festivals since it premiered at the Pan African International Film Festival in Cannes in 2016.
During a year of festival screenings in Europe, Africa and North America, the film picked up prizes at the Urban Mediamakers Film Festival 2016, at the Roxbury International Film Festival 2016, and at the Silicon Valley International Film Festival.
It was also nominated for Best Humanitarian Film at Rapid Lion: The South African International Film Festival of 2017.
Musah, much like the protagonists in Bella Naija, journeyed from Ghana to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he studied electrical engineering and computer science. In the film, he follows a team of African undergraduate students at MIT as they head home to Nigeria to launch and run Exposure Robotics Academy (XRA) - a robotics summer camp in Lagos for ambitious young teens.
As Mr. Musah follows these MIT students their ideals are tested by reality.
Africa Renewal’s Ihouma Atanga caught up with Mr. Musah and queried him on the core themes of his documentary and how the robotics project is benefitting Nigeria’s youth:
Africa Renewal: What compelled you to produce this film?
Mr. Musah: I actually stumbled on this story by accident, while shooting another film One Day I Too Go Fly.
While filming, one of the students, Philip Abel, was selected by Obinna Ukwuani, founder of the robotics camp, to teach a robotics program in Lagos. This is where the documentary idea was born. It just made sense to follow them since this seemed like a compelling story of African youth creating practical solutions to African problems.
Tell us a little about the program
The Exposure Robotics Academy is the brainchild of Obinna Ukwuani, a co-founder of the concept in 2011 with Obinna Okwodu, Chika Ugboh, Zainab Lasisi, Onyinyechi Okeke, and Nnaemeka Opara. Inspired by a US robotics league he took part in prior to University, Obinna developed a similar summer enrichment program in Nigeria. The goal of the program is to provide technical education to African students, starting with Nigeria.
What were your expectations going into the making of this film, what shape did you want the documentary to take and what themes did you want reflected?
I knew Obinna Ukwuani’s program objective for the XRA 5-week robotic summer camp, I also knew that it would end in a student competition. So instinctively, as a filmmaker, I knew there was a structure. There would be a climax, a wide range of emotions, winners and losers, etc.
Upon filming, I thought the film would be a good example of Nigerians taking care of Nigerian challenges. However, after viewing the footage during the editing sessions, I got a different perspective. I wanted to cut the film from the viewpoint of the MIT students who founded this program, and decided to go with homecoming, youth and education themes. It became about these MIT Nigerians (Obinna Ukwuani and co), going home to build something great, while figuring out how they fit into a society they have been away from for years. I wanted to capture the excitement and fear that comes with dealing with it.
Girls and women seemed to be the main characters in your film. Was this intentional?
It is interesting, we’ve had a lot of women and girls make this same observation after watching the film. What happened is, we took the scenes we filmed, and scoured for the most captivating and dynamic characters. Naturally, some characters fell off, others stayed on, but the truth of the matter is, in this particular camp, the women and girls seemed to take leadership roles and were the most dynamic on film. It happened naturally, not intentionally.
With regards to gender, what was the general process of choosing the camp students?
Obinna Ukwuani, and his team of co-founders, made a conscious effort to ensure gender parity, with 50 percent of students being male and female. Most of the students are Nigerian, but two are from Ghana. Girls and boys participate equally.
During the inception and production process of this documentary, did you ever feel there was a shortage of girls and women in science and technology?
I can answer the question by relating it to my experience growing up in Ghana, and not really the limited experience I had on the ground while shooting in Nigeria. I remember the words of an upper-class woman in my boarding school, and how it impacted me. She was a few years ahead of me, and was one of the smartest in her graduating class. She talked about how she believed guys were more academically inclined to STEM fields and hence found the sciences much easier than girls.
That really stuck with me as it seems there were some societal stereotypes signaling to her that sciences would be tougher for girls. It was then that I noticed there is a need to counter this notion, and encourage girls to take part in STEM fields.
One of the students said, “Once I’m done with secondary school, I’m running away, and I can’t guarantee I’ll come back…” How do you feel about the possible brain drain that acting on these sentiments can produce?
That is a very astute observation. The first interview I had with Obinna Ukwuani was on a lawn at MIT. He broke down the team’s vision of what they had achieved and what they planned to do with XRA. I was particularly drawn to the SAT prep program they developed as another component to the robotics camp. The goal was to expose the student leaders they were building to these exams and prep them for college abroad, if they decided to pursue a higher education elsewhere. So I asked Obinna Ukwuani the same question, “Don’t you think you are contributing to brain drain in Nigeria?”
Obinna was torn about it, but much later, when he graduated and had the camp going in full swing, he seemed to have more clarity on the subject.
Fast forward two years later, he became OK with people leaving Nigeria or any African country in search of better opportunities. He became focused on doing his bit to develop great minds at home, and granting them opportunities via the SAT prep, to go pursue education prospects beyond Nigeria. His ultimate goal is for the students to better themselves.
I understood Obinna Ukwuani’s perspective, especially after taking his personal story into consideration. His parents left Nigeria in search of better opportunities, with the intent of coming back, but weren’t able to return after they settled in the USA. I see the connection, however. Although the first generation could not return and settle, the second generation was afforded the freedom and opportunity to settle back home if they wanted to.
Obinna Ukwuani is part of that second generation. He has moved back to Nigeria, and is adding to that society, with hopes for those who have gained from this program to make a difference back in Nigeria or wherever else they go. So it is a dual effect - there is some brain drain, but there is also brain gain.
What are your future plans? Are there any interesting feature film projects in the works?
I am interested in transitioning to fiction film, but I have a documentary (One Day I Too Go Fly) I would first like to complete. I am interested in work that represents African people, women, and LGBTQ people on screen, because I don’t see enough stories about them, and would hence like to fill that gap.