Frederike Migom: the art of mixing art and social engagement

True art, art that comes from the center of a people, from their very core, is inherently political.
– Beverly Smith, American artist

Frederike Migom.

While Frederike Migom’s “Nkosi Coiffure” – one of this year’s LUNAFEST film festival’s official selections – is, on the surface, about a woman who escapes into a hair salon in Brussels after a fight with her boyfriend in public, the short film pays homage to her Flemish mother’s unlikely friendship with her Senegalese friend. Whereas her mother is reserved both emotionally and in appearance, her mother’s friend is the exact opposite. “It was really interesting to see them relate,” she said of the two women. “It was really beautiful to see both of them together.” The Belgian filmmaker and actor was also inspired by her family’s connections with Africa – her father was born in what was once the Belgian Congo in Central Africa, and her brother studied in Senegal. Although her brother passed away while in the West African country, Frederike noted that positive things came out of her family’s tragic loss.

The idea for “Nkosi Coiffure” (2015) grew out of photos that her mother had sent to Frederike in a text message. Her mother’s friend had convinced her to go to the hair salon where she worked to have her makeup done and extensions woven into her hair. The photos surprised and amused Frederike because, as she related, “that was so not my mom.” Over a cup of coffee with her mother’s friend, Frederike laid out her vision of building a story around her mother’s salon visit for a short film. She knew that writing the script would be difficult because it wasn’t her culture. “It was going to be a challenge to portray the community honestly and with respect,” she said. So together, she and her mother’s friend wrote the script.

Still from “Nkosi Coiffure.”

Fusing art and social engagement
Frederike shot on location in a Congolese neighborhood hair salon, and “Nkosi Coiffure” premiered at a small African film festival in the same neighborhood. Brussels is home to a tight-knit Congolese community. “It felt important,” she said, of her choices in location and screening, “. . . to bring people together.” While mixing art with social engagement is more apparent in her other work, it’s still inherent in “Nkosi Coiffure.” And yet, Frederike insisted, “I did not want my film to be political at all because I don’t have the desire to do that.” She went on, “There are a lot of ways to tell stories that involve or hint at these themes without actually trying to exploit them or to pretend that I have the answers – because I don’t. All I know is that we’re all here in this city together.” In Europe, she pointed out, many films about immigration often focus on the problems of immigration for host countries. “But I want to tell a positive side of the story,” she said. “We’re going to have to learn how to live together.”

Still from “Nkosi Coiffure.”

“Si-G,” her first documentary, which premieres locally at the end of February, embodies her fusion of art and social engagement. By happenstance, Frederike was watching a local news story about students at a school and was intrigued by a girl in special needs education who performed an impromptu rap. She originally wanted to write a fictional story about Cansu, who gave herself the rapper name of Si-G. As she awaited word on government funding to make the short film, she got to know the girl better. Cansu had recently moved from a small town in the Netherlands to a small apartment that she shared with her father and sister in Brussels. “Rap for her was a need,” Frederike explained.

Cansu rapping in “Si-G.”

Frederike connected Cansu with a hip-hop workshop at the local library and filmed the event. The rapper who led the workshop became Si-G’s mentor and the two ended up collaborating on a song. When funding didn’t come through, Frederike decided to make the short film a documentary, taking a look at rap from a kid’s point of view. At that time, terrorists had attacked Paris in multiple locations and the news media reported that the terrorists came from Cansu’s neighborhood in Brussels. Soon after, the area received international scrutiny and negative press. “She’s had to be on guard a lot, but she just had this really energetic, positive story to tell,” Frederike declared. “This rap comes from the heart and it’s a way to express yourself.” She believes Cansu can be a role model to the kids in her neighborhood and to adults, too, with the film being the messenger that shows them: “Don’t judge these kids.”

Still of Cansu in the short documentary, “Si-G.”

The evolving dreams of our youth
When Frederike was a child, she wanted to be a storyteller and thought that becoming an actor was the natural next step. She studied at the performing arts conservatory American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, but she discovered that acting didn’t give her creative satisfaction. So she started writing to stay creative. When her student visa ended, Frederike didn’t want to return home and instead landed in Paris and attended film school. Commitment to being a filmmaker didn’t take hold when she was a student because the school’s technical approach over artistic focus didn’t appeal to her. It wasn’t until she graduated and worked in production that she found her true place behind the camera.

Still from the Flemish feature film, Boosters, starring Frederike.

“I’ve always been fascinated by people’s dreams,” she related. People may have dreams as children and grow up chasing those dreams. Over the years, however, when the prospect of accomplishing those dreams dims, the dreams evolve as people make necessary adaptations, according to Frederike. Her short film “Adam and Everything” (2014) explores that theme – the fork in the road where one must make decisions and then gracefully accept those changes. “When I was an actor in New York, I saw how hard it is and how so many people struggle and you have to make a decision – am I going on with this or am I choosing a more stable life?” she posed.

Still from “Adam and Everything.”

Frederike directing in “Adam and Everything.”

Frederike is continuing to explore that theme. A Belgium television station commissioned her to make a short documentary in Flemish about any subject she wanted to do, so long as it was a personal story. So she settled on filming a documentary on her classmates from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. “We’re all 30 now – where is everyone? What are they doing?” she wanted to know. As it turns out, many of her classmates are no longer acting. When they were in the performing arts conservatory, such an outcome would have been deemed a “terrible thing,” she declared. But with lives changing and presenting new challenges and opportunities, she concludes: “It’s okay.” The documentary, she says, is “more about dreams and the question of what really defines success.” Frederike is contemplating making a second version in English after the Flemish version is completed at the end of January.

Beginnings and endings all lead to hope
Communicating and connecting are also themes in her emerging body of film work. “Malakim” (2014), the story about a lonely boy and an angel on the street, was inspired by a living statue dressed as an angel that Frederike spied when she was in Sấo Palo, Brazil. He never moved because nobody gave him money. She wondered: “What if nobody sees him? What if I’m the only one who sees him because nobody is giving him any money?” Intrigued by “loneliness in crowded places,” Frederike explores the desire to communicate amidst the challenge of not being able to connect. While she admitted that “Malakim” is a “dark film” because the boy is so desperate to communicate that he throws a rock at someone, she argues that in the end boy and angel find one another.

Still from “Malakim.”

“All of my films end with a new beginning,” Frederike said. In “Nkosi Coiffure,” the main character, who is making a momentous decision, sees life in a different but positive light after her discussion with the women in the hair salon. Frederike confessed that she had always wanted to be a “complicated, dark artist,” but to the core she has always been a positive person. While there’s a lot of negativity in the world today, she points out, “Life is really a beautiful thing in the end. We’re all together in this, and we need to find a way to live together and find your place in the world. I think my stories, in the end, will always have hope.”

A prototype poster for Frederike’s feature film, Binti, which is not animated.

Frederike is currently working on her first feature film, Binti, about a 10-year-old Congolese girl who has lived her whole live in Brussels with her father and who dreams of being a television presenter. When their undocumented status is exposed, father and daughter run away. Binti meets 10-year-old Elias – a “nature boy,” as Frederike describes him – who has taken to hiding in his treehouse ever since his father had run away with another woman. Binti hatches a plan to get her father and Elias’s mother to fall in love and marry so that she and her father can remain in Belgium and she can still pursue her dream. This family film, Frederike points out, is perhaps her most socially engaged film to date. “I’m very shocked by the deportation of children, especially if they’ve lived in another country their whole life,” she declared. “It’s the most ridiculous thing to spend time and money kicking them out to a place that they’ve never been.” With Binti, Frederike wants to instill hope. She recently received word that the Belgian government has awarded her funds to develop the film – good news, indeed. The grant will enable her to move forward, with shooting expected to commence in the summer of 2018. With the world in uncertain times today, it will be interesting to see what kind of world exists when Binti premieres.

Note: You can see Frederike’s short film at LUNAFEST East Bay’s screening on Saturday, March 18th, 7:30pm, at the El Cerrito High School’s Performing Arts Theater. For more information, click here.