The Park Pictures director tells LBB’s Alex Reeves about her empathetic nature, single-minded determination and radical filmmaking plans
As someone who’s grown up with Nigerian and Polish heritage in a variety of countries, Justyna Obasi is reticent to talk about the complex perspective she has on the world as a result. “There’s a lot to say... and I’m not sure I want to say it all,” she ventures.
There’s the positive side: moving around all the time as a kid taught her to be adventurous, to explore new environments and be open to different people. “Being of diverse heritage, I learned to be sensitive to the spaces I enter,” she says. “I can sense a room and the people inside it, what they want from me and as a result, I’m very empathetic. I’m very good at putting myself in other people’s shoes.” That’s something that shines through in her people-focused films in which the characters are instantly believable.
But the other side, she says, is painful. “Because the truth is that as a Black migrant woman in the predominately white Eurozone, I spent a lot of time making other people feel okay about me being there.” She became good at putting herself into other cultures but as a result she suffered. “I wasn’t able to explore my own identity. Until now. Now that’s a big part of my work. Owning my own space.”
Now a director signed to Park Pictures and fast building a reel that already includes work for brands like adidas and Zalando, as well as a set of enthralling music videos, Justyna is one of those single-minded people who always knew where she was heading. She wanted to be an artist and a filmmaker and that’s what she’s done. The only other jobs she’s had have been little things here and there to pay the bills. Even when she was in school, she was already directing music videos. “I think when I realised that all the arts – writing, drawing, music – all of them had a place in filmmaking, that’s when I really decided it was what I wanted to do,” she says.
Figuring out who characters are and why they do what they do is the core of what interests Justyna in directing. Her favourite part is “falling in love with a character and then working with them so they can reveal their truth.” To her, it comes naturally.
Every project is different, but she has a strong philosophy on casting. For some of the “coming-of-age projects”, she says she’s worked with non-actors to reinforce the feeling of authenticity. But her process is the same with all talent, trained or not. “It involves knowing what I want but also being open enough in the moment to recognise when there is something happening that is even better than I could have imagined.”
Justyna is comfortable looking back on the work she did early in her development as a creator. She’s happy to accept the flaws and impulse she was working on. Her first projects were often stories about coming of age and comics about her own life. “They were super dramatic and naive but very honest – about body, skin colour, hair, friendship, love and being trapped in your head,” she says. All of this is still relevant to her work now, she realises. “Many tendencies in my early work became patterns and some have become my main focus.”
While she was clear that she wanted to make a life of filmmaking, directing commercials was never planned. She took on her first commercial project as a chance she could jump on. “I was curious to prove my intuitive skills on a big set and actually earn money through directing,” she says.
She’d always been determined to be a feature film writer and director, but at the time was earning her coin in a film production company, doing treatments for other directors. “I was a ghost, responsible for many, many... It was a massive output. Like a factory. I remember I was working crazy hours. But I was young and had no problem providing ideas in exchange for Euros.”
Then there was an agency board that some directors at the production company declined. Justyna asked the producers if she could pitch on it and see. She did and she won the pitch. Suddenly she found herself directing a commercial in Estonia without any experience - the youngest on a huge set (except for the talent), the only person of color (except for one of the cast she picked), and one of the few women. “Even though I felt like an imposter, I just did my job and then I continued doing it.”
That said, working in the commercial world is personally challenging for Justyna. “Commercials are all about simplicity, which is often unfortunately translated into stereotypes. I don’t have to elaborate the problem with that. But I am trying to create archetypes, not stereotypes. This sometimes creates problematic discussions around the perception of diversity and skin colour.”
Right now there are two projects Justyna’s most focused on. One is a feature film she’s developing with UFA and Panthertainment about a Black man who is the father to a white child. The other is an art documentary centered on non-binary and trans people working in the fields of performing arts, dance, stripping and sex work, that she says “explores the broad concept of performance during Berlin’s corona pandemic.”
She’s fascinated by the idea of identity, reinvention and transformation of the body in oppressive conditions (such as patriarchy, racism, sexism, homophobia) and especially during this time of global change. And she’s finally able to explore these themes through her craft and art. “It is thrilling to me that I finally have the financial freedom to enjoy the creative freedom to do my own things now,” she says.
Considering what she finds most challenging about her directing work, she ventures that everything is a challenge. “It’s all relatively hard but you do it anyways. It was a challenge to go out there and say ‘I’m the director now.’ To say I want it like this and not like that. It was scary to put myself out there after being a ghost for years but I had to do it because what else am I going to do? I know I’m meant to be doing this. And so, whenever I’m up to something new, I’m anxious in the beginning, but then 10 minutes in, I’m like ‘I got this’.”
What she does is a challenge but Justyna thinks back to her mother, who was a migrant. She remembers when she was little, she would drive cabs and clean houses and sometimes Justyna would go with her. “Life is a challenge. Overcoming it is about being bold enough to try.”
Although she’s lived all over the place, she's been in Berlin longer than she’s lived anywhere else, “so I guess I’d call it home, she says. “It’s great but I feel it’s been too long... I’m ready to pack my bags.” That’s what this year was supposed to be – before Covid, the plan was to travel a bit and find her next home. “That’s obviously on hold, but not forever.”
Justyna’s character is curious and she’s always been a cultural explorer, reading and watching a broad range for inspiration. But now, for her personal inspiration, she looks “almost exclusively to Black / POC and queer-centred narratives, art and music to help counter the white Eurocentric gaze through which we have all been shown culture for so long.”
She reels a few examples of inspirations off: bell hooks, Natasha Kelly, WEB DuBois, Arthur Jaffa, Jordan Peele, Michaela Coel, Sister Souljah, Akwaeke Emezi, Klein, ARCA. She loves blaxploitation – ‘Coffy’ is one of her favourites. She’s also inspired by what’s coming directly from the African continent. “It’s amazing, like C.J. Obasi’s visions for a new West African narrative and my cousin Bright Wonder Obasi who is a Nollywood director - turns out it runs in the family.”
Moving forward, Justyna’s focus is on resistance through her work: “Giving Black and queer perspectives, not explaining them. Being radical and experimenting with subject and form. Exploring narrative and uncovering universal truths in unexpected stories. Making solid money as a form of resistance to a system not designed for me to thrive.
“People need to be honest about that. There’s sometimes a stigma around commercializing yourself but it’s really about respect. You like my work? My ideas? Pay me. That’s how you respect me.”