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Safeen James on her intergenerational storytelling


I meet Safeen James online – as we are used to in this post-pandemic world – and this doesn't prevent her positivity and warmth from reaching me. In very little time she welcomes me into some part of her world and her story, giving me a better understanding of the short film that, after several views, I know quite well: “Away from the Fields”, her latest work about being a child of the diaspora. 


James is a British-born Nigerian multidisciplinary artist who graduated in Creative Direction for Fashion from the London College of Fashion in 2020. Despite her successful career in the commercial field – working for Nike and Taco Bell – her work is not only commercial,  James loves to express herself as an artist, especially in video form where she explores themes close to her heart. It does not surprise me, then, when she names the Nigerian singer and activist Fela Kuti as one of her inspirations. What makes Kuti inspiring for the young artist is his boldness:  “The way he gives his messages through his music, and also stands up for what he believes in and the way he’s a voice within the black community.


The moment James realised she wanted to work in video production was during university. She began shifting her focus from the product itself to the meaning that the product creates. Another significant influence on James’ choice was her mother's brave decision to go back into education and study film during her adult life. It was while working on her mum’s production as a stylist in 2015 that she developed an understanding of how a film is made and how many people are involved in its creation. This intergenerational exchange is a motif that can also be seen in her latest work, “Away from the Fields,” in which we see interchanging images of the younger protagonists accompanied by a spoken word narration, with images of the artist’s grandfather telling his story.

James’ young, black protagonists are seen strolling down London’s Ridley Road in traditional Nigerian clothing wearing their garments proudly. But James is also attuned to the flux of diasporic identity and how it's navigated through fashion. In other scenes we see young men in UK streetwear hanging out and having fun together in front of a London housing estate. All these men come together at the end of the movie sealing the resolution of the intergenerational topic: the young 20-somethings bow to the old man as a sign of respect in the traditional Nigerian way.

The other important topic of the short film is identity, a theme developed after a period of reflection on her previous work “In Our Hands.” The short film focused on the 2020 EndSARS protests when tens of thousands of Nigerians marched in the streets against abuses, tortures and crimes carried out by the Police Force Special Anti-Robbery Squad. 


“What I’ve found was that some people were happy I was able to speak on the political issue, and others felt I wasn’t in the place to say so or to contribute to that conversation. So, ‘Away From the Fields’ was a lead-on from that conversation about where do we stand as the black diaspora in terms of our nationality, in terms of our heritage,” James said. She wanted her latest film to reflect on the contradictions and beauty of straddling two cultures. For James, "Away From the Fields" is an act of "reassurance for anyone that feels the same as me; that they can still reconnect with their roots." This idea of connection with the other African children of the diaspora is expressed in the film as well, in the choice of not choosing only Nigerian young men, but black men from different countries: “People in traditional wear being embraced by their peers, but also embracing their culture with them.” 


It’s important for James that her latest work transforms filmmaking into a process of learning and exchange. The choice of an all-male cast highlights the parallel between the older generation represented by her grandfather and the younger one. 


In the scene of the bow, the intergenerational theme weaves together with the topic of identity: “Over the years I’ve sensed that there is a tension between the older and younger generation and I’ve just felt that it’s so wholesome to know that there are some spaces where the respect between the elderly and the youth still remains and it's not toxic.” The two themes cleverly intertwine in the title of the short: “Away from the fields.” James explains that it comes from one of the Yoruba proverbs used by elders to pass wisdom, translating to “Home is the place of rest away from the fields.” For James, this is a reminder of the country that is going to always be home for her: Nigeria. It doesn’t matter where your “fields” are – where you develop your career and meet friends. “Our home is a place of rest, that is Nigeria, and we'll surely get back to it, even if it's not physically, it could be metaphorical” James said. This is why that final bow is so powerful, because behind the scenes and on camera, the protagonists come together doing the same traditional gesture, learning about their own culture from each other, and bringing that metaphor to life. 


Talking about her future, James would love to make another movie and maybe embrace a creative project in a different field. What she knows for sure is the importance of taking up as much space as she can in the creative field.“The more space women and people of colour take, the more they will feel comfortable,” James finished.

01 XPULENT | CULTURE, JAN 31, 2023

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Written by Caterina Biondi


'Away from the Fileds' celebrates the gift of dual identity given to the children of the diaspora.

Directed by Safeen James

Producer: Kemi Anna
Director of Photography: Paul Ifeneziuche
Assistant Director: Afra Bailey
Photographer: Amaani Oluwa
Production Assistant: Grace Edu
Composer: Lola Adeeko
Sound Engineer: Manni Koya
Writer/Voice Artist: Chosen James
Colourist: Thomas Kumeling

Olusegun Oyesanya
Mayowa Kuti
Ade Femzo
Akin Akintoye

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