At The Intersection of Afrofuturism and Religion in Indie Film, ‘Ori Inu’
Every social movement should be documented with art. Guyanese-Nigerian-American filmmakers Chelsea Odufu and Emann Odufu have provided the burgeoning neo-Afrofuturism scene just that with their latest film Ori Inu. Afrofuturism is generally regarded as any work representing the nexus of science fiction and African spiritualities, and Ori Inu fits that bill to a tee. The siblings are part of a youth that has displayed a renewed interest in Afrofuturism, making Ori Inu the product of a neo-Afrofuturist aesthetic.
The Odufus co-wrote and co-directed the film about Natalia Diaz (played by Helen Beyene), an 18-year-old Brazilian immigrant on a personal journey to re-identify with the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé.
Candomblé was created in the 16th century by enslaved Africans brought to Brazil. The religion is a fusion of ancient Yoruba, Fon and Bantu beliefs. Candomblé practitioners believe in an omnipotent god called Oludumaré , and ancestors-turned-deities under Oludumaré called Orixas. Candomblé was condemned by Brazilian slaveowners who wanted all slaves to practice Catholicism. For hundreds of years, practitioners of Candomblé have been violently persecuted by the Brazilian government. A law was even put in place requiring permission from the police to publicly worship. In the 1970s, that law was repealed, sparking a rebirth of Candomblé practice.
But according to Ori Inu’s creators, the religion is still relatively marginalized. When I spoke to them, the Odufus told me that they crafted their film “to address issues of intolerance within our society by examining the present day struggle of the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé to be accepted as an official religion in Brazil.”
In the film, Natalia’s grandmother Mama Lola is kidnapped by six cross-wielding men during a Candomblé ceremony in Brazil. Natalia is forced to flee Brazil, and ends up in America with her mother, a devout born-again Christian. What ensues is a tug-of-war that reflects an abiding aspect of the modern Black experience: the dilemma of accepting Christianity vs. reconnecting with traditional African spiritualities.
Natalia’s fight to have Candomblé accepted in her American household mirrors the difficulties that Candomblé has faced on a national level in Brazil. This dually-focused plotline was the goal of Emann Odufu, who cited director Quentin Tarantino’s takes on the “story-within-a-story” format as a primary inspiration.
Also influential to Ori Inu’s cultivation is the poet Ishmael Reed, who’s NeoHooDoo philosophy postulated that African spiritualities are kept alive through the artistic and cultural offerings of African diasporic people.
Ori Inu was shot in America, as well as in parts of the Caribbean and Brazil. One particular scene in Trinidad was selected with the divine intervention of an OSHUN priestess. The Odufus sought to provide an authentic, true-to-life experience, having compiled at least 24 drafts before finalizing a script.
We got the chance to speak with the Odufus about the film, their Afrofuturist influences, and what proper representation of Blackness looks like to them.
In what ways do you identify with Natalia, specifically in terms of her struggle to find her identity?
I think the beautiful thing about Natalia’s character is that her journey to find herself and embrace her identity is a universal experience of all people, and with that search often comes the struggle, which makes us who we are at the end of day.
Natalia’s a character is filled with so much passion, curiosity, pain, and love, and is as a complicated as any other human being trying to understand their place in this world, but as a Black woman, that solo search becomes a bit more difficult.
That search for ultimate self-love and self-appreciation that Natalia goes through and that I am still going through has to maneuver its way through the regurgitated painful images of Black bodies being murdered, fashion ads that tell us we’re not beautiful due to amount of melanin in our skin, or ‘feed the children’ commercials that make all of Africa seem horrifying. It’s literally trying to find love in a culture that has been pushed in a deep hole of hate for centuries.
Natalia and I are consistently in opposition with self as we battle assimilating to the cultural norms of America or embracing the rich lineage that makes us Black. We are never at complete ease with self as we often have to compromise a part of our Blackness to fit in with society or progress in the world. So of course as one the creators of Ori Inu, Natalia has vicariously taken a lot of qualities from me, both good and bad. Her longing to go back home to her motherland to reconnect, and her fiery passion to revolutionize the world and reclaim a land stolen from her is something we share.
When did you discover Afrofuturism? What are some of the first works that made an impression on you?
I would honestly say first influences of Afrofuturism were ones that I didn’t even know were Afro-Futuristic until later. Like many people, I grew up on Earth Wind and Fire and George Clinton and was always extremely into G-Funk which I looked at as a West Coast transplant of what George Clinton was doing. My influences into Afrofuturism were people like Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation and I really studied hip hop and its afro-futuristic origins.
The mythologies of the Five Percent and Sun Ra and even the Nation of Islam were definitely an influence as well. My present day influences are Kanye West and his Yeezus theology as well as Flying Lotus or Lil B, though I’m not sure any of them would necessarily call themselves Afrofuturist. In terms of visual art, Lina Viktor inspires me. I think she is hella dope. I love the aesthetic that Underdog the DJ has created and I am constantly put on to new artists by @yesladyphoenix on instagram.
Probably the seminal moment when I started to be in tune was when my homie Marc D put me on to the Kybalion by Hermes Trismegistus and this other book called Black Roots Science about the Dogon Tribe in Mali. I did not even finish both of these books, but just reading what I read put me on the frequency of what I would later understand to be Afrofuturism. I feel like my sister and I were Afrofuturists before we even knew what it was, to be honest.
Can you discuss the process of crafting the script? How long did it take? How easy did the narrative come together with multiple creators?
I remember being in writing sessions with my brother Emann working on what might have been the 24th draft of our script and literally having to take breaks from writing because the energy in the room would become so overwhelming and hot when trying to unlock the key to this particular scene with one of the orishas. Coming up with the narrative wasn’t hard for us, but we wanted to make sure that every scene in the film felt authentic.
Our goal with the script was to make a story that had many different layers and that was poetry as well as film through the use of symbolism and imagery. We wanted that Tarantino feeling, whereby there is almost a story within a story, but a message that leaves a lasting impression on its viewers.
This not only required us to do a ton of research, but forced us to consistently go through the entire script line by line, to weed out lines that didn’t move the overall story along. It took us time to learn the ins and outs of our characters because we wanted to make sure the complexity of each character is visible on screen. All together it took my brother Emann and I about five months to completely finish the script, after weekly script critiques from the film’s advisor Vondie Curtis Hall.
What movies, if any, most influenced the cinematic devices seen in Ori Inu? How did the cinematographic decisions to present America and Brazil differently come about?
To be completely honest, not many films influenced Ori Inu, as there is nothing out like it, so we spent a lot of time reading books like Mama Lola, Vodou Priestess of Brooklyn [by Karen McCarthy Brown], Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed, books on the Dogon tribe and visiting photo libraries to find inspiration. Nevertheless Ori Inu: In Search of Self was influenced by films such as the 1959 Brazilian film Black Orpheus, and City Of God, which is one our favorite films. It was important for us to see how Brazilians portrayed Afro-Brazilian culture on screen. The film was also heavily influenced by Kendrick Lamar & Flying Lotus’s music video “Never Catch Me” as well as Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s music video “Cross Roads.”
Can you discuss the decision to center the story around an Afro-Brazilian woman and Candomblé? From my somewhat limited frame of reference, it seems the concept of embracing African lineage and spirituality has been a predominantly African-American narrative. Do you hope to awaken more Latino people to their African roots with Ori Inu?
We are trying to wake everyone up to the relevance of African spirituality in the present day and yes that includes, but is not limited to Latinos. There are many Latinos who are very in touch with African spirituality as well. One of the cool things about the African diaspora is that it is literally a melting pot of cultures, ideas and spirituality. African culture is still very much alive in the Latino and Caribbean communities, even if subliminally. Salsa being a prime example of a Latino dance with African origins, is very much a part of Latino culture but has been kind of separated from the idea of Africa. We are literally trying to flip the perception that Africanness or Blackness is something that should be hidden or ashamed of, while at the same time celebrating the diaspora and its hybridity and the diversity of culture within the diaspora.
How much consultation did you have with Candomblé practitioners during creation of the film or afterwards? What feedback did you receive from them?
We didn’t have any official consolation from Candomblé practitioners while creating the film but the magic of the film certainly brought us in contact with spiritual practitioners on numerous occasions. I remember traveling to Trinidad for the first time and visiting my first prospective location. It was the mouth of the river, and up ahead approaching us was an old woman wearing all yellow who appeared to have just finished a river cleansing. The lovely woman approached me and began asking me questions. After telling her a bit about my film she told me she was a high priestess of Oshun and that she suggested wherever I shot in Trinidad, that it is where the “sisters meet.” She insisted that I would receive many blessings if I shot there. Due to my knowledge of Orishas, I understood she was suggesting I shoot in a place where the Sea (Yemoja) and the River (Oshun) connect. After a couple of hours searching for locations I came across the perfect location, and of course it was where the ocean and river connected in Grand Riviere, Trinidad.
Now that the film has finished shooting and we have our trailer out, we have received across the board nothing but positive feedback and blessings from people all over the world. We have fans in Brazil, Nigeria, South Africa, and even Sweden, just to name a few who are not only excited to see Ori Inu but are thankful that this narrative is being told for the first time.
In what ways specifically are youth “reinterpreting and re-appropriating notions of Afrofuturism and making them relevant to our modern culture?” What new concepts and ideas have those re-interpretations added to the movement?
I would say Afrofuturism is alive and well in the pop culture of today. I think there has been a shift of consciousness that you can literally track on Twitter and Instagram of a youth that are looking towards non-conventional methods of interpreting their own identities and spiritually. Whether your team lightworkers or Hotep or Black Hebrew or Nation of Islam or Ifa or whether you just believe that Jesus was Black, the idea of Black spirituality has gone viral. Our biggest contribution as the youth of the present day is seeing the potential of social media as a platform to link with other like-minded individuals and spread ideas. On a pop culture level, Afrofuturism is kept alive in the music of hip hop, which to my sister and is a huge part of our spirituality and aesthetic. Hip hop is a religion and a movement of the people.
Where do you believe the line is drawn between embracing Afrofuturism and commodifying/trivializing it as an individual?
I don’t think we could trivialize Afrofuturism. I don’t think as an individual I could have the power to trivialize an art form. For me, my journey to Afrofuturism is one that is extremely deep and almost kind of surreal. I remember when my friends would make fun of my reverence for the sun. Or when I would talk about things like the Dogon tribe or Alchemy and people wouldn’t understand. I’m happy these ideas are becoming more popular and that in my process of searching for who I am I’ve found a place where I’ve been able to develop my own artistic voice. In terms of commodifying Afrofuturism, isn’t the goal of art to get commodified to be able to support yourself as an artist and also to popularize an aesthetic that is not only being used by us, but so many other creatives around the world? We are art activists. We just want OUR collective images and stories to be seen and heard by as many people as possible. I don’t think anything is wrong with that.