Ayesha Adu is not afraid to dwell in dark places. As a writer and filmmaker, she's drawn to emotional extremes and gritty stories that mirror actual life events--her own in particular. Yet this 32-year-old laughs with ease, and a touch of humility, when it comes to assessing her still young career behind the camera.
Interviewed recently after a reading of the screenplay for her forthcoming film Behind the Wall at the Center for Independent Artists' "Frinj of the Frinj" festival, she reflects upon cord, her first narrative work, which premiered in 2001. Describing her foray into Dogme95, the hyperrealist aesthetic that uses only natural sound and lighting, she muses about the audacity of using the warts-and-all technique for her intense, semiautobiographical glimpse into a rapidly decaying mother-daughter relationship. The film takes place at night, in a house with no electricity. "I decided to make a Dogme movie about a power outage," she says, shrugging and smiling at the absurdity of the situation. "It makes you look at the things you need to work out."
Adu is her own toughest critic, as most artists are. But the tortured souls of cord could only thrive believably in the gloomy world that she created (intentionally or not), resulting in a Dogme success. It's a happy twist of fate that contrasts sharply with the painful circumstances of Adu's youth as mirrored in cord and Behind the Wall, a story about child abuse. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, to an Egyptian/German mother and an African-American father, Adu moved to Dayton, Ohio, early in life. After witnessing extensive domestic violence between her parents--and experiencing it herself--she was left to care for her mother, an alcoholic, when her father abandoned them. Forced to grow up fast, Adu went to high school while working, paying the rent, and trying to cope with her mother's declining emotional state and eventual cancer diagnosis. She hasn't spoken to her mother since she was 18.
"It has always been really easy for me to talk about that, to go there immediately," explains Adu, acknowledging that not everyone wants to take that journey with her. "When you go through a lot of trauma, it does get hard to let go of it. We don't want to see our parents in trouble. It's helpful to put it up onscreen because this not only happened to me, but maybe to you, or someone you know." Still, Adu does not see her art revolving around her own personal pain. "It's okay to continue on with your life in a positive light," she says. "I'm my own family, and I surround myself with the friends I've made." She thinks her next film will be lighter fare, maybe something about dating.
Adu came to the Twin Cities to attend the Minneapolis College of Art and Design for graphic design, but shifted interests while taking a film class in which she saw "a black-and-white movie trailer with a skinny black guy selling socks: Spike Lee. Seeing him made me think I could make movies." Soon Adu was working on commercials and local film locations, including Feeling Minnesota. Eventually she began to direct music videos for local talent such as Brown Child (garnering an award from WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival), and to work experimentally (her Village Blues was also honored by WorldFest). Adu has also been a semifinalist in an American Film Institute competition.
With Behind the Wall, which Adu plans to shoot in 2004, the filmmaker will use digital video and continue her realistic approach while telling the story of a bike messenger, Sara, who lives next door to an abused child. When the social services system doesn't move fast enough to address the problem, she has to decide whether she should take matters into her own hands. The fast-paced screenplay begins with the familiar details of a sad situation, but emerges as more of a complicated moral challenge than a solemn societal discourse.
"I'm observant about things," says Adu. "I don't announce [them] didactically. Then I move on. I'm counting on three things from the audience: trust, intelligence, and patience."
As Adu develops her skills--and the sort of backbone that can take the financial and ego-deflating setbacks familiar to all struggling filmmakers--she's finding that a life lived largely by her own wits is a valuable tool. "Being a filmmaker is really lonely and it's a gigantic job. Everyone's relying on you. But it's worth it. It's all about trying. I am who I am today because I've always found a way."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.