Atlanta, United States – Mohamed Echkouna is on a mission to control your mind.
The 24-year-old filmmaker says that film is a way to influence emotions and shape perspectives.
“It’s like doing brain surgery without opening up the brain,” he says with a smirk. “The way things come together to make a film, it’s magical.”
Through film, Echkouna wants to change the way people think about Africa. He has a profound attachment to the continent of his birth.
On his phone are tracks by Senegalese, Nigerian and Malian musicians. He talks at length about the glorious sound of the kora, the 21-stringed harp lute instrument of the Mandinka people.
“If you hear the kora, you wouldn’t think that it comes from Earth. It sounds heavenly,” he says with a wistful nod of his head.
Clearing his voice, he says, “I’m a light-skinned Arab by skin. By identity, I’m African.”
Building an identity
His journey of self-discovery involved challenging what he believes is a steady flow of propaganda from the international media that has distorted perceptions of Africa and Africans.
Echkouna was raised in his mother’s village in Adrar, Mauritania. His father was away, working as a cameraman at a local television station in the capital, Nouakchott. The family was semi-nomadic, setting up camp in ancient towns perched on the dunes and plateaus of the Sahara desert.
It was an almost mystical landscape, thought to have been occupied since Neolithic times.
‘We didn’t see ourselves as Africans’
During the day, Echkouna tended to his family’s hundreds of camels and sheep, resting with them under the shade of date palms in the placid oases. In the evening, the herdsmen returned to the village as the heat of the desert gave way to a cool breeze.
There were only 13 families in the village, and everyone would take care of each other, creating a sense of human closeness in the vast landscape.
Here, Echkouna formulated his identity as a Moor, speaking Hassaniya Arabic and learning about local customs.
But when he was 10 years old, he moved to the city to be with his father. It was around this time that Echkouna began to pay attention to the media and its influence on how people formed a sense of identity.
“The channels on TV in Mauritania don’t show Africans. Sudan is the closest thing to black Africa that we had,” he says. “Growing up in Mauritania, I realised we didn’t see ourselves as Africans.”
It was Hollywood that introduced him to Africa: to Sierra Leone through the hit movie Blood Diamonds and to Nigeria through Tears of the Sun. It was a portrayal that sat uncomfortably with him.
“The images of war, kids carrying guns, poverty … it’s always negative,” he reflects.
‘We need to be the hero’
Frustrated but driven by a newfound zeal to discover his black identity, Echkouna applied to the African Leadership Academy in South Africa. From there, he took a gamble and applied to study at one of the foremost art schools in the United States, the Savannah College of Art and Design.
He didn’t have the tuition money, but he went anyway.
The gamble paid off. With two months to go before he completes his studies in visual effects at the school’s Atlanta campus, Echkouna has already created a film that has received critical acclaim.
Trail of Hope started as a class project. Now, it is being screened at the Cannes Film Festival’s Short Film Corner. The film delicately explores sensitive subjects such as women’s education, domestic violence and arranged marriage.
It’s the story of Mariam, a girl who enjoyed school but was forced to stop attending and to marry a man who eventually killed her.
“Mariam’s story is fictional. But it is also the story of countless women in my native Mauritania, and a story I hope will change the way we think of women’s rights in my home country,” Echkouna says.
With such storylines, Echkouna does not deny the developmental challenges still affecting many African countries, but he believes Africans should tell their own stories to the world.
“We need to be the hero,” he says.
‘I’m an African in the world, telling my story’
One of his aims now is to discover talented actors across the continent.
While his film is touring the film festival circuit, he is already generating ideas for the next one. He wants to make a documentary about spiritual chanting to illustrate the connectedness of spirituality around the world.
The inspiration came to him, he says, when he lived in South Africa and attended churches where he experienced the power of gospel music sung in Xhosa.
Echkouna sees himself as part of a new generation of young African filmmakers who cherish their indigenous culture and want to share it.
In the southern American city of Atlanta, he strives to maintain his identity.
In the college cafeteria, his gaze takes in the diverse array of international students.
“I am an African in the world, telling my story,” he reflects.