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Emmanuel Adjei was at home in Amsterdam last December when he received a bolt out of the blue: an invitation to listen to Madonna’s just-recorded, top secret new album. And the lady herself wanted to meet him.

It took a moment to realise that he was being offered very privileged access. “I didn't know that when she releases an album she usually works with two or three directors, maximum,” he says. In fact, Madonna wanted him to hear her 14th studio album Madame X, select the track (or tracks) that he wanted to work on. No competitive pitching at all.

You’re sitting next to Madonna. How do you convince a pop icon like her, with so much experience, to go with your ideas?

At their subsequent meeting, Madonna praised the distinctiveness of his work. “She said there weren't many artists or directors at my stage of their career who have their own language, that’s true to themselves. It was a great start, but at the same time very intimidating! You’re sitting next to Madonna. How do you convince a pop icon like her, with so much experience, to go with your ideas?”

In fact, Madonna recognised that Adjei’s work was comparable to many excellent directors, just before they worked with her – the likes of David Fincher, Chris Cunningham, and Jonas Akerlund, to name a few. Like them, Adjei has made outstanding films that are ample evidence of his talent, in his case for Dutch-Iranian singer Sevdaliza. 

Sevdaliza – Shahmaran

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In particular there is his remarkable video for Sevdaliza’s song Shahmaran, a visually extravagant epic that combines ancient mythology and black consciousness with sci-fi blockbuster VFX. This has scooped numerous awards since its release last year, including nods at the UKMVAs, Kinsale Sharks, and a Silver in Music Video Of The Year at the shots Awards 2018.

Adjei, signed to Compulsory in the UK, Directors Bureau in the US, Dreamers in Paris and Halal in Amsterdam, had also directed a smattering of ads, including for Hugo Boss, and short films. Now, after that initial surprise of being courted by the Queen of Pop, Adjei has gone on to direct two of Madonna’s most talked-about music videos in years. 

Firstly, the video for Dark Ballet, released in June, is a visceral and harrowing recreation of the trial and execution of Joan Of Arc, and a highly charged allegory about the evils of discrimination and repression, distinguished by the inspired casting of gay male rapper and activist Mykki Blanco as Joan.

Madonna – Dark Ballet

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Then there’s Batuka, a video which showcases Madonna’s collaboration with the Portuguese Orchestre Batukadeiras, a multi-generational group of women who keep alive the traditional call-and-response style of music said to have originated in Cape Verde by the first slaves being transported to America. A video that begins in narrative fashion, introducing the Batukadeiras, becomes an authentic document of a real event, as Madonna performs with the women on a Portuguese clifftop. 

These videos for Madonna confirm Adjei’s skill in creating images that burn in the memory: in Dark Ballet it is the agonised face of Mykki as Joan of Arc, being burned at the stake, and the solitary portrait shot of Madonna in the video; in Batuka, it is the faces of the members of the Batukadeiras, looking out to sea, and eventually seeing ghostly slave ships sailing away in the distance. It follows Shahmaran, which is full of these memorable images, culminating in the appearance of Sevdaliza, like a reclining Cleopatra-like queen, in a surreal futuristic museum-cum-palace.

Fine art is now like a reference library for me. I always have that in the back of my head.

Adjei’s work has a painterly quality that is at least partly explained by his background. Born 30 years ago in Amsterdam of Ghanian parents, who had emigrated to the Netherlands a few years earlier, he went to art school in Amsterdam, where he began making his first experimental shorts, before studying Film as a postgraduate.

“I was always fascinated by the Dutch masters,” he says “I think I was brought up with that as part of my culture - a combination of that, and my African upbringing.” Initially planning to be a painter before focussing on directing, he continues: “Fine art is now like a reference library for me. I always have that in the back of my head.”

Above: Adjei on the set of Dark Ballet [photo credit Riccardo T. Castano]


After studying, his first real practical filmmaking education came from making low-budget videos for Dutch hiphop artists such as Gers Pardoel and Fakkelbrigade. “[I was] experimenting and feeling the medium, doing a lot of production design and also styling,” he explains, “It was a good moment for me to learn to work with a team.” 

That also led him to Sevdaliza. When he saw her show in Amsterdam by chance, and found the first version of Shahmaran online, he reached out to suggest they collaborate. “She was different, singing in English. There weren't a lot of Dutch artists that were thinking on that scale. She made me raise my sights.”

We realized that our voices could be stronger together.

Adjei’s first project with Sevdaliza was The Formula – a short film, featuring three songs from her first album, in which Sevdaliza plays a painter with mental health issues, in a complex relationship with her art dealer husband. Co-written by Adjei with his regular collaborator Marleen Özgur, it was an ambitious test for the inexperienced director, but the result is hugely accomplished. Both artist and director gained attention from outside the Netherlands for the first time.  

Sevdaliza – The Formula

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Shot in Poland, due to his DoP Paul Özgur (Marleen’s brother) winning a student prize, and free film stock from Polish film festival Camerimage, Adjei says “There were a lot of coincidences that we had to embrace to make The Formula. But I proved to myself I could direct a project longer than three minutes. And it was the first time I brought out something that was close to me.” 

After that, Adjei and Marleen Özgur collaborated to write a role for Sevdaliza in the short film Porcelain, and again in subsequent collaborations, including her video for Human, and a sumptuous ad for DITA eyewear, Adjei focusses on the mysterious intensity and sensuality of Sevdaliza’s on-screen persona. “She’s very thoughtful, and also spiritual,” he says. “I think what really made us click initially was that we both had the feeling of being in a survival state as artists. We realized that our voices could be stronger together.”   

Porcelain

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After a long period of preparation, and gaining the necessary funding for this project, Adjei finally realised his plan to make a film for Shahmaran last year. In the video, a gigantic spacecraft has landed on Earth and is being pulled by ropes across a vast desert by scores of black slaves. One man breaks free, to wander alone through the desert, until he encounters Sevdaliza in her domain, amid holograms of archtypical symbols of ‘gangster life’.

Adjei explains that the story follows the legend behind the title Shahmaran. “It’s based on a Middle Eastern tale of a traveller, a guy who travels through desert and stumbles upon a cave. And when he got into this cave, he met this snake goddess - the Shamam - and he falls in love with her.” But he adds that the core of the idea was create something in the realm of ‘hieros gamos’, an ancient Greek ritual where humans enact the marriage between a god and a goddess. 

Things changed during the course of production in order to maintain that marriage – including Sevdaliza’s going from being a real mansion in the desert, to one created entirely in VFX. And ultimately Sevdaliza changed the track to accommodate Adjei’s visuals. “It's now more of a score to the film.” 

The result was one of the videos of 2018 – and also marked the end of his working bond with Sevdaliza for a while. 

Click image to enlarge

And then came Madonna. Adjei says that they bonded at that initial meeting and “from beginning to end we texted a lot and we called a lot.” He chose to work on Dark Ballet and Batuka, attracted by the cinematic nature of Dark Ballet, and the cultural opportunity of celebrating the music of the Batuka. 

“Retelling the story of Joan of Arc wasn’t really the challenge,” he says of Dark Ballet. It was really about trying to find the language that fits a track that’s so bombastic. She mentioned that she wanted to work with Mykki Blanco, who she’d met in Lisbon. I realized that it would be cool to use Mykki for Dark Ballet because he’s like a modern-day Joan.”

I do understand the idea of being judged, as a person of colour.

As with Shahmaran, the lead in Dark Ballet is an African-American male, battling forces of repression. Does Adjei, as a black director, identify with the symbol of Mykki as Joan, cruelly punished for standing up to Power? “Not on a personal level, but I do understand the idea of being judged, as a person of colour. I think that's something I have dealt with and I’m still dealing with. I guess that's one of the reasons why I felt entitled to tell this story.”

Dark Ballet was rigorously scripted and storyboarded, to tell Joan’s harrowing story, and integrate the required VFX work. But when shooting started, he discovered how he needed to be flexible in order to accommodate the creative needs of a superstar, and her hugely demanding schedule. He says that the final version of Dark Ballet is therefore less ambiguous and metaphysical than he planned to make. “Madonna’s version is ‘this is Joan, this is what she fought for, this is what people need to know’,” he says. “That was very interesting to experience: someone who is very direct in their message." 

Madonna – Batuka

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And in Batuka the original idea to have Madonna and the Batukadeiras in different scenes, and then coming together, connecting through the song’s call-and-response structure, was jettisoned on set. “Hearing those voices of these Batukadeiras together with Madonna made me feel empowered to make a video for this track,” says Adjei. “And we realised that shooting them apart would change the dynamic of the track. Madonna said: ‘I feel that we have to be together from beginning to the end. We have to tell our stories, we have to rejoice, we have to suffer at the same time, in the same room.’”

If you're not flexible, especially when you're working with someone like Madonna, then you won't be able to survive.

Consequently, we get to see a relatively unguarded version of Madonna in the Batuka video, making it one of the most documentary-like videos that she has ever made, but without sacrificing the visual craft that Adjei brings to every project. “One of the reasons why it feels so genuine was because she was reconnecting with these women,” Adjei confirms. “I instinctively thought we had to capture those moments."

Now starting to reflect upon the experience – which was undoubtedly tense at times – Adjei says everything he has learned will stand him in good stead for the future. 

“I've learned so much from making both videos,” he says. “But I guess the main experience was to listen, and adapt. If you're not flexible, especially when you're working with someone like Madonna, then you won't be able to survive. But you still need to be persistent in your vision. 

"I feel that both our voices are very clear in both projects.”

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