Poetry in motion
Fuelled by an immense imagination, multi-faceted creative Caleb Femi unites words and visuals to magical effect, effortlessly moving from page to screen and back again with a body of work that spans poetry, short films, commercials, TV and even a live catwalk show. Whatever the field, he tells Selena Schleh, the story remains his north star.
According to filmmaker, poet and photographer Caleb Femi, imagination “is the closest thing that we have to a superpower” – and whether you’re watching his films or reading his words, it’s hard to disagree.
From a miraculous tea that cures PTSD to a pod of whales ‘swimming’ around a high-rise tower block, the multi-faceted creative sees himself as a modern-day surrealist, transforming mundane, even bleak realities into something more magical: “I’m trying to map the future by imagining what it could be or what an alternative present-day situation, an alternative reality could look like.”
The similarities, the things that made us different, made us unique. That's always been something that has bolstered up my point of reference – when directing, when writing, when doing anything artistic.
It's hard to picture a bleaker childhood setting than London’s now-demolished North Peckham estate, where Femi lived with his family in a one-bedroom flat after moving from Kano, Nigeria, at the age of seven.
Yet despite the estate’s grim reputation for poverty and violence – most notoriously, in 2000, schoolboy Damilola Taylor was tragically stabbed on a stairwell – it was also a palace of the imagination for the young Femi, shaped as much by the eclectic community of West Africans, south-east Asians and travellers as the brutal concrete architecture. “I got a good touchstone with so many different cultures and nationalities living there,” he says. “The similarities, the things that made us different, made us unique. That's always been something that has bolstered up my point of reference – when directing, when writing, when doing anything artistic.”
- Director Caleb Femi
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As an A-level English student, poets like Yates, Pope and TS Eliot would become Femi’s literary heroes, but it was that Nineties coming-of-age classic, My Girl, which opened his eyes to the transformative power of film.
Watching TV as a child one Sunday afternoon, surrounded by his slumbering family, he was “completely transported. I'm a grown man now and I can still remember the floods of tears running down my face. That's kind of what led me into film and cemented my love for it. I wanted to be someone who was able to tell a story, capture a moment, reflect humanity back to viewers and have a profound impact on their life.”
He first picked up a camera in his early twenties, after a short and frustrating stint as an English teacher. “I was just fascinated with capturing the lives and times of people around me. Then when I reviewed the footage, I realised that there was something there.” As his poetry career took off – he was named London’s first Young People’s Laureate in 2016 and made Dazed’s list of 100 creators shaping youth culture – Femi began fusing his twin passions for words and visuals into short films.
I wanted to be someone who was able to tell a story, capture a moment, reflect humanity back to viewers and have a profound impact on their life.
Like his award-winning debut poetry collection, POOR, several of these films explore the challenges and issues facing young black men, in particular the interplay between modern notions of masculinity and mental health. In Again & Again, for example, a group of hooded youths find mutual support and solidarity through dance, poetry and music, moving through cityscapes in unison while, in a surrealist twist characteristic of Femi’s work, whales dive and circle the looming tower blocks above.
Meanwhile, the tragicomic sci-fi Survivor’s Guilt follows a young recluse struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, who’s drawn in by a fast-talking salesman for a miracle curative tea. Having suffered from PTSD himself after being shot in the leg as a teenager, Femi found the process of making the film “cathartic”. Although he says his lived experiences help with frame-working ideas, he tends “to look more into my mind’s eye for inspiration.”
I’m trying to map the future by imagining what it could be or what an alternative present-day situation, an alternative reality could look like.
Alongside his short films, Femi parlayed his poetry into commercials, picking up a slew of clients including A Tale of Modern Britain for Heathrow Airport, a modern homage to travel that captures the essence of Britishness through the emotional arrivals and departures of its 78 million annual visitors, and a festive film for luxury fashion brand Mulberry.
The glitzy world of fashion might seem an unlikely fit for a boy from a south London sink estate, but in January last year, Femi took on his most ambitious project yet, working with Louis Vuitton’s late, brilliant creative director Virgil Abloh on a short film to open the brand’s spring/summer 2021 show in Tokyo. Inspired by Abloh’s swansong collection, the film interweaves luminously shot performances from jazz musicians with lines from Femi’s poem Brother.
In the midst of the chaos, the story was my north star, allowing me to stay on the right course.
Femi also agreed to direct the 20-minute live runway show, which “threw me in at the deep end, and was the first time that I really questioned whether I’d taken things a step too far.” Ultimately, by focusing on the narrative, he was able to stay anchored. “It was like, ok, how do I tell that story with the visual components: each model, each outfit, each segment of the set? In the midst of the chaos, the story was my north star, allowing me to stay on the right course.”
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As a former Young People’s Laureate, it’s no surprise that Femi is passionate about inspiring, championing and giving voice to the new generation, evidenced in projects such as NCS’ Life After Lockdown, a ‘visual manifesto’ of what life could – and should – be like for young people post-Covid restrictions, garnered from real-life responses. It’s one of the reasons he jumped at the chance to co-curate the Saatchi New Creators’ Showcase at Cannes Lions this year.
“I feel like it reinvigorated me in terms of wanting to go out and make more films,” he says. “It made me excited about what young filmmakers are doing and the kind of direction that the new generation is heading towards.”
What’s equally important for young creatives, though, is putting the right price on their creativity – a lesson Femi learned the hard way on his first commercial job as a novice filmmaker. “I didn't know what the proper going rates were, so I heavily underquoted and ended up making pennies from it,” he admits. Those ‘pennies’ were then ploughed into making Survivor’s Guilt, which serves as “a symbol of that time, of not knowing the industry, and a reminder to look after the business element of this thing we call filmmaking.”
[The Saatchi New Creators’ Showcase] made me excited about what young filmmakers are doing and the kind of direction that the new generation is heading towards.
Looking at his current slate, Femi seems to be realising his creative and commercial aspirations in tandem. He’s just made his TV directorial debut with two episodes of HBO series Industry, now in its second season, which was “the first time I was really able to learn at the top end of the industry. How to trust your eye, trust yourself communicating. And taking a bit of a risk.”
There’s more TV work in the pipeline, with a couple of shows he’s conceived and written currently in development, as well as conversations around a feature film “that I’m still tinkering with” and, of course, another book of poetry. Whatever field this multi-faceted creative moves into next, he’s sure to bring his superpower with him.