“Survival Sex”: exploring the plight of homeless youth with Nigerian-American filmmaker Ukachi Arinzeh – in conversation

Nigerian-born American filmmaker Ukachi Arinzeh speaks of universal feelings of compassion and the struggle to survive in our times.

After a life changing experience, Ukachi Arinzeh has planned a project that encourages us to stop and acknowledge the plight of those less fortunate, who often go unnoticed and are avoided in our urban fast-paced, global realities. The artist speaks about his personal drive to create something meaningful, his new project and how his multicultural life inspires his work.

Ukachi Arinzeh. Image courtesy the artist.

Ukachi Arinzeh. Image courtesy the artist.

Working for a long time between Shanghai and New York City, and engaging with both a personal creative practice and a commercial job, Ukachi Arinzeh has embraced film and video to create a view of contemporary reality that aims to shake us out of our torpor and indifference.

After a trying experience with a serious illness, Arinzeh realised how fortunate most of us are while there are a great number of people everywhere, in cities like New York, but also in other parts of the world, that everyday have to suffer debilitating ways of life in order to survive.

Recently, the artist became aware of and took up an interest in exploring and understanding the plight of homeless teenagers in New York City, who amount to about 5,000 in a city where there are only 500 beds available for the homeless per night. Studies also show that around 50 percent of homeless youth have been rejected by their families for their sexual orientation, putting at risk a great part of the young LGBT community in the United States.

Arinzeh’s upcoming project, aptly entitled Survival Sex, explores the story of a homeless teenager in New York struggling for survival on the mean streets of the city. In order to be able to create this meaningful story and bring it to the screens, the artist has set up a GoFundMe campaign, which will end on 28 February 2017.

Click here to watch Ukachi Arinzeh’s ‘Survival Sex’ campaign video on YouTube

Art Radar speaks with Ukachi Arinzeh about the meaning of being a successful filmmaker, his multicultural experience and inspiration, and what his new project is about.

You have been working with video for a long time now, both on personal filmmaking projects as well as in the commercial sphere. How would you say your perspective and your goals as a filmmaker have developed over the years and at what stage are you now? What would be now the biggest achievement and success for you in terms of your creative practice?

This is a great question and it actually speaks to the heart or the inspiration to make Survival Sex. I truly love the craft of filmmaking, but like most people it can be difficult trying to strike the right balance between art and commerce. Sometimes life has a way of intruding and forces you to make decisions you’ve been avoiding. At some point in time I think we all ask ourselves about our life, our direction, and what we want to achieve or who we want to be. I realised I really wanted to be a filmmaker and not just a commercial director. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy working with brands to tell their story but I fell in love with films. So now my biggest achievement and success in terms of my creative practice is overcoming my fears and putting myself and my own work out there. I shouldn’t say overcoming my fear, putting myself out there despite my fear would be more accurate.

You have lived for a long time in Shanghai, and have experienced life at varying levels both in the West, and especially in New York City where you are from, and the East. How would you say this duality has shaped the way you think creatively?

I’m a firm believer that the greatest education is travelilng, or at least growing up with other cultures. Growing up in the States as a Nigerian, I was aware of culture. I knew the difference between American culture and Nigerian culture. In Nigerian culture I couldn’t take things from adults with my left hand, Nigerian culture smells different, it tastes different. One wasn’t better than the other, they were just different. I think we often assume what we know is how things are or should be, but when you travel you understand what you know or believe is only what you know or believe, it’s not the law. It’s just one way of doing things. So creatively I attempt to look at things without judgment, I attempt to approach things aware of perspective so that I can see things for what they really are and not just what I want it to be.

Ukachi Arinzeh shooting a commercial project in Shanghai, China. Image courtesy the artist.

Ukachi Arinzeh shooting a commercial project in Shanghai, China. Image courtesy the artist.

You have chosen to turn your lens onto more profound, perhaps even spiritual concerns, through an exploration of specific realities that can represent universal views of what people have to face and endure to survive. Can you tell us more about what your project for Survival Sex is about, and how for you it can resonate not only in its immediate surroundings like New York City and the reality of the United States, but also in other parts of the world?

I think what the movie is about and how I hope it resonates with the audience are two different things. I hope that the film inspires people to have greater empathy for their fellow man. That it causes people to take a moment to be aware of someone else’s suffering or plight. Like most of us, I previously would ignore homeless people when asked for money. Since I started this process I now always respond. I try to make eye contact and with a smile say, “Sorry bro, I can’t today”.  Acknowledging their presence is what I have to give. Maybe I can do more, maybe this film is my way of doing more. I do believe a simple act of kindness on the streets of New York or the slums of Lagos goes a long way. Not just for them but for myself as well.

Watch an interview about ‘Survival Sex’ with Ukachi Arinzeh by Nigerian musician Nneka, Founder of Rope Foundation

Finally, you have mentioned before in a conversation we had, that perhaps your way of relating to particular struggles for survival could derive from the fact that you have witnessed and partly lived similar realities of hardship in Nigeria, the country you were born in and you are linked to inextricably by blood. Could you expand a little on this notion and tell me how your experience of life in Nigeria make you more receptive towards suffering individuals, how this has perhaps helped you build a heightened level of compassion and how it might also propel and become a catalyst for your creative process?

As a kid I can remember the first time going back to Nigeria. I left when I was very young so I didn’t have any memory of it. I must have been around 11 or 12 when I first went back for a visit. I remember thinking how lucky our family was. My parents didn’t come from affluent backgrounds. My dad was the oldest of 9 kids and from what I hear very bright. In order for the village to prosper they decided it was best that everyone chipped in to raise money to send him to college in America. With the idea being he would become a success then return home to assist those behind him. It was truly an example of ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. I think with the help of my mother he has far surpassed his part of the bargain. Thankfully, I’ve never known poverty, but its close proximity on those early trips back home fostered an appreciation for the blessings we were given, as well as an awareness for those less fortunate. I think that has influenced the type of stories I would like to tell, the characters I’m drawn to, and the type of filmmaker I aspire to be.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related Topics: Nigerian artists, American artists, film, video art, art about society, art about the urban environment, New York City

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