5 Questions for a Filmmaker–Philippa Ndisi-Herrmann

Born in Bonn in 1985, Philippa Ndisi-Herrmann is a Kenyan and German photographer and filmmaker. She is intrigued by the invisible boundary between individual and collective identities, and fascinated by the influence of ancestral memory, living space and culture on our understanding of ourselves. She is drawn to Lamu, an Island in the Indian Ocean, where The Donkey that Carried the Cloud on its Back an ongoingfeature-length documentary project, originates. She lives in Nairobi, Kenya where she writes, cooks, paints, shoots, makes jokes, reads Rumi, and falls in love.  Here’s a teaser for “The Donkey that Carried the Cloud on its Back”

What is your first film memory?

It was The Bear by Jean-Jacques Annaud. I was maybe five. My mum had returned from the UK bearing gifts and brought me back the video. I watched it alone, captivated. The forest was entrancing and the silent bears mystifying. I cried. I watched it a few times, not many, but that was the first time I was moved by a film – and perhaps the first time I understood a feeling, in this case, the feeling of separation, of loss and aloneness through the film medium.

Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?

In my late teens, I realised that one of my purposes in this life was to plug myself into our greater understanding of human kind, by contributing and conveying sentiments, feelings and moments. I knew I was an artist – but I felt the media that I knew, words and drawings, did not suffice; film felt like a multi-sensory medium to convey a feeling. Film was tangible; you could hear, you could see, you could feel – it was real, the human story could be told and understood. Film to me is one of the strongest and most powerful tools to create compassion. If only for a brief period, you can live another’s life – and this experience can deepen and change your perspective and understanding of life. More compassion is what the world needs, and film is a way of positively contributing to the greater human experience.

Which film do you wish you had made?

Many of Bergman’s, because he is genius and perhaps Walter Salles’s Central Station (1998) or Half-Nelson by Ryan Fleck.

However I will say I wish I made Biutiful because it is poetry and spiritualism. To me, the film explores the memory other’s have left behind and the memories we leave behind. Is it the love we have for others or is it our memory and moments with them that make up our “souvenir” of them? I also liked the clash of antiquity and the real world. A wonderful film. After I saw it, I used to fall asleep to that film for many a night. It made me even more inspired to make films!

Name one of the films on your top-5 list and the reason why it is there.

I will say Out of the Furnace. It is exquisitely directed – we always know the character’s motivation and the director Scott Cooper explores the complexities of conflict so well.

Paradise Love ( as well. I admire the film because of how Director Siedl seems to have observed the most minute details and presented them in such a way that is so strong and clear. The place where the film takes place is very familiar to me, it is a seaside resort town that I have been to many times as a child and adult. The dynamics of relationships between young local guys and middle-aged European women has been a source of fascination for me so I appreciate how he explored this. What I liked about the film is how Siedl explores the everchanging power play between the two characters and of course the way in which “power” and lack of power affects self-esteem.

I also like how Paradise Love touches on imperialism and addresses hangover of sex and colonialism. Oh and I love the way Siedl designs his shots. Most of his scenes are just one shot, sometimes only one take. Often locked off. Many of his shots are full of visual contrasts and each shot is like a photographic portrait. The dialogue is crazy too, very real but crazy.

Ask yourself any question you think I should have asked and answer it.

“Which are your favourite film scene(s)?”

I will tell you two, off the top of my head, but from my heart; one from the perspective of a filmmaker and the other from the perspective of a romantic, starting with the latter:
When Édith Piaf and Marcel go on their first date in a fancy restaurant in Olivier Dahan’s La Vie en Rose and fall in love at that table. I love the dialogue and editing; I love the way the filmmaker hold certain shots and the way the scene is told through Edith recounting the story to her best friend.  Dahan later references this scene toward the end of the film when Edith in her old age, is interviewed by a young woman. Sublime and beautiful; touching and romantic!

From a filmmaker’s point of view I pick the prologue to Biutiful; the scene in the white forest with Uxbal and the young man – everything in it is perfect and moving; the owl’s feathers blowing in the wind, the dialogue, the images, the intimacy and spiritual relevance.

* The ‘5 Questions for a Filmmaker …’ series is archived here.

Further Reading

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Africa Is a Country is proud to present a partnership with the popular South African podcast Just Us Under a Tree. On this episode, the Just Us crew analyze South Africa’s case against Israel at the ICJ.