It seems like possibilities are endless in the open air of the English countryside where Shola Amoo’s “The Last Tree” begins, a trio of boys running across a field howling in the air. They don’t take notice of each other’s skin color, but you’re expected to, particularly once Femi (Tai Golding), a young boy of Nigerian heritage runs back home to the open arms of Mary (Denise Black), the white woman who’s been taking care of him while his mother (Gbemisola Ikumelo) has been making trying to build a life for him to come back to in the city. The plan is sound in theory, but becomes quite confusing for Femi when he’s asked to return in his teens (Sam Adewunmi), leaving a quiet community where familiarity and general cultural climate has made his race a non-issue for London where it becomes his primary identity, orienting him towards others who share his skin pigment but not necessarily his experience.
Amoo, who previously made his debut contemplating how environments can define a person before they can define themselves in “A Moving Image,” explores that idea even further in “The Last Tree,” provocatively observing how Femi makes peace with a world radically different than the one he was brought up in while being chalked up by society in completely different terms than what he sees himself as. Although Femi may be disoriented by the situation, the writer/director gives great clarity into his thoughts, drawing on a strong, searching performance from Adewunmi and an attention to detail in the film’s immersive visual approach and the cultural markers Femi runs up against that give a real sense of his surroundings as well as what’s stirring within.
Just after the film’s premiere at Sundance, Amoo and Adewunmi spoke about collaborating on a project that’s so close to both of the filmmaker’s heart, reflecting the experience of moving through different cultures and never being able to fully feel a part of any and yet seeing that resonate with audiences from all walks of life.
How did this come about?
Shola Amoo: It’s a semi-autobiographical story. I was fostered, so I was interested in exploring the concept of a kid who was fostered in a space that was racially different to the community that he’s from and the journey to reconnect with that community and with his biological mother, focusing on the cultural isolation of being removed from his community and then having to be fully immersed and understand how he fits into it. That’s really the genesis of the project, and also with age, you get a perspective on the sacrifices that your parents make to try and give you the best opportunities. So as I’ve become increasingly aware of that, I wanted to explores the fostering, but also all the sacrifices that immigrants, specifically first generation, make for their kids.
Sam, how did you get interested in this?
Sam Adewunmi: I initially auditioned with one scene for a self-take audition – the scene between Femi and Yinka, Femi’s mum played by Gbemisola Ikumelo, that tells of their relationship. That was very intense, in the sense that I hadn’t read the full script. I had only received sides and I had a brief break down of the story, but the truthfulness and the honesty of that scene and just the way it was written was something I could immediately connect with. That really, really spoke to me and got me very interested in the project and then later on I read the script and I’m not just saying it because Shola’s sitting next to me, but it was so raw and authentic in a way I could connect with it and I felt many people that have a similar background could also connect with, so I got really excited to have the opportunity to be a part of it.
When it’s a semi-autobiographical story, does that change the dynamic between you on set?
Sam Adewunmi: I didn’t know it was semi-autobiographical until I’ve met Shola and booked the role. We were doing a costume fitting and he just took me up for a lunch and we spent about an hour-and-a-half together, just talking about the different themes and the different beats of the script. That’s when he shared that the story was semi-autobiographical, and from that moment on, it just made me have a newfound respect for him. To be able to tell your story is commendable anyway, but to tell a story that’s quite emotional and leaves you quite vulnerable to other people’s opinions, that’s something that makes you incredibly brave and it made me trust my director even more to know this isn’t just a well-written script, but it is because it’s something that the director connected to in such an authentic way. So I could pull from elements of Shola’s character, but I could see a lot of myself in him and relate to his struggle.
One of the most interesting elements to me were the moments when you see Femi alone where he can be himself, free from the cultural expectations of the world he’s in. How’d you figure out those moments where, for instance he’s listening to rock music that you wouldn’t expect him to be?
Shola Amoo: It wasn’t hard to find those dualities because it comes from a very real space of being a young black man and the concept of what you’re supposed to be like or what you’re suppose to like as opposed to who you are as an individual. We all have to carry those stereotypes and I think as a black body, you have to deal with that in a different way, I was interested in the mask that he wears and the points when that mask slips, and you get a closer sense of him. That’s very much born out by the environment that he’s in, and I think Sam being a black Londonite understood what codes of the streets [there were] to some degree and be around that environment.
Sam Adewunmi: It’s interesting and not to take away from, from the originality of the story. But I think what makes the story so great is that it’s truthful and not to take away from the originality of the story, but within the Nigerian community in London, it’s not a story that’s unheard of, so what Femi went through having been fostered is something that I know – I have an uncle that had a very similar experience. I also had a friend I went to school with, and when I went to school with him, I didn’t really know what was going on in his life, but later in life, I got to know him better and he shared his story with me and it was like a splitting image of what Femi had gone through, so I was able to connect with those few people in particular and relate [that] back to what Femi was going through.
Was there anything that may have been unexpected during shooting that gave the film as a whole a certain quality or some little detail that you really like about it now?
Shola Amoo: Absolutely, because for me the script is like a blue print, but once you’ve got the script set and you’ve got your performers and your locations, I’m very open to finding ways to find freshness and new ideas which I couldn’t even work out. Sam and his mom [played by] Gbemisola brought all sorts of great ideas and they’d occasionally riff off some improvisations and find the true side. I take the truth over the script any day, and I think the truth can change between script and screen and it’s all about what happens on the day, in that moment for the performers. So the film should always transcend the script, even if the script’s brilliant. It should be transcendent and become something else.
The camera really can function as an extension of Femi’s perspective at times, motivated by his movement. How did you figure that out?
Shola Amoo: The film essentially as the process went on became, more and more internal and more and more about Femi’s perspective and his journey through just different spaces that we see in this and that afforded us great creativity and flexibility in terms of being experimental with sound as well as image. It was important that we could run these long development shots with Femi, through space physically as he experienced it. That’s why the camera constantly has a fluid, floating approach to it at certain points because we were constantly in his head space and constantly experiencing it through his perspective.
In a scene after Femi learns something pretty revelatory about his family, it looked like there might’ve been a nod to Spike Lee’s trademark tracking shot. Was that an homage?
Shola Amoo: The double dolly shot. I don’t know if it was a nod to Spike Lee because I think that shot is out there as a filmmaking tool, but I felt it was really good way to show the fragmentation that was going on in Femi’s head, particularly after the violent scenes prior [to the scene you mention where] we had more flexibility on taking real stylized creative choices to represent what was going on in the interior and that’s where the double dolly was formed, trying to find a way to, not just show visually what he’s feeling but make it experimental somehow.
What was the premiere like?
Sam Adewunmi: It was surreal. It was the first time I’d seen the film, but I feel like the pressure that I felt like I should’ve had just wasn’t there. I felt like another audience member, and I was able to just watch the story and see what Shola and Segun [Akinola], our composer, and Mdhamiri A Nkemi, our editor, had come up with, and I was really happy. Overall, I was also really happy with the fact that, even though this is essentially a story birthed in Britain about a British-Nigerian boy, the audience in Utah was able to relate to so many of the themes and to the journey, which proved to me, that the story was universal and you can relate to [this] regardless of where you’re from.
“The Last Tree” will screen at Sundance on February 1st at 1 pm at the Redstone Cinema at Park City.