With the Oscars less than a week away, all bets are on. Well in the mix are Birdman for Best Picture, Michael Keaton for Best Actor and Alejandro G. Iñárritu for Best Director. For young filmmakers like Amartei Armar, every new filming detail and behind the scenes is an opportunity to study the craft. And Birdman’s Alejandro G. Iñárritu is one of his favourite filmmakers.
“I love filmmakers who give their cultural perspective on their world,” says Armar. “Iñárritu made Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful. In Birdman, I love the way he brought the world of theatre to film so successfully in a way that was not done before. The whole premise is that it’s shot in one take. It gives you the feeling of watching a play that never stops.” As such a long-time student of Iñárritu, Armar admires “that each time he brings a film forward, he does something so different than his last films.”
Iñárritu discussing the anatomy of a scene with the New York Times
Armar’s deep love of film was sparked by another director – George Lucas – when Armar was a child of 4, living in Ghana. “My first film I saw was Star Wars: A New Hope. Seeing that was out of this world, just the idea of imagination. A lot of times in many different African countries, people push you towards a place where you should look at things more realistically. Be a doctor, be a lawyer. My Mum and Dad encouraged me to watch the film. Seeing it really changed my perspective on everything. The idea of space, of looking beyond what you can see. Things that you can’t touch. It really sparked my imagination.”
From that point on, Amartei and his older brother Amartey – “we’re from the Armar clan. Our names are already picked out for us” – started being as imaginative as they could. “We just went crazy on it. Any money that we would get, we would spend on Star Wars toys. I had this huge Millennium Falcon. You could open the back of the roof and put Hans Solo in it. If someone bought a TV, we would take the white Styrofoam cases and make them into bunkers. We would do things to heighten the reality of the world we were in. Ghanaians were going to space.”
When Armar and his family moved to Washington, D.C., he decided to try acting. He auditioned for the Studio Conservatory, was accepted and quickly learned the rigors of clear articulation and Shakespearean English. “My teacher, Denise Diggs, was a tough one. She also trained Tupac when he was starting. She would make me redo an entire monologue, in front of all these people, if I said the word ‘the’ wrong. It stuck with me. It got me to focus.”
Armar’s interest in being behind the camera started with a high school film studies class at age 17. In considering college film programs, his final choice came down to NYU and UBC, the latter suggested by his Dad who became familiar with Vancouver through his work with the World Bank. “NYU was sixty thousand a year and that didn’t include living there. I came to visit Vancouver in August and thought: ‘oh man. I could definitely live here.”
For his final, fourth year project, Armar created Arc, bringing on a hard-working team that included James Gill as cinematographer and Alexandra Marriott as editor. The film swept through the UBC awards and will be screened at the Jozi Film Festival in Johannesburg this month. “It’s a multi-narrative story about a Kenyan couple dealing with death, a bilingual French Canadian trying to reconnect with her daughter and a Chinese immigrant worker trying to make ends meet.”
Since graduating from the film program last year, Armar is jumping into his work as a freelance filmmaker. “What does it feel like when I’m shooting? It’s like taking a big shot of adrenaline. As a director, you have to know how to make decisions really fast. Everyone is asking you all these questions. You have to know how to give an answer the makes sense and adheres to your vision.”
He’s working on a music video script for a recently signed band. He just finished filming a fashion shoot for Ju & Jules Magazine. “They wanted me to shoot a Marie Antoinette homage. We did it at Stanley Park in the forest.”
With his 24th birthday just two days away on the 19th, Armar has much career ahead of him. He will continue to draw from his African roots. He is a founder of AKA – Anansi’s Kollection of Artists. He also wants to make an African sci-fi. “A lot of times when I see films about Africa, they lack imagination. They always show you one view: it’s war, it’s oppression, it’s corruption. Very rarely do you see a film that looks up to the stars and sparks the imagination.”
Armar is also writing Four Winds, an African odyssey that he would like to shoot in Kenya. “A young man goes to visit his father, but upon his arrival he finds out that his father recently died and was cremated. It is culturally taboo to cremate, so he goes on a journey to set things right.”
Come Sunday, though, Armar will be glued to the Oscars. He will, of course, be pulling for many things Birdman: Iñárritu, Michael Keaton and Edward Norton. If Birdman can’t win for Best Film, then Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel is his next nominee.
And for Best Actress, Armar’s vote goes to Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl. Her performance was “chilling to the bone,” he says. “It’s been a while since an actor has completely shocked me in what they are capable of. She made all the madness I saw on screen believable.”
Written by Elizabeth Newton
Photos courtesy of Amartei Armar.