In 2010, I started writing BACK HOME while I crashed on my sister's couch in New York. The city was the best and worst place on earth; full of so many creative opportunities, but a difficult place to create or live in if you're financially insecure, like me. At the time, I was working as a freelance medical copyeditor to pay the bills, but the work was boring and didn't feed my creative side. I had left film school, broke, without so much as a degree, unsure about whether or not I'd ever make a film again.
Without an apartment, boyfriend, or job I loved, I flirted with the idea of moving to Nigeria—where I'd spent time traveling and interviewing people for a memoir of my late mother, Elizabeth, who died of cancer. It was the place where I felt closest to her, largely because my grandmother—after whom I was named, and the spitting image of my mother—still lived in the house where she raised Mommy, who took my sisters and I there on family trips "back home” as kids.
While writing the memoir, I spent the most time at Granny's house, sitting with her in the kitchen, eating fresh sugarcane from her farm, or watching the monsoon rains soak the earth. It filled my creative well and, in the process, I realized I still had stories to tell. So I went back to film school.
In my thesis year, I received a text message from my cousin that read: Granny is sick, please call home. By the time I did, my grandmother had already died. She was 100 years old by then, and it had been two years since I'd last seen her. I deeply regretted not having gone home for a visit and couldn't help but feel like all the excuses I'd made—from lack of money for a ticket, to school, to life—were just that, excuses. I'd somehow missed the point of life and love and family. Yet we all, my sisters and I, came home for the funeral, a celebration the size of which I'd never seen.
In many ways, BACK HOME is an autobiographical story with lots of creative license. It's the story of a struggling writer, Emem, who dropped out of her MFA program, works a low-paying job, and crashes on her sister's couch after fleeing a bedbug-infested apartment. Everything changes when her grandmother gets sick and she goes back home to Nigeria. The film conflates the events of several of my trips home to write the memoir during which I fell in love and faced deep questions of family, country, and identity, bookended by the sickness and death of my maternal grandmother.
Aissatou Bah is an African immigrant housekeeper and single mother recovering from an encounter with Henrik Keppler, a wealthy hotel guest who sexually assaulted her. When the District Attorney decides not to go to trial—due to a lie she told to get asylum—Keppler moves on, a free man, while Aissa is plagued by flashbacks to the assault. But when her daughter Rama gets bullied, Aissa must find a way to regain her daughter’s trust and repair their broken relationship. How will she find justice and her lost dignity?
Aissatou Bah est une femme de ménage immigrée africaine, mère célibataire et la récupération d'une rencontre avec Henrik Keppler, un hôtel riche client qui l'a agressée sexuellement. Lorsque le procureur de district décide de ne pas aller au process—due à un mensonge, elle dit de demandeurs d'asile—Keppler se déplace sur un homme libre , alors que Aissa est en proie à des flashbacks de l'agression. Mais quand sa fille Rama se intimidation, Aissa doit trouver un moyen de regagner la confiance de sa fille et de réparer leur relation brisée. Comment elle trouver la justice et sa dignité perdue?
ABOUT THE FILM
Inspired by the New York v. Strauss-Kahn case, Aissa’s Story is a short film about an African immigrant maid moving on with her life after the case against her assaulter is dismissed. Written and directed by Iquo B. Essien; produced by Emeka Obi, Belynda Hardin, and Sue-Ellen Chitunya; starring Jennifer Tchiakpe, Hadiza Adam, and Ebbe Bassey. Full cast and crew info on IMDB. Running time: 15 mins.
Aissa's Story is an essential teaching tool for subjects like:
This award-winning short film is also a great addition to all public library collections.
Aissa's Story was nominated for the 2013 Student Academy Awards, 2015 Africa Movie Academy Awards, and the 2015 Panafrican Film & Television Festival of Ouagadougou. It has screened at prestigious global festivals including the Durban International Film Festival, New York African Film Festival, Africa International Film Festival (Best Student Short), Ecrans Noir, and bfm International Film Festival.
We are currently in pre-production on a feature-length version of the film with support from the Spike Lee Film Production Fund. Visit Fractured Atlas, our fiscal sponsor, to make a tax-deductible donation. Thanks to our Indiegogo donors for supporting the short film.
ABOUT THE DIRECTOR
Iquo B. Essien is a Nigerian-American writer and director. She is currently adapting Aissa's Story into a feature film while writing a memoir, Elizabeth’s Daughter, about losing her mother to cancer and finding herself through writing. Ms. Essien received her bachelor's degree from Stanford University and MFA from NYU/Tisch School of the Arts. Read her reflection on FESPACO 2015 and view her photos on OkayAfrica. Visit her website.
"A brilliant depiction of a modern interpretation of the David and Goliath story, where the richest remains the winner, but the poorer pursues their fight for dignity."
-- Claire Diao, ScreenAfrica
"In Essien’s fictional character we find a figure that may or may not be an economic migrant, a rape survivor, a project and/or product of neoliberal and/or humanitarian regimes, or some combination of any of the above."
-- Abosede George, Scholar and Feminist Online
"When I first read about the DSK case, I had not imagined the hotel worker as a victim...I think it was more the dynamic with her daughter that let me see Aissa's character as a person who had to come home to her family and fight not only her own battle, but theirs as well."
-- Student, Baruch College
"[Aissa's Story] brilliantly shows that these situations are never cut-and-dried, especially when the judicial system and public opinion can be swayed by money, and stereotypes can suffocate and blur the truth."
-- Diana Eromosele, The Root
2016 Journées Cinematographiques de la Femme Africaine de L'Image (Burkina Faso)
2015 Africa Movie Academy Awards (Best Short Film Nominee)
2015 Durban International Film Festival (South Africa)
2015 Zanzibar International Film Festival (Zanzibar)
2015 Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso)
2015 African Advisory Council's African Cinema Day
2015 University of Richmond African Film Weekend
2015 Festival de Cinéma Image et Vie (Senegal; Prix de La Meilleure Interpretation)
2015 Ecrans Noir (Cameroon)
2015 African Diaspora Film Festival (Germany)
2015 bfm International Film Festival (UK)
2015 CinéSud African Short Film Festival (France)
2015 "I Luv Africa" Film Festival
2015 Cascade Festival of African Films (Portland, Oregon)
2014 African-American Women in Cinema Festival (Third Place Winner)
2014 Africa International Film Festival (Winner, Best Student Short)
2014 Lights, Camera, Africa!!! Festival (Lagos, Nigeria)
2014 African Film Festival New York (View Q&A)
2014 Spike Lee Film Production Fund Winner
2013 Student Academy Awards Semifinalist
2013 First Run Film Festival (New York University)
Aissa’s Story is in English and French, available with English and French subtitles as a DVD with a public performance license or for screenings at universities, colleges, nonprofit groups, and libraries worldwide. Running time is 15 minutes. Be advised the film contains mature sexual themes and sexual violence. For purchase or screening requests, including in-person Q&A, contact the director. Download the discussion guide.
Contact the director for television licensing, theatrical distribution, festival enquiries, interview requests, speaking engagements, and other matters.
Aissa’s Story is available for purchase, stream, or download on Amazon Instant Video in the United States and U.S. territories. If you live elsewhere, please contact the director for purchase.
For screenings and inquiries, contact:
Aissa's Story DIRECTOR'S STATEMENT
In June 2011, I saw a news story about then-IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, jailed on charges of sexual assault against a housekeeper at a Manhattan hotel. He allegedly forced the woman, a political asylee, to perform oral sex on him before he checked out and boarded a plane on which he was later arrested. I was in Lagos at the time, working on a memoir about my late mother. In the wake of the Arab spring and Japanese tsunami, the DSK case confirmed what I strongly suspected: that the world had been turned on its head.
It seemed like poetic justice for an African immigrant to incriminate a man—a would-be President, at that—who held the purse strings on development in Africa. But when inconsistencies arose in her story, the District Attorney pushed to dismiss all charges. Initially portrayed as a hardworking single mother, her credibility issues gave rise to allegations of prostitution and even HIV/AIDS.
In spite of all this, Nafissatou Diallo emerged and stood tall before a battalion of news cameras, detailing the abuse she met at the hands of DSK. Her face graced the covers of international newspapers, reporters descended in droves on her village in Guinea, and her life would be changed forever.
AISSA’S STORY is a film about a fictional woman, Aissatou Bah, recovering from sexual trauma while simultaneously picking up the pieces of her life. It depicts the psychological impact of rape, her flashbacks to the assault and an injustice that seems as inevitable as it is intractable. Such acts of harassment and violence are common among housekeepers—mostly single, immigrant mothers. Hotel unions report that these assaults mostly go underreported because housekeepers are scared to lose their jobs--until Mrs. Diallo came forward publicly.
I found myself captivated by her life, her courage to come forward, the criminal case, and how her life imploded in its aftermath. I had several friends, working with African women immigrants in the city, who watched first hand as opinions on the case divided the Guinean and Muslim communities along ethnic lines. There were media reports that Ms. Diallo was humiliated and depressed, that the DA had refused to let her move even after death threats.
I did my research, read court transcripts, and interviewed representatives of Unite HERE, the hotel workers’ union to which she belongs. In the end, given the constraints of our short film project, I couldn’t cover nearly as much ground as I’d wanted to and found myself hungry to expand the short into a feature.
Through the film, I wish to explore how two people from such different walks of life can become inextricably bound in a moment, how the truth changes depending on how much money you have, and how this money, given in exchange for Aissa’s complicity, brings with it freedom and also a huge sacrifice—silence. The film gives voice to an aspect of a high profile story that isn’t being told—what happens to a woman’s life behind the scenes when the media has long forgotten about her.
IQUO B. ESSIEN, WRITER & DIRECTOR