Festus Toll


Sometimes you are struggling with how to tell the story. This is a struggle in which the film itself throws punches.

Doxy produced Festus Toll's new short documentary The Story of Ne Kuko, premiering at IDFA and selected for the IDFA Competition for Short Documentary. Around 1878, a spiritual statue, a 'nkisi nkonde' was stolen from Congolese chief Ne Kuko by a Belgian army officer. The statue became one of the showpieces of the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren. Not only was the theft a great loss for Ne Kuko, it also disrupted his local community. The relationship between the West and Africa and his own bi-cultural background also plays a role in his previous films. In this third film, Festus shows himself to be an experimental, intuitive maker who samples music, image and narrative into an intriguing collage.

Did you dream of this life from a young age? "Becoming a filmmaker was not my childhood dream that I invested years in. I wanted to do more with music, sound design, and I made videos alongside that. During my studies at the art academy, I had ups and downs, perhaps because it wasn't initially my first choice. But it got better every year. Shooting, editing, working with video, and creating my own soundscapes: it all went hand in hand. Around the same time, the program also changed from audiovisual design to film. We graduated as filmmakers." Where do you work and how? Is there a Toll method? "I work in my house. That's where I also edit commissioned documentaries. The atmosphere is important to me too. People come to my home to work on their films. My living room is also set up as an editing suite. 'The Story of Ne Kuko' is my third film. For me, it works to surrender to the process. That's something that always comes back in how I work. It's never easy. You always encounter obstacles. You have to overcome the resistance and trust the process. This is the first film where I started with a script and a narrator. In Belgium, I shot footage in the museum where the sculpture is located. This film really relies on a certain form, especially in its sound design. Sound designer Vincent Sinceretti took the sound to a high level." How do you describe your working process? "I let myself be guided by my intuition, work impulsively, and go with the flow of changes. With this project, I would have made it easier for myself if I had planned and estimated a bit more in advance. I took certain risks. Like: still going to Congo, even though it wasn't originally part of my plan. That idea emerged during the first meeting with my character Mwazulu Diyabanza. As an activist, he was hugely triggered by this project. 'We HAVE to go there!' he exclaimed. And I immediately got caught up in that. The film was initially supposed to be shown only in the Netherlands and Belgium. This way of working sometimes makes the process a bit chaotic. But that's what I find the most enjoyable about filmmaking, being able to play with what I have control over and what I don't. That's my thrill." What else will we see from you? "The discussion around the restitution of African objects stays with me. This film is only now going out into the world. I feel that I'm not done with this subject yet. 'The Legacy of Ne Kuko' goes much further than this film. It's a film within the 'Ten Commandments' series of IKON, but it would be great if it could become a pilot. We've had one story about one object, but there are hundreds of thousands of stolen objects. They all have their own stories. So, I could make a whole collection of short films. You often use mixed media as storytelling material, is that a must? "For my documentaries, I try not to limit myself but to enrich myself with diverse material. I made this film out of a simple fascination: what is the story behind this sculpture? During the research phase, I found all sorts of photos and printed postcards from that region in West Congo at the end of the nineteenth century. I found that fascinating and it inspired me enormously, so I wanted to use them in the film. How can you shape a story with as much diverse material as you have available? That's always a challenge." To what extent can a documentary be fictional? "We traveled to the village where the sculpture came from. There, we met the local chief of the village. We had a long audio interview with the chief, but we were not allowed to use it. So, I rewrote that part as fiction in the existing script. As an editor, I'm used to going with the flow, but as a director, you have to have much more control. When I look at that film now, I think it actually did the film good. Often, that search is a struggle. Sometimes it's about losing control. As a filmmaker, you have to be able to handle that. That you sometimes get hits from your own film. In the end, you want to succeed in that process and make a film that resonates with people."

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