Tisch Grad Film student Frances Bodomo's won a $100,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to make her award-winning narrative short, "Afronauts," into a feature-length film. Afronauts is based on a true story about a group of Zambians that sought to join the space race in the late 1960s.
The world of scientific advancement is generally portrayed as one of sleek machines, spotless laboratories, and rigid methodology. But Ghanaian filmmaker Frances Bodomo, a graduate student at the NYU Tisch Kanbar Institute of Film and Television, takes a different view.
“Some of the most important scientific discoveries came out of activities that were kind of jerry-rigged and primitive,” said Bodomo. “The Wright Brothers were just two guys in a field with sticks and tarp before they invented the airplane.”
This spirit of bold imagination and initiative inspired her award-winning narrative short film, Afronauts, which is based on a true story about a group of Zambians led by nationalist/activist Edward Makuka Nkoloso that sought to join the space race in the late 1960s. After winning first prize at the NYU Tisch First Run Film Festival and playing at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, Afronauts attracted the attention of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which recently awarded Bodomo a $100,000 grant to make Afronauts into a feature film.
Though the project marks Bodomo’s first feature, she has gained widespread recognition for Afronauts as well as her previous short, Boneshakers, starring Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013. In 2014, she was voted one of the 25 New Faces in Independent Film by Filmmaker Magazine.
The Sloan Foundation grant is awarded annually to a graduate student in the Kanbar Institute of Film & Television, and is given to a feature-length narrative project that “portrays intellectually engaging, entertaining images of scientists/engineers, a scientific discovery, or technology.” The Foundation’s ongoing support of the Tisch Graduate Film program was in part what inspired Bodomo to write the screenplay for Afronauts.
“At Tisch, you have all these wonderful filmmakers together with all these wonderful actors, musicians, set designers, and writers. A lot of the time, we remain isolated but in our 3rd year, we have these great opportunities to collaborate,” said Bodomo. “I enjoy making other-worldly movies, so I knew I had to develop the skill of working with good production designers.”
The Sloan Foundation provides funding for production design – arguably the most expensive aspect of movie making – provided the subject matter is in keeping with the Foundation’s mission. The story of the Zambian astronaut hopefuls appealed to Bodomo in particular because it depicted a scientific spirit increasingly in evidence today in modern-day Africa.
Afronauts was shot on a beach in New Jersey with a crew that included many fellow NYU students and alumni, including cinematographer Joshua James Richards, producer Isabella Wing-Davey, co-producer Sydney Buchan, production designer Feli Lamenca, costume designer Sarita Fellows, and editor Sara Shaw.
Fueled by the Sloan grant, Bodomo hopes to film the feature-length version in Zambia. Production is set to commence in 2016, after she completes her residency at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab this summer where she will develop the Afronauts feature-length screenplay. Her goals for the feature film are to expand on the films theme of aspirational outsiders.
“Nkoloso was essentially a prankster, but what he did was really profound,” Bodomo said. “When you’re outside the grand narrative of history, to get in by playing the game is futile. You have to poke holes in the game. Leave cracks in it, open it up, redefine it.”