Nneka Onuorah touched down in London last week in lieu of her UK premier of The Same Difference, a documentary that explores the different stereotypes and prejudices in the black lesbian/bisexual community. An eagerly awaited documentary that has been shown in over 80 cities worldwide by way of independent screenings and film festivals, The Same Difference encapsulates what is to be black and lesbian/bisexual in America and the boxes that we are expected to fit in.
AZ: Where did you grow up and what are your fondest memories?
NO: I grew up in Queens, New York. I was raised in New York from birth until 5th grade and then moved to Atlanta, Georgia with my grandmother. Most of my fondest memories are in church because my grandmother was the church secretary. I spent all week with her helping with different tasks, I was like her assistant.
When we moved to Georgia my mum still lived in New York so I spent a lot of time with family friends, who really took me under their wings and helped take care of me as my grandmother got older. My routine revolved around going to school and church, I would go to school and then choir rehearsal or praise dance rehearsal.
I moved back to New York for high school and trained at Broadway Dance Centre, a lot of my life revolved around dancing.
How early on were you aware of your sexuality and how did it affect those around you?
I was always aware of my sexuality. There is a picture of me kissing an old friend, we were only around 2 years old. I remember her being terrified but I enjoyed it. I have always looked at women but it did not come to consciousness until I was 14 years old.
I started hanging out with lesbians in high school and there was a girl that really liked me. She would come and bring me and my little cousins food and I was like “Hmmm what is this, what’s going on?” We ended up being in a relationship for three years. I guess I always knew I liked girls, I did undercover stuff with my friends when I was younger *laughs*.
What was your route to producing and filmmaking?
I started off as an intern for BET and when I was in university studying psychology. I thought that because I would be in school for about 8 years it would be good to do an internship for fun.
I watched a lot of TV growing up. I used to know what time my favourite shows would come on and remember all the jingles from adverts, so I thought, why not try working at a TV network.
I went to see my guidance counsellor and told them that I wanted to intern at BET although it was unlikely that they would answer the phone. When we called they answered after the first ring and I got an interview and was hired as an intern to the President of Music Programming.
His assistant was so busy that she could not take notes in the President’s meetings so I would take the notes for her. If I did not understand something I would go home and do some research online so that when I attended the next meetings I would know exactly what everyone was talking about. I was his intern for two months but I was a superhuman intern. I would go to work early, stay over, I would go and find the editor and ask loads of questions.
I remember in one meeting the executives were debating a music video and they asked for my opinion, so I answered the question and based on my answer the Vice President of Development asked to meet with me. She said that I did not have a fearful bone in my body because I answered the question right away. She told me that if I lived without fear I could do anything and offered me a job starting the following Monday.
The New York Times did an article on me so which created a buzz at Viacom. I worked my way up from intern to producer, I produced Black Girls Rock and various music specials. It has now been my career for over 7 years.
Highs and lows you faced with producing the documentary?
I will start with the lows – when I produced the first cut of my film and I couldn’t watch it. I remember being in the edit and going on my phone within two minutes. I took it to a network that is popular for LGBT content and they told me it was okay. I was absolutely distraught, I spent all my savings on it and was about to quit my job.
I was really upset and stayed on the couch for three days but I got my shit together and told myself to start over. If you really want to do something, nothing will stop you from reaching your goals. That experience really brought something positive out of me, it was a low that turned into a high.
I rescripted and re-edited everything, it cost money but it’s what I had to do. I also tried to raise funds on Kickstarter because, I did not know a lot of rich people at the time. I did not make my fundraising goal so had to use my own money.
Those were the lows but they turned into highs. Having to completely redo the film brought something out of me. It took a lot of confidence for me to tell myself that it was not great the first time and that did not make me a horrible director or a failure. What it meant was that if you really are who you say you are and live up to your potential, you can do this again and better and you won’t let it get you down. I learned, I asked more questions, I tried different approaches and the movie came out great, and I am thankful for that.
The highs – I have been able to tour all over America and the world, London is city number 87. I have had new job opportunities; I got hired as a Television Development Producer because my employer heard about my film. It is amazing to work there because they let me direct and produce TV shows at the same time. I just came from a 3 week tour out of the country, went back on Monday and had to leave on Friday to come to London. My bosses congratulated me, it is great to have a job where people respect you.
There have definitely been more highs than lows.
Have any countries/crowds in particular surprised you in their response to The Same Difference?
I was really surprised by Paris, it was really packed. Paris has always been my dream place to premiere the film so going there was amazing. What was interesting about Paris was that it was a feminist film festival and men weren’t allowed, which I had a problem with, because I believe everyone should be able to enjoy your content.
Washington DC, New York and Houston were huge screenings. We have had seven sold out screenings in Houston, one of them sold out in five minutes.
Do you get nervous before screenings?
I do get a little nervous, London is city number 87 and I still look forward to seeing people’s reactions. I never watch the film with the audience, I only did it once when it aired on television. Watching my work makes me want to do it over.
Would you like to share your thoughts on the outcome of the presidential election?
I think all of our initial reactions were really sad. I was in the Czech Republic when I found out and we were devastated. But it ignites a level of activism in you. We have always known that there were issues but now they have been amplified.
We were already fighting for changes but we were resting on the fact that Obama is in office, we think we are so progressive and that the media has become more diverse but something like this happens and people are shocked. I have been seeing this for a while and that is why I have been doing the work that I am doing. I have been trying to get communities to see how similar they are and not be divided.
The question is ,who are this generation’s leaders? The fight is not over, we have to strategise and figure out how we can fix this.
What do you enjoy the most about travelling?
I am a culture whore, I love places that make a statement. Paris is romantic, with the cobblestones and short alleyways leading to restaurants. I love getting to know people with different minds, people who eat differently from me and think differently to me. Travelling makes me a more well rounded person. I take the best out of everything when I travel and try to implement that when I am back home. There is something beautiful about everywhere and I enjoy eating new food.
Where have you had the best food?
I want to say France. Cafe Etienne in Marseille has lovely honey duck and it was great to drink wine from Bordeaux, it was absolutely phenomenal.
What can’t you travel without?
I like hoodies, one of my fans gave me a hoody with my name on it and I take it everywhere.
What would you like for people to take from The Same Difference if nothing else?
I want people to learn that if we let go of our egos, insecurities and fear we will have a more beautiful life and we won’t be so divided. I think we have preconceived notions of people before we meet them based on how they present. Do not judge a book by its cover and really understand that you do not know everything. Just because you do something one way does not mean you will do it that way for the rest of your life.
Challenge yourself every time you want to judge someone. Ask questions, be curious, act out of love, those are the main things I want people to take away. At the end of the day everyone wants to be loved, nobody wants to be disliked and nobody wants to be judged.