11 Questions: Yor-EL Francis, Writer, Director, Producer


Francis hails from a prominent Liberian family; the Martins of Grand Bassa County and the Francis from Marshall. He is well traveled and holds a Master of Arts in Film Directing from the City University of New York.  His career began as an intern at MTV Networks, then a stint at the Black Entertainment Television [BET], before landing a job at FOX. 2003 saw the Liberian born filmmaker accepted into the esteemed two-year Directors Guild of America’s Producer Training Plan in Los Angeles. In 2005, Yor-El won the African Film Commission’s top prize for screen-writing for his screenplay, “Fire of the Sun,” a story based on the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh, Piankhi, who is an unwilling hero compelled to bring together his country’s fractured lower and upper kingdoms. As a source of national pride, Francis beat out a Ghanaian and a Nigerian, [who were numbers 2 and 3, respectively] to win the Grand prize that year. Back home in Liberia, he has been busy directing and producing Liberian films and short videos, it was his innovation that brought to life Bai T. Moore’s “Murder In the Cassava Patch,” the adaption was also the late Peter Ballah’s final on-screen appearance.  Francis last worked on the POT NOT BOILING REMIX video with Liberian all stars Xpolay, Romeo Lee, Takun J, JD Donzo, Bentman tha Don and Luckay Buckay.

1. What was it like working with the late Peter Ballah, certainly a Liberian icon?

I was privileged to meet Mr. Ballah for the first time in December 2010. I came on a scout from Los Angeles for my film, MURDER IN THE CASSAVA PATCH. Mrs. Gillian Lorba Tulay Moore and her sons Sando and Bai insisted that I meet Mr. Ballah before I proceeded with my scout.

I arrived at Flomo Theater early one Monday morning. Mr. Ballah had called me the previous evening to confirm our meeting and he added that he was always prompt, never late. I liked him immediately because I appreciate timeliness and I assured him, I would be there and I would be there on time. My training in time management from the Director’s Guild of America’s Producers Training Program would have me do no less. Little did I know I was in for a treat, Mr. Ballah embraced me as the brother that I was. He wasn’t concerned about my American accent or my overly western appearance. He made no overtures as to the legitimacy of my “Liberianess,” as many others do. He was not one to “judge a book by its cover.”

Instead, he welcomed me with open arms and called me son. He sat me down and asked, “What would be my approach?” When I told him first and foremost that we had to shoot in Dimeh, he was sold. And, despite his ailing health, he wanted to be a part of the production.  We were all honored by his involvement. When Mr. Ballah met Eugene Lorenzo Martin, who plays GORTOKAI, he said to him, from today, you are Gortokai. That meeting brought tears to my eyes for it realized a dream I had, of merging Liberians in the Diaspora with their brothers and sisters at home to create outstanding Liberian projects.

My entire cast became the children of Mr. Ballah. Barnie Doe-Jones, who plays Kema, was completely charmed by Mr. Ballah, and in his gentle knowing way he played the father. His approach to his craft was genuine and direct. The scope of his work stands for itself, the “Malawala Balawala” chronicles, “Our People, One People” and The Flomo Theater. Joseph K. Horace and Eddie M. Gibson who were players with the Flomo Theater also became a part of the MURDER IN THE CASSAVA PATCH family. Their excellent acting abilities are a testimony to the depth of Mr. Ballah’s reach because they were all acolytes of Mr. Ballah.

In between takes, he and I would sit and talk often about how Liberians don’t know the beauty of what we have. “Liberian culture is potent and unique,” he would often remark. It was a view we both shared.

The people of Liberia are a wonderful mixture of African ethno-linguistic groups with people hailing from all over the entire continent. There are people from the North, the South, the Eastern and Central regions of Africa. Essentially, Liberia is a melting pot, a fact that seems to be lost on most Liberians; this was a constant worry for Mr. Ballah.  He and I in turn, faced a key dilemma, getting Liberians to embrace their “Liberianess,” their uniqueness in the pantheon of African ethnicity. In an ever-changing multi-cultural world, this is an asset, and not a liability for our country.

A nationalist at heart, Mr. Ballah stayed in Liberia throughout the entire civil crisis. He explained to me that his survival was because of his comedic abilities.  Soldiers would see him and recognize FLOMO and ask him to do a skit or two. That is how he lived. He also constantly bemoaned how, instead of philanthropy, kleptocracy had become the new national pastime. His dream was to build a new home for Liberian artists who were displaced by the war and by the relocation of Kendeja. He envisioned a performing arts center with an amphitheater to showcase the natural cultural talent, that we, as Liberians take for granted, not really realizing how special it is.  He even showed me architectural renderings of what would have been a school, much like the Schools of the Performing Arts you find in the developed world.  His wish was to take some of our gifted, artistic children and hone their skills to perfection, then, showcase them to the world. Liberian art, specifically our masks influenced early western modern art through painters like Matisse, Derain, and Picasso, who, was once give a Dan mask by Matisse himself as a gift.

Mr. Ballah wanted to reinvigorate this former prestige. He wanted to show that Liberian artists don’t always have to be followers, just by their nature alone; they are leaders who stand high above the fray. He wanted to take these gems (our cultural performers, dancers, singers, actors) that are our cultural legacy and showcase them to the world. He also reminisced about his journey to the US during the 1984 Olympics. He knew that the US city I immigrated to was Los Angeles and so he shared his memories of the Olympics and the golden days of artists in Liberia. Mr. Ballah and I shared the dream of starting a cultural revolution in this country by having our people wake up and experience the beauty they are surrounded by. I urge Liberians to honor his death by living his dream. Appreciate your surroundings, appreciate your culture, and appreciate the uniqueness that is you.

2. How did the project come about, who was behind it, and was this your Liberian directorial debut?

MURDER IN THE CASSAVA PATCH was my first Liberian film and my first full length film. In a conversation with one of my Uncles [Earl Burrowes Snr.], I discovered that due to the war, Mr. Moore’s papers had been languishing in the elements at Indiana University. Under the direction of Dr. Elwood Dunn who had sent a team to Liberia to archive President Tubman’s Papers, Mr. Moore’s widow, Mrs. Gillian Moore approached them asking if they could include Mr. Moore’s papers in their archival process. I immediately realized that I needed to capture the essence of that story on film so that it could be archived in that format for perpetuity. It was too important a story in Liberia’s canon of stories to let wither and die. I wrote, directed and produced the film. What that means is I’m broke [laughs]. It was as a labor of love. And I am happy with my efforts. My next move with the film is to work on distributing it so I can start monetizing my investment. That’s a whole other process.

3. You also interned at MTV and worked as a news producer for the Black Entertainment Television [BET].

I did.

4. Was getting accepted into the influential two-year Directors Guild of America’s Producer Training Plan, a highlight of your career?

I wouldn’t say it was the highlight of my career, but it was the definitive beginning. Before that I had been working on small things here and there. I had done the education thing, I had a Master’s degree already but I wanted to make films in Hollywood. The DGA program helped me to achieve that. It was tough, it was hard, it was rigorous and there were many days where I thought I would not make it. Imagine having to stand on your feet for 16 hours, sometimes under the hot sun or in pouring rain, working on a film or a television show. If you’re not used to it as I was you will certainly not make it; it’s mind numbing. During the first few months I would come home and just console myself from being beat up all day long on set. It’s not an easy job, it’s mental and physical gymnastics and everyone is looking up to you so, you have to be solid. I eventually learned the job and became, rock solid. Now I’m looking forward to scaling higher heights and achieving even greater things.

5. Growing up you travelled extensively with your family, your experiences must have been varied.

[Laughs], this question is a set up but I’ll answer it. I grew up very privileged and for that I am forever grateful. My mother and father worked very hard and were able to give me a wonderful childhood. My father owned companies in Ghana, Haiti, Liberia, Sierra Leone, California and Miami and my mother owned a boutique in Monrovia. We got to visit places like Switzerland, Sweden, Italy, Germany, England, the Caribbean, the US and of course our next door neighbors like Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo and Nigeria. All this was during the 80’s, so pre-destruction time [laughs].

I firmly believe that the best years of my life, however, were the years I spent in high school. I attended the Sierra Leone Grammar School, which is one of Africa’s oldest institutions of learning. It was founded two years before Liberia, in 1845. What was great about it was the experience. The school is located in a sleepy hollow called Murray Town, right on the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a peaceful, happy go-lucky setting; we had not a care in the world. And the town, at the time was basically our town, the school being the biggest thing there. It was blissful and carefree, not to mention the education was pretty top notch.

When I left Africa, I was able to compete with anyone, from any part of the globe and best them. And the camaraderie was priceless, my fellow classmates and I are brothers for life. Despite the wars, and being flung across continents, we still maintain a connection because of that special bond we share as Regentonians.

6. What future is there for Liberian films and music videos, especially so, since pirating and copy rights in places like Liberia are pervasive and nonexistent?

The future is bright. We have a dynamic entertainment scene. What’s wonderful about it is, despite the abject poverty, despite the complete lack of resources, young Liberian men and women are creating music, film, art, poetry, and doing it on a world class level. That to me shows the absolute genius of our people, it’s one that should be applauded but unfortunately gets relegated to the sidelines. Pirating is an issue that I intend to take up with the powers that be. There are mechanisms that can be put into place that can curtail pirating. Another problem is the copyright fee; it’s too high for the average Liberian creative person. There’s got to be some sort of dialogue between the people creating and the people legislating. It can’t be a one way street. We, as creators, need to voice our concerns in an articulate and concise manner and lawmakers as legislators need to listen and work together with us to make definitive changes.  Lastly the Liberian government needs to understand that they are sitting on a goldmine as far as the intellectual properties of its citizens. Ghana is capitalizing from it, Nigeria is capitalizing from it, and we can too. If properly groomed the entertainment industry in Liberia could become a multi million dollar business but we’ve got to envision it in order to achieve it. The conversation needs to be had and it can’t be in the usual Liberian style of all fluff and no substance.

7. People rarely go to the movies now a day in the country; the video clubs have taken over, what must be done to reverse this trend and inject life into the cinema and theatre, if Liberian actors, directors and producers must see dividends for their talents?

It is my hope to change that too. I never realized that one of the reasons I am a filmmaker is because of my experience growing up in Liberia. I was always in the movie theater. My father owned Rivoli in the early days, and I basically spent my time between Rivoli and Relda dragging every adult in my household with me to see a movie. It shaped me and who I became. I want the young Liberians growing up to have that experience. I’m working on a plan to retrieve Rivoli and revamp it to today’s standards and start offering movie screenings of both locally made and international product. It is necessary; we need to be a bit more nationalistic with that. It will help the aspiring Liberian director by providing a place to screen their films and monetize their work which is something that’s not happening right now. We also need to get the broadcasters on board, they show pirated Nigerian and Ghanaian films, that’s got to stop. First of all show some Liberian fare, I know SEVERAL Liberian director’s with great work that should be shown on our various broadcasting systems. And pay them to show their work. It costs money to make a film. I mean, I’m still recovering from the expenses of MURDER IN THE CASSAVA PATCH and have not recouped a dime.

8. You also interned at the West Wing, and with Martin Sheen, what was the experience like?

It was surreal. I would be standing next to Martin Sheen and he’d be looking to me for direction and I had no idea what to say to him. He, however, was kind and generous and would say, ‘okay Yor-El, now is when you yell roll.’ And I’d be like, “oh, right.” I learned everything about the Hollywood style of filmmaking on the set of the West Wing. It was one of those experiences where when you’re in it, you don’t understand it. I would call my advisor and say, ‘how can they just leave me on the set with these actors to our own devices.’  I remember one day I was so nervous I called my advisor and told him to please come by. He came down immediately and he said to me, ‘Yor-El, you’re doing great, what’s the problem?’  The problem was, here I am, a lowly intern on a set with Oscar and Emmy nominated actors, and all my immediate supervisors who had been on the job for so long, knew that show basically ran itself, so they’d be in a room drinking, or doing something else, just not on the set and I was terrified of screwing things up. The show also had a reputation of chewing up its interns. My predecessor had quit the training program after her stint on the West Wing so needless to say, I was terrified. The moral of the story is, you just have to keep on pushing, and never show your fear. My advisor knew I was terrified but I never let on to anyone on the show, that big old me was intimidated by them. I put on a good show [laughs].

9. You bagged the 2011 “Ward Fund Crystal Award for Innovation in Filmmaking” and “Fire in the Sun,” also brought recognition in 2005 which saw you taking home the “Africa Film Commission’s top prize for screen-writing [and] screenplay,” you also hope to see it hit the big screen someday. When can we expect that?

FIRE OF THE SUN is a $100 million dollar action film in the vein of GLADIATOR or THE FOUR FEATHERS OR SPARTACUS. It’s set in Ancient Egypt and Ancient Nubia. I was inspired by the Michael Jackson/John Singleton video REMEMBER THE TIME. I wrote it with someone like a Will Smith or an Idris Elba or a Jamie Foxx in the lead as the Pharaoh PIANKHI and someone like Gerard Butler or Tom Cruise or Ryan Gosling as his nemesis NEKARU. There is also a love interest that is caught between the two men and I saw someone like a Megan Good, or Zoe Saldana or Naomi Harris as the character NEFER. I had a meeting with an agent and he said to me well, if you can get me Will Smith then I’ll get your movie made. In Hollywood, that’s easier said than done. I thought, ‘hey okay, I won the award so other people read it and thought it was damned good but no one’s come knocking so I just have to keep pushing.’ I recently dusted the script off and I am renewing my mission to one day see it on the big screen so thank you for asking, at least I know that people out there have taken note so perhaps there is hope.

10. Working in Hollywood must have given you a really busy life, what do you do to relax?

That’s a great question. When you do what I do, you become married to the job. And then you wake up one day with nothing to do and there’s no one at home so it’s a kind of catch 22. I think my generation is built of people who have great drive and continue to strive for their goals head on, despite all the obstacles. I mean, by all instances I should not be in Hollywood. I knew no one here; I was a boy from West Africa. Educated yes, but with absolutely no connections and Hollywood is all about who you know. For that I’m grateful to the training program because they took an unknown me, and threw me into the mix and now I have got to take those connections and knock my next project out the ball park. There’s no time for stopping. So my answer would be, for now, I am married to my job. I am ambitious and have several projects that I’m developing that will eventually make their way to the big screen. For the future and relationships, no one knows what that will hold.

11. Any final thoughts Mr. Francis?

Thanks for taking the time to interview me. I appreciate your interest in my career. As a songwriter once wrote, “we’ve only just begun…”

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