Kit Esuruoso in 'Akoni'.

Brave is the debut feature filmmaker who sets and shoots their independently-financed project across two continents, choosing not only to write and direct but produce and star.

But brave Genna Chanelle Hayes is. And it’s paid off – tonight, her film Akoni will open CinefestOZ Film Festival in a sold out screening in Augusta.

Starring UK actor Kit Esuruoso in the titular role, the film follows a homeless Nigerian refugee struggles to integrate into Australian society after escaping the clutches of Boko Haram. While living on the streets and on the receiving end of racist taunts from a group of drunken men, a young woman (Hayes) comes to his aid and offers him a place to stay. Struggling with her own heartbreak, she soon finds solace in her unlikely new companion as he opens her up to a world beyond her current life of modelling, parties and social media.

For Hayes, the driving force behind the film is to raise awareness of the impact of terrorist organisation Boko Haram in West Africa, an issue she became passionate about after falling in love with a Nigerian while in London. She is also passionate about refugees more generally; her short film Displaced was about a Sudanese refugee living in Melbourne.

Akoni‘s journey to screen was some three years, navigating finance and the pandemic, shooting across Ghana (which stands in for Nigeria) and Australia. The budget was around $300,000, raised in stages.

Esuruoso was cast after Hayes went to see Show Boat on the West End, with other key cast found on the ground in Nigeria, among them Jemima Osunde, who Hayes predicts is going to “take over the world.” Australian actors include Mark Coles Smith, a long time friend of Hayes, as well as Simon Elrahi and Pippa Grandison.

With limited resources, Hayes had to be hands-on. For instance, Wayne Pashley from Big Bang Sound Design gave her a crash course in sound design that allowed her to go to Nigeria and capture authentic sound, including Akoni’s native language, Yoruba before it was brought back to Australia.

Investors came in the form of people who believed in Hayes’ story, among them Aussie Susie Montague, producer of Ride Like A Girl. Other executive producers include Kit Esuruoso, Sylvester Esuruoso, Cybill Lui Eppich, Jane Oremuso, Jon Selim and Calum Stewart.

“I’m incredibly grateful to all of those people because it’s been incredibly difficult. I can’t talk about it without getting emotional because it was so draining for me personally,” she tells IF.

“As a crew, we had zero degree nights in Sydney, really long nights for an indie film, and then in Ghana and we had 50 degree heat and really long days. It was asking people to do a lot. I’m really grateful that they believed in the story and we managed to get it to where it is now.”

Ophelia Dzidzornu, Kit Esuruoso and Genna Chanelle Hayes. (Photo: Barnaby Downes)

Despite the disruption in theatrical market, Hayes describes Akoni as a film for the cinema – she wants people to be surrounded by the music, composed by Nigerian composer Maria Alfonsine and the landscapes of Africa as captured by cinematographer Calum Stewart.

When it is safe to do so given the pandemic, she hopes to be able to release Akoni in Ghana and Nigeria, envisioning a fundraising event to raise awareness of the Boko conflict.

When Hayes speaks to IF, she is in Tasmania scouting locations for her next project, a series she describes a love story, exploring Indigenous incarceration and same-sex relationships.

Akoni will also screen at CinefestOz August 27 in Busselton, with a Q&A. More info here.

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