The Power of a Story
Internationally award-winning writer and producer, Sheila Nortley, speaks to us about her life, her work and the power in taking back control of the narrative.
One’s idea of a Muslim is often shaped by what is seen on screen. When the world sees one version of what is deemed as a Muslim, chances are the community in its entirety gets reduced to a label – one label.
But like the human race as a whole there are different dimensions to a Muslim. Different dimensions with varying cultural background, points of view and narratives. Far too often these narratives get marginalised. Empowerment comes when the marginalised group take back control of the narrative and tell the story from within.
“Anyone can tell the story of minority groups. I think it’s time the marginalised people take ownership of their narrative and that these storytellers tell their stories and the stories of others from their perspective,” says Sheila Nortley.
Sheila Nortley is an internationally award-winning writer and producer who produced her first short film “Eddie’s Bar” in 2003. By 2006 whilst studying for her degree in Media & Communications at Brunel University she launched a production company, which specialised in music video production, documentary and short films. This led to her producing the neo-noir short film The Hydra which scooped Best Film at the BFM awards at the British Film Institute in 2009.
Sheila is a born and bred Londoner with her family background from Ghana, West Africa. As a storyteller, Sheila is passionate and cognisant of the power of a story and the impact a story has on the viewer. “I’m always aware of the power of what it is I generate through my fingertips,” she explains. “So, I try to be careful and honour that responsibility,” Sheila continues.
She went on to work for AmeenDream Entertainment and several other production companies, where she wrote and produced several award-winning productions including Zion, Victim and feature film David is Dying. In November 2011 Sheila received a nomination for a BYA Award for her accomplishments in film. Her film Zion, a highly anticipated love story, premiered the following month at The Ritzy in Brixton, meeting a warm reception and superb reviews. The film went on to win Best Film and Best Screenplay at the Spartan Lens, Film Festival in Norfolk, Virginia.
Determined to reach a wider audience, Sheila collaborated with a young director named Sebastian Thiel and released a short film called Illegal Activity – it was a reading campaign with a difference which played on the discourse of stereotypical urban films to challenge preconceptions and engage youth. The film screened at Warner Bros, Google Headquarters and BAFTA before launching online and going viral.
Accolade after accolade followed Sheila through her journey and in 2016, she was awarded Woman of the Future in Arts and Culture for her work in film and was invited to Buckingham Palace.
The journey for this strong, proud black British Muslim woman in film is inspiring and does not seem to be slowing down, as she is now in preproduction of her feature film The Strangers with principal photography scheduled for summer. The Strangers is a beautiful story set in an interesting and inventive dystopian world, reflecting upon relevant current societal issues and themes. With relatable and dynamic characters, it explores issues of faith and culture through the exciting genre of conspiracy/thriller.
We had the ultimate pleasure and honour of speaking with Sheila to get her insights into her life, her work and the power in taking back control of the narrative.
How did you get into filmmaking?
l started at 9 years old when my mum bought me a toy camera. It was called a Tyco video camera and I’ll never forget it. With that I’d shoot my sisters and my cousins, anyone who I could get involved. Obviously, the Tyco was very limited: it was black and white and you couldn’t go far – you had to plug it into the VCR but that was enough for me and it was my first time shooting things and w was a very organic process as I then studied Media and Communications at uni but the area I excelled the most in was production. After I graduated I found myself as a Production Assistant and began producing my own shorts.
Was there a particular event or time that you recognised that filmmaking was not just a hobby but that it would be your life and your living?
Absolutely. It was the BFM awards at the British Film Institute in 2008. I’d just flown back to London from a holiday in Ghana and got my girls together to attend the screening of my film The Hydra but we were running late. I felt like crying. Traffic was bumper to bumper. So, finally we arrive early at the British Film Institute, trying to find the right screening room as quickly as possible, there were around 10 of us I remember as we came in two cars. So we find it, I feel like crying because I think I’ve missed the premiere of my first film, we burst through the doors: there it is on the big screen in huge letters: The Hydra - my film. The opening sequence had just ended and It felt like time stopped. Goosebumps. It was the first time I’d seen my work on the big screen and that moment remains the defining moment for me when I realised this is who I am.
When getting started on a new film, what goes into telling a story – putting pen to paper? What message do you weave into your stories to get across to the audience?
Honesty. A great deal of honesty and vulnerability, which is very difficult because a lot of the time we lie to ourselves in one way or another and we inhibit our thoughts because we’re afraid of them because they contradict and conflict and there’s all of this cognitive dissonance- at least for me anyway. I don’t always have a particular objective - sometimes I just want to tell a story - however I’m always aware of the power of what it is I generate through my fingertips, in that by writing I’m coming up with people, places, moments, worlds all of which can be used for a message which can impact viewers positively or negatively. So I try to be careful and honour that responsibility even when I’m not trying to push a particular message, if you see what I mean.
In your upcoming film, The Strangers, you reflect upon relevant societal issues and themes and explore issues such as faith and culture. Can you tell us more without giving away too much of the story?
The Strangers is set in the not-too-distant future so a lot of the subject matter is very recognisable to us all. We’re living in a time where despite the Internet and globalisation we seem to be growing more and more ignorant and self-absorbed, and less inclined to know each other. We were created as different nations and tribes to know each other - that’s the reason - but we deviate from that. So, I wanted to explore a world without faith, a world without freedom of speech and I wanted to present a challenge to the fitra and explore the resilience of the human spirit in a world where everything seeks to destroy it.
In the current social climate, do you feel as a filmmaker – a story teller – that it is important to tell the stories that may have otherwise been marginalised?
I think it’s important for filmmakers to tell the stories that may have been marginalised but I think it’s more important for those marginalised people to tell their stories and others. Do you see the difference? Anyone can tell the story of minority groups - in fact, we’ve been being told our story for years, we’ve been being sold our stories for years. I think it’s time the marginalised people take ownership of their narrative and that these storytellers tell their stories and the stories of others from their perspective.
What are you working on now?
Currently producing Squares V2 with Bernard Kordieh. Principal photography started last week. We hit it off when shooting The Strangers so when he asked me to jump onboard Squares V2 I was honoured. The concept resonated with me immediately. It’s another dystopian sci-fi but it also relates to Egypt and Aliens and soul-searching. It’s out there and it pushes the boundaries so I love it. It’s always a pleasure to work with him. We also have something in the pipeline for November/December, God willing. So, it’s hectic at the moment but it’s great. The Strangers, our feature film is now in post and we’re planning a tour with Penny Appeal which is really exciting. They’re a charity close to my heart.
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Photography: MCMedia London Makeup: Khadija Rahman Styling: Dulce by Safiyya