A Beautiful Girl: Aimiende Negbenebor

“The conflict that goes on in ones mind when you mix cultures, belief systems, race, class, etc., is quite scary.” 

I don’t yet know the full story of my guest, model and actor, Aimiende Negbenebor, but I can’t wait to find out. It will be revealed in Asa, a short independent film currently in production by Sela Films, followed by a full length feature film.

Per Sela Films, Asa (which means “a beautiful girl”) is a short film based on a true story. It’s a dramatic tale of the last 24 hours before a young girl embarks on her journey to America. It takes place in two cities (Lagos and Benin) in Nigeria, West Africa.

The film chronicles Asa’s life from age 7 to age 17, when she meets her biological mom and leaves for the United States. Within these last 24 hours, shrunken into12 minutes, we see what Asa’s life has been like over the past 10 years, and gain an understanding for why she absolutely has to get out.

The film opens with a kidnapping plot to get Asa out of the country, and through a series of flashbacks, tells the tale of what she has had to endure from the moment she was placed on a plane with a stewardess to be dropped off at a foster home in Nigeria, to the pivotal moment of confrontation with her biological dad – she was going to leave, at any cost, and by any means necessary.

What’s most incredible about Asa’s story is that it could be anyone’s story, regardless of race, class, religious beliefs or culture. It deals with those things that are kept in the dark and ought to be brought to light. In spite of its darkness, this is very much a dynamic tale of triumph, love and hope. It’s both colorful (yes, the costumes are amazing too!) and soulful.

As I read Aimi’s interview answers below and, in particular, her quote, “The conflict that goes on in ones mind when you mix cultures, belief systems, race, class, etc., is quite scary,” I was struggling once again with my own mother. She chose to cut me out of her life, again, this week. This time, I’m determined to let her go.  Her decision was ultimately based on the religious, political and cultural differences that now seem to divide us. I don’t think a mother should walk away from her small or adult children for such reasons, yet I understand their power.

I’ve always hoped the love between my mother and I would overcome any differences we have. As an adult, I shouldn’t need that so desperately anymore, but it’s hard not to want it when I’ve waited for so long. Now I’m trying to face facts. And like the brainwashed, I still struggle internally every day about whether or not I am doing the right thing.  Even when my heart and mind tell me I am, I still have an emotional ache to be at peace with all the notions that were pounded into my head as a child.

I question how adults can be blind to the needs of children, and how, although childhood is such a short span of time, how powerful an impact those years have.

Today I don’t care what your culture is, or where you stand politically or religiously. I hope you stand for love. My suspension is that the story of Asa somehow relays this as well, and I’m so looking forward to that discovery. I’ve donated towards Aimi’s production costs,and hope you will consider doing so as well.

Information on how to support the film can be found here.

What’s your story ? How did you become interested in film?

My story, wow, where do I begin? I can answer how I became interested in film making, so I think I’ll do that. The short version is that a theatrical director friend of mine, Michel Chahade, sat with me and basically said, “It’s time we made your story into a film,” and I said. “Let’s do it.” He’s not the first to suggest making my story into something – a novel, an autobiography; my dad suggested a documentary and actually started the process by trying to get a few creative people he knows interested. I love my dad. I’m adopted by an amazing father as you know from watching the kickstarter video. I say he saved my life and he says I saved his! Funny isn’t it.

I’ve always wanted to create. I’ve always been somewhat artistic. But it wasn’t something that was encouraged growing up in Nigeria. After a B.E. in Computer Engineering and a B.A. in Literature, and working in the IT field for a few years, I turn around and start acting and modeling, trying to sing (I seem to think I can carry a tune … not so sure of that though), sketching, painting (very private things for me so no one’s seen those,) and writing. I wrote “Asa” and I can’t even begin to express how gratifying of a process that was. After the process of making this film began, I realized with absolute certainty that this was what I wanted to do and I can’t express in words what that means! I just knew I wanted to be behind the camera and make “this” happen. Since we started filming, I haven’t been on a single audition. I can’t even see myself doing it. I think I’m in trouble. I stumbled upon a long list of producers, directors and writers I’ve admired over the years recently, and realized that I’d forgotten I compiled that list. I must admit, I’m looking forward to being on it.

Can you tell us about your current project, Asa?

Asa is a short film that’s based on a true story. It’s a story about a young girl growing up in Nigeria and moving to the States at age 17. The story is being told in two parts. The first is the Short film that’s currently in production and the second part will be a full length Feature. We had originally started work on the project with the working title “Journey” and later settled on “Asa” because this story is about her journey from childhood to adulthood. You may also say it’s her journey from the darkness in her life into light. The film has many dark moments, but throughout the abuse, struggle, depression, humiliation, Asa stays very human. 

She’s not the stereotypical (forgive me for saying this) black woman, at least not how black or maybe more specifically, African women, are typically portrayed. She strong, she’s independent, and she fights, but through it all, she shows her vulnerability, her weaknesses, her fears, she cries, sometimes in front of people! She has her silly girl crushes like the next girl and makes the same sometimes unforgivable mistakes teenagers make, only her environment makes her punishment 100 times worse.
Asa is a film that brings to light things that are usually hidden in the dark, but also shows that that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, might sometimes place itself smack dab in the middle of the tunnel and wait there for you to get to it, grab it, and light your way through the tunnel to the other side. “Asa” is a very complex story. While writing it, I found myself questioning what parts of it is considered the norm. What should I or am I allowed to question? Am I betraying my culture because I’ve become “Americanized?” Should any of this be acceptable or just left alone? The conflict that goes on in ones mind when you mix cultures, belief systems, race, class, etc., is quite scary.

With regard to your current focus, was there an “ah-ha” moment you can tell us about?

Yup! The moment I realized that I really wanted to be behind the camera. There’s this small role in the film, Asa’s cousin interacting with her the morning she’s leaving for the States. The director, Chahade, decided to have me play her and I really did not want to do it. When I realized I was in shock and thought “Oh my, I’m in trouble!”

Many creative people never achieve the success they dream about. Which of your dreams have come to pass and what do you dream about now?

I’ve just started living my life. I feel I dream dreams everyday that come true. I know, this probably doesn’t make sense. I dream of having a constant roof over my head and I do. I dream of being able to pull out a few bills and get a meal whenever and wherever I choose to and I do. I dreamed of being able to read, write, comprehend things and I do all that. I dream about being safe (mostly take it for granted I think, considering the situations I’ve put myself in at times) but I am safe. I dream about staying warm, clothed, and I am. I think maybe one would have to be able to understand how walking into a Payless shoe store at 145th and Broadway, for the first time (this was late 90s) being able to put down $50 for a pair of shoes, for the first time, and walking out of that store on cloud nine, could be a memory you’ll never forget, to get what I’m talking about.  I dream of making friends too, cause I fear I am terrible at that, and little by little I’m making friends. 

I guess, when you talk creative ventures, I do have many dreams I’m looking forward to seeing come true – For one, “Asa” becoming an incredible success, leading to me writing many more successful screenplays and books, and producing more successful films. Acting in a few solid ones with directors I admire would be amazing. I’m looking forward to being on the cover of Vogue. That would be a big one. I’d like to call that my vain side but I’m not so sure it’s all vanity. And if I may be bold here, an Oscar! I know, the golden boy. I want one. Badly. The culmination of everything I believe for me, will be becoming an award-wining director. The thought is actually kind of scary.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to your creative interests have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life’s aberrations, or both? How so?

This is a complex one. My entire life is a deviation from the norm. I’m Nigerian by decent. Born in the US, shipped to Nigeria. Raised by foster parents and legal guardians and then by my biological remarried dad, in Nigeria, and then by my biological mom very briefly in the States. Getting adopted by a Jewish (Israeli & American citizen) single dad. Studying Engineering and Literature simultaneously, deciding to pursue modeling and acting afterward, and then turning around to become a writer and filmmaker, all the while refusing to fit into any one category in any area of my life. 

Yeah, one big, fat aberration! It’s been more than my creative interests that’s caused me aberrations in my life. But I do think that my creative interests have in turn helped me deal with life’s aberrations. How so? By allowing me an outlet and a safe place to escape to at the same time.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you’ve dealt with it?

I mentioned earlier that growing up in Nigeria, being creative was not an option. My Nigerian parents wanted their children to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, that sort of thing. I remember mentioning once to my step mom that I wanted to be musician and she laughed so hard, it was amazing! And then of course she said musicians don’t make money and that I needed to focus on more stable professions. I think it’s funny how I ended up with dual degrees, one in the arts, the other sort of scientific, which never ceases to amaze me cause I’m terrible in math!

My Jewish papa also wanted an Engineer to work with him and take over his company. He actually mentored me in that direction, and it was very tough for him to accept me making the switch over to the arts fully, but when he came out to my first dramatic play, he said something to the effect of me having some talent. Then he came out to a second show and was blown away. I think he hated the third one or was it the fourth one, but after that, he was sold! He’s my biggest fan and though occasionally he, you know, brings up the Engineering, he’s very much supportive of me and is 100% behind me making this film.

I have lost a few boyfriends after they found out I have an Engineering degree and I’m pursuing the Arts. Painful experiences, but I lived. There was always that question of what’s my plan B? “There’s no way [I] expect to succeed in this industry.” I had one tell me he wasn’t interested in ending up having to support me, and another reminding me that I was getting old and at my age he had made his first million, which at the time we were dating seemed very funny to me considering how broke he was. I found myself wondering what he did with all that money! My most recent ex was very enthralled with me being in the arts, but he wanted it to be things he was interested in, and believe me, you don’t want to know what those things are.
I must admit that I hid my creative ventures from my biological parents for a while and they kinda found out, I guess, when the time was right because they weren’t upset and seemed okay with it. I think it’s old age!  
To end this long story, I’d say that I don’t have people in my life who fail to understand my creative interests. My creative personality, I doubt anyone will ever really understand! My drive is what keeps me moderately sane in addition to my solid support system, and the way I’ve learned to deal with and continue to deal with the people I may encounter who fail to understand me, is to leave them be. This may include walking out of their world. A tough lesson or skill if you will, that I am still working on mastering, but seems to serve me well when applied.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role of discipline and organization?

Ha!!! Nope. No methods unfortunately. I am very emotional I believe, so intuition, a sense of timing, that sort of thing mostly guides me. I’ve had to learn some serious lessons as a result of how I attack my goals at times, so I don’t feel I can recommend my brand of tactic to anyone. 

Discipline and Organization are absolute musts! And I don’t like absolutes. Without them, you get nowhere. So when I all of a sudden get that urge to jump out of bed and suddenly get going, first item on the list – make a list! Check it thrice. As for suggestions, research, research, research! Put everything, if possible, down on paper and know where you put down that paper! And then organize everything down to your thoughts. Ask questions especially when you feel any doubt. Look stupid before you LOOK stupid, if that makes any sense. And this is a big one, when you’ve made errors, own up to them. It’s tough, especially when you’re scared. but that’s just my advice.

In such a highly competitive world, what do you think it takes to rise above the crowd in your particular creative industry, and has this changed over the years?

That’s a big one (I say that a lot, don’t I?) I think it takes being in the right place at the right time, fully prepared. I don’t believe this has changed at all really. What I do see is that it’s easier now for people to make films. There are many outlets for getting one’s work out there which is both a blessing and a curse. Funding is tight and the whole structure of the past in the film industry has completely shifted. Everything seems to be blending or moving laterally. People are having to wear a thousand hats at one time, and it’s become the norm. To stand out, you need, contrary to what seems to be the norm these days, Snookie, et.al., solid work, great marketing, drive, and an understanding of what’s out there versus what you are presenting.

What’s next for you?

Very next step, finishing “Asa” the short, submitting it to festivals, and jumping into the process for making the feature.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

Put one foot in front of the other and breathe. It helps me stay focused, and in a very funny way, helps me stay grateful. I think it’s because I suddenly realize after a few steps that I’m walking and breathing, and that’s pretty cool 

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