Ephraim Asili is a filmmaker, DJ, professor and uncontainable creative and intellectual force. He has been making film for 15 years, yet he has only recently begun to work on a grander commercial scale. The occasion, Louis Vuitton’s Fall/Winter 2023 show, Collection ∞ for which he directed Strange Math, a cinematic prelude engaging the music of Sun Ra and The Marching 100, Florida's Agricultural & Mechanical University’s famous Marching Band. His previous work has earned him the attention of the Criterion Collection and screenings at some of the world’s most prestigious film festivals including the New York Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival and the Berlinale.
In his own words, Asili’s work focuses “on the African diaspora as a cultural force.” His most recent film – and first feature –The Inheritance is about a community of Black artists and activists who have formed a collective housing unit following the main character’s inheritance of his grandmother’s house in Philadelphia. The film is densely layered and complex; it is similar in many ways to the French New Wave films that have inspired Asili (see his Criterion Collection watch list for a better idea of his references). Deeply philosophical, it is also a film full of rich characters, funny and touching moments and encounters with beautiful art.

Asili’s film involves a community of historical and contemporary Black activists and artists including the likes of Sonia Sanchez, Ursula Rucker and some of the Move house’s original members. This facet, among many others in the film, blurs the lines of fiction and nonfiction, fantasy and real life. In his work, these tensions are at the heart of meaning-making. His style and research concerns might not intuitively lend themselves to commercial applications. However, through the experience of directing Strange Math, and studying Abloh's work more closely, Asili has considered the power of “positive collaboration with corporate entities.” Resources are key, and few creatively inclined firms have more influence than Louis Vuitton. In an expansive interview, Asili discusses navigating his various roles as an artist and teacher. He particularly touches upon the tensions that exist in finding an audience and financing structure to support work that maintains its ethical integrity. One thing is clear, Asili is a filmmaker to look out for.
To start off, could you please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your work as a filmmaker and professor?
My name is Ephraim Asili, I’ve been making films for about 15 years. I would describe my films up until this point as fiercely independent in the sense that I generally shoot, edit, produce, and direct the films myself. That's something that has been changing a bit lately. As a professor, I’m the director of the Department of Film and Electronic Arts at Bard College, where I teach film production and film studies. As far as production, I focus on analogue 16 mm film, and as far as film studies I teach courses related to the history of Black cinema, cinema of the African Diaspora.
Can you tell me a bit about Strange Math, your film for the recent Louis Vuitton show? How did it come about?
Strange Math came from a variety of sources. First and foremost, I was approached by BeGood Studios about working on Virgil Abloh's last show for Louis Vuitton. Eventually, I had the opportunity to look at one of Virgil’s moodboards, there were references to both NASA and marching bands.
In my early work as a filmmaker, I spent a lot of time working with the Sun Ra Arkestra, so I immediately put that together as a point of reference for the relationship between NASA and the concept of a marching band. Initially, we had planned to work directly with the Arkestra, having them featured in the short film, but logistically that wasn’t able to happen. So, I wrote a second script as a tribute to both Sun Ra and Virgil, featuring the FAMU 100 marching band, and that was the basis for the final draft of Strange Math.
The film bleeds into the show through the marching band’s performance. How do you see the film’s place within Collection ∞? What was the process of collaboration with other departments like?
That’s a complicated question in that I knew that the collection was inspired by the same themes that I was working with, but I didn’t really see any of the looks until I had already written the script. I did eventually have a chance to get a feel for what the looks might be like and then to see them prior to the shoot. The one outfit that I knew from the beginning was Issa’s, the protagonist. I was able to see that look prior and write with that costuming in mind – I requested the silver holster which was key for me.
What did you take away from the experience?
One of the highlights of the whole process was having the opportunity to go to the LV Headquarters and review the looks and tweak a few of them. I would say that was the most directly collaborative process where the looks weren’t quite finished, and the film wasn’t ready to be photographed and we were able to make some adjustments. In addition to the clothing, there were a lot of set pieces utilized in a very collaborative way.
I was sent a bunch of items from the collection, and then I sent back the things that I thought were wonderful, and that fit with my concept. Then they would reply with items that were close to or the same as the items that I initially selected. It all happened very quickly and without a lot of premeditation which is, for me, actually very nice because I like to improvise and keep things fresh.
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You bring Sun Ra, sonically and conceptually, into Strange Math. Virgil Abloh was also inspired by the artist for his Spring/Summer 2021 collection, and I don’t believe this is the first time you cite his work in your films. How did he fit into the Louis Vuitton project, and what import do you see his work as having now?
It’s kind of amazing in that I wasn’t aware that Sun Ra had such a deep influence on Virgil prior to working on the show. After looking at the moodboard, I started thinking about Sun Ra in terms of his fashion sensibility, the sense of pageantry that all his shows had, and how that also seemed to have an interesting relationship to Virgil's work. So as soon as I knew that Ra was an influence of Virgil, it was very liberating for me to know that without having to look too directly into what Virgil did with his inspiration from Sun Ra, I was able to tap into a similar energy.
Did you know Virgil? The show was a goodbye letter to him in so many ways. And beginning the show with a space adventure and themes of enlightenment and transcendence, felt like such a gesture to him. How did your film play a role in this aspect of the show?
I guess that depends on how one defines personal connection. I never had a chance to meet Virgil or converse with him or anything like that, however, before he left the planet, I was told that he had watched my films and was interested in them, that was very meaningful to me. When I was offered the opportunity to work on this show it was the third time that I had been in contact with Virgil’s team about working on a show, so it was something that I had been aware of as a possibility.
When the opportunity to direct Strange Math and the runway show came up, I guess I’ll say I intuited the fact that it was a sensitive situation in terms of how directly or indirectly to invoke Virgil in his last Louis Vuitton show; especially as someone who didn’t have a deep personal connection, I didn't want it to seem inauthentic.
How did you navigate that?
I wanted the prelude to feel like some sort of gesture that was a tribute to Virgil and Sun Ra, but at the same time, it was open-ended, and didn't require a deep understanding of who Virgil was to appreciate the themes in the work. People who are familiar with Virgil and what he's done instantly recognise these themes in the prelude, and others may or may not recognise them. Certainly, it was very intentional to do something that spoke to my sense of who Virgil was as a person and his legacy as an artist.
Virgil once said, of his Spring/Summer 2021 collection: “It’s my desire to imbue the traditional codes of luxury with my own progressive values. Nuance, like sarcasm, can be difficult to understand.” I think this presents a really interesting challenge to people who believe in non-interaction – or only antagonistic, resistive interaction – with the system. How do you approach questions of participation/change from within, versus resistance as differing routes to change?
My recent studies of Virgil, his work, and now his legacy, have really shaken up my thinking around these sorts of issues, so it's an interesting time to answer a question like this. I'm reading into this term ‘participation.’ I guess I would maybe want to substitute survival in terms of participation, in that, how does one survive in the modern landscape as an artist? I think Virgil was able to illustrate what could be done with positive collaboration with corporate entities, or spaces that maybe seem antagonistic to progressive ideas around art. I think that this idea of change from within sets up a sort of binary where there's an outside from which change could happen. Then the question is from within what? What is outside of what?
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Where do these questions lead you?
What I’ve learned from having been an activist, and then an artist is that you really can't do much without resources and resources require money and financing. So, to create change and to be in dialogue with people, one needs access to resources. I think Virgil is a real inspiration in terms of finding ways to connect people with resources so that they can thrive and therefore continue to make and create then pass that on.
I guess I just don't really see the dialectic between inside and outside, and corporate and revolutionary, as being as cut and dry as I used to. I think this is all due to what I've learned of Virgil, and having the experience of working on this show, seeing how complicated all these matters really are. So forced to kind of make a choice between ‘changing from within or without,’ I would say now it seems more effective to create change from within, which is to say, in dialogue with parties that may seem antagonistic, but at the same time there might be some overlap for positive collaboration.
The Inheritance is a film deeply invested in, through form and content, – if you can even separate the two – revolutionary art. Ursula Rucker discusses in her poem the need to get off the highway of cultural hegemony and vainglory. Yet, artists also must reach some audiences for their work to be impactful. How do you navigate these questions and tensions in your work?
The question of audience is an important one. What I've learned through my recent work with The Inheritance and Strange Math is that it's never a good idea to underestimate the intelligence of your audience. I think there is an appetite, a large appetite, a big audience, for work that is less traditional, that does work with form, that does raise interesting questions around the political landscape. I believe work of this nature can be appealing to many people. The Inheritance to a certain degree proves that. I would add that Virgil's work with Louis Vuitton, or the project that we just did in terms of its popularity of it on social media, etc., is further evidence that artists can be both challenging and at the same time push back against what Ursula describes as cultural hegemony of pop culture.
It's just a matter of the people that can place the work in front of audiences allowing that to happen. I salute platforms like Criterion Channel and Louis Vuitton for providing space for more challenging concepts and having faith that there is an audience for that. Both groups have proven that there is an audience that can appreciate work that is entertaining and at the same time challenging and thought-provoking.
I was continually considering cinematic realism, of a Bazinian flavour, when I watched your work. I am thinking particularly about your use of a deep field, wide-angle composition, analogue film and capturing of duration. Moments informed by these strategies provided me with some of my most striking moments of contemplation. Yet, these techniques ultimately served a, albeit quite remixed, narrative structure. The Inheritance is also dually reliant on theatrical approaches to set construction and acting that seem to resist realism entirely. How do you balance these formal methods in your work? What do you see as the role of this tension?
The role of the tension is tension itself, which is what I am dealing with when I talk about the idea of the cinematic. For me, inherent in the idea of the cinematic and cinema, is the ability to hold and release tension at one's will. It's like being a musician in that regard. So how does one accomplish this? Conventionally speaking, that's done through narrative story structure. There’s something happening within the story with the antagonist or protagonist that creates tension or conflict. What I'm interested in exploring is a tension that comes from a distorted sense of reality by using the form of realism to create situations that are clearly fictive, and at the same time to create situations that for all intents and purposes are real but that somehow seem to be coming from some sort of fantastical world.
How does this show in your work?
To use Strange Math, for instance, the reality is that there are musicians from the FAMU 100 playing music in the film. That's very much a reality, it's a document within the film, at the same time within the story structure, they come from a realm of fantasy. These are elements that I try not to overthink, they are playthings that are there to create tension and to a certain degree destabilize the viewer, and through the process of watching, hopefully create some sense of resolution. Some years ago, I decided to abandon the idea, cinematically speaking, of something that is ‘real’ or something that is ‘fiction.’ When I look at what people label as documentaries, I see so much fiction, and I've seen so many films that are labelled narrative fiction narratives where I see so much reality. At a certain point, I found no use in making those distinctions in what I look at, and therefore in what I make.
Could you tell me a bit about your time in a collective housing unit?
Sure. It was a really important time in my life. We had a mission statement to the house which I can't recall in detail, but essentially the house was for people of colour, and, in the case of this particular house, everyone was to some degree related to the heritage of the African diaspora, with the exception of one member. It was a house for folks of colour who were primarily committed to activism, to have a cheap place to live while we did activist work.
I grew up in a multi-racial neighbourhood, and I had never lived in a neighbourhood or an environment where everyone was of the same general background. It was a very safe space. I was able to reach a certain degree of peace with myself through being in a collective where we were in dialogue with each other about who we were as people. That, I think, was the biggest takeaway.
Politically speaking, in terms of how we were organising and distributing chores, labour and finances, we could have done better, but I think we did as well as a group of young people could. At this stage in my life, it's something that I think about in terms of whether I could or would want to live like that, and I don't think so anymore. But I feel like it's something that is maybe even as important as getting an education or anything else, for young people to try; to have a more serious understanding of ideas of socialism, Marxism, or any kind of collectivism.
You spoke in Art Forum about a conversation you had with Sonia Sanchez about The Inheritance, in which you quote her saying, “our red carpets don’t look like theirs.” The Inheritance speaks a lot about the power of self-care, and that a focus on self can connect one to their interconnected world, pushing for revolutionary change. How do you care for yourself as an artist and navigate a film and art world that resists the revolutionary power of art?
I care for myself as an artist by first and foremost, taking myself seriously, and by serious, I mean placing a lot of value on what it is that I do. Being an artist is not something that I take lightly, and I don't expect others to take it lightly either. So, when I’m creating, I feel as though I'm doing something that for myself, borders on being sacred, there’s a deep value in that. If I don't feel that way, then I don't make things, this principle keeps a protection around what it is that I produce. I try not to compromise on that front.
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You spoke in your Criterion interview about filmmaking’s tension as, “the ultimate capitalist art venture” and “the most efficient way to communicate very specific ideas to many people.” What does it mean for you to be a maker of images, a person beholden to the requirements of projects, under Capitalism, who also seeks to maintain a high ethic in your work? How do you navigate this balance?
It's an increasingly difficult situation to navigate. I feel as though to have a rapport with the kind of audience that I would like to, requires more resources which requires, just to be frank, a greater embrace of the sort of raw capitalism that is involved in certain types of filmmaking. In trying to embrace more of these conventional vehicles in terms of financing films, it just becomes more important to make sure that the work being made is of the greatest quality possible, comes from a place of deep sincerity, and has something to offer people, humanity, beyond its entertainment value. It's a complicated art form for these reasons.
That makes a lot of sense.
Ultimately, I feel blessed to even be able to consider whether I want to be working in one mode or another. It's just been my recent experience that with greater resources there’s the potential to reach a greater audience, and at the same time accessing greater resources often requires compromise. I'm not the first or last person to go through that, and there are a lot of artists that I really admire that seem to navigate these spaces very beautifully. There's a lot of inspiration out there for that.
You said that you are really invested in providing opportunities for your students, to “be that person that I didn’t have when I got out of film school.” I find that so often art and film students are wrestling with revolutionary ideas and theories in college, and then compromise on a lot of their values when they need to pay the bills – perhaps uniquely positioned to ‘sell out’ as compared with other artists. How do you help students navigate these questions? Do you have any advice for your artists without the financial backing of wealthy families about persisting with their practice?
I don't perceive there to be a contradiction between one's artistic or political integrity and making sound financial decisions. If one studies social revolutions, you realise the primary thing that a revolution needs to work is capital, resources. Even a revolution is funded with money and resources. The same applies to a revolutionary filmmaker. I try to communicate to my students that it's important to keep in mind as a filmmaker, that there are times when the resources that we need come from places that aren't related to filmmaking.
So, having some sort of day job, where one works a regular job, you save what you can, and you make the films that you can base on that. That's what I've done, so this isn't a vague belief that I have, but this is what, in fact, has worked for me. I don't feel as though I've ever really had to compromise artistically because I've always told myself if I can't get the work funded then I'll find a way to make it happen myself. You don’t have to spend a million dollars to make a good film. You can make a good short film for a relatively small amount of money, and that's how I started, you grow and expand over time. So that's what I try to instil in my students, that it's not necessarily about getting involved in the ‘industry’ and then using that as a platform to make your own work but to focus on making your own work and supporting that by whatever means necessary.
How do you balance working commercially, pursuing independent projects and teaching? What do you want your students, and other aspiring filmmakers, to learn from you? You have spoken about the intellectual resources teaching has given you, through relationships with students. Did you anticipate this? As you move forward in your filmmaking career, what role do you see teaching as occupying?
I've only started working commercially very recently, so finding space to balance commercial work with my independent work and my teaching is a recent endeavour. Fortunately, Bard College, where I teach, is very supportive of this exact situation and has been very generous in helping me find a way to balance all these worlds. For me, teaching and professional work are not mutually exclusive. What I've been able to do recently as a commercial director has provided me with a learning experience that I'm now able to bring into the classroom and talk to my students about.
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That must be so valuable.
I can tell them some of the things that I've learned as an independent or experimental filmmaker that are useful in a commercial setting and the opposite, what is useful from a commercial setting that one could apply to a more independent practice. I'm constantly thinking about ways that I can convey my experiences to students, which is very helpful on a set as I'm just trying to think through things in a very simple way, without getting too caught up in the complexity of a situation.
I can't see a situation in the future, no matter how well things go commercially, where I would not want to teach. I get too much out of it in terms of being able to relate to people of a certain age, with a fresh mindset around the medium and the world in general. It's something that I get endless inspiration from. I've also been able to hire former students to work with me on my projects, and that has gone well for me, and for students that I've worked with. Is that something that I anticipated? I think so.
What is next for Ephraim Asili? Do you have any dream projects you hope to undertake?
It's hard to say what's next, I never really know. Certainly, I have a lot of dreams and ambitions, but it can be hard to predict which project will reach fruition first. Right now, I'm working on a film about Don and Moki Cherry. That’s what is in the immediate future in terms of my next feature-length film. I have another script that I've written that I would love to have made after I finish this Don and Moki project.
My experience working with Louis Vuitton was amazing, and I'd love to continue to work with them, or other comparable projects in fashion. I found that space to be creatively challenging and filled with creative, inspiring people. It's something that I would love to continue to do. So, I'm not exactly sure what’s next but there are plenty of ideas and concepts that I’m kicking around. I just want to keep moving ahead.
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