It is a warm, sunny morning in Paris when Ebeneza Blanche calls me. He is having a slow Friday, watching the bustling of locals from his window with no desire to be busy himself. The urban hustle in France’s capital city is a far cry from the dry, hot, threatening sprawl of a Ghanaian boarding school, which is the setting for Blanche’s debut short film Mathlete.
The star of the film is Blanche’s first cousin, Emmanuel, who plays a character of the same name. The reckless violence meted out to young students by sadistic teachers is challenging for most viewers, but Blanche says he toned the violence down for the film in respect to the fashion brand—Amsterdam-based The New Originals—partnering with him on Mathlete.
Born in Amsterdam, White grew up between the Netherlands, the UK and Ghana, and the many moves in his childhood benefited him as a filmmaker and creative adult: seeing a diversity of cultures and landscapes fed his curiosity and honed his ability to observe with an outsider’s viewpoint.
“I was telling stories, I was always filming things while I was studying business,” he recalls. It was a college assignment that required students to make an animated film that triggered a deep passion in Blanche for storytelling through motion. “It was the joy of making stuff, you know? I found my voice, eventually, through experimenting with what works and what doesn’t and how it’s received.”
Mathlete is Blanche’s first longer-form feature, made after honing his photography and film muscles through commercial work for Gucci and Nike, and emotive, unapologetically political music videos for Little Simz and Obongjayar (Point and Kill), Skepta (Dimension), and Joy Crook (featuring footage from Grenfell Tower). Flawlessly dancing between fashion, advertising, film and music, he has proven that he can be both versatile and determined about his aesthetic and approach. That signature perspective led to 2021’s Point and Kill, set in Nigeria, being chosen to screen at Tribeca Film Festival in 2022—the first time a music video had been on the schedule.
“Elizabeth at Smuggler, the production company, reached out to me,” Blanche tells me. “She’d been watching my work for a while and we’d been discussing potentially working together. The first project that came of that was Dimension featuring Skepta, JAE5 and Rema. I’m quite elaborate in development, and I’m intense in what I’m trying to achieve with visuals.”
Working with Skepta was a dream though tough, he says, but the challenges he had to overcome paid off. Dimension was impactful in Ghana and incorporated all the elements that Blanche found empowering and needed to be highlighted. “Little Simz saw that and she wanted me to do Point and Kill, which went really well, too.”
Elizabeth at Smuggler was also elemental in securing fashion film projects, and Blanche appreciates that she gets his message, his end goal and the desire to show Black stories and Black voices in an authentic, positive light.
“With Gucci in particular, they wanted to show a Black athlete, so how could I do something unexpected that hadn’t been done before?” he says. “I’m very happy with how these films have come up. They show an unexpected portrayal of Black people, a positive portrayal that defies stereotypes. I want to show people in a different light.”
That central message, and the light both metaphorically and literally sun-dappled of his signature aesthetic, ripples through 20 Ghana.
When Blanche returned to Ghana in late 2018, it had been a decade since he’d last been there. The changes that had taken place during his absence inspired him to create 20 Ghana, which depicts love, wealth and an exploration of culture clash with equal doses of nostalgia and empathy for a land and people who existed in his imagination for as long as they existed in his real life.
This is the inevitability of being a member of the diaspora: he loves and romanticizes his country, which is so much easier from a distance, while also being clear-eyed about its flaws. The Ghana of Blanche’s films blazes through the sepia-tinted screen with heart, energy and the youthful naivete of young Ghanaian men as they try to make sense of adult obligations and societal expectations.
Mathlete was a continuation of these themes but eked out on a shoestring budget.
“The budget was very tight, even smaller than a music video but it was something I really wanted to do,” he tells me. “I used this project as an experiment in how to tell a longer-form story but it drew on my skills forged in music videos to know what works and doesn’t work. Continuity and sequencing matter so much more in film.”
The star of Mathlete is Blanche’s first cousin, and when he raves about him, it is with genuine glee. In fact, Blanche is currently working on a script for which Emmanuel is almost a decade too old, but the director laughingly admits that is not going to stop him from casting his cousin again.
“I’m so fond of him, and his energy is so great on and off camera, he’s a fun person to be around,” Blanche adds. “He’s bound to become a star. He gets what I’m trying to do and he always delivers. I try to keep it within the family, to elevate my family.”
The violence portrayed in Mathlete was not nearly as intense as the reality, Blanche says. In boarding schools in Ghana, he explains, violence is permissible, and he wanted to show the world what it’s like because it’s never been depicted before. Still, he didn’t want to make it too gory and violent because it was also, surprisingly, a fashion film. Blanche had been approached by Amsterdam clothing brand The New Originals to collaborate on a film, owing to it launching a pop-up store in Ghana.
“They said ‘Let’s make something’, and Mathlete evolved from that,” says Blanche. “So far, we’ve screened in Amsterdam four times, London twice, and also in Berlin, Paris, and Ghana. The turnout in Ghana was amazing. A lot of people came and they were really involved. The reception was so different compared to Europe because they’d lived the boarding school experience, so there was a nostalgic appeal, a strong relation to the film.”
I can hear Blanche puttering around his Paris home, embracing the respite from the hectic Fashion Week buzz and his own back-to-back schedule of commercial projects, which will debut later this year (he can’t say more on these). As is the wont of a workaholic creative, he is not merely bathing in the sun and living la vie de rêve.
“I’m actually in the writing process for another film,” he concedes. “As a filmmaker, I prefer to write my own stories and scripts and to develop them into films. I’ve written it and I’m on the third draft—just finalizing it.”
This next film is about “boarding school, again!” he reveals, but it’s “more detailed, and the character has more depth. It’s a longer film, this time.”
But the world will have to wait for another installment in the intense life of a Ghana boarding school. Blanche is preoccupied with less gory matters at present.
“Right now, I’m living a soft life. I’m taking a break and recharging. I’ve got some film work coming out later this year, commercial works, fashion work combined with storytelling…”
He trails off, looking out onto the sunny Parisian day—or so I imagine—and I leave him to his well-deserved downtime.