Space was the place

Young Wirral film maker Leo Nelki, whose film has been selected for this year’s Short Waves festival, talks about Afrofuturism and working in the Democratic Republic of Congo

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International film production brings a myriad of challenges. When Leo Nelki isn’t navigating restrictive bureaucracy, he is trying to remain on the right side of anybody with a gun.

Mulika, a film produced by the 25-year-old Liverpool-based creative, has been selected by the Short Waves festival for exhibition in Poland. This summer brings the 14th edition of the festival, which presents short films that respond to world events.

The film follows an “Afronaut” who, having fought battles over natural resources in a future space-scape, returns home to the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo to reconnect with his identity. The title of the film means “light” in Swahili and it grapples with themes of loss, disconnection and alienation.

The opening scene of Mulika, written and directed by Maisha Maene and starring Sefu Weber-Kaligala as the astronaut, is dominated by the jagged, sprawling, jet-black rock of Mount Nyiragongo. As the titular character Mulika disembarks his spaceship he stands clad in silver, in stark contrast to the dark volcanic terrain. The film follows him as he returns to his community and interacts with his people.

This is no easy journey. Maene and Nelki delicately handle the portrayal of the exploitation of natural resources in DR Congo, from which the Congolese people have scarcely benefited. Shared emotions and human experiences converge in this short to create a piece of art that resonates widely, its sci-fi aesthetic typical of Afrofuturism. Disconnection from family, friends and lovers is acutely painful and the path undertaken to rectify these feelings is embodied in the wandering Mulika.

The Short Waves festival is an exciting chance for these young filmmakers from Merseyside and the Congolese city Goma respectively to see their art celebrated. Nelki grew up in Birkenhead and remains connected to Wirral through collaboration with local artist Terry Duffy, who partly funded Mulika.

Above: Leo Nelki. Main image: a scene from Mulika.

Big Issue North: While you were producing the film, were there things that you wanted to get across creatively speaking or was yours more of a behind the scenes role?
Leo Nelki: There were definitely things that interested me. Maisha has a very coherent philosophy about Afrofuturism. This point he makes about minerals and their exploitation is very interesting. I also wanted it to be about the universal theme of feeling disconnected and attempting to get in touch with your people.

Did you work well together?
Yeah, we had a great time. We’re both at similar stages in our careers. Maisha has more experience than me but we’re the same age and we worked really well together. It was both of our first times working with a decent budget, which was quite exciting.

The two collaborated on the film itself and on an accompanying behind the scenes shoot, The Making of Mulika. Nelki’s interest in film making was sparked when he was an exchange student in Japan. He came across a Ugandan asylum seeker who had been there for 13 years.

“I had no idea about being a film maker really,” says Nelki. “I just asked him if I could film him for a day to tell his story, and then I ended up living with him for six months and starting a feature length documentary film, called Sunday in Japan. I realised this is what I love to do.”

His influences include documentary makers Josh Oppenheimer – director of the Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing – and the fearless Kazuo Hara. Nelki suspects he might not return to producing fiction.

“My role as a producer on Mulika came about because I wanted to work with Maisha and to get that film made. But I don’t see myself as a producer in the future.

“With documentary, you just start pointing your camera. There is already something to work with and you have to transform it into something. I enjoy that process.”

How did the filming process compare in the DRC to in Japan?
“Filming in Japan is very strict. If you can’t film in that place, then you really cannot film in that place. And in Congo any rule that exists can be broken with money. It’s a very anarchistic system. There were different risks in both places. In Japan I was very afraid of getting on the wrong side of the immigration system, and in the DRC, I was scared of getting on the wrong side of someone with a gun.”

What would be your dream project?
“It would be really cool to film with [non-binary free software programmer] Audrey Tang, who is now the digital minister of Taiwan. I would love to make a film with or about her. But right now, that’s totally impossible because I’m not in Taiwan, I don’t speak Chinese and I don’t know anything about the system!”

Is there any advice that you would give to people starting out in the industry?
“Yeah, don’t wait for anyone to give you permission or tell you to make something or give you money. Just start making it with whatever you have. Even if you just have a phone, make something.” 

Short Waves is on 14-19 June (

UPDATE 18.7.22: the film wasn’t aired at Short Waves because it has been selected for a premiere at Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland in August

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