Adamma Ebo. Image via Voyage LA/Ejime Productions
BY NADIA NEOPHYTOU
Nigerian-American filmmakers Adamma and Adnanne Ebo are premiering their debut feature film Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul, starring Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown at the Sundance Film Festival.
Growing up in Atlanta’s Nigerian community, the church played a big part in the lives of Adamma and Adanne Ebo. So it’s no surprise the identical twin sisters, who founded Ejime Productions (twins in Igbo) together, centered their first feature film around the subject of religion.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul is making its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, with Adamma as writer-director and Adanne as producer, alongside the likes of Regina Hall and Sterling K Brown, who star in the film, and Daniel Kaluuya. The film is a satire on for-profit religion, exploring a couple, played by Hall and Brown, who run a Southern Baptist megachurch trying to manage the aftermath of a scandal.
Both sisters were selected as Sundance fellows for the Episodic Lab in 2019, and Adamma was also chosen for the Sundance Screenwriting Intensive with a feature film. Based on a short film that Adamma wrote as part of her thesis while at UCLA, Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul has been picking up rave reviews and is one of the hottest titles at this year’s fest.
They both spoke to OkayAfrica about making it and how their Nigerian background influences the work they make.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul tackles religion of the Southern Baptist kind, but are there any similarities with how religion plays out in Nigerian culture that you wanted it to speak to as well?
Adanne: Yeah, it's not that different. It feels extremely similar. It's very performative. It's very big. And it also has some of the not-so-great parts where people want you to abide by certain rules and not question anything as you go along the way. A lot of unchecked power.
Was that the reason why you wanted to make this film – to check that power, so to speak?
Adamma: Yeah, to encourage people to do that and not to be afraid to question things, for sure.
You made the short film, Honk For Jesus, as your thesis project, Adamma. What made you realize it would be good as a full-length feature?
I actually wrote an early draft of the feature before I even made the short and so the feature existed in a different capacity. It was a lot different before I made this short, and I decided that a short would be great as a proof of concept to this crazy movie that's doing a lot of weird stylistic things and tackling a subject matter in a way that, and with a tone that, people really aren't expecting or aren't used to it; with characters people aren't super familiar with, largely. So the feature came, and then the short, and then many, many more drafts of the feature!
As you mention, the film straddles a few genres, it’s a mockumentary, and there are elements of drama and comedy – how did you work on getting the tone right?
Adamma: It felt pretty natural. It's the type of media that I like – things that run the total gambit and that take risks, totally, and finding the humor in or around things that aren't ordinarily funny. I just made sure that whenever we were doing something comedic, to make sure that there were instances of darkness, and whenever we were approaching something darker, making sure that there was a bookend of comedy that doesn't necessarily relate to the subject, but just lightens things just a little bit, and make sure that it flows in and out.
As twins who work together, what’s your relationship like? Do you get on the same wavelength pretty easily? Do you think of things together?
Adanne: Yeah, it feels as similar as our regular relationship. Because we were born a partnership and we don't have any other siblings. So this is really the only sibling dynamic that we know. And it just feels more natural to do things together than not. So working together feels seamless. It almost doesn't feel like I'm working with another person.
Adamma: It just feels like an extension.
Getting Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall for one's first feature film is quite a feat. What did they bring to the production?
Adamma: Immense skill and and really ready to do the work and to be scrappy on this like super low-budget independent film. They bought this feeling of nurturing, that they were really, really invested in me, as a Black woman, writing and directing my first feature, doing it in the middle of a pandemic. They were just incredibly nurturing and really there, on a familial level almost, like, they felt like family and really, really wanted me to succeed and did everything they could to help me succeed.
Adanne: And they're also producers on the film. Yeah, were they, you know, they watched cuts and gave notes on various cuts. They were really integral in helping to shape what became what y'all saw on screen.
Your production company is called Ejime -- how much does your Nigerian heritage inform who you are while you’re working and living in Atlanta and LA?
Adanne: I think it influences how and what we create…
Adamma: And how we say things – our voice. How we write and present ourselves and present our work as filmmakers. Nigerians are special people.
Adanne: They’re saucy.
Adamma: They’re saucy! The way that they communicate is…
Adanne: It’s sharp. It’s biting.
Adamma: Yes! And that's probably a big part of why we're attracted to the type of film and filmmaking that we are, is because of that. Conversations with our father and our grandfather and our grandmother, his siblings, our whole extended family, if you're an outsider looking in, it can seem like a heated argument, but we're kind of just talking or having fun.
Adanne: Like a sport.
Adamma: But we like that biting nature, heavy critique – Nigerians will critique you, they’re not shy with that. and I thought they were very critical. They're not shy with that. Probably a lot of why we're attracted to that type of voice is because of our Nigerian background.
You have a lot coming up in terms of film and TV projects, setting yourselves up as a dynamic duo in Hollywood – what are you most excited about?
Adamma: We have our next feature film lined up and so we're gonna put that one together. We wrote that one together, and so we're definitely excited to put that out into the world. Then we have a couple of television shows in development that we are also excited to put out into the world. So we're working. We like being creative. This is fun!