In this rare film from Niger, and a female directed film at that, Rahmatou Keïta has crafted a fresh, honest look at a different side of Africa. In The Wedding Ring, you won’t find the Western stereotypes of starving children and violence, rather, a quiet look at Nigerien culture through the eyes of a young girl.
The Wedding Ring stars Magaajyia Silberfeld as Tiyaa, a young woman of aristocratic descent recently returned to her hometown of the Sultanate of Damagaran in Niger after completing her high education in Paris. There, she has fallen in love with a young man, also from an aristocratic family from the Emirate of Maïduguri, and plans to get married. There are no objections from her family, but as time goes on, she waits long and hard for his proposal to come, and we follow her life as she interacts with her peers, speaking to them of love, marriage, and relationships in Sahelian society.
The film plays out almost like a documentary, as we are introduced to various traditions and customs Tiyaa is exposed to as we follow her journey of love. In the film’s opening sequence, we meet an Nigerien shaman who promises to ensure Tiyaa’s engagement with a supernatural ritual, while Tiyaa plays a traditional game with local boys outside. In other scenes, we meet simple Nigeriens who refuse money for their goods (milk that was produced at a witching hour, for the ritual), as opposed to the more well to do families foregrounding the film. Tiyaa befriends the local ‘madwoman’ pining for her white husband to return while young mischievous boys make fun of her, and she retaliates with some well-aimed rocks.
The Wedding Ring then, is almost a 101 to Nigerien culture. The scenes are well shot, and often, we get to indulge in slow, lounge-worthy moments,such as seeing boatmen row across a body of water. These never feel forced or purely educational, and these scenes are naturalistic. One of the most interesting scenes involves Tiyaa waiting at a pond, peering in at the water fervently until she sees the faintest hint of a crescent moon appear in it, to which she heaves a sigh of relief, smiles and tumbles backwards. This is no lunacy, but a Nigerien tradition of finding out when the New Year is, and what results is a glorious, joyful celebration that’s full of colour and life.
If you’ve ever wanted to know more about Africa beyond humanitarian aid and starving children, The Wedding Ring is your answer to African life beyond that. Using a simple story of young love and with natural, believable performances all around, Keïta has crafted a lush, informative portrait of the Niger people aren’t aware of, and oh what a joyous, celebratory film it is too.
Magaajyia Silberfeld, star of The Wedding Ring is a young prodigy, trained in theatre at the Lee Strasberg institute and Playhouse West Repertory Theatre School in Los Angeles. At the tender age of 22, she already has multiple short film directorial credits to her name, as well as an upcoming short film project titled Vagabonds which she directed, and performed in alongside Danny Glover and Bambaata Marley. We managed to get a few words in with her on her career and thoughts on The Wedding Ring:
BCM: How much do you relate to the character of Tiyaa, seeing as you grew up in Paris, France?
Magaajyia: I definitely grew up with a similar culture. Firstly, as a Nigerien, I speak the language, and I totally relate to her. Still, not growing up in Niger there are some things I totally have trouble respecting, like how children have to be assisting their parents the whole time. Specifically, children always have to listen to the requests of someone older than you. It works really well in Niger, but for me I am not completely used to that. I do respect Nigerien culture though, and am very honoured and proud to hail from there.
BCM: I understand that you’re a director yourself. Do you prefer working behind or in front of the camera?
Magaajyia: People always ask me this, but the truth is I don’t have a preference because the two are so different. As an actress you have no control over anything except your performance, but as a director you have full control over everything. It’s super exciting and you can practically move people around like magnets and decide how you want to create something from beginning to end. But as an actor, you only have control via your performance and how this is going to affect the movie. It’s not direct control but it’s about what you create that is a form of control. I love both acting and directing, but at the same time, what acting can give you in a second and understand yourself better as a person, the same can’t be said for directing. Sometimes I’ll be in a scene with a partner and I’ll be delivering something so strong and truthful, but as a director you’re not raw and pure, and it’s hard to show what you are inside when most of the time you have to be in charge and direct your actors.
BCM: It’s interesting then that in your short film Vagabonds, you both direct and act!
Magaajyia: I don’t think I’d do that again! It’s really hard to direct both yourself and the people around you at the same time.
BCM: How can we see Vagabonds?
Magaajyia: We’re still in post production at the moment, but hopefully you’ll be able to see it soon at festivals.
BCM: What advice do you have for young actors/directors starting out?
Magaajyia: For young directors, I’d say to find a good team and one person you really trust and has more experience than you. Don’t be scared to work with people who are better than you, there’s a lot to learn from them and they’re the ones who can actually teach you something. Trust that you’ll grow alongside them. Speaking from my own experience with my four short films, even the latest one still shows that I have space to grow.
For young actors, I’d say find the method that works for you. You can’t just look at say Meryl Streep and see that she went to Yale, so you should go to Yale as well and become the next Meryl Streep. Streep would’ve been Streep no matter what. I lived in Los Angeles and there were so many people who had this mindset. But I went to Strasberg, and that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t for me. Then I went to the Playhouse West to study Mr Meisner’s method. So many people said that Meisner isn’t good, but I reply that no, everyone is different, and the Meisner method worked for me. Everyone uses methods in different ways. It’s a process, a journey and you have to find and decide what works for you.
BCM: Who are your biggest influences in terms of directors or actors?
Magaajyia: I don’t think I have enough culture to give a proper answer actually. For example I like Emma Stone and she’s one of my favourite actresses, but she herself was inspired by other great actors whose work I haven’t even watched! I always feel bad that I never watched the classic ones beforehand.
For directors, I love Alejandro González Iñárritu’s work, as well as Alfred Hitchcock and Jean-Luc Godard. There’s this one film from Godard called À bout de souffle (Breathless), and it’s just one guy running for the whole film, it’s amazing.
BCM: Do you plan to stay in the arthouse genre, or move into mainstream Hollywood/Nollywood at some point?
Magaajyia: I do plan to expand into cinema with a wider audience eventually, give it a few more years!
BCM: Has your education in Greek and Literature helped you in any way?
Magaajyia: Art is a journey and I think my education has contributed to who I am as a person. I also studied Philosophy, because I wanted to be cultured and keep doing something that’s separate from the film industry. I love everything about art, but I think it’s also important to strike a balance. We can’t always just say ‘I’m going to go do ART’, but we should also always have two feet planted firmly on the ground. I want to ensure that if my career doesn’t take off as an actress, I want to have that option to be able to let go. Now, I’m not someone who gives up easily, but I think it’s important to know when to stop. And this is precisely what Lee Strasberg taught me. He said that one of the most important things in acting is to learn how to stop
BCM: What do you hope people who catch The Wedding Ring will walk away with?
Magaajyia: I hope they’ll see a different image of Africa. Not just in Niger, but that we’re not just poor people craving food and water, and that some of us are rich in some ways, weather it’s wealth or in culture. and That we have many cultures as there are many languages as opposed to dialetcs and many countries as opposed to regions. Africans are not barbarians, and I hope people walk away thinking that Africa is a whole world just waiting to be discovered.
BCM: What was your favourite and hardest scenes to shoot?
Magaajyia: The hardest scene was the one where I had to climb onto a camel. It was fine the first time, but the second time I had to do it, I was scared to death for some reason and I started having a panic attack and just refused to get up on it. Eventually I got back onto it, but I just didn’t like the way the camel made me feel like I was always going to fall off.
As for my favourite scene to shoot, I liked the night scene where Tiyaa speaks to her best friend Naayee in the film about love and what it is like to make love for the first time. I absolutely loved the setting and atmosphere and everything about it felt right.