To the Fleadh and beyond for Aisha Bolaji and Why the Sun & Moon Live in the Sky

In a Collective or as an individual, Aisha Bolaji is raising the bar for Irish film. From aiding festivals like DIFF or Catalyst in Limerick, to programming screenings with GALPAL Collective, to her own work behind the camera, she’s developed a powerful portfolio in recent years. This week at the 2024 Galway Film Fleadh, her debut short Why the Sun & Moon Live in the Sky is set to screen. This film, inspired by African folk tales about the origin of the world, will be screened at the Galway Film Fleadh on Friday, July 12th, at 9:30am.

Recognized as a Bingham Ray New Talent Award nominee and selected as a member of the prestigious Stowe Story Feature Development Labs by the Galway Film Fleadh, we’re only going to be seeing more of Bolaji in the years ahead, as she continues to develop stories seamlessly blending her Irish upbringing, Nigerian heritage, and a variety of artistic disciplines.

Why the Sun & Moon Live in the Sky features the promising young actor Daniel Nwambu and the rising bedroom pop star Anita Ihkaro (EFÉ). The film tells the poignant story of two teenagers, Diana and Sol, who long to escape the monotony of their small Irish town. Faced with the harsh realities of adulthood, they are determined to break free from the constraints imposed by their African parents and society. Lacking a community that allows them to truly express themselves, Diana and Sol look to the sky, seeing it as a symbol of the limitless possibilities denied by their environment. Convinced that the sky will bring them freedom, they construct a spaceship and embark on a journey with their most treasured possessions.

Ahead of the Fleadh, Aisha spoke with us about her excitement for the festival, the inside story of Why the Sun & Moon Live in the Sky, and the development of her career in film.

When we spoke last year, you were very clear that for African Irish people in film, though it’s important to have stories about Direct Provision, racism and other challenges, it can’t be just that, there has to be room for other stories as well. This film is so vibrant and positive, but for Diana and Sol we see the double constraint of the small Irish town and of the African family and African society, and the expectations there. Was that something that you were very actively looking to include in the story or does it naturally come out on the page?

It is something that ended up naturally coming out onto the page, because I have that mindset. For me stories will always come first, and stories that I’m drawn to naturally will come first. This is an adaptation of a folk tale, but it was always important to me that they had that dual identity, because I never wanted it misconstrued that these characters could be anybody. They’re very specific characters living a very specific experience with a specific identity, being both Black and Irish and Nigerian and Irish. Those both feed into the cultural context of their experiences as well, even though that’s an undercurrent to everything else going on.

I think that’s very important to note, because I think sometimes when people see stories about Black characters that don’t focus in on racism specifically, they can jump to be like, oh, that’s so cool that it’s not a “Black story”. It is, just not in the way you’d expect it to be presented.

Does having the folk story to refer to and bounce ideas off help with that? Because the film has that element, it has the sci-fi element, but it’s a very grounded, very current story also.

Having that folk tale was like having a north star for me. It informed things like the colour palette, everything being mostly blue being like the sea element of the original story. Diana and Sol’s personalities are meant to be personifications of the Sun and Moon, Sol being bright and a bubblier and more cheerful character, whereas Diana has a bit more angst to her. The folk tale was a guide in terms of always knowing what to ground in the story and the style. The storybook nature of it also opened my mind up to how I could play around with visuals, like with using miniatures.

From the story itself, there was that idea of being all-consumed by something, like the ocean being too all-consuming for the sun and moon, that being why they’re pushed up into the sky. It was definitely very helpful. But obviously it’s a very loose adaptation!

You’ve been very busy over the last couple of years, what has the development process for this been like?

I wrote it during my third year of college. I was actually shortlisted for Virgin Media Discovers at the time, it got through the development round, but it didn’t get taken into production, which was actually a blessing in disguise, because I think I was ready as a writer, but I wasn’t ready as a director. After that, I put it to the side, made my grad film and then came back to the script and brought it to South Dublin County Council and applied for the film award through that at the end of last year. I was finished college at that point, I felt ready to take this on as a director, I felt a lot more prepared, more confident in my style and my vision for this project. So yeah, it’s been it’s been a while! It took a couple of years which is crazy.

I was very lucky that I went through a funded development stage where I got paid to write the script essentially through the Virgin Media scheme. I was also coupled up with a script editor in Bláithnid de Róiste. She was just unreal, and I really enjoyed that process because I don’t take criticism of my work too much to heart, I always just want the best story and I feel like if someone is pulling that out of me that’s the best-case scenario. Then getting the film award from South Dublin meant putting together a pitch deck, asking people to come on board. But I’d had my production designer on board since I started writing it in college, this story has been with me for so long, it’s sort of weird to see that it’s only coming out to people now, but it’s nice that it’s finally seeing the light of day.

How do you feel going forward as a director having gone through that process and that professional development?

Every day is a school day, I’m always learning as much as I can. The thing about this film especially that I really love, is that anytime I watch it, I’m not sick of it. I was my own target audience; I think that’s something important for me: to make the films I want to see, the type of films I would go and watch.

It’s definitely not a perfect film, but when my friends have watched it and felt emotionally drawn towards it, I think nailing that for me was so important. Because I know my technical skills and everything else will improve with time but understanding the core of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, I’m thinking once I nail that, everything else is easy peasy – I hope!

You mentioned the production design earlier, I love the look of this film, the models, the sounds and how that all sets the tone of the story. Could you talk about working with Ciara Kelly the production designer and others about building those elements of the project?

With Ciara it’s always such a seamless process. We both really enjoy a lot of the same things when it comes to film; things not looking quite real, getting to be playful with things. She did production design on one of my first music videos way back when for Baby Bleu, Honey.

That had a similar aesthetic of things looking very intentionally fake. Very handcrafted and handmade, but beautiful, kitschy with their own quirks. Working with Ciara, we’d be sending each other mood boards and we’d have the same images on them without even realizing. Her sketches and everything she just always nailed it, we were always on the same page.

We also talked a lot with our cinematographer Naoise Kettle as well, he’d be very involved in those conversations too, because we wanted to make sure everything was coherent, everyone had the same vision, which I really loved.

While I was pitching and other people started reading the script, you do get people wondering, oh how are you going do that, how will you get a big spaceship here? With the use of miniatures, Ciara is someone who immediately understands oh I know what you mean, you’re gonna get a tiny little miniature, it’s gonna look like a toy, she just understood it from the get-go which I really appreciate. Especially when you’re a very stylistic director, it’s so great to have someone who understands your style completely and that is Ciara. It was a blessing to have her on board, especially since she had been sitting with this project for as long as I have since we were both in college, then waiting to revisit it when we were ready.

For Anita playing Diane, it was interesting because it was very seamless watching her acting, having that background in music as EFÉ. Do you feel that DIY approach from her bedroom pop background stood to her in terms of acting on a project like this?

100%. We had co-directed a music video together, we were always very aligned stylistically and creatively aligned with what we wanted to achieve. When I approached her with this project she hadn’t done any major acting role before, but I had seen her music videos, and I was casting based on vibes, and energy, I felt she’d be so perfect for this. Diane may come across a times in the script as a bit of an unlikable character, but I wanted to make sure that people still really liked her, and I knew Anita is so hard to not like. She seemed perfect to carry that and take that on board. Our approach to creativity is very similar, there’s a resourcefulness there and something very playful as well in our approach to our work and how art should make you feel. That made it easy to explain what I was going for.

Would you say she’s got the acting bug now?

Even in her music, you can see bits of it. You can see her playing these characters, entering these silly little scenarios. Whatever she ends up doing, she’ll be flying but yeah, I hope more people see her and approach her with bigger opportunities.

The same goes for Daniel as well. He was enigmatic in his performance, charming, adorable and precious. Watching him on screen I was in awe of him. That’s such a nice feeling, it wasn’t difficult in the edit, picking up performances or anything. Those two had a believable connection, everyone was getting on great in front of and behind the camera, that’s a beautiful experience to have as a director.

The expressions and the intimacy feel similar to music videos. Did you find as you were working on this, that your experience in music videos was coming out?

A lot of my reference points were music videos definitely. If you look at a younger generation of directors. I think that will come across more and more even, people like Trey Edward Schultz, that whole MTV generation of pulling a lot from music videos.

With music videos you don’t have to be as bogged down with realism. So things like dynamic movement, unmotivated lighting I wanted to pull those elements that I really love from music videos in. Especially for the Debs sequence at the end, I felt this should feel like a montage in a music video, we should get that feeling that’s so youthful and fresh, and so there’s a great energy to it. With the music composed by Rueben Harvey, he understood the weird, nostalgic, clubby feel that I was going for.

There was definitely a lot of inspiration from music videos, but obviously other films and a whole bunch of things also. I think it’s always great to never limit yourself to what can inspire you.

The short will be having its world premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh. How excited are you to get it out there, and what are you most anticipating in terms of attending the festival itself?

I think because I’m also a shorts programmer myself, I’m so excited to see all the other shorts. I love short films as their own medium and their own thing, a lot of people might see them just as a stepping stone onto your feature and it can be both. But I also think they’re their own great little artform. It’s so great seeing people’s creativity just blossom in a short, getting little snippets into different worlds. And it’s also easier on my attention span!

I also can’t wait to properly see things that friends have sent screener links for or just bits that they’ve been working on, see those on the big screen. There’s something so refreshing about watching a film on a big screen. I’ll also be seeing my own film on a cinema screen for the first time, which is nerve wracking, but I’m also so very excited for that.

You’ve been one of the driving forces for the GALPAL Collective, who have a presence in film, but are multi-disciplinary, it’s various kinds of artists. How beneficial has it been for you personally, to be part of that kind of creative community?

I think even the first thing in the Special Thanks in the credits is the GALPAL Collective, because I couldn’t have done it without my gal pals! They were really my rock, even when it comes down to marketing and all those extra bits, it’s them who are helping me, they came on as PAs, extras. They would read script drafts and give notes, they would be watching back cuts, because like those girlies aren’t just my best friends, they’re my target audience.

They’ve been so supportive. It’s been so nice having them to lean on throughout this whole process, but also our network gives extra exposure to the film that I’m very grateful for, because I don’t think it would have garnered as much attention without the Collective. Anytime any of us do well, it’s such a reflection on the Collective as a whole.

With GALPAL now, we’re launching a Writer’s Club with National Talent Academy, and that’s another chance for me to connect with more film makers and hopefully develop new talents as well. It’s exciting times for everybody, and it’s one big bubble of creativity that I’m so grateful to be a part of.

Something like Dogme 95, the French New Wave, with these groupings of artists you respect I wonder is there also that element of, I want to impress these people, I want to make stuff that they’re excited to see. Does that help when you’re part of that kind of community?

With this film, I had to ask myself, who’s my target audience?  What made it a lot easier for me was streamlining to the type of people that I really love and respect, my best friends or my mom. I’d see if they’d sit down and if they’d enjoy it then that’s a win, even if it’s not like a wider audience’s sort of thing. You might want a film that’s for everyone and that can naturally come, but if it’s an artist or a person that you respect that enjoys the work or at least sees the value in it, even if they don’t like it, that’s very important.

That specificness leads to something universal. Why the Sun & Moon Live in the Sky has such a distinct character, how would you sum that up, what the film says to you?

For me it’s always been like a storybook tale in the way it’s presented, your last fleeting moments of childhood, trying to hold on to it for as long as you can. That avoidance of adulthood doesn’t leave you. Writing the film when I was 21 and then looking back at it when I turned 23, that feeling had gotten even more intense. It’s actually quite scary, entering adulthood and having to reckon with things I can’t do anymore or things that I need to like face on my own. I always hear people no matter what age they are say things like, I still feel like I’m 17. It’s just trying to grasp onto that.

My dad said recently that never goes away and he’s in his mid 60s, it was very like “ah fuck really? I hoped it would go away”.  But I suppose it’s kind of nice in a way. We’re all in it together, I suppose.

There’s never going to be a moment where you’re going to say, “Wow, I feel so grown.” When there is a moment like that it usually gets slapped right back in your face.

That’s sort of what I take away from the film, along with that idea that everyone is going through it together. That’s what I really enjoy about Diana and Sol’s friendship or relationship or whatever you want to call it, my friends are battling me out on what they are and I was like, I’m not answering! Whatever y’all want, I’m not saying anything! But either way you don’t have to go through that alone. There is a reflection of being scared to grow up, but also knowing, thank God, I have my best friends. It’s that universal feeling of yeah, we’re all terrified that we’re going to grow up and grow old, but we’ll be okay.

See more info HERE on the Writer’s Club with GALPAL Collective – Application deadline July 19th, 12pm.

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