Estrella Sendra Fernandez talks documentary filmmaking

Estrella Sendra Fernandez, a multilingual passionate about Senegal, is a teacher, media researcher, journalist and documentary filmmaker. Currently directing the Cambridge African film festival, she was already awarded the National Charlemagne Youth Prized for Spain in 2012.

We are sitting in an Italian coffee shop in Notting Hill, near her part-time job as a Media teacher at David Game College, discussing her education and its relation to her passion: Senegal.

Her yellow dress with purple patterns is striking and quickly defines her personality, all the more as she says “I bought the fabric in Senegal, isn’t it nice?” in a laugh.

There, begins a session of picking the most impressive memories of her life, from Seville to London, including Dakar. A languages lover since her young age, she remembers her first steps of learning English, usually in private academies with native speakers. “I still remember my first one, a British lady called Michelle, with loads of turtles in her garden” she says, with a mischievous smile.

At the age of 15, Estrella started studying in a public school with a French-Spanish bilingual programme: “Learning French excited me”. Even more eager to learn that language, she also joined the Theatre club “where we played in French and travelled to perform in different places” as she recounts.

Also speaking Italian, “just for pleasure”, she says: “I then got the highest grade in the class and was offered a free three-week Advance Italian course in Cefalù (Sicily).”

In 2012, she did a thesis at the University of SOAS about “A critical analysis of the representations of Senegalese cultures in the context of the Festival of Folklore and Percussion in Louga (FESFOP)”. She explains her choice for her master by saying: “ I had a very inspiring course on African Film and Video, and decided to mix this area of specialisation to the area of Cultural Studies, which is very Western dominated.”

I want to overcome the stereotypical and hegemonic representations of Africa!

Additionally, she explains her choice of Senegal, one of the most relevant countries, culturally speaking, in Africa where the First World Festival of Negro Arts took place in 1966, time for decolonisation, and with the leading figure for ‘négritude’, Léopold Sedar Senghor. “I wanted to focus on the contemporary way of claiming ‘a Senegalese culture.’” Estrella says. She is currently continuing in exploring the subject for her PhD on cultural festivals in Senegal.

In 2012, Estrella went to Senegal for an internship in a local newspaper called Le Soleil. She was pleasantly surprised by her experience there, she says: “I thought I would be asked to cover particular events, but instead, I was invited to pitch and write about what I wanted; this allowed me to have a routine of a Senegalese journalist.”

Regarding her obvious admiration for Senegal, Estrella says: “I would not describe this passion as coincidental, but it has a long history.”

Initially studying Journalism and Film Studies in Spain, she started to grow an interest for Social and Educational communication, as well as for Investigative Journalism: “I started to notice that mainstream media leaves aside many interesting topics and that behind representations of different places in the world there were many political and economic interests: I decided to research on media representation.”

“I remember one very good professor I had said: ‘if you want to say something new, focus on Africa. It is a very unexplored area in academia.’” She then approached the African communities in Seville, the majority of them being Senegalese. This approach gave her the idea and opportunity to realise her very first documentary ‘Témoignages de l’autre côté’, with the help of her new Senegalese acquaintances.

That led to a whole new experience and engagement that Estrella turned into a passion: “When I went to Senegal, I had a very special feeling, a very good one. I then did not want to change focus. But it could have led me somewhere completely different.”

When talking about what motivated her to do this documentary, Estrella explains that she assisted to a conference on ‘Western media representation of African’: “I was obviously not happy at all with the conclusions and decided to make a documentary where the Senegalese people, and other Africans who had migrated to the city, would tell their stories from their own perspectives, without an external narrator.”

Once the documentary was finished, the Spanish multilingual was concerned about ethics so she decided to do a private screening only for the protagonists, which led to a lively debate that apparently lasted way longer than the documentary itself. Her enthusiast accomplishment was awarded the National Charlemagne Youth Prized in 2012 for Spain.

Regarding her role as a journalist during her documentary process, Estrella brings her own perspective of the profession while mentioning she could not speak Wolof at that time: “I had some ethical issues with the idea of incorporating a ‘mediator’. For me, the personal contact you establish with the person you are interviewing is crucial.”

“I am now learning Wolof for my PhD research and it is getting there!” says the multilingual speaker cheerfully.

Now talking about the title of her documentary ‘Témoignages de l’autre côté’, she explains her choice of a French title. First, French is the official language in Senegal, and second: “The French title allowed a ‘double meaning’ I really wanted to imply – ‘de l’autre côté’ refer to the other side, what they call, ‘El Dorado’, Europe, and also ‘de l’autre côté’ means ‘on the other hand’, that means, the perspective that is not usually in the mainstream media.”

When approaching the subject of her future, Estrella hesitates although gets excited and makes a list: a desire to make more documentaries on matters she cares about, developing her academic career as a researcher, use her audiovisuals “not just for festivals, but also for educational purposes”.

Estrella adds, full of enthusiasm: “I want to overcome the stereotypical and hegemonic representations of Africa!”

Then, she says with sparkling eyes: “At some point, I would like to set up a cultural-research centre with an exchange of Senegalese cultural events and films, in particular, and Spanish ones, especially from Andalusia, the region that I am from.”

She talks about her inspiration in order to make documentaries: while she says she gets inspired by observing and interacting with people and spaces, she adds with her critical eye: “However, we need to research so much in order to know how to observe.”

She finally highlights how much many things can be inspiring, “even the tiniest details” she says. Nevertheless, according to her, “The challenge is to turn that momentum or ‘tiny’ life-experience into a project.”

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