Dambe is a West African combat sport where the aim is to force your opponent into complete submission
12th November 2019 by Will Stewart
This film opens with the quote, “Dambe can be tough”, and I would say that’s no joke! Dambe is a West African martial art, traditional to the Hausa people and popular in Nigeria, where fighters wrap one arm in rope and attempt to knock their opponent out cold. There is no protective gear, it’s dangerous, and Dambe fights often result in serious injuries or broken bones. The film’s protagonist, Taye, takes it very seriously, as one might expect.
Photographer Sebastian Barros had been out to Lagos for 3 consecutive years documenting Dambe, before eventually enlisting the help of veteran film maker Alex Simpson to make the short documentary you see here. I was lucky enough to catch up with Alex to ask her some questions about the film.
MadeGood – Please give me some background on yourselves as film makers.
Alex – Sebastian’s work as a sports and documentary photographer took him to Lagos for three successive years to create photo stories with an exciting and raw edge. Every year he’d come back with these wonderful images and after the third trip he approached me to chat about collaborating on a stills and motion project centred around the art of Dambe fighting.
Alex – Since graduating with a degree in Tv and Film Production back in 2006 I initially shot and edited work for an advertising led video production company, which was followed by a 2 year stint in-house at a fashion forward creative agency spear headed by photographer Rankin. The experience gained from these two very different working environments was invaluable and six years ago I went freelance as a full time Director. In total, I’ve been shooting, directing and editing for nearly 14 years, which meant I could use my experience to see our project successfully through from pre-prod all the way to post – without too many hitches!
When we decided to proceed with the project, Seb hadn’t yet ventured into the world of motion so we decided that co-directing the piece would give us the best of both worlds. My experience with the full production process, and his experience with the people and environment of Lagos.
MadeGood – Do you always work together, and what is your working relationship like?
Alex – Actually Dambe was our first experience working together, but we’ve been friends for many years before it came about so I think we both knew it would be a good thing to embark on together. Seb and I share a mantra of ‘do what needs to be done to get the work made’ and I think that definitely got put into action during filming!
MadeGood – Is this the usual sort of film that you make?
Alex – Being Seb’s first film we can’t compare it to previous motion projects but it definitely resonates with his previous Lagos based photo stories, and documentary stills work. For me I’d say no, when it was made it stood out in my portfolio as being pretty different to the rest of my work – and I love that! In fact that’s the reason I was so keen to make it in the first place. I work on a lot of fashion and lifestyle shoots and was really keen to make something in the sports/doco arena to capture both existing and new client interest. Since completing Dambe I’ve focused my attention on three more sports based films which I’m also very proud of. It’s lovely to expand my offering as a Director in that way.
MadeGood – I see you also worked with DP’s, so I assume you yourselves don’t film? Please tell me a bit about the dynamic on a shoot.
Alex – Yes on Dambe we worked with two DP’s. They were based out in Lagos which made it a little tricky during pre-production but had access to good equipment, and being local was a great advantage when moving from location to location. Back in London I collaborate with DP’s for most shoots, there are so many talented people out there and it’s always great to work with those that know and love their craft.
MadeGood – How did you initially hear about Dambe, and what drew you to make a film about it?
Alex – Seb came across the sport whilst out in Lagos shooting his previous work and thought it would make a great project, both for stills and motion. We did some initial research and realised there wasn’t actually much online about it, just one editorial style article on the New Yorker website and a few dodgy You Tube videos. We were immediately excited to create something cinematic and stylised around the sport.
MadeGood – How did you find your protagonist?
Alex – I think we have the universe to thank for delivering Taye to us! We asked our location scout Timmy to head out to the small arena where the Dambe boxers gather every Sunday to see who might be interested in shooting with us. We didn’t know what to expect and whether anyone would be keen but luckily Timmy speaks several local dialects and was able to explain our concept to each fighter. One by one we received little videos from Timmy via Whats App and it sort of became an impromptu casting live from Nigeria! When we saw Taye we knew he was the one, not only is his look striking on camera, he was the current reigning Dambe champion with an interesting story to tell.
MadeGood – What were the logistics of working in Lagos? Was it expensive getting the crew and kit out there, and was it difficult filming in Africa?
Alex – Working in Lagos was pretty testing at times, because the film was self funded the total film budget was less than £2,000 meaning we had to be clever about crew and kit hire costs. The local DP’s gave us a bit of a discount on the equipment and aside from that the main expenses were flights, accommodation and a few contributor fees. As we all know time is of the essence on shoots and we only had 2 days to capture everything so I’d say the main stressors were crew turning up (very) late at times and things not being done when we’d be assured that they would be…!
MadeGood – I assume you worked with a translator, was the language barrier much of a problem?
Alex – Yes Timmy our location scout also acted as the interviewer during Taye’s interview. We did initially start the interview in English as Taye spoke a little bit, but it was clear he was struggling to truly express himself this way. When we switched to Yoruba his stories and recollections really came alive, it was great to see him open up like he did.
Editing the interview back in London was definitely an unforeseen problem though. I hadn’t counted on not being able to understand his answers so we had to hunt down a uk based transcriber who was native in both Yoruba and English – not an easy feat!
MadeGood – What are you working on next?
Alex – I’ve literally just finished my third and final personal project of 2019 (a conceptual martial arts based short) so am currently putting the finishing touches onto that before having a think about what’s on the horizon for 2020. Saying that, I’ve already got a good idea of who I want to approach for it…….
Sebastian has recently signed to photographers agency Kintzing and from what I hear they’re already keeping him busy into the winter months with some exciting upcoming projects.
MadeGood – Thanks for taking the time to speak to me Alex. Good luck for your projects in 2020, can’t wit to see your next martial arts based short!