Ishmael Azeli: Kenyan Filmmaker On His Way To The Top

Every time I watch a movie or a TV commercial, i’m always intrigued by the amount of skill, effort and time that goes into producing such great works. I’m a movies person and I always appreciate good films.

I was lucky enough to have an interview with Ishmael Azeli, a Kenyan filmmaker who is inching closer to attaining the Hollywood dream. Ishmael’s path seems to have been cutout for him ever since he joined high school. His instincts nudged him to pursue his passion and it has seen him work with not only local filmmakers but those from the international arena as well.

Ishmael was also the co-Director of Photography together with Nathan Prior on the film ‘Poacher’. This short film by Davina Leonard, got an astounding 5 nominations at the Kalasha International Film and Television Awards and clinched the “Best Short Film Award” slot at the recently held awards gala.

He is incredibly experienced and he knows his stuff evident on how elaborate he is when explaining what he does. In this interview, he unpacks his A-Z into getting in the industry, lessons he has learned as well as tips for aspiring filmmakers.

On how he got into film:

I loved cameras from a tender age. I was the official high school student photographer and all the gigs, including visiting days, parents day and so on were mine to capture. After high school, I went on to study broadcast journalism, and my love for cameras grew the more, after which I decided to pursue filming as a unit.

What exactly, does a cinematographer/AC(Focus puller) do?

Many issues remain said over generations by word of mouth, some physically happen, but unless such issues are captured in writing and audiovisual, they are deemed to lose factual appeal and posterity. Technically speaking, my work entails a detailed understanding of appropriate aesthetics and themes, to portray as real a scenic ambiance as possible using the correct lighting setup and the correct gear to tell such stories. On the other hand, as a focus puller I ensure image sharpness as well as knowledge of cinematic and optical theory of the world’s best film cameras and their frequent updates.


Are you an aspiring filmmaker? This is what it entails:
Be knowledgeable and at par with emerging trends (gear-wise). Aspire to fully understand whichever tool of trade at your disposal, be a good listener because everyday is school day. Even after so many years, I still learn something new every day on set.

On how his first job in the industry shaped his future projects: 

I started off as a runner(the handy boy) at Quite Bright Films (QBF), which I always say has been my home of growth. Later in time, I got the opportunity to be a camera assist under the tough mentorship of Michael Chege, who arguably is one of the top focus pullers in the country. This story never ends without mentioning Dan Prior, the Director of QBF, who has given me endless opportunities over and over again, some of which I’ve compromised, but he still believed in me nevertheless and for that, I am forever grateful and he knows it! The rest is history.

On the difference between working on international projects vs. local productions:

To be honest I love working with local productions because I’m a fan of local content and always go online to watch out my own content during my chilled times. But again, international jobs tend to open up your mind and exponentially grows your social networks, and exposure to new techniques as a film maker. So when an opportunity arises I’m always grateful.

The biggest highlight in his career is….

Getting to meet and work with people that created films I used to watch as a kid. And the fact that they are still doing it many years later sure is a great source of motivation to push myself every single day.

On dealing with industry challenges: 

Being away from my family is one major challenge, but I try to make sure any moment spent together is unforgettable.

Valuable lessons that the film industry has taught Ishmael are: 

Patience and being a good listener even when you know you are right.

Would Ishmael consider starting his own film production company now?

I saw this one coming, LOL! On the contrary, I’m working on further establishing my career for now.

On his ultimate vision as a Kenyan filmmaker: 

To tell as many authentic and original stories of the world as possible. I’m not looking for any lesser award than a Hollywood one because I believe the only difference between ‘I can‘ and ‘I cannot‘ is taking that single step to trying something new. I never fear failing after trying because I know the next time I try things will definitely fall into place.

On the project currently keeping him active and fired up: 

I’m currently in Rwanda working as a AC with arguably one of the biggest French-Afghan director & write,r Atiq Rahimi and cinematographer Thiery Arbogast who is also one of the most prominent French cinematographer, with his films ranging from the likes of ‘The Fifth Element’(one of my all time favourite) and ’La Femme Nikita‘ among many. I would encourage everyone to go check them out. Don’t wanna spill the beans yet but watch out for a 2019 Hollywood blockbuster.



About Anthony Mbugua

Blogger, writer and a millennial trying to figure it all out. I also like sharing the success of other millennials. Welcome to my world.

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