How Sheila Nortley is Bringing Social Change Through the Film Industry
Sheila Nortley is a British writer and producer who is responsible for creating several internationally award-winning pieces such as Zion, Victim, and the feature film David is Dying.
Sheila’s impressive history also includes launching Kingdom Drama School – one of the U.K.’s leading drama schools – at the age of 25, along with Najan Ward and Duane Palmer. The school is now headed by her longtime friend, Ashley Walters.
In 2013, Sheila shot her independent hit, Sable Fable, a visually stunning and emotionally moving film that portrays the complexities, psychological conflicts, and cultural dynamics of interracial relationships. The film went on to win “Best Film” at the American Black Film Festival (ABFF) Awards in Miami, Florida. In 2016, she won the “Woman of the Future” award in Arts & Culture for her work in film, and as a result, was invited to Buckingham Palace.
Later in 2017, she shot her film Limbo, which was selected for various international festivals, including the Cannes Pan-African Film Festival. Additionally, she was invited to meet the Prime Minister for her commitment to filmmaking as a means of social change. Following this, she has been invited to be an Associate Fellow at the Royal Commonwealth Society, where she hopes to use her position to create new initiatives within this network.
In addition to this, Sheila is also a mother, a Muslim revert, and a Black Muslim woman crushing it in the independent film industry.
We recently had the chance to speak to Sheila about her highly anticipated new film, The Strangers, and to talk about the struggles of being a minority in the film industry, motherhood, and her future endeavors.
So, how long have you been in the movie-making game?
(Laughs) I consider myself old-school. It’s been, I guess, officially ten years now since I entered my first film festival and won my first film award. Shortly after that I began producing films with Aml Ameen for his production company AmeenDream Entertainment and that was around 2010/2011, so it’s been a while.
I can see my own table right here, and there’s a seat with my name on it. Everyone’s welcome to eat at my table because my table is for the culture.
That was a very long time ago! Wow! Tell us what was it like working with Aml Ameen?
I think he’s a beautiful soul to be honest, and an incredibly talented actor, and at the time I can say that we honestly considered ourselves friends too. Looking back, the AmeenDream team holds some special memories for me. Life has a way of redirecting paths but when I look back I will always have love for that part of the journey.
Well, a little birdy tells me that the journey is not over because one of the shorts you produced at AmeenDream is now being shot in Hollywood – am I right?
(Laughs) Yes, that’s right. So that was a film we originally shot in 2011 as a series of shorts that Aml wrote and directed. They were based on some of his childhood experiences growing up with his friends. It was way before it’s time. We had the most fun on that shoot, the cast just got on so well and friendships were forged in that fire! We had Kedar Williams-Stirling as the lead, Aaron Fontaine, Mikel Ameen, Samson Kayode, and Jerome Holder. That was when I first met writer/actor Arinze Kene too – he made a cameo – and Trina from Curlture. This was just under 10 years ago and I think most of us are still in-touch or connected in some way, and I’ve been so excited to see what everyone’s doing now. This new feature-length version is being financed by the company behind Get Out – It’s called A Night Worth Living. So yes, he’s taken his film to the next level and I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with it.
Okay, so what was the next major point in your journey would you say?
I was approached by a colleague who was initially starting up a record label. He said that we worked well together and he wanted to go into business with me and had ideas of creating an umbrella company which would include film production and a drama school. I accepted his offer and we started Kingdom Entertainment Group. This was life-changing for me because it was my first time running my own business. I’d never run a drama school before but Kingdom Drama School was born in 2012. We started with a bang. I remember the first day of the first term, walking in to a drama school I owned and meeting over 250 of our students, and feeling so overwhelmed and grateful. I got to know as many of them as I could and made some great friends. It was a juggling act because I was still producing films.
What films were you working on at the time?
Well the launch of the school coincided with – well it wasn’t a film – it was a T.V. pilot we were working on with Ashley.
I know you always get asked about Ashley Walters. You’ve worked with him on several projects over the years: Zion, The Charlatans, and I believe he was in the prequel to your upcoming feature film, The Strangers. Tell us in very few words what it’s like working with him.
He’s a king. He is genuine person and his heart is royal & strong.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Not really, you know. I think most people who’ve worked with him will tell you the same. He’s actually running the drama school now – Kingdom – which is great as I couldn’t think of anyone better to run it and, as I said, life has a way of redirecting people. Him and his wife and family will always have my love and respect i’A.
You have been very well received by the independent film industry, do you think you would ever choose to go Hollywood?
You know, I’d like to think I’m open to whatever is written for me. I just want to share my stories on whichever platform I’m able to without compromising on my message or my creativity. Hollywood isn’t necessarily the goal right now. I don’t have the desire to try and make a space for myself in already existing constructs. If there’s a space for me, that’s cool but I’d like to think I’m a lady. I won’t force a seat at anyone’s table and then see that as validation. I can see my own table right here, and there’s a seat with my name on it. Everyone’s welcome to eat at my table because my table is for the culture.
There’s a saying that reality is scarier than fiction. I wanted to look at the direction in which things are heading if we don’t change. We’re living in a time of such huge technological advancement but yet, ironically, there seems to be a regression when it comes to social development and interaction. We’re so self-absorbed and self-centered, despite how socially-active we are online. And there’s so much hatred and ignorance. Community suffers and brotherhood suffers and, to put it simply, love suffers.
Love it! So on the subject of the culture, your new film, The Strangers, is set in a dystopian future?
There’s a saying that reality is scarier than fiction. I wanted to look at the direction in which things are heading if we don’t change. We’re living in a time of such huge technological advancement but yet, ironically, there seems to be a regression when it comes to social development and interaction. We’re so self-absorbed and self-centered, despite how socially-active we are online. And there’s so much hatred and ignorance. Community suffers and brotherhood suffers and, to put it simply, love suffers. So I wanted to comment on it. I wanted to create a world which would make us reflect.
You mentioned in an interview with BBC that you hoped this film would convey the idea of inclusivity, and co-existence. How does a film set in a grim, post-war era dystopia achieve that?
The film is essentially about a man’s struggle for truth, inclusivity, and co-existence in a world where the government is trying to restrain freedom of thought, limit spirituality and generate fear in order to maintain control. I didn’t want to spoon-feed the audience and paint a picture of picture-perfect society; I wanted to challenge them and say “This is how dark things can get; what are we going to do about it?”
I get that. That makes sense. It sounds like you’re saying your inspiration comes our current social-political climate in London, where you’re from, and I guess internationally too. How much of your inspiration comes from your ethnic/cultural background, race, and religion?
My inspiration comes from God. I fill in the details with people I’ve met, and conversations I’ve had, with fragrances I’ve smelt, and colors I’ve seen, and books I’ve read – and, of course, yeah all of my experiences will have some kind of context – but that spark that initially gets it all going and gets me feeling in the flow; that cannot be quantified or described, I know it’s from God and I’m just grateful for the ability to share these ideas through the medium of film.
Would you mind telling us a bit about your journey to Islam? When did you convert?
I became Muslim in the spring of 2008, through reading really, and a search for God, and for my purpose. I found both in this religion. I’m not the perfect Muslim at all, I have to say. And I’m humbled to be a part of this beautiful international community. I feel like I now have brothers and sisters all over the world.
As a black, Muslim woman, what were some of the hurdles you had to overcome in the film industry?
Honestly? The biggest hurdle will always be the ones within. Regarding this particular question, it’s a fear, really, of being presented as some kind ambassador for an entire community. I make films. And I find that people are always looking for a way to categorize people – which is cool, I get it. I don’t see myself as a role model or even an inspiration. This is because I am with myself all the time. And I know there’s nothing particularly remarkable about me except a gift that I was given – and that reflects more on the generosity of Allah than it does of me. So, I get nervous that people will criticize me if I do or say something which they feel contradicts, or falls short of the brand that they feel I should have. I don’t believe we should brand ourselves, I think that’s dangerous. We’re people, not commodities, we’re not products. You brand products, right? How can you brand a living breathing thing that’s trying to grow?
So besides being Muslim, you’ve mentioned that Africa is also very much a part of your identity. Was there ever a time you struggled with different parts of your heritage?
Not that I can remember, no. My parents were always comfortable in their Ghanaian heritage and I loved Ghana. I’d visit it a lot in my teenage years and I fell deeply in love with it, and have some of the most beautiful memories of my life there. My roots are there and I felt closer to who I was when I was there. I felt more connected. I knew that my roots were very deep and that I was part of a long line of women who I resembled and shared characteristics with.
What advice do you have for other women who are trying to break into the film industry?
I’d say your value as a writer isn’t in how you look or speak, but in what you have in your heart and mind, and your ability to communicate that with the world. What you have is ancient and beautiful. Don’t be afraid of yourself. Just work hard, and don’t procrastinate. Start now.
And you are a mother, so has motherhood affected your art in anyway? If so, how?
It’s changed me, overall. I’m a completely new thing in many ways and I’m sure that trickles down to my work one way or another. I have a one year old, and a nearly-four year old and the teach me new things everyday. Like how much you can actually do when totally sleep deprived! *laughs* I’m grateful for my family. My mum, I’m eternally indebted to as well. She’s my best friend and I love her with all my heart. She is an exemplary example of womanhood and motherhood to me, and I pray for her often.
I don’t believe we should brand ourselves, I think that’s dangerous. We’re people, not commodities, we’re not products. You brand products, right? How can you brand a living breathing thing that’s trying to grow?
What are you working on now?
Currently producing Squares V2 with Bernard Kordieh. Principal photography started last week. We hit it off when shooting The Strangers, so when he asked me to jump onboard Squares V2, I was honored. The concept resonated with me immediately. It’s another dystopian sci-fi, but it also relates to Egypt, and Aliens, and soul-searching. It’s out there, and it pushes the boundaries so I love it. It’s always a pleasure to work with him. We also have something in the pipeline for November/December, God willing. So it’s hectic at the moment, but it’s great.
These are all films you’ve written or are producing?
That’s right, yes.
Would you have any plans to get into other areas of the industry, like distribution?
Well, I’m bringing a movie over from the States this October. I guess this is exclusive information right now, but Dreamscape Films will be hosting the U.K. premiere of the Emmy-nominated movie, The Sultan & The Saint.
Lastly, if you could describe yourself in 5 words, what would they be?
Just another soul passing through.
Photography: MCMedia London @MCMlondon
Makeup: Khadija Rahman @krushed
Styling: Dulce by Safiya @DulcebySafiya