Director John Wate travels to Africa for award-winning documentary
Making dreams become reality – that is what John Wate believes being a director is truly about. Originally from Berlin, Germany, this internationally sought-after director has made films and television programs that have enchanted audiences across the globe. He works magic behind the camera and creates magic on the screen. He is a true artist, and a beautiful storyteller.
Throughout his career, Wate has worked on countless acclaimed projects. Known for his honest and compelling work in documentaries, he carefully balances provoking interviews and extensive research with realistic dramatizations of events to create a historically accurate and entertaining piece, which is exemplified with his work on films like Ninja Shadow Warriors and Samurai Headhunters, as well as the TV series Epic Warrior Women.
Premiering on the renowned Smithsonian Network in the United States and various other stations around the world, Epic Warrior Women showcases the vast talent and commitment Wate possesses. It is a documentary series that presents history's most iconic female fighters. Each extraordinary tale of blood, sacrifice and endurance centers on the life of one young woman warrior caught up in the bloody struggles of her time.
Wate previously worked on the first two films in the series, “Amazons” and “Gladiatrix”, and was therefore asked to take on the third piece, “Africa’s Amazons”. The Agooji of West Africa were the terrifying all-female fighting force of the kingdom of Dahomey in the 19th century. Up to 6,000 strong, the Agooji battled to protect one of the continent's last independent kingdoms, fighting as elite regiments against colonial male armies in the Franco-Dahomean Wars. This film showcases the fascinating history of these women warriors through the story of Sukeoun, a young girl who is taken as a tribute to the king, rises to become an Agooji officer, and valiantly fights to defend her kingdom.
“The story was appealing. The premise for the film sounded like pure fiction, but it was all based on historical facts. Compared to the Scythian, who founded the legend of the Amazons but were in fact a mixed army of male and female warriors, the Agooji of the feared Kingdom of Dahomey were the real deal: an elite fighting force made entirely of female warriors,” said Wate.
Everything was shot on historic locations, such as the King’s Palace of Dahomey or the quarters for the soldiers. They even shot on some of the ancient battle grounds where the Agooji fought against the French. It was an amazing learning experience for Wate, who knew very little about Africa’s Amazons before filming.
“When I stumbled over a bunch of holes in the ground, I learned that the Agooji had dug them up to hide and come out of the ground for surprise attacks - something I was eager to put into the film,” he said.
Shooting in Africa presented many challenges, from bugs, weather, illnesses (half of the foreign crew fell sick) to limited resources, but Wate managed to overcome every obstacle. He was very flexible and inventive to make sure everything worked out, with the natural lighting, the patience of the people and getting the action he needed. He knew what they could do with the story and how they could capture action even with amateur actors.
“One of the more memorable experiences was the shoot at a priestess’ home. Benin is the motherland of what is called Voodoo in the Caribbeans (or Vodun in Benin) and to cover the importance of priestesses or healers/sorcerers, we went to an actual priestess to shoot a Vodun ceremony with slaughtered chicken and everything. I was only allowed to attend with a camera if was wearing a white dress. It was quite funny and needless to say I looked ridiculous, but at least I could witness what was going on. I was surrounded by middle aged and older ladies dancing and chanting, and when some of them fell into trance they had the habit of taking their clothes off and dance. When I had asked if I could place a light from one room the spirit living inside had to be asked permission - and when I got the ok I saw this head, made of mud and shells placed on the floor and it looked as if it was coming out from the ground, covered in streams of chicken blood and other liquids. It was quite surreal,” he described.
The film premiered in April 2018 on the Smithsonian Network and was later nominated for the Diversity TV Excellence Awards, a great feat for Wate after working in some challenging conditions while shooting. Most importantly for the director, however, was shining a light on lesser known aspects of history.
“It’s one of those hardly known, but fascinating stories from world history. Personally, I also learned a lot about slavery – the kingdom of Dahomey was the main supplier for slaves shipped to the New World. They raided their neighbors and installed a culture of fear and psychological warfare to increase its reach and power. The murals at the palace give chilling examples of how they tortured and killed their enemies - and the throne of the king was built, literally, on the skulls of his enemies. Those images were the perfect backdrop for the French to drum up support among politicians for their expedition force against the ‘wild and barbaric tribes’ - when in fact it was all about getting access to palm oil. The Agooji gave them a tough time but ultimately the French weapons were superior, and the kingdom was defeated,” he concluded.
Africa is still on Wate’s mind as he is currently involved in preparing for two other feature films as director that will, at least in part, be set in Africa.
“It’s not that I am obsessed with Africa, but sometimes when you are on a journey you find something interesting; you start digging and when you find gold it’s worth pursuing and do something with it,” he said.
Wate won’t say what the new project is about, but he promises that again it will be based on true stories and have lots of female action involved.
By Annabelle Lee
Photo of John Wate by Roberto Vivancos
Sept. 12th, 2019