Ben and Ara Film Review - Love is Blind

Official Film Poster

 

The Pan African Film Festival, held once a year at the Rave Cinemas in Baldwin Hills, continues to be one of the most popular and respected Film Festivals in Los Angeles and internationally. Filmmakers come from all around the world for the privilege to share their stories on the big screen.  This year the festival took place from February 4th - 15th, 2016. The sole intention of this prestigious film festival is to portray the African American community and African Diaspora in a positive light. Continuing to educate others about the African American and multi-ethnic cultures is a strong aspect of the festival and continues to be a growing trend in the film markets of today. 

‘Ben & Ara’ was one of the films that made the cut and met the standards of high-quality Hollywood films. Producer and writer Joseph Baird plays the lead as Ben. Constance Ejuma, also a producer on the project, plays the lead as Ara. ‘Ben & Ara’ screened on Valentine’s Day which was appropriate for a story of two people from vastly different worlds that cross cultural and religious lines to experience the universal language of love. The theater was packed with patrons and couples in anticipation of seeing a love story appropriate for the holiday. 

Photos Still of Ben and Ara

The film was shot in the small town of Hinesville, Georgia, a community that extended much support and love to the cast and crew. Ara, a scholar with mind-bending intelligence and exquisite beauty paints a portrait of Muslim women we don’t often see in films: as individuals who are leaders in their community; moving beyond the traditional narrative perpetuated by mainstream media.  Constance Ejuma, a rising star in the Hollywood community, graces the big screen to portray this powerful character with much insight and research of the Muslim culture. The character was beautifully pulled off with a believable, heartfelt performance with many unexpected twists and layers. Ara’s strong willed character challenges the system of Muslim culture when she pursues a taboo love with an agnostic man; a man who is in an open relationship with another woman. Forbidden by her mother and community, Ara finds herself in deeply in love with Ben in spite of his shortcomings. 

Ben played by Joseph Baird, another rising star, pulls off a performance as a guy in over his head with his open-minded standards of a polyamorous lifestyle and atheist views. Though a highly-intelligent scholar pursuing his PhD candidacy in the school of Philosophy, he contradicts himself by making illogical decisions resulting in dire consequences. Finding himself at a loss, he reflects on his lifestyle and future. Emotionally reserved and unavailable Ben, refusing to settle with one woman finds serenity and a side of himself he has never seen with Ara, which inspires him to change his ways and views on love. 

One of the scenes that stood out in cinematography and climatic intensity takes place in Ara’s bedroom as she packs and parts ways with her Muslim community and very traditional mother, played by Akuyoe Graham. As her mother forbids her from leaving and asserts that she is making a mistake with her life, self-willed Ara continues to stand her ground in a fight for her personal freedom. Finding herself pregnant with little money, she finds the strength to leave and pursue a life of uncertainty with her newfound love. 

The film ends with an unexpected twist which is subject to the audience’s interpretation; a brilliant device by Joseph Baird as the writer. I was lucky enough to interview both Constance and Joseph to get more insight on the film, as well as learning about them and their journey. 

 

Constance Ejuma as Ara

Constance Ejuma

What is your cultural and ethnic background? 

I was born in Cameroon and I moved to US at age 10. I grew up in Maryland and my family still lives there. I became involved in acting as a teenager and had my first acting class at the Summer Acting Institute for Teens in Washington, DC. I saved money for the tuition from an after-school job. I went to college at the University of Toronto and studied Theater. My mother kept encouraging me to get another degree in something a bit more practical so I pursued my in Masters in Communications at Leicester University in the UK. I then came back to the states and decided to move to LA and I’ve been here for almost 10 years. 

 

Tell us about your career currently. 

I did a Shakespeare in the Park gig with Joe one summer and we toured all over California with a theater company. I’ve guest starred on shows like Monk, Southland and Eagleaheart and had a recurring role in Proof on TNT. Coming up I will be on Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders as a guest star. I’ve been in a couple of commercials as well.  

 

How did your research this role?

I interviewed friends who were practicing Muslims and also found that YouTube was a great resource especially when it came to learning the prayers. 

Can you elaborate on the culture and customs of the Muslim culture for men, as well as women?

Women rarely marry outside of Islam. Some families are more conservative. Others are more liberal. Every religion is influenced by culture. 

 

What was the most different aspect of playing this role?

The biggest concern was portraying the Muslim culture truthfully. I went to a film festival in India last year and was encouraged by a woman in the audience who said that she could relate to Ara as she had the same experiences as a Muslim 

 Any Controversy?

No. The theme of conflicting cultures is something that a lot of people can relate to. At a screening here at PAFF some people in the audience found it difficult to believe that Ara, as smart as she was, would pick a guy like Ben. Sometimes even intelligent people make bad decisions and love tends to complicate things. People fall in love and become blind to other people’s faults. 

Most actors relate to their roles they take in one way or another, how do you feel Ara relates to you? 

Her intelligence. I feel like the fact that you see a really smart woman of African descent on the big screen in a powerful position is rare. People in that demographic are sadly under-represented. 

What are your personal views on love and dating?

It's complicated! There are tools that are here now to make dating easier like dating sites. Is that bringing us closer together or making us more disconnected? I’d prefer to meet someone in the “real world.” 

 

What is your next project?

I would love to produce more. I have story ideas in development. I’ve been working on a documentary for the past few years. 

 

What are your views about filmmaking in today’s market?

I think the business is more accessible because of things like YouTube and the iPhone. There are ways to get a story out there without the traditional studio system. So much is being created outside the studio system. As a result, people have to be really business savvy. You cannot just be an artist. You can’t do just one thing. You must wear many hats. It’s competitive. 

 

What marketing strategies will you take?

We are halfway through the festival circuit and are targeting niche and indie festivals. We’ve submitted to a bunch of places and it’s tough to stand out when you’re competing against 4,000 films while the festival can only program 150.  We are looking for distribution on networks, VOD, Netflix and similar platforms.

 

Did Ara ever tell Ben she was pregnant? 

We left that for the audience to figure out. She takes the decision out of his hands. She did not give him the option to make a choice. What would he have done had he known? Maybe he would have stayed with her. 

 

Joseph Baird as Ben

Joseph Baird

How did your research this script and how long did it take to write?

It took time. Touching the keyboard to completing a 1st draft was 6 months. The shooting draft was another 6 months. Had I lived a Hemingway lifestyle I could have cranked it out sooner. It’s very step by step. The idea of having an African American Muslim and an agnostic, white man who did not have his stuff together was the idea.  The subject of Ben’s dissertation is the philosophical idea of Calvinism which was a hot-topic in America when I was writing the screenplay. Calvinism is the idea that God predestines people for heaven or hell and everything in between. I thought it would be interesting to weave a story about fate while the lead character is pondering those ideas. One of my favorite scenes was the Cameroonian water ritual. I read about it and Constance was able to collaborate with her contacts in Cameroon to film a dramatic recreation of one.

 

What is your personal opinion of Ben as a character and his lifestyle?

I think Ben caught a lot of flack because he is in a polyamorous relationship and having unprotected sex with both partners. But he is the most honest character in the film. You get what you see. Some of the flack is unmerited as he is honest with his choices and respects others. It’s funny, people ask me if I am like Ben. I actually grew up Pentecostal and I identified more with Ara. 

What was your budget and how did you go about fundraising?

We did fundraising via Kickstarter and also mine and Constance’s families were very generous. I am also grateful for the strangers that helped. When you have some money other people will come as well. Hinesville, the town where we shot the film, was incredibly generous. We’re so grateful that Ron Leventhal came on as an executive producer. He provided housing and locations. Other people also came on board to donate hotel rooms to the cast and crew.

 

How did you research the Muslim culture?

My close friend Ben Youcef  (Munich, The Algerian) helped us out a lot.

 

How do you feel about the Muslim traditions for women of today?

Well, it so far from what affects me on a daily basis. I think everyone should be able to choose their own values. It’s really none of my business. I do not want to take others’ spirituality away from them and judge. It is something that needs to be respected. I am not for forcing Westernism onto people. My condition is not the only way of thinking. 

 

Tell us about you?

I got into acting in Oklahoma where I was doing theater. As a child I was inspired by watching Lucy and the Three Stooges. My parents put me in acting classes after school. I was cast in the musical “Oklahoma” as a little kid and I was the darkest white guy so they gave me the Persian role, Ali Hackem. Growing up, acting was always on the back of my mind to pursue professionally. I was a big fan of bad ass heroes like Christopher Reeves and Harrison Ford. When I got more serious about it as I grew older I admired actors as Judy Dench, Juliette Binoche. 

 

What other projects have you been a part of?

 

Recently, I was in King Cobra with James Franco. I did some roles on Criminal Minds and Scorpion. I also got to play a sleazy reporter in the young and the restless. 

 

What is your next venture?

Pilot season is keeping me busy. I have quite a few auditions this year so I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I’m also writing another screenplay. 

 

What are your opinions about filmmaking today?

I feel like it is the best of times and the worst of times. It is so expensive. All your funds are accounted for, before you’ve even spend a dime!  But at the same time it is incredible now that some people use iPhones to make cool films and others can spend a million and it end up not looking that great. It is a weird dynamic of accessibility and inaccessibility. 

Photo Still of Ben and Ara

Synopsis: Ben Johnson is a struggling PhD candidate in the school of philosophy. It is his seventh year and this is the semester that he must finish his dissertation or all his work will be for nothing. He tries to jolt himself into action but soon tires of the activity. He takes a break and visits a local art gallery opening where he runs into a fellow PhD candidate. Her name is Ara. She is everything he is not: a successful, focused student about to get her doctorate, and a devout Muslim (he’s fervently agnostic). She has sought some refuge that night in the art gallery as well. By happenstance (or fate) Ben catches her eye. They recognize each other instantly as they’re in the same department. From this first meeting, the winds of fate set in and what follows is an unlikely romance between two people from different worlds who grapple with differences in their core beliefs and lifestyle choices. They discover that when two cultures touch each other, the consequences can be magical and tragic.

The film explores the possibilities and the limits of inter-religious, inter-racial, and intercultural relationships in our society. They both fall deeply in love with each other, but is love enough? And even if it is, will the price be worth it?

Ben and Ara is an unforgettable film where the phrase "Love is Blind" seems to be true.

 

Websites:

www.benandara.com

http://www.constanceejuma.com/

www.josephbaird.org 

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