Zenith is a film about an adopted Black Mennonite who leaves the rural white community she was raised in and travels to an inner-city neighborhood in Philadelphia to find her biological mother. It was loosely inspired by an article based on a true story. Although the film is not biographical, Writer-Director Ellie Foumbi drew upon her own experience as an immigrant in the United States in order to craft the main character's journey.
“I was five years old when I moved from Cameroon to the States and my parents enrolled me in a French school and I was the only Black girl in my class. The search for identity is something I gravitate towards as a filmmaker because it’s something I struggled with myself…I think there’s a universal message [in Zenith] about having the courage to embrace who you are and not having to fit in a specific box.”
– Ellie Foumbi, in an interview for the AT&T Untold Stories finalists
So far, the story has garnered lots of national attention since Ellie first wrote the short film in 2015. The feature-length version of the film was selected to be one of 5 finalists in the AT&T Untold Stories Pitch competition at Tribeca in 2019. It was also an Austin Screenplay Competition Semifinalist and a part of the Film Independent Screenwriting Lab and the Humanitas-Hedgebrook Screenwriting Lab (among many other accolades). It is currently in development and seeking financing.
The development process behind Zenith started five years ago, when Ellie wrote and produced the short film that started it all. She started writing the short screenplay for "Zenith" in the fall of 2015, a few months before leaving for France [for a directing workshop]. With influences from filmmakers like Terrence Malick, Jane Campion, and Claire Denis, the film is ultimately about finding our place in the world and examining the connection between race and identity.
Ellie’s first feature film, Our Father, the Devil, will be presented at the 77th Venice International Film Festival this Fall. So we can trust her guidance when it comes to getting powerful stories off the ground.
Indeed, Ellie's pensive, tense, and introspective "Zenith" teaches us a few important lessons that every indie filmmaker should take to heart:
1. Be Open to Every Opportunity
Ellie Foumbi: I was selected to do an exchange at La Fémis and spent the spring and summer of 2016 in Paris working on another short film. This was a critical time for me, as I already knew "Zenith" would be my thesis film. I used this workshop to test out ideas I had for "Zenith."
2. Economical Filmmaking Is About More Than Just A Tight Budget
The directing workshop [I did in France was] led by Jean-Paul Civeyrac, a prolific writer/director, who taught me the power of economical filmmaking—economical in the style of shooting. He always asked us to consider why we were cutting away to a new shot, to weigh the significance of this new shot in relation to what we needed to communicate in the scene.
3. Don’t Wait to Create. Hit the Ground Running.
I was pleasantly surprised by how the restrictions placed on us during the workshop opened up my imagination. I returned to New York inspired and went right into the pre-production for "Zenith." It was an intense 5-day shoot in upstate New York. We had the perfect location, a picturesque but isolated farm that also formed a barrier to our main character’s connection to the rest of the world. The cast was carefully assembled and we were off to the races.