Mezan Ayoka moves from medicine to film
Explaining her name, Mezan Ayoka told me "it's Ethiopian and it means 'one who is well balanced and who brings joy'."
She exhibited those two qualities as we spoke recently about her decade-long career in film-making. She now knows what she wants to do, but it was not so while she was a student at the University of the West Indies (UWI).
"I was supposed to be a doctor, but I used to spend all my time in chemistry lab writing poetry. Needless to say, I barely made it through first year. It dawned on me that perhaps I was in the wrong area. I spend a lot of time going to the PSCCA (Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts)," she said.
When I commented on the many vivid visual images in one of her poems I had just heard, Mezan said, "I think that my writing and film-making spring from the same place. If I have a feeling or smell something, I also see it. I am a visual person."
She began reading about screenwriting and saw links with poetry. Without finishing her first degree programme at UWI, in 2005 she got a job as a production assistant (PA) with The Lab, a producer of commercials and a television show for a bank.
"I wrote a lot of treatments for music videos," said Ayoka.
Working as a PA made her realise that she had found her calling. Ayoka then left for a year-long programme at the Los Angeles Film School in California. Ayoka was delighted to find that it was hands-on. It was also intimidating.
"The first week we were making films. I had to make a 90-second film on the theme 'lost and found'," she said.
Choosing the subject of insomnia, she directed the short black-and-white film in one take. "I got some good feedback from that," Ayoka said proudly, for up to then she had worked on sets, but had not been at the helm of any project.
Ayoka's next task was to make a 15-minute film, Nine Night, which she returned to Jamaica to shoot. She got a grant from CHASE Fund to make the film about the rejection of some of the island's religious norms.
"I wrote it at school and teachers helped to develop it," Ayoka said. "The story is about a woman who, after her husband dies, has a hard time going back to God. It's through drumming that she finds her spirit again. I shot it in five days."
Back in Jamaica in 2009, she tried "a lot of things [and] wrote a lot of proposals for a television show on dancehall, but I couldn't get funding". Ayoka found getting funding "tricky", though grants are available. "You just have to look," she said, giving advice to young film-makers.
Currently, she is writing a feature film, a coming-of-age full-length movie about the challenges an 18 year-old young woman faces as she grows into adulthood.
"I want something that is Jamaican, but universal at the same time," Ayoka said.
She hopes to finish the script by the end of the year and then begin hunting for a producer. Co-production with a local and foreign producer would be even better than a single producer, she said.
Over the years, Ayoka has made contacts to whom she plans to send the script.
"There are a few competitions I'll probably enter," Ayoka added.
I asked her when she thought we might see the finished movie. "Realistically, it will take at least a year and a half to get funding. I want a certain actress I met in LA for one of the roles, and she's a busy person. It could be a three-year process. Optimistically, it will be ready in 2020," Ayoka said.
Two other short films that Ayoka has made are Grow Jamaica Grow and Ding. The former was shot for a competition held a few years ago which called for the making of a film in 24 hours. It came second. Ding, an eight-minute film shot in one night in one location, is about a couple meeting in an elevator.
When she is not making films, Ayoka works mainly in television and advertising.