MARRAKECH – It wasn’t that long ago that filmmakers Maba Ba and Mamadou Dia were touring Senegal with an inflatable screen so that locals could see Dia’s award-winning feature debut, “Nafi’s Father.”

Exploring fundamentalism through this story about a fight between an Imam, and his brother over their children’s marriage, the drama won best first feature in Locarno in 2019, and went on to become Senegal’s Oscar entry. 

Dia’s second feature “Demba” has brought the NYU Tisch School of the Arts’ graduates and production partners at the U.S.-Senegal production company, JoyeDidi, to Marrakech for this week’s Atlas Workshops industry and mentoring program, which wraps Nov. 17.

Showing their can-do attitude, “Demba,” which is part of the program’s projects in development section with the aim of raising the remaining Euro 900,000 ($927,000) needed to shoot the project in a month – will begin filming either way. “Yes, we are probably going to be spending all of our savings again,” quips Dia with a smile.

The duo have already secured Senegal government support and two independent financiers back home.

“We are here looking for partners for the long run,” adds Ba. “In which other industry does it work like this that you finance one project at a time?”

To that end, the company  is launching the J7 film fund to raise $3 million in a first financing round. The idea is to help fund a slew of their projects in the works, as well as those from third parties.

“We have been traveling, raising funds to create an eco system not just for us, but also other filmmakers to tell unapologetic, authentic stories,” said Ba.

Top of the list is “Keep Dancing,” the working title for a documentary they are completing on Germaine Acogny, described as the mother of contemporary African dance. Dia directs. 

The creator of the Germaine Acogny Technique, she is also the co-founder of the Ecole des Sables dance school in Senegal which is dedicated to teaching dancers of the African diaspora and international students contemporary and traditional African dance, as well as the Acogny technique. 

Filmed in 2020, the duo follow some final year students in the school’s three-year training program.

In the editing phase, “It is not a portrait of her. It’s talking about her legacy,” said Dia. Following some of the young African dancers in her final years. 

Another upcoming feature project, “Augustus” (a working title), is about the celebrated African-American early photographer Augustus Washington (1820/21-1875). Washington was the son of a former slave. He left the U.S. for a new life in Liberia. He would set up temporary studios in Senegal where he created a body of celebrated work. The budget is estimated between $5 million and $10 million. 

While the company has launched with two of Dia’s directing efforts, Ba is catching up.

He  is writing and due to direct his debut feature “Searching for Home,” about his own turbulent childhood in Senegal. After his mum yanked him out of bed in the night when he was five to take him to a new life without his dad, he found himself a few years later stealing and dangerously driving stolen cars. “I had a death wish,” he said. 

“Ultimately everyone is looking for love. It’s a personal study taken from my experience between the ages of 10 and 17 when I was addicted to adrenaline and would steal and race cars. I was looking for love. I didn’t know how to feel anything.”

He’s also writing a film for Netflix but is keeping the subject under wraps. 

He does know how to feel something today. He recalls the Senegal tour in a van with “Nafi’s Father” 

“I’m a man, and I’m an African man so I don’t cry,” he said. “But the kids in the villages were sitting on the walls to be able to watch the film and got so into it. It’s such a beautiful picture in my mind.”

As for their overall vision of the company, said Dia: “We try to make very good movies without spending crazy money. We don’t just make movies that we create. We just wrapped another documentary in July when we were for hire.  We are filmmakers and we love stories. We have a different model to Europe where you are a producer or director. We do it all and keep project costs tight.”

“Demba” IS based on personal experience, says Dia who lost his mother at 13. “The whole community came together to take care of us.”

Grieving or depression are still taboo subjects back home. The story follows a widow retiring from his civil service job and grieving the loss of his wife. “Even today there is no word for depression in our culture,” he said.

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