Director Edem Wornoo is crafting nocturnal visions for British rap and beyond
Edem Wornoo is a British filmmaker and screenwriter living and working in London.
Last year, Wornoo was one of five unsigned British directors to win a place on Three Minutes – Crack Magazine’s incubator scheme funding five music videos by rising talents. The scheme is produced in association with our production company Ground Work and made possible by Burberry, Shure and BFI NETWORK. The project has also received funding from the England European Regional Development Fund as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020.
As a kid, Wornoo would make comic books. He now creates work that paints “street level fantasy”, weaving extraordinary, spectacular elements into everyday narratives. Closely tuned into UK rap and hip-hop as well as artists like James Blake and Sampha, Wornoo has a striking gaze driven by both dreams and humanity.
In the past 12 months, Wornoo’s profile has risen considerably after a project with his friend and longtime creative collaborator, Dave. Wornoo directed the blockbuster video for Money Talks, Dave’s collaboration with Fredo. The film unfolds like a Hollywood saga, complete with blazing fires and warehouse-height piles of cash. For his Three Minutes video, Wornoo maintained that cinematic gaze and expanded even further.
Enter Wretch 32, the iconic Tottenham rapper who, across almost two decades on the scene, has cemented a status as British rap’s most insightful and imaginative storyteller. From legendary radio freestyles to searing political commentary, his reputation is built on a knack for pairing slick wordplay with poignant messaging. In 2021, his place in the pantheon of the genre is secure.
To launch his surprise project little BIG Man – a nine track meditation on “incarceration, violence and poverty” – Wretch worked with Wornoo on an epic 11-minute short film weaving tracks from the project into a narrative about the cycle of reoffending, inner turmoil and home.
Shot on location in London, the film explores themes of work, community and performance with scale and sensitivity. Watch the film in full via the player above (headphones and big screens recommended) and get to know the country’s fastest-rising music video director.
What was the collaboration process with Wretch 32 like?
It almost wrote itself through the project he’s worked on. Through listening to what he’d recorded I knew what he was trying to do. It’s really funny because I remember one morning lying in bed thinking ‘Yo, I wish I could do a music video that was a play.’ And then I got this brief through and thought this is serendipitous!
In terms of the story, Wretch gave me a lot of room to do what I wanted to do which was really special because a lot of artists aren’t like that. Wretch is in a place in his career where he can let people do what they need to do.
What was Wretch’s input like at the start?
There were some key things which he really wanted to hammer home. The ending is quite important – the idea that the boy would go and do something really bad. I hadn’t turned the dial up that much. I ended it in a more ambiguous place but Wretch wanted him to go and do the worst thing possible.
And on a personal level, what was your initial response to the music?
It was proper cool – a different kind of Wretch. It’s Wretch in a pocket of music which is very relevant and current. My favourite things to listen to are albums which tell a story. Wretch is a cold storyteller so that’s his bag but he reinvented himself in order to tell a new story.
A lot of moments and sequences are repeated throughout the video. Can you talk about that as a theme?
The theme is theatre and the parallel of theatre with reoffending. Looking from the outside in, people see reoffending a certain way. If we look at theatre – you go, watch a show which people perform, the curtain drops. Then they perform it again the following night. Reoffending can feel very similar to that – you do something wrong, go to prison, come out and do the same thing again. That’s where the cycle comes from. I was really keen on paralleling those two things, making sure that everything felt very theatrical so it told you something metaphorically. The phone calls are a metaphor for exactly that – he’s imagining himself back outside with his friends in the ends and he sees a curtain fall. His day starts again, he’s in prison again. But because his day starts again, he has another opportunity to do things differently.
How else did that theme of theatre play out?
Everything from the set being 360º to us using spotlights to light different characters, even the way the conversations use very cinematic language, characters facing outwards like they are talking to an audience, the estate itself looking like an amphitheatre.
I love the scene where he’s talking to his dad on the balcony. His dad comes from a generation where he’s working long hours for low pay. For our main character, and our generation’s values and aspirations, the dad’s way of making a living isn’t attractive.
That was inspired by my parents. That’s what I watched growing up – hearing my mum come home and talk to me about the way people spoke to her at work. Because of her accent, for example, they will view her a certain way. She’s really good at her job but won’t be paid as much as someone who presents in a different way. Immigrant parents are looked down upon in these professional spaces, there’s no other way to put it. That’s another thing that could turn young people away from work. You see how your parents are perceived and think, ‘There’s another way I can get the same amount of money and still maintain respect.’
Was it a challenge getting all of these complex themes and ideas into 11 minutes?
Yes. 100%. The script was a lot longer to begin with but my prerogative was always to get it as short as possible. Even in post-production, I wanted to chop it down as much as I could. Our attention span is the length of a TikTok! As much as possible, I want to make things digestible. It’s tough as there are complex themes so you need time to explore it. But the reality is people aren’t trying to watch videos for that long. And by people I mean me as well!
It’s a bit similar to Wretch as an artist in some ways. At first his bars will go over your head but you find meaning after a few listens. This film is a bit like that.
There’s a film by Francis Ford Coppola called One from the Heart. It got absolutely, universally panned when it came out. Known as an absolute flop. I remember watching it and thinking, ‘This is one of the greatest films that I’ve ever watched.’ But I think it was a bit too headsy for the time. It’s cool to make things like that: time capsules that might not be appreciated now but might be later on.
Let’s talk about locations. How did you find the set?
If you say “locations” around the producers now they might just pass out. Finding the location was not easy. Especially with actual estates, there are a lot of vulnerable people. So during the pandemic you don’t want to be exposing those people to large crews even if everyone is Covid tested which we were. There was a point where it got so tough that we thought about doing it in an actual theatre as it would have been so much easier. But the magic of it is bringing the theatre to an estate. That was the core concept.
It was really important that we could shoot in 360º at the location and the set. Shout out to David Hamilton, the GOAT production designer. Shooting from above was really important too, the “God’s Eye View.” You’re able to look down on the characters like a deity and decide whether to judge them, exhibit sympathy or laugh at them. It’s a really cool perspective.
In the culture it’s become quite commonplace to see “fresh home” videos where people meet their friends on release day with bottles. How important was it for you to offer a different take?
It’s the idea of seeing what’s on the surface then taking a deeper look. There’s a moment in the car where they are filming and he’s just looking out the window. You just sit with him for a second too long and see the joy fade. Those between-the-hype moments are where most of our lives happen.
What challenges did you run into while shooting?
Weather! It sounds dumb but if you want to shoot outside, account for the rain. It could rain. It’s a real thing, rain can happen!
Apart from rain, what was the vibe like on set?
The vibe was good! The rain wasn’t the only thing that went wrong but everyone was on good vibes and put in way more than they needed to. Everyone went the extra yard. I’ll tell you for free that we very much didn’t finish on time but everyone was putting in so much work. I am very grateful for the cast and crew.
© Saoud Khalaf
Can you speak about the relationship between reality and dreams in your work?
What I always want to do is have that perfect bridge of street-level fantasy. It has a lot to do with the way I see the world; I look at myths from back in the day and always think there are new myths happening right now. I think a lot of what we see on screen around Afro-Caribbean communities in London is very much realism, it’s gritty. And there’s a place for that. I want to bring a perspective that fantasises those experiences – it’s the dreams of everybody who lives in these environments. It’s not always so gritty, sometimes it’s a bit of a daydream.
With this project, I often told the team not to worry too much about reality – let’s pull away that reality and make it into a bit of a dream.
If you had to pick, what aspect of the video are you most proud of?
I’ll say two things. Conceptually, I am so proud of how brave the film is. It commits to a lot of visual things which you wouldn’t conventionally see in our genre. Whether it’s the running time, taking a two minutes out for a narrative conversation in a music video, having a whole section of the song shot from above, bringing a set into a world that looks too artsy for an estate. Everyone was really brave in everything they did. Including Wretch – he led it by being so brave with the music.
The second thing is the crane work! There’s a moment where it goes from the boy on the balcony, goes down then rises up to reveal Wretch on the phone. Wretch is just having a mad conversation on the phone for two minutes. It’s so captivating, he’s one of the best performers I’ve ever worked with. This is one of my favourite shots I’ve ever created.
How did working with Three Minutes and Ground Work help with this project?
The culture of Ground Work as a production company is hard-working and getting the job done in a way that never feels exploitative. And I’ve worked with a lot of production companies. There was a lot going on during this video and it’s always really nice working with people as passionate as you – you feed off that energy. They are just good people, I can’t stress it enough. Everybody just wanted to make something cool and different, supporting me with the wildest of ideas.
I was able to lean on them for their expertise too. I had a call with [Three Minutes panelist and award-winning director] Oscar Hudson beforehand. He said certain things which I’ll take forward into everything I do. He’s another person that’s very brave and very bold so it filled me with confidence to do the same.
To finish, how do you want people to take this video in?
I think I want people to take it as a conversation rather than a definitive answer.