Anaïs Ngbanzo is a publisher and filmmaker based in Paris, France. I got the chance to muse with her about her creative expeditions, both with books and films, as mediums to further explore her interiority. In the following conversation, we were able to talk through the misgivings of once being in our twenties, how inspiration and clarity finds you, and the importance of letting things go.—Emmanuel Olunkwa
EMMANUEL OLUNKWA: Let’s start with your film, A Different Score, which is having its world premiere at Metrograph. As I was watching, a key take away for me was this bit of archival footage where Julius Eastman is talking about his practice, and contemporary music culture, and how what’s innovative today becomes tomorrow’s tradition. It was cool to see him name the essence of making and the necessity of experimentation. I love when he spoke about creating imaginary music as a form and exercise. It’s troubling that while he was alive there wasn’t much demand for his music, but he made it anyway because he needed it to exist so he could continue to survive. Can you speak to why his work resonated with you?
ANAÏS NGBANZO: I learned about Julius through Jonathan Hepfer, who is the artistic director of Monday Evening Concerts in Los Angeles. I googled him and took a screenshot of the book about him [Gay Guerrilla: Julius Eastman and His Music] while I was in LA, right before Covid-19. When the world shut down and I was here in my apartment in Paris, I remembered him; I searched from my French computer and virtually nothing showed up about him in France—only one link appeared, and it was a super academic interview. So I read the book without ever having listened to Julius’s music, and it really resonated with me—the fact that he was an African American making experimental work within a mostly white industry. I’m usually the only person of color in the room when I go to certain music shows.
So I decided to launch my publishing endeavor [Éditions 1989] with a translation of this book in French; in America, while he is still an underground figure, his music is played and studied in institutions. I thought this person deserved to be better known. I launched the publishing project, translated the book, and then I wanted to make an accessible film.
EO: What’s your background?
AN: I was born and raised in Paris. I didn’t study anything related to art but studied advertising and quickly ended up working in fashion.
EO: What did you learn from the process of translating the Eastman book from English to French?
AN: The book is super academic. The publishers were quite flexible, they allowed me to do another edit while I was translating, as I wanted the book to be more accessible. I didn’t include a few of the original chapters; there was a chapter by his ex-boyfriend, which felt unnecessary, for example. So I re-worked the chapters, and I invited Devonté Hynes to write the foreword.
Devonté Hynes in A Different Score (2023)
EO: You started the publishing press to release this book?
AN: Yes, I had never published a book before. When I decided I was going to translate the book, I didn’t know what would come of it. Eight months before the book was published, there was actually a Julius Eastman concert at the Bourse de Commerce in Paris. It wasn’t the best experience, and after the show I was talking to a friend when the curator, Cyrus Goberville, overheard us and asked if I was writing about Eastman. I told him that I had come because I was researching him. Cyrus asked if we could stay in touch and maybe do something in the future. When I was done with the book, I wrote to him telling him it was completed, and that Devonté Hynes had written the foreword, and asked if we could put on another concert to promote it. The curator was psyched, and invited us to do a two-evening concert. I thought it would be better to have people experience the music before just releasing the book on its own. Afterwards, I asked Dev if he was interested in making a film. He said, “Let’s do it.”
EO: I’m curious about this new book you’re publishing, Who Are You Dorothy Dean? Can you talk about her a bit?
AN: It’ll be bilingual this time. Who Are You Dorothy Dean? is the first book devoted to the late African American writer and actress. Dorothy Dean (1932-1987) entered the 1960s New York underground scene and quickly became one of its key, if overlooked, figures, starring in six of Andy Warhol’s films and inspiring the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe and Robert Creeley. This release features her unpublished poetry, writing, and selected correspondence with Edie Sedgwick, Rene Ricard, and Taylor Mead, among other friends and artists. Lyrical, humorous, political, and brutally honest, the book is a tribute to one of the only African American women figures of New York City’s bohemian heyday. It starts with a very personal essay that I wrote and how I relay to her.
EO: Going back to A Different Score, the pacing of the film is rather strange. It has the sensibility of a movie but presents itself as a documentary. It’s cool because you took the subject matter of the book and made it into a film, but it’s not necessarily a portrait about Eastman, it’s really a study in music-making.
I’ve known Dev for almost a decade and recently saw him perform a few pieces of Julius’s at the 92nd Street YMCA here in New York. Watching, it’s less a performance of music, it reads more like one of endurance and perseverance—those arrangements are not for the faint of heart! [Laughs]
Devonté Hynes in A Different Score (2023)
AN: Exactly! I appreciate how very kind Dev has been to me throughout this entire experience. I wanted the film to be about Eastman, but Dev is an accomplished composer in his own right, so I wanted it to also be a portrait of the process—I didn’t want Dev to be a secondary character. It was tough editing because we had only a limited amount of archival footage of Eastman, and I didn’t want the film to be longer just to qualify for it to be a feature; I thought that it was better to have a good film that is 35-minutes long than a bad one that is 45. It’s a tactic people usually use so they can submit work to festivals but I just wanted to honor the material that we had.
EO: What are you trying to communicate through film as a context?
AN: I feel like, for most people, there’s usually a central theme that they work with throughout their practice. I think my work is about friendship. I’ve always struggled with long-lasting friendships because they’ve been quite tricky to keep. Someone I might call my best friend today, I know there’s a chance that next year it might fall apart. [Laughs]
EO: I understand. I’ve struggled with friendship too—it’s hard to keep good company, or people who are willing to continue to grow with you, and accept you who you are, and where you’re at in life.
AN: The feature film that I’ve written and will direct next year revolves around friendship. I can’t keep a friend. I’ve lost friends because it was hard constantly keeping a dialogue about who I was becoming and what I was doing.
EO: How are you feeling now?
AN: It’s been tough because at times I’ve felt like certain people have held me back. I never thought I would have a publishing house, and be making films, though that’s what I was always focused on.
EO: Have you always been working on these film scripts? When did you decide to give yourself permission to be who you are?
AN: I grew up in Paris and felt that I’ve never fit in—I’ve always found myself very, very alone. When I was 16, I was really into the 1960s and rock ’n’ roll, and there were no Black figures I could really look to. The past years, I discovered Julius Eastman, who is so inspiring for me because he was fully himself, all of the time. No compromises. Reading the book about him really unlocked something. I was like, “No more being shy.” And I decided I was going to be more experimental with my work.
A Different Score (2023)
EO: What happened when you turned 30?
AN: I thought to myself: most of my twenties, I’ve lived my life as another girl. I remember having dumb conversations with people all the time about pop culture—that’s all people wanted to talk about. I would go home and just cry every night. This is not me. I’ve always been into experimental art, reading, writing. When I turned 30, I decided to just be myself, do my own thing. I launched the publishing house and started making my film. And I’ve noticed that once I started to do all of these things that I had always wanted to, I made totally new friends.
EO: You’re living a different life. [Laughs] I feel the same way, but it’s nice when people can meet you on your terms. Since I’ve started to make better choices, everything has drastically changed.
AN: Yes, the people I attract now are much more like me, and have similar interests. It’s given me a lot of strength. It might sound stupid but it was hard to stop living the life of someone else.
EO: What was the transition?
AN: I lived in New York for a year. I quit my job and had a bit of savings so I decided to try it out. With all of the arts there, I’d long been very inspired—everything was happening in New York—but it was really not my city. [Laughs]
EO: [Laughs] When was this? How old were you?
AN: It was 2019. I was at 29. I was there by myself, far from everyone. The American mentality is very different from the French. In America, you can do and be whoever you want. Like today, if you want to be a journalist, and tomorrow you want to be a chef or a musician, it’s okay. Go for it! People will embrace everything you do. People hate that in France. [Laughs] If you decide to be a writer, you’re expected to be one for the rest of your life. I relate more to American culture; I want to both write and make films. When I came back to Paris, I said, “Fuck it! I’m going to be me, and if people don’t relate that’s fine.” You can hear my very strong French accent, right?
EO: [Laughs] Yes.
AN: [Laughs] Every time I go out people ask me, “Are you American?” I’m like, “No, I’m French.” Because of the way that I’m living, and how I do things, people think I’m American. I sometimes think to myself, at least I’m back in Paris and I’m certain about what I want to do with my life. I’m more at ease, and even though I might not live up to the French standard, in the end, at least I’m happy. We’re happier, you know?
Emmanuel Olunkwa is an editor and writer based in New York. He is the editor of PIN–UP and cofounder of November Magazine.
Julius Eastman, 1974. Photo by George Oliver.