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Michaela Coel on how mentorship drives your career forward

Unpacking the guidance she's had in her career she explains why she's teaming up with the BFI to power the next gen.

13 Mar 2023

“It all began with my mum,” Michaela Coel says fondly. The 35-year-old award-winning maestro explains that her mum was the first to give her the confidence to bring her ideas to life, teaching her that “an idea may seem crazy, but it’s actually brilliant”. 

Along the way, she found other shamans who guided her through the seemingly impenetrable entertainment industry. From putting on her own show at The Yard to becoming a blockbuster actress, mentors like Black Earth Rising’s director Hugo Blick, gave her advice “even though it was of no benefit to him”. Or writer and director Ché Walker who she credits with giving “structure” when she didn’t know what to do with her creative expression back in her poetry days. Then fellow actor and writer Arinzé Kene was the first acting friend she made, and told her “no matter how many people are telling you ‘it’s the wrong decision’, always listen to your gut.”

All of this guidance really helped – Coel’s got the awards, accolades, and back-catalogue to prove it. Whether you’ve been a fan since her kooky yet hilarious BAFTA-winning Chewing Gum era, resonated with Arabella’s battles in the Emmy-winning I May Destroy You, or were captivated by her performance as Kate in Black Earth Rising, Coel has quickly taken her place in the vanguard of British visual storytelling. 

And now it’s Coel’s turn to pass on her knowledge. Bridging the gap between actor, writer and producer, Coel will be mentoring five aspiring filmmakers in the BMW Filmmaking Challenge in partnership with the BFI over the summer. She dials into our zoom call from Ghana, her hereditary homeland, to tell gal-dem all about it.

“I have had really good mentors, really good producers. I’ve received notes and developed ideas in ways that have made me a healthier-minded, confident artist,” she explains. Coel knew it was necessary to take on this role to help foster bravery and freedom in the applicants, especially since she has felt the benefits of a good mentor first-hand. “I really love to pass on whatever I know.” Despite her camera being turned off, I can tell she’s excited by passion radiating through her voice.

The challenge will see five budding filmmakers compete to create a 60-90 second film. Equipped with the latest tech, a £10,000 budget, and Michaela’s expertise, the winning short film will then be given a glamorous red carpet premiere at the annual BFI Film Festival’s closing night in October 2023. This is no small feat; last year’s star-studded event was the European premiere of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, with the likes of Janelle Monae, Grace Jones, Daniel Craig, and Kate Hudson in attendance. The 2021 edition’s closing night hosted the European premiere of The Tragedy of Macbeth and had audiences of 291,000 over the 12-day festival.  

“There are some brilliant filmmakers, and writers who are women doing incredible things, but the industry is scared of putting big money on women.”

From being the only Black girl in her year at primary school to being the first Black woman to enroll at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in five years, Coel knows all about the importance, yet often lack of, representation and accessibility – especially in the film industries. “There are some brilliant filmmakers, and writers who are women doing incredible things, but the industry is scared of putting big money on women,” says Coel. “And I don’t know why. I hope that we’re willing to put chances where the industry really is, which is in women, people of colour, queer thoughts, queer minds, queer identities, and trans identities. I hope that [the industry] is willing to engage with their minds and their stories.”

Michaela explains that she was “fumbling around” doing it by herself and “happened to be seen by somebody” but recommends that if you can, you should seek out screenwriting groups and organisations, like Channel 4’s ‘4Skills’ schemes. You don’t have to be in the BMW BFI Filmmaker’s Challenge to hear Michaela’s advice. “I think finding out what’s going on and what organisations exist that want you is a really important thing to do.” 

Applications for The BMW Filmmaking Challenge in partnership with the BFI are open for submission until 5pm on 22 March 2023. Find out more here

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