Renaissance Woman in Our Time: Nadhege Ptah Pt. II

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Nadhege Ptah

Nadhege Ptah, writer, director, producer, dancer and film and stage actor, is preparing to leave the country. Her labor-of-love short film, Paris Blues in Harlem, is taking her to a film festival where it’s nominated for an award. Inspired by the real-life Harlem jazz club Paris Blues, the narrative tells of a young woman named Paris (played very well by Ptah) determined to see her grandfather sell his storied and beloved club to take advantage of a suitcase full of cash offered (through an agent) by a developer who wants to raze the property.

The film has already won several awards and screened at many festivals – but next week she gets on a plane to be there when it screens in … Paris, of course! She’s headed to the Festival International du Film Pan-Africain de Cannes, held in France for the past 11 years and featuring films from Africa and the African Diaspora. Her film is nominated for the Dikalo Award, granted by a jury to fiction features and shorts.

Paris Blues in Harlem, produced by Ptah’s Maat Films, is atmospheric but urgent, visiting the real-life crisis of gentrification in New York City, mirrored in cities across the nation. The film features iconic Black actors, including Tony Award-winner Tonya Pinkins, Negro Ensemble Company’s Charles Weldon and Broadway legend Arthur French. It’s set and filmed in the 50-year-old club it’s named for, where Samuel Hargress, Jr., 81, the original owner, still greets and chats up customers. We had our own chat with Ptah, who tells us a bit about her film philosophy and process, as well as the challenges and inspirations.

Our Time Press:

Tell us a bit about the filmmaking process.

Nadhege Ptah

It’s in phases: from development, where one is developing the idea by writing the story; Pre-production is the planning phase (casting, location, crew, budget, scheduling, etc.); Production is the actual shooting days and post-production is creating the final master.

OTP

What are the challenges of directing, writing, acting, producing a film — all at the same time?

NP

They are the same challenges as a mom running a full house. It’s a juggling act with the constant hope of aiming for harmony. Also, when switching roles, being mindful that the actor is fully present as the actor, and not the director who is the actor, missing the moments as an actor because the director sees a better way to frame the scene. Also being pulled in so many directions for the various roles I play, so not a moment to breathe.

OTP

How did you bring Paris Blues (the jazz club) to the screen? Did the location and the owner inspire you?

NP 
Yes. I was intrigued by Sam’s story and felt compelled to carry the legacy that he built through storytelling. Paris Blues, the location, has so much history and character. Gentrification is the backdrop, but it’s not the entire story. It’s legacy and struggling to sustain generational wealth. 

OTP

How did meeting Sam Hargress and learning his story impact your life?

NP

I was fundraising for my first short film, DoDo TiTi, in 2015 and Paris Blues was one of the businesses I approached in the community to obtain financial support during the fundraising campaign.  

OTP

Did any elements of your life enmesh with the storyline?

NP

I would say the universal human experience that the character Paris experienced – which is the feeling of abandonment based on family circumstances. The flavorful characters in Paris Blues were enough to develop the storyline. However, aspects of me slip into one or two characters. 

OTP

What’s your reaction to the attention the film is getting from festivals? 

NP

I’m totally humbled and excited about how the story resonates universally with various people where it has screened throughout the country. It sparked many deep and provocative conversations.

OTP

Where do you want to go from here?

NP

I want to be involved in creating impact, engaging communities and continuing the next phase of developing more content.

OTP

What are your favorite films and playwrights and why?

NP

So many to think of, but at the top of my head – Alice Childress’ “Wine in the Wilderness,” [the play] because she was crafty in exposing the wounds of Black culture poetically, assertive through the lens of a character that society often demeans. She showed beauty and intelligence in a nonlinear fashion. 

Eve’s Bayou [the film] – the sensitivity, artistically and how delicate the director approached to tell a story that is often heavy, often not spoken of, but allowed it to hook the audience to journey in a way that invokes awareness. 

OTP

What’s the role of the artist today in relation to the artists of the Harlem Renaissance?

NP

Today is about self, where the focus in branding the Harlem Renaissance was a social justice movement that involved the collective mind, [prompting] people to think about their condition. 

Paris Blues in Harlem was selected to be part of the PBS Online Short Film Festival this summer. It will also screen here in New York City at the New People’s Film Festival in May and the Women’s International Film Festival in June. The film screened at 11 festivals across the nation in 2018, starting – to Ptah’s pleasure – with HBCU Hampton University. And it appears that 2019 will bring the number of screenings to 20 or more, and add to the several nominations and wins the film has earned.

Maitefa Angaza and Bernice Green