Interview with a screenwriter: Meet Sheila Na’imah Nortley!

November 4, 2016

Halimat Shode from The Black Muslim Times UK had the privilege to speak with Sheila Na’imah Nortley, an award-winning producer and critically acclaimed screenwriter, who  has numerous credits and projects to her name. She is currently nominated for the woman of the future award and discussed where she gets her inspiration from and the journey she has taken on her career path.


For black people and other minorities, storytelling has always been a form of communication and taking control of our narratives. Whether it’s through performance, literature, or working behind the camera,  there is an innate need for authority over our stories and how they are expressed to an audience.


It is with this in mind that I reached out to Sheila; someone who is continuously trying to outdo herself and her incredible achievements as a screenwriter and producer  to bring stories to the camera in an innovative, creative manner.


Asalamu Alaikum sister thanks so much for speaking with us! Can you introduce yourself to our audience?


Walaikum salaam, thank you for having me – its a pleasure. My name is Sheila Na’imah Nortley. I’m originally from Ghana, West Africa. That’s where my family’s from. I was born and bred here in London. I’m a screenwriter and that’s my absolute passion. It’s a passion for telling stories and creating worlds and creating characters and ultimately, in this kind of creation process, influencing reality.


What were your motivations for becoming a screenwriter?


My motivations were… initially not mine. Being a writer is something that was put in me, I believe, by my Creator and I guess it was my decision to kind of take that on and to direct it in the way that I have which is as I said, to influence society, influence people to think, influence peoples perceptions and challenge peoples stereotypes. But in terms of becoming a writer? That wasn’t my choice. That’s something that was given to me. The only decision I had was how to use that and whether or not to embrace that. I’m very grateful that I did.


Sheila with actor Ashley Walters.


What inspires you to start a project and bring an idea to the screen?


Inspiration can be drawn from everywhere really, and from everything in the creation and beyond. Sometimes it’s meeting someone; with the upcoming Ashley Chin documentary it was just a case of meeting him and hearing his incredible story in a lot of detail. We were literally there for hours and it was like, okay, I have to do this. With my 2011 film,Zion, it was just constantly seeing the violence amongst black youth;  I met a young boy called Jacob and his friend Devante and they inspired the character of Zion and that is how that story developed. My current film The Strangers was influenced heavily by current affairs and  what I see physically and spiritually happening in society.


 The numerous awards and nominations of Sheila Na’imah Nortley.


You have recently wrapped up production for a feature length documentary on the actor, rapper and poet Ashley Chin aka Muslim Belal. How did you get involved in the project, and can you tell us what the process of creating the documentary was like?


His story blew me away.  Ashley is one of those people who are always sharing his heart with his followers and fans and it was actually a brother named Ismael South who introduced us. At the time, I was very conflicted. My career was really taking off and I was making some, quite big, life decisions when this project landed in my lap. He expressed that he trust me with his story and quite literally in that moment put his life – in terms of his biography – in my hands and gave me the opportunity to capture that on screen. I think he recognised my conflict and my desire to work on something like this that could, you know, contribute to the bigger picture.


Can you tell our audience more about your new film, The Strangers?


Well, I’m currently in pre-production of my feature film The Strangers – and that’s pretty exciting. This film notoriously took me six years to write, and I’ve recently been informed that I still have some rewriting to do. Which should be good fun. But yeah, this film is special to me for a number of reasons and very dear to my heart. And between me and you, I want to use it to change things and make things a bit better for people, generally.


Poster for Nortley’s upcoming film, The Strangers.


What obstacles have you faced as a filmmaker?


I haven’t really faced any obstacles, you know. It’s literally, as with all things, been a case of me, battling myself if anything. Whether that be my own fears and insecurities causing me to procrastinate or limiting my potential – so for example, finance and budget – these are things that often pose a huge obstacle to many creatives in the industry. But you have to ask yourself how big an obstacle is it, in relation to your drive. So for me, when I’ve had no budget, I have done what a lot of people are also doing which is – I just go ahead and shoot it anyway and make sure that my film looks like it had 200 times more money than it actually did! So I think fear is the only thing that has been an obstacle for me at any given time and as I’ve matured I’ve learned what it means to be fearless and what it means to be brave despite ones fear – and what it means to trust in Allah. That doesn’t mean I don’t forget sometimes. But it means all I need to do is remember. Just remember. Nothing or no one is greater than my King.


You have been nominated for a Woman of the Future award for your amazing contribution to Arts and Culture, congratulations! What are your thoughts on women’s representation in the film-making industry?


The lead up to this event has been life-changing in itself. I mean, whether or not I win – and I know it may sound cliché – but honestly, I have been so inspired by the women I have met in their various categories. Women in finance, women in business, women in sport and obviously, my category which is Arts & Culture. I think women’s representation is improving and with women like Ava Duvernay and Lupita Nyong’o in front and behind the camera – we’re making waves. And we’re starting to celebrate the magic that everyone else has always seen but us.


Sheila’s nomination for the Women of the Future award in the Arts and Culture category.


What advice do you have for women that want to go into screenwriting and film production?


On a personal level, have a foundation. Have friends, family, a faith, a mantra, something or someone to remind you when you forget, why you even bothered getting into the field in the first place. Have an intention and a goal that will drive you and motivate you into not only telling stories but also making history and changing the game. Don’t rely on your looks, or your beauty, but your mind and your ability to create worlds.


On a business level, learn your craft as an artist but also try and educate yourself on the business; the investment and distribution side of things.


Where can we connect with you on social media to follow everything you are working on?  


Please like, share and follow The Strangers on facebook.


I’m not really on social media much at all but please do feel free to go ahead and add me on Facebook at Sheila Na’imah Nortley.


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