Abdou Cissé’s Festival of Slaps plays on our tendency to associate Black mothers with corporal punishment

The BIFA and LFF winning writer-director’s BAFTA nominated short is a rollercoaster ride, inspired by his mother’s protection throughout the years.

13 February 2024


At the beginning of Abdou Cissé’s short film Festival of the Slaps, The Glory Choir’s cover of The ARC Choir’s jaunty a capella Walk With Me – famously sampled in Kanye West’s Jesus Walks – mounts as a Black mother slaps her adult son. She raises her hand, with the sort of conviction only possible when a person believes it’s their unique right, before repeatedly descending on his neck, head and back. During this terror, he can do little but tell himself if there is a God, he’d do well with such a power’s help.

The restaurant table, where his father is also sitting rather easy (or just devoted to the meal and wine in front of him), and its host of plates, bottles and poured spirits, all shake. Her powerful hand is reflected in the iris of concerned white onlookers and O Fortuna’s crescendo is matched only by their horror. Why would she do such a thing? Physical violence in such a pristine, respectable setting, while Black? And the gall to be so expressive? Well, it’s something any loving mother would do – when trying to save their child from choking.

Hailing from London’s Lewisham borough, Abdou got his start in film a few years ago, after years of working in advertising. Since becoming immersed in the world of film he’s worked on campaigns and stories that are important to him as a Black creator, such as his first and subsequent short Damage Control (Enough) and Serious Tingz. The filmmaker attributes his world of black storytelling to a plethora of inspirations, but can pinpoint Ryan Coogler’s in-conversation with Gaylene Gould at the BFI ahead of the Black Panther release in 2018 as a seismic shift. “There was a me before that day and a me after that day,” he tells us. “It was then that I consciously believed I could do it. Hearing Ryan just be himself and speak so authentically, just gave me a new level of confidence.” And since the release of his first short, he’s grown to see directing as a road toward becoming a better collaborator, and leader.


BBC Film & June & Stella Productions: Festival of Slaps (Copyright © BBC Film & June & Stella Productions, 2023)

Abdou dedicates himself to stories that reflect on or reveal the depths of our perceptions or disregards. After never having seen “a hero character like my mum on the big screen before” he wanted to celebrate her as a heroine and reflect on Black mothers as a whole. Keen to herald this creed and shine a light on their importance, Festival of the Slaps is actually based on a real life event – because he couldn’t part way with the irony. “I’m an extremely fast eater. My mother would often get onto me and tell me to slow down, but being young all you wanna do is move fast,” he shares. “I end up choking and the one thing that people consider bad is the thing that saves my life,” he adds.

Confronting this stereotype of Black mothers having a ‘rare’ and ‘barbarous’ inclination toward corporal punishment would have still been powerful if the restaurant scene stood alone. But Abdou’s narrative and characters become three-dimensional, as this lesson is also a vehicle for the son, Ade Adeyemi, to reflect on his mother’s sacrifice, protection and tenderness while raising him. A new flashback emerges with every series of epic slaps – alongside misconceptions he himself had. It’s a powerful window into the multifaceted nature of Black motherhood for those unexposed.

For Abdou, the style of the film draws from his continued love for making the mundane “unexpectedly magical while bringing people closer to the truth”, he says. Festival of Slaps is a sensory experience. Bursting colours overtake the restaurant scene and darkness coasts through Ade’s past reflections. Not because they’re necessarily sombre, but because Abdou uses it as a means of bringing people closer to the emotions of the character. When writing and later directing the film, Abdou often joked and kept up the delusion that the short was a mini-feature. “It helped me to believe the ideas on the page and encouraged me to try new things while avoiding the super rational approach that produces tired ideas.” And on the other hand, there were creative ground rules that he saw as paramount to establish. “Before I start writing, I try to land on why I want to tell the story and what I’m trying to say. This becomes my anchor, preventing me from getting lost in the process or veering off the path,” he adds.


BBC Film & June & Stella Productions: Festival of Slaps (Copyright © BBC Film & June & Stella Productions, 2023)

Throughout the process of creating Festival of Slaps, Abdou’s biggest lesson was in preserving self belief and standing firm in what himself and the team wanted for the project. “Like most challenges it came down to: vision vs time vs budget,” he tells us. It was difficult to keep high standards and not compromising while also remaining realistic, like staying true to the script during editing, and working to find an editor – André Rodrigues – who really fit and understood the meaning of the story.

Tracing the multitudes of Black mothers is often a reactionary feat, only scratching the surface, because there are so many maligning representations to fight back against. But, Festival of Slaps doesn’t do that, it evolves from Abdou’s own personal experience and rings true because of its depth and specificity. At the end of the short, Ade is faced with the same situation as his daughter chokes and he is forced to unleash his own series of epic slaps. This isn’t Abdou’s experience, but he knows the generational impact of his subject matter and how these stories aren’t just true of the past or present, but the future.

The EE BAFTA Film Awards will air on 18 February 2024 at 8:00 pm GMT.

GalleryBBC Film & June & Stella Productions: Festival of Slaps (Copyright © BBC Film & June & Stella Productions, 2023)

BBC Film & June & Stella Productions: Festival of Slaps, Bonus Pillow Fight Scene (Copyright © BBC Film & June & Stella Productions, 2023)

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BBC Film & June & Stella Productions: Festival of Slaps (Copyright © BBC Film & June & Stella Productions, 2023)

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About the Author

Yaya Azariah Clarke

Yaya (they/them) joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in June 2023 and became a staff writer in November of the same year. With a particular interest in Black visual culture, they have previously written for publications such as WePresent, alongside work as a researcher and facilitator for Barbican and Dulwich Picture Gallery.

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