From music videos to award-winning documentaries: how Circle and Square unlocked the power of film
When Maia Lekow and her husband started Circle and Square Productions in 2009, she could hardly have imagined that she was embarking on a profound and life-changing journey. From humble beginnings, Circle and Square has produced award-winning films that have featured at festivals around the globe. And, according to Lekow, it’s not about to slow down anytime soon.
From the start, Circle and Square has been a collaborative affair, with Lekow and her husband (a filmmaker by training) learning about each other’s respective crafts.
“I was a musician and my husband was on the film side,” she says. “What ended up happening was that when we were doing my music videos and things like that, I was learning more about film and more about directing. At the same time, he was also helping produce the music.”
Having built up experience with music videos, Circle and Square started taking on client work, producing promotional short films. Then, seven years ago, work started on the production house’s first feature-length documentary. All the while, Lekow was dealing with a hectic touring schedule. As well as regularly playing shows in Kenya, she’s performed at music festivals in South Africa, Swaziland, Reunion, and Mozambique.
When the documentary, called The Letter, was released in 2019, it was to critical acclaim. In fact, it was Kenya’s official submission to the 93rd Academy Awards in the “Best International Film” category. Having debuted at the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA), The Letter is still being played at documentary festivals around the globe with a run of impact screenings on Kenya’s coast – where the film is set – also underway.
With that validation, Circle and Square decided to take a step back from doing commercial work and to focus on documentaries.
“For me, in particular, as an African woman, having films about African women is vitally important,” she says. “And I think I’m just drawn to those particular kinds of stories in the documentary world.”
That’s reflected in one of Circle and Square’s current projects. Called The Library, it tells the story of two young women trying to revitalise a library in downtown Nairobi.
“That's been a four-year journey and it’s still ongoing,” Lekow says.
Of course, getting to this point hasn’t come without challenges. When Circle and Square started, for example, it had to take a DIY approach because there wasn’t much of a network or community of filmmakers.
“Everyone was working in their own silos, they were competing against each other and there was a lot of distrust,” she says. “People weren't sharing their stories with one another.”
Lekow, together with a few other players in the space, set about rectifying that.
“Now we have a documentary community that's been created where you're able to share stories with one another, give feedback, be inspired,” she says. “There's still that sense of competition, but healthy competition.”
According to the Circle and Square founder, funding also remains a perennial challenge, especially for people making long-form documentary features, which can take years to film. Government support for creative endeavours and a lack of access to quality mentors were also big challenges when Circle and Square started, but which Lekow says are steadily improving.
At a personal level, Lekow says that trying to balance her twin passions of music and film with being a mother to a new baby has also thrown up challenges at times.
The musician and filmmaker says that Google has been indispensable in addressing several of those challenges. Whether it’s doing background research for a project or using Meet to collaborate with other documentary filmmakers and for meetings with people around the world about film projects, Google has entrenched itself in Circle and Square’s daily operations.
“I even use Google to check timezones, because we have so many meetings with different people from around the world,” she says, chuckling. “I think I do that on a daily basis.”
“I also search for music to see what's out there musically and trying to keep up to date on that front,” she adds.
For Lekow, the journey to this point has been incredibly rewarding, especially as it’s pushed her in ways she would never previously have imagined.
“As someone who isn’t a trained filmmaker, I think the most rewarding thing has been learning on the job from my husband and other filmmakers,” she says. “I know now that I can go out and I can direct, produce, and create the score for something because I've had to do all of those things. It’s made me stronger as a filmmaker.”
Most important to her, however, is the fact that Circle and Square is, “creating films that tell emotional stories that people can relate to.”