Executive produced by Drake and Diddy, For Khadija is a documentary that follows the life of Moroccan-born rapper French Montana. The film, which was directed by Mandon Lovett, takes the audience through French Montana's life, from his early struggles as an immigrant in America to his success in the music industry. Through it all, the film pays tribute to his mother.
Photo: Mandon Lovett (credit: Daniel Hall)
For Khadija premiered at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival on June 16th. The project represents Lovett’s feature debut and was considered a labor of love, inspired by French Montana's origin story, which he read about in a magazine nine years ago. As a self-taught filmmaker who learned most of his skills through YouTube, Lovett approached the documentary with an exploratory mindset, wanting to give the audience a different perspective of who French Montana is. Lovett wanted to humanize the artist by showing his childhood apartment in The Bronx, his rise to fame from the underground rap scene and selling drugs to survive, as well as the positive relationship he has with his mother. To capture the essence of who French Montana is, Lovett interviewed several friends, including Drake, Diddy and Fat Joe, and included personal anecdotes to help tell a meaningful story.
Throughout filming, Lovett noticed that French Montana called his mother every day and constantly mention her as his inspiration. As such, Lovett felt it was important to incorporate her into the storyline. This included revealing the sacrifices she made, which included working two jobs and raising three young children alone in America after her husband left.
Here, Lovett talks about his filmmaking process and how For Khadija came together.
Hi Mandon. You’re a self-taught filmmaker. Can you talk about how you learned the craft?
“Sometimes, I joke that I went to ‘YouTube University.’ Also, as a filmmaker, I came of age at the onset of the DSLR revolution, when prosumer cameras were incredibly affordable for the first time. I took both of those things and really ran with them. Filmmaking tutorials on YouTube became my go-to resource for anything and everything production related, and I really became a one-man band – filming, editing, sound recording/designing, coloring. I learned all of these skill sets from YouTube. Of course, I made plenty of mistakes along the way, but those mistakes became lessons and invaluable experiences that I carry with me today.”
How did you get involved with this specific project?
“I came across an article nearly a decade ago that told the story of French Montana returning back to Morocco to meet his father for the first time, after 20 years apart. Back then, I only knew French as a rapper and wasn't at all tuned into the fact that he was a Moroccan immigrant. His immigration story, as well as the story of his father and family, intrigued me. I said to myself that if I ever had the opportunity to work with French, I would try to explore that story more.”
Humanizing French Montana was very important to you when filming. Can you specify how you achieved that?
“Quite simply, time. In spending time with a subject, you hope that you can build real trust and connection. Over the course of time, French and I developed a real friendship, and I believe it allowed him to be vulnerable about some of the more difficult parts of his life. This vulnerability is what ultimately allows for a subject to be humanized.”
His mom became an important part of the story?
“As I spent more time with French, I noticed the unique bond that he had with his mom. At the start of the project, I had no idea that she hadn't been back to Morocco since she left 25 years ago. One day, he just mentioned it in casual conversation, and I immediately responded that, ‘We should film that.’ He was a bit hesitant at first, because his mother is a very private woman. But French eventually opened up to the idea, as did Khadija (his mother).”
What camera did you shoot with?
“The film was shot on the Arri Alexa Mini.”
Can you talk about the editing process and how you established the flow of the documentary?
“I was pretty involved with the editing process. I had intimate knowledge of the film since I was next to our DP for every moment of it. My editors and I storyboarded the film fairly early on with note cards. We settled on our cold open pretty quickly too, which really helped to catapult the story-building process.”
Do you have a favorite scene?
“Khadija reuniting with her family in Morocco, hands down. As a documentary filmmaker, you do everything possible to capture real moments that really mean something to your characters and subject matter. These moments have the power to evoke real emotion from your audience, and that, to me, is the whole point of art. With that scene, we accomplished that.”
What do you hope audiences gain from this project?
“I hope people can see the power of human will and never taking ‘no’ for an answer when it comes to pursuing your dreams.”
Looking back, what did you gain from this experience?
“I learn a lot from every project, but I’m pretty sure that I learned the most from this one. I was intimately involved with this project every step of the way, from conception, through all the obstacles and setbacks, until the premiere at The Beacon Theater at Tribeca Film Festival. It took six years to get it to that point, and was really a test of never giving up on something that you started.”