The Kwaku Ananse premier in July was everything a film loving crowd would hope for ; great turn out, a participatory crowd and fierce music. The 26 minute short immortalizes the mythical spider by constructing a fresh narrative that retells this famous Ananse tale with multilayered, moody, elliptical shots of a wandering Jojo Abot, who plays Ananse’s daughter. The film suggests that stories normally seen through the lens of post-colonialism could just as easily be seen in existential or mythic terms.
For the record this film had the biggest turn out for an experimental Ghanaian picture, which is a refreshing start. Ghana isn’t known for experimental artsy movies and over the years John Akomfrah has been the only reference when such conversations came up. Our lame claim to his notoriety can stop now.
Akosua Adoma Owusu represents a new wave of filmmakers making bold attempts at disrupting the Ghanaian narrative in order to create new forms of story telling that involve risk taking. Hopefully these risks will explore new audiences and markets that would in turn create Ghanaian cinema the world looks forward to. This Kwaku Ananse story feeds our curiosities and creative interpretations made by the audacious individuals it features.
Grace Omaboe who plays Ananse’s wife has not been in a Ghanaian movie for years. At the height of her career, she was in a very popular TV drama series ‘OBRA’. Then through the mid to late 90’s she had a TV show “By The Fire Side” where she told Ananse stories to children. For the people old enough to remember, this film is like a time machine that travels into that past but tells the story in a sequence far removed from what a Ghanaian audience might be used to.
Another character worth mentioning in the movie is Highlife living legend Agya Koo Nimo who played Kweku Ananse. Koo Nimo brought such character volume to the 26 minute picture, it begged further exploration. That was four months ago, Adoma has since gone on to start new projects, but this is certainly worth the reminder.
We caught up with Akosua Adoma Owusu recently during our STROLLING GOATS episode and talked about film and her new projects.
What first interested you in film?
Well, my background was in the fine arts, specifically, printmaking and sculpture. I discovered my interest in filmmaking after studying 16mm Cinematography at the University of Virginia with an African American filmmaker, Kevin Jerome Everson. Kevin came from a working-class background – I identified with this in Virginia – and his work in experimental short films and traveling to film festivals really inspired me. So I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in Film/Video and Art at CalArts against my parents’ wishes. They wanted me to be more practical and pursue a career in medicine like basically all Ghanaian parents. But creating art through a cinematic medium really spoke to me and impassioned me far more than any “practical” choice could have.
How would you describe your film education?
I want to say my film education is really more self-taught because I learned how to make films from Everson, who taught himself how to make films. He also taught us to be free with film. My first real world film experience came through an internship at HBO Films in Los Angeles for Chris Rock’s Good Hair documentary. And, I’ve also participated in some film initiatives for filmmakers like the Berlinale Talent Campus and Durban Talent Campus. My crossover to fiction film production came through the Focus Features Africa First program where I got to make my short film, Kwaku Ananse.
Who or what do you cite as major inspirations for your work?
Well, I think the personal nature and realism of being an African woman from America creates an immersive experience for an audience, which is the ultimate goal of every film I make. Black people are always searching for a sense of belonging and identity, so my own experience with that does resonate through all of my films. I am also heavily influenced by music and sounds. I constantly see images and pictures when I listen to music. I guess this is why my films are more visual and musical than verbal.
How would you describe your filmmaking process?
I like to think my filmmaking process is pretty organic and random. I started out making films using a 16mm camera and 16mm film is not cheap. So for economic reasons, I learned to tell stories that are often very short, quick, and raw. Most recently, I crossed over to digital and I am also making films using pre-existing material like found footage.
I use film as a tool for making art. So, I don’t quite consider myself a screenwriter. I think I’m more of a film artist aspiring to be a screenwriter. When I stumble onto a film idea, I absolutely have to run with it. I end up doing my research by hoarding and collecting sounds, music, and images related to a concept. I approach film editing as if I am sculpting something on the timeline. I layer ideas together until it clicks and makes sense to me. Sometimes I develop my editing rhythm to music. Then, in collaboration with my sound design partners, I like to take recordings and layer up sounds to develop new meanings from them. I also intentionally keep in a few mistakes in my sound and image work for aesthetic purposes.
You won an AMAA Award for your short film Kwaku Ananse – how different is this interpretation of the popular folktale?
Kwaku Ananse was my first real crossover into the fiction film world. It’s an effort to translate a Ghanaian myth into cinema. Kwaku Ananse is a popular folklore hero – a part-man, part-spider who tries to gather all the wisdom in the world in a pot. And, my film is told from the perspective of Kwaku Ananse’s daughter, a Ghanaian girl of the diaspora, who travels to Ghana for her father’s funeral. She becomes overwhelmed by the funeral and carries her ambivalence into the forest in search of her father, to briefly confront Kwaku Ananse about his deception. The film uses the concept of Kwaku Ananse in metaphors. It is about forgiveness and I combined my own intimate narrative of traveling to Ghana to bury my father.
As someone who’s lived a greater part of your life in the States, what inspired you do a film on Kwaku Ananse?
When I was in fifth grade, my music teacher, Ms. Odejimi, cast me as Kwaku Ananse in an elementary school play for Black History Month, and I carried this experience with me throughout my creative career. My father encouraged me to read Ananse storybooks as a child. So, these experiences helped shape my interest in retelling a Kwaku Ananse story with my own interpretation in a contemporary Ghanaian context. When I got the commission from Focus Features Africa First, I found it interesting that Ananse stories are more popular by Africans in the diaspora and local Ghanaians didn’t seem to acknowledge them. And, I wanted to bring Kwaku Ananse back to the consciousness of Ghanaians. Ananse stories are associated with African oral storytelling by a fireside and I hope that this modern retelling will be a reminder of our cultural heritage for a new generation.
How different is the African film industry from that in the U.S.?
You know, African cinema is so vast; I mean, there are Francophone African films, South African films, Nigerian films, etc. And, Ghana has a rich historical tradition in street theater and these stage productions have evolved into Ghanaian films that reflect Ghanaian everyday life and culture. They are shot cheaply and released as quickly as possible straight on VCD or DVD. When compared to American films, watching a Ghanaian movie is like watching a very melodramatic soap-opera. Ghanaian films often get a lot of criticism from people who do not understand they are intended to entertain and relieve society from their pressures. What I love so much about the Ghanaian and Nigerian film industry is that we run our own industry and do not wait for international financing to make our films. So, I find Ghanaian and Nigerian films to be authentically African in its purest and direct form without any control from foreign influence. And, I hope we do not take this opportunity for granted.
Yeah, I guess because I’m the only one from my family who was born and raised in America, my films reflect my tormented “triple selves” of being American, Ghanaian, both, and neither. I am constantly trying to connect with Ghana in my art and films because I didn’t get to experience growing up there as my family did. Sometimes, I refer to my filmmaking practice as my “triple consciousness” where I readily move back and forth between the cultures of Ghana and America, hoping that I can somehow find myself in that space of the in-between. My search for belonging to a place, and not having a definite place to call home sort of makes the notion of transnational identity a focal point in my films. And, I am a Ghanaian filmmaker, who grew up in America so, I want to tell stories from my personal experience, which I think a lot of people can vibe with. I can somehow see things from different perspectives such as being an insider and an outsider. And, it is often reflected in my film work. So, I like channeling my experiences with cultural tension and politics into my work and that’s part of what informs my own unique vision.
What do you think of the contemporary arts scene in Accra?
Well, I think the contemporary arts scene in Accra is right at the cusp of becoming something incredibly explosive. It is such an exciting time. There are so many Ghanaian artists I am excited about collaborating with like Kyekyeku, Wanlov, Nana Oforiatta Ayim. And, a great friend of mine, Sam Kessie, put me in touch with organizations like ACCRA [dot] ALT that are really nurturing the movement and bringing together all sorts of local Ghanaian artists with artists of the diaspora. I am just looking forward to contributing to the Ghanaian film scene somehow and maybe initiating some sort of new wave of Ghanaian experimental films and filmmakers!
Well, I am working on my first feature, Black Sunshine, and we are scheduling to shoot that in Ghana early next year. This is my first feature, so I wanted the themes of my short films to carry through. It’s a story that I’ve been developing for a long time. The film recently won the ARTE International Prize at Durban FilmMart in South Africa. Another project I am developing is a documentary portrait on Wanlov. And, I am also working on reviving the Rex Cinema, one of Accra’s oldest cinema theaters, as an alternative creative space for art, music, and film screenings.
Gosh now, all I need is a wealthy Nigerian man with some oil money to come and finance my films!
Damn the Man, Save the Rex! | @akosuadoma