While watching a work by filmmaker FRANCIS Y. BROWN, you can’t help but be hit by a barrage of feelings and that’s just what he wants. Born in Takoradi in Ghana’s Western Region, Brown was highly influenced by his environment – elements that would later appear in his animation films. “With animation I feel like I have control of my art,” he says. “I illustrate the emotions that I want to put out there. I have impressions that I want everyone to feel.”
Brown realised from a young age that art would be a feature throughout his life. He would construct small houses out of cement, build castles and make wood carvings to express his creativity. His father sparked an interest in animation with surprise gift videocassettes filled with cartoons. Tom & Jerry, Looney Tunes, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White all informed his early days of drawing. As he eagerly copied the characters, sketching away on paper, his father noticed the young artist’s talent for drawing movement, and he encouraged his son into animation.
After school Brown worked at a graphic design company for several years, saving money in the hopes of attending animation school elsewhere. However, once he realised that financial factors would prevent him taking this route, Brown enrolled in the National Film and Television Institute (NAFTI) in Accra. Today, he is somewhat critical of the school, citing the teaching structure as a challenge that young animators face in Ghana. “NAFTI”, he says, “teaches you the basics, [such as] how and when to use certain techniques when you are creating, but it fails you when it comes to production. A lot of people come out of this school feeling very frustrated, because after four years they feel like they’ve learnt nothing.”
According to Brown, NAFTI is the only school in Ghana with worldwide accreditation and certification, so potential animators face limited choices. However, this is not the only problem animators face. “There is no solid industry for us”, Brown laments, “so when we come out we have to try to develop our own system. This era – my era – is the new generation trying to prop up an industry with the animator sector.” However, he is quick to point out the challenges that accompany this method. Funding seems particularly problematic, as Brown describes: “Some of us don’t want to be doing commercial jobs, they’re for sustainability but that is not the main aim. The main aim is to create content for our audience.”
Brown believes financial obstacles may discourage many potential animators before they even begin. “Being an animator is not just about the skill but also investing in your raw talent and knowledge needs money. Animation falls under filmmaking, which is the second most expensive course in the world. To be able to do it, and do it well, you need to invest in your profession with things like equipment”. This did not seem to be a barrier to Brown, however, and he points to commissions as the income that kept him afloat during school, despite humble beginnings.
Raised by his grandmother in a busy neighbourhood, Brown recalls: “I grew up in a place where we used to say sex workers were our queens, where drug dealers were our kings, and thieves were the smartest.” This, he believes, profoundly affected his work. “These are very strong things which, as a creative person growing up in such a community, affects even how you think when it comes to your art,” he says. “It takes an amount of humanity in a person to bring this out and to highlight these issues.”
This background contributes to Brown’s strong passion for tackling social and political issues. “There are certain social norms that are supposed to be tackled but are left [ignored]. So I decided to dive into those areas”. One of his films, Begger, shows a starving man by the side of the road, completely unacknowledged by those that pass him by. On the film’s message, Brown says: “It shows you that there are lots of people who cherish the dead more than the living. We have a practice here where people will spend money on a funeral rather than giving it to them whilst they are alive, as a sign of last respect. What is a sign of last respect if they never got respect when they were living? If you can help someone when they are alive, go ahead and help, before that person becomes wasted.”
Brown also believes in the importance of addressing history. He notes how much of his Ewe history has been forgotten within the national memory bank and psyche. This theme drives his short film, Agorkoli, an animation detailing the story of migration of the Ewe people away from the tyrant King Agorkoli and his ill treatment to Ghana’s Volta Region. Brown explains the message in this historical narrative: “One of my ideologies is that there should be a sound reasoning for every action”.
With nominations and awards from numerous festivals, including the Klik Amsterdam Animation Film Festival and the Ghana Movie Awards, Brown has clearly struck a chord with audiences at home in Ghana and abroad. We’re looking forward to what Brown’s got going next.
Story by Liza Tait-Bailey