THE DYSFUNCTION OF GHANAIAN FILM

I approached a friend at church who happens to be related to Ekow Smith-Asante, who stars in the Kwaw Ansah vehicle Praising the Lord Plus One. This film had the look of an interesting religious satire and it perked my interest. I asked the said friend to maybe hook me up with a screener or something seeing as the film’s release appeared to be stalling but some 16 months down the line from the premiere and initial road show, not a murmur of the film remains.

I searched online for news on the non-distribution of this film but such information was also none existent. My friend simply tells me the film will not be coming out. I find puzzling the fact that a film that has undergone the production process just sits on someone’s hard drive with no plans for distribution. What’s the point of telling this story then because on a basic level every storyteller wants to be heard? If box office prospects didn’t make good reading, why not just release the film anyway in the name of art regardless of financial gain like Ken Loach did with his films on YouTube? I hope to really get a proper entrée into the Ghanaian film “industry” in the near future but from the outside looking in, I feel this particular scenario is indicative of the dire dysfunction that plagues the business of Ghanaian film.

Every proper film ever produced has gone through 3 basic stages: development, production and distribution and before I go on, I want to clear any doubt and confirm this blog post will be filled with griping and negativity as is the norm when the Ghanaian movie “industry” is explored– I’m seeing Ghanaian films at a record rate so I do believe that gives me the license to bitch on with confidence. The development stage sees ideas formulated, screenplays written and of course the financing. We then move on to production where casting, set preparations, shooting and editing takes place. Finally there’s the distribution stage where the film is circulated for screening or direct sale. I look at these categories outlined and some films on the Ghanaian terrain do not tick some of these boxes which is damning and you only have to look at the aforementioned Praising the Lord Plus One which was filmed but never properly screened for the public or released to video. What’s the point then?

The first stage of film development sees the story and creative foundations take center stage and my focus is not on how the story is selected but the content and crux of the stories that make it to production. Attempts at imaginative and original Ghanaian stories are lacking for the most part with Bollywood adaptations and the romance telenovela model as the norm. The main reason for this appears to be the somewhat nonexistent appeal and ties with financing. Film in Ghana isn’t lucrative and financing is a real hustle which is why our industry is primarily an exploitation one. Investors throw their weight behind the romance schematic and the typecast poster stars because they are perceived to be sure things financially and a “sure thing” here isn’t much by the way of returns.

Scripts ostensibly lack vision and rigor and some of the stuff that has made it to the big screen has been utterly deplorable. A few other filmmakers have risen above the state of affairs and flexed creative muscle with refreshing projects that give yours truly some hope. I feel the industry is still waiting for that ground breaking Ghanaian script and that really is the only way we will get ahead. People will take notice of a truly remarkable story and that should be the number one selling point of a film not stars or lowest common denominator exploitation fare. Messing up set designs, wardrobes, effects and even direction can be forgive but horrible scripts doom films from the get and that appears to be what Ghanaian film is still wrestling with.

Money or lack thereof comes to the fore in a big way during the production stage of things as even established Ghanaian filmmakers struggle to gain financing. During pre-production, every step of actually creating the film should be carefully designed and planned for implementation but the funding challenges strike out implementation of some plans and, by extension, call into question if some of these plans should be made in the first place compromising the rigor that should come with filmmaking. A proper and vibrant industry should birth production companies that coordinate budgets, insurance, casting, hiring crew members and even overseeing the creative aspects of a production among other things but the limitations on finances means producers are almost always working with skeleton crews who are stretching out equipment and to their credit, they do a decent job with their limited resources.

These limitations however mean emphasis on other background but essential components of cinema like music scores, fashion detail, set design etc. are relegated to insignificance. The battle for the soul of cinema as far as celluloid and digital filming is concerned rages on and I do have some sentiment towards the old way of doing things but I have to admit that some of our filmmakers would not be around if the only option was still shooting on celluloid film. The diversification of shooting mediums presents a true democratization of filmmaking in Ghana with the reliance on the more expensive 35mm medium virtually eradicated however this hasn’t really translated into to enhanced craft which is the bottom line for me as there is a lot chaff that comes with the proliferation of digital filming but we can’t ignore the fact that it indeed offers not only affordable production but also a lot more potential for distribution, the final stage in the business of filmmaking.

The final stage in the business of film is distribution which perhaps holds the future as far as the development of Ghanaian and African cinema is concerned. The future of distribution is or should be Pan African. Some Ghanaian filmmakers have managed to screen their works in Nigeria and other ECOWAS markets and this development holds part of the key to the revenue problems of African cinema. Ghanaian and African Cinema appears to be in a precarious state today and anyone who argues against this fact is a dunce. Very few African films i.e. films made by Africans, are presented at major world festivals and the one or two films that do make the selection are generally dismissed by the critics because of general lack of quality so distribution of African films in western markets with cinema going cultures is still ages away hell, distribution of African films in our own countries and continent is extremely difficult. There are some African films that are financed by European governments but these are hardly screened in European theatres where they are seen as having limited appeal in addition to the lack of quality in material and when it comes down to it, African films don’t have the box office appeal even in their own countries.

Basic Foreign releases always last longer and make for money in Ghanaian theatres than even major homemade productions and there is that feeling that even on our own continent, African films are pigeon-holed into that low quality box which isn’t always the case seeing as most of the African films I’ve seen in theatres this years have been better some of the Hollywood imports that will make the decent money our film makers can only dream off. In theory, African films have the potential for mass audience appeal on the continent but they simply aren’t been screened enough. Our continent is big enough to really provide and sustain financial rewards but there is such large disconnect between the various African markets which means Kalybos in China, very popular in Ghana, only screens for 3 weeks at Silver Bird but Get Hard will go for more than 3 times that all round Africa. Juliet Asante’s Silver Rain is showing us the way with the film set go on release in Nigeria which is at least 5 times the market of Ghana and that can only bode well for the film and hopefully this and more becomes the norm.SilverRainCrew-1024x715

Filmmakers in other African countries, like some of the Francophone ones, get funding from European governments (which I don’t agree with) in the name of cultural initiatives but I can only speak for Ghana and save for that ridiculous 2 million dollars, they are on their own so how can the likes of Kwaw Ansah get funding for new projects if they can’t get their films to make rounds and revenue? At times I feel like we aren’t really bothered by the current state of Ghanaian and African Cinema and maybe we don’t want to tell our own stories because we certainly aren’t doing so right now. If I was to hit the market looking for a film like Contract or Sinking Sands I would be looking for the pot at the foot of the rainbow because video sales these days are almost non-existent. I probably have to hustle through some ridiculous red tape to obtain a copies of Leila Djansi’s films – how many people are willing to go through such a grinder. Maybe we are okay fighting for crumbs in our own countries as the best case scenario. A rethink and revamp is in order if there is any hope of African cinema flourishing beyond the utter dysfunction it is. For one we could make films and filmmaking accessible to more Africans and some VOD services like Iroko TV have emerged but 99.9 percent of its content is drab exploitation fare which can only carry the industry so far.

Everything about Ghanaian cinema speaks to a cycle of dysfunction that is doing no one, from the filmmakers to the audiences, any favours. I still long for the day I watch a Ghanaian film that captivates me on the level of some of my current favourites but our handicaps push that day further and further away. I will still support the industry which is about the only thing I can do in addition to the griping of course. I just hope filmmakers start getting serious and do something about the dysfunction that is GH cinema.

By: Delali Adogla-Bessa/delalibessa@yahoo.com/Ghana

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