For the initiated, it will be no hot take to say there are criminally underused elements in Ghanaian filmmaking. When was the last time you saw a film from the point of view of an aging protagonist (hell, middle aged), our screen writers have seemingly decided they do not exist. How about a film anchored by a teen? Not in recent memory. But these point pale in comparison to the fact our stories appear to always exist in a chasm of genericity.
When was the last time you saw a Ghanaian production and said to yourself: this bears some semblance to the Ghana the average person walks through. I for one could cite the first act of say, Silver Rain but aside the few in this mould, our films’ environments largely take place in backdrop settings, settings that have no bearing on the story and thus are nothing more that templates for a narrative to play out. But I feel Ghanaian cinema is really missing out by the negating the role a component as simple as the setting, as pertaining to environment, can play elevating a screenplay.
There are layers to how one can view setting. On a basic level, we have the kind of setting that really has no bearing on the plot – just lingering in the backdrop. Consider a film like Fiifi Coleman’s Pieces of Me or a recent short I reviewed, 3 Nights Ago. The environment in these films does not strictly play a role in character development. The characters and the narrative are rather developed by key moments. Not to say there is anything wrong with that, mind you, because these films did not need an imposing setting because the character arcs likely would not have been enriched by one.
But then there are Ghanaian films that have tried to leverage some degree of realism that comes with our environment, commendably so when it comes to its handling of women and the patriarchy wheelhouse. The film that readily comes to mind is Pascal Amanfo’s quite flawed, If Tomorrow Never Comes, which effectively demonstrates the kind of second class citizens women are regarded as in some sections of Ghanaian society. In the case of Amanfo’s film, you could go a step further and say the patriarchal paradigm that envelopes most societies even serves as an effective antagonist.
However, when I think about other more interesting ways settings are used and I have to stray outside Ghana to find some strong examples. Consider a setting being used effectively as a metaphor. Our films are yet to consistently attain the level depth found in a film like the more recent The Neon Demon from Danish director, Nicholas Winding Refn or a classic like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Both films offer some critique of society; the former lays out the frivolous carnivorous nature of some modelling industries and the latter satirises government over-prying, bureaucracy and consumerism on the canvas of a dystopian society and they arguably do not need character to get those points across.
How about a strong period film. There are countless examples streaming from the more vibrant cinema cultures that the world has to offer but let’s stroll to our Nigeria for this example – October 1, one of my favourite films from 2015. Kunle Afolayan’s period piece narrowed in the dying embers of British occupation of Nigeria, but with the strong pan African vibe it emits it might as well have been Ghana so I claimed it. Every society has a rich history waiting to be harnessed by various mediums of storytelling. Prose, poetry and art have done it in Ghana so why not film – a question for another day.
The simple awareness of what liberation meant and also what lay ahead for an independent Nigeria and other colonised states is all this film needs garner some juice for audiences. October 1‘s plot revolves around a whodunit in a small town but that is not what lingers when you ponder over the film. You think of how the central trading post town of Akote speaks to future urbanisation and its accompanying attributes as pertaining to economics, culture, integration, religion etc. These elements, and not the plot, peel of more layers of our central character and that is an example of how integral the setting can be to character development.
Our question of the day is: Why aren’t we effectively harnessing setting? Why aren’t our settings angled to be more integral to character, plot and themes? As a quick answer: aside for the fact our cinema culture mostly exist in a chasm of frivolity, I guess our filmmakers are probably not interested in telling stories, only selling ones. From my safe space on the other side of the creative process, I feel like something as simple as attention to detail will elevate the environment characters inhabit from mere props to accommodate a narrative. An earnest and invested approach from the creatives should bring out the desired detail to make a setting much more than a prop thus grounding an audience in the story.
Consider the Queen of Katwe and how its director elevates your average underdog sports story with a commitment to an earnest graceful portrayal of an otherwise dreary depressing slum in a Ugandan city. Perspective is key. The Queen of Katwe director, Mina Nair, opts for a more alluring, almost welcoming vision of the slum and she understand the setting enough to be also quite nuanced, thus she does not sacrifice the dire third world reality for some turgid romanticism of poverty. The simple things like the threat of homelessness or flood waters running through the slums paint a picture I am sure we are quite familiar with – again, no bearing on plot but key to character.
Ultimately, harnessing the power of a setting is all about getting the details and nuances right – the things an audience can point to and say: hey, I get that. That is such a satisfying feeling, even more so when the tie in is direct. In the Indian legacy crime drama, Gangs of Wasseypur: there’s this sequence in which a gang tries to pull off a hit with newly acquired locally manufactured guns. Upon the firing of the first shot, we learn these guns have ridiculously impossible kick back – third world crime problems. Such a mundane detail but one that had me dreaming of a crime flick set in Assylum Down or Bukom.
My wait still continues but in the mean time a compelling setting has a tremendous enriching effect on what happens in the story. Even Ghanaians cinema’s the leaning towards romance would be more rewarding if the romance was effectively influenced by some degree of realism. A drama about relationships trying to overcome the bane of ethnic prejudice seems like such an obvious pitch but no, lets just go the telenovela rout with asinine twists and turns.
Like I said, the richness of the Ghanaian setting is criminally underused, reduced to mere placeholders. A setting can contain props, but our creatives could try a little to ensure that the rich gift of the Ghanaian setting is realised as much more than just a prop.
By: Delali Adogla-Bessafirstname.lastname@example.org/Ghana