African Cinema, Film Reviews

Like much of Ghanaian society, our cinema is still swayed by the colonial tide

Over 60 years on from the onset of independence, the stench of colonisation still emanates from various facets of Africa’s being. Colonialism manifested in complex social constructions that are both universal and unique. The tagging of indigenous traditions as anathemas, the detachment or forced blending of peoples, the exploitation of our land and its glorious riches, and of course, the small matter of slavery, remain some of the notable offcuts of the centuries of oppression.

Of interest to me is how colonisation left a lasting secondary infection in our vision of cinema and visual storytelling. Mastering the mind is essential to anchoring perspective and there aren’t many better ways than through the surreal magic of moving pictures.

Cinema in Ghana, as well as in most Anglophone countries, began with the various colonial film units. The Gold Coast Colonial Film unit was set up in with its first feature ‘The Boy Kumasenu’. Back then, even up to the overthrow of Nkrumah in 1966, Ghana did not have its own directors. The newsreels, documentaries, and propaganda films from that era were made by foreign directors.

‘The Boy Kumasenu’ was the culmination of motivations that film and African history scholar, Manthia Diawara, noted mirrored the “Scramble of Africa” in 1884. The Europeans felt they had a God-given mandate to civilise Africans. This sentiment was to permeate attempts at filmmaking for Africa.

‘The Boy Kumasenu’ was heralded in its time, garnering a was a best picture nomination at the 1952 BAFTAs. Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t aged well, becoming a marker for the latent muzzling and condescending slant of the various colonial film units, as noted by Malian filmmaker Manthia Diawara in his book about African Cinema culture.

Like education and Christianity, the Europeans were very selective in the way they introduced the art of filmmaking. Historians say they feared the layer of consciousness they could attain when the full extent of the power of film to shape minds was grasped.

They tried to shape the narrative of the world, as we have come to know. There is a fascinating 1937 quote from one L.A. Notcutt, the founder of the Bantu Educational Film Experiment, in a piece on African Cinema in The Edinburgh House Press.

“With backward peoples unable to distinguish between truth and falsehood, it is surely in our wisdom, if not our obvious duty, to prevent as far as possible the dissemination of wrong ideas. Should we stand by and see a distorted presentation of the white race’s life accepted by millions of Africans when we have it in our power to show them the truth?”

This basically encapsulates the genesis of anglophone cinema in Africa and its condescending slant. There was a deliberate attempt to keep out nuanced foreign films that peeled off the layers of western society and the white man. There also seemed to be a consensus that the language of foreign cinema, mainly from America, was too complicated for the simple-minded Africans.

The British set up their Colonial Film Unit in 1939 with branches in different parts of Africa including Ghana (then the Gold Coast). Given the timing, it is no surprise that the unit was used for propaganda during the Second World War which many Africans shed blood in.

Image courtesy of Information Services Department, Ghana.
Image courtesy of Information Services Department, Ghana

Films made in Europe and the U.S. were re-edited and with commentaries as opposed to the dialogue of the onscreen characters in a bid to maintain absolute control. This was the approach used in the ‘The Boy Kumasenu’ which, despite its fine coming-of-age narrative, features a British narrator spoon-feeding the audience and watering down the nuance and agency.

The father of African Cinema, Ousmane Sembené sought to right these wrongs with his seminal 1966 feature film, ‘Black Girl’. This being his first feature, it doubles as his cinematic manifesto and what he probably hoped would be a politically charged blueprint for African storytellers to come.

Sembené empowers his protagonist with something as simple as a voice. His subjective story provided the first honest sentiments about Africa in film nodding towards despair, loneliness, exploitation, naiveté and, most importantly, a renewed desire to resist.

He viewed cinema as a key tool for mental liberation. Sembené was a novelist but realised almost 85 percent the people he hoped to impact were illiterate. This made his African brand of neo-realist filmmaking a logical transition for him. He was the antithesis of colonial methods, which ultimately sought to forward western agendas and keep the African worldview in binds.

So Africa had its trailblazer right? An independent African filmmaker emerging from the shadows of oppression to counter colonial cinema. The problem was Africa was so damn fragmented and the gap between Anglophone and Francophone cinema may as well have been a galaxy. News flash, independence never severed the tethers we had to our colonial masters. Like Sembené asserts in ‘Black Girl’, decolonisation is a myth. Indeed, some read ‘Black Girl’ as a critique of France’s enduring stranglehold on film production that still had filmmakers in former colonies still reliant on them.

Sembene on the set of 'Emitai'
Sembené on the set of ‘Emitai’

Francophone cinema had its hot streak; producing over a dozen films that resonate today because of the sense of shared trauma and the conviction with which their auteurs spoke truth to power.

Not to go into the minutia of the history of African cinema (you can read Manthia Diawara’s excellent accounts in his book African Cinema: History and Politics) but simplest way to put it is France, thanks to some advocacy, loosened its vice grip on the cinematic output of its colonies significantly earlier so they were running before the British allowed Ghana to crawl. Did Ghana ever start to walk even? Maybe; with a pronounced limp.

Dysfunction has always abounded when it comes to African cinema. The European’s held sway because they had access to the resources of production even after the various decrees restricting African filmmakers were lifted circa the ‘50s and ‘60s. With time, access to resources became easier. Debates over the more accessible and cheaper 16mm productions versus the standard and more exclusive 35mm are now prehistoric. Now a master like Stephen Soderbherg is making films with iPhones.

Now the one hurdle, a hurdle built like the Great Wall of China, is navigating the distribution cesspit. It’s a simple statement uttered by Tunisian filmmaker Ferid Boughedir that reminds us of how dire our situation is: “Fundamentally, African cinema does not exist because film distribution is not in Africa’s hands.”

Since the days of Sembené access to African cinema from varied countries by African cinephiles across the continent has been a major bane because of the dysfunctional distribution channels. The internet and unfortunately piracy made things a little easier. The odd classic of African cinema has been made accessible by fair or foul means.

Contemporary films with commendable ambition from other African countries are difficult to see whiles the more accessible bits teeter around the threshold exploitation fare to plain rubbish – mostly from Hollywood.

There are standouts in there; from Ghana and Nigeria, which provide most of the African film content I consume (thanks to South African streaming platform Showmaxx, films from South Africa are also a click away). Blitz Bazawule’s debut feature, ‘The Burial of Kojo’ gives me hope that over the next decade, Ghana will have a master of the cinematic art. He demonstrates the kind of visual flair and storytelling dexterity that has probably been alien to Ghanaian Cinema since Kwaw Ansah’s two best films came out decades ago.

Ghana’s political instability following independence certainly didn’t help. When Nkrumah was overthrown, the new regime confiscated all the films produced between l957 and 1966 because of how tethered they were to Nkrumah’s image. To set up new production policies, Sam Aryetey, a graduate of the 1949 Accra Film Training School and a director described as Ghana’s premier filmmaker was named as the head of the Ghana Film Corporation 1969.

Noted as the foremost authority on African cinema, Paulin S. Vieyra viewed Ghana as having equipment capable of completing a dozen feature films a year. We also had 10 indigenous directors at the time. Aryetey himself boasted: “In Ghana, we possess the best cinematographic infrastructure in tropical Africa.” But between 1966 and Ghana produced less than 10 feature films – a betrayal of potential and resources also evident in how we have mismanaged resources like gold and cocoa.

Aryetey favoured a policy of co-production and he was rightfully targeting distribution outlets outside Africa. But his tenure was marked by the same neo-colonialist influences that have plagued the development of African countries. He signed with an Italian director, Giorgio Bontempi, and their first film was noted as a financial disaster. But it was the reverting to European filmmakers that was the true disaster. In Manthia Diawara’s words, he set back the progress of film production decades to the era of the Colonial Films Units. Aryetey was “economically wasteful and racist.”

Kofi Bucknor in Heritage Africa
Kofi Bucknor in Heritage Africa

This meant only independent filmmakers could really make their mark beyond Ghana; most notably Kwaw Ansah with ‘Love Brewed in an African Pot’ in 1981 and ‘Heritage Africa’ in 1989. As renowned as those films were, there is no indication that they signaled a marked shift in our cinema output because the powers that be were mere unknowing proxies for the former colonial powers and never truly liberated.

The neo-colonisation was crystal for those who refused to be zombies. And it prompted a reaction from the likes of Sembené, whose first film is a retort to the myth of decolonisation. It is why in 1989 Kwaw Ansah weaved his own thread of confrontational art with the way he tackled the tragic cultural erosion brought on by British rule – a tragedy embodied by the film’s flawed protagonist’s treatment of (his) mother.

Just by virtue of our fraught history and the stakes at play, I’d like to think an African film by definition should have some strands of resistance pivoting of realism infused storytelling. To put it simply in Tunisian film critic and the founder of the Carthage Film Festival Taher Cheriaa’s words, African cinema must be “militant cinema.”

“It shall be first and foremost a cultural action with social and political value, or it will be nothing. If it eventually can also become an economic action, that will only be a by-product.”

But economic action has been our most pressing concern over the years. We heard but didn’t listen when the likes of Kwaw Ansah spoke. This is why local productions grew too comfortable mimicking the exploitation films that were dumped on the continent from the US, India and China. Yes, they had their pleasures and there is certainly a place for them in popular culture but not when they drown out what should be the soul of African cinema, which manifests in seldom commercial but more intellectual and artistic output.

That’s not even taking into account the problematic politics of these films which were littered with painful racist stereotypes and insular ideologies whilst being in service of a system of film distribution that cripples local industries already struggling with capital and infrastructure. And God forbid the State take an interest in backing filmmakers with a voice. But who can blame them if such support culminates work resembling that joyously incendiary coda to ‘Xala‘ – where the state’s contribution to our collective malaise is called out with lacerating contempt.

Now, our films still mirror the simplicity our colonial masters felt was our portion. By virtue of the output we see, you get the sense most of our filmmakers don’t think us capable of deciphering visual language and complex ideas. There are minimal attempts to conceive of Ghana in more layered ways.

There are times when some of our prominent filmmakers, like Shirley Frimpong-Manso flirt with interesting ideas in their films but regress to more fluffy romance themes. A clear case was in ‘Rebecca’ where Shirley ropes us in with her empathetic view of a woman roped into an arranged marriage. She prods at interesting ideas about superstition too. But she can’t resist the urge for a cheesy exploitative bout of lovemaking in the rain.

Shirley-Frimpong-Manso-and-Joselyn-Dumas
Shirley Frimpong-Manso (L)

This year Shirley and her production house, Sparrow Productions, marked a decade since the release of ‘Perfect Picture’, a film that began a run of high profile local productions that centered women and perhaps hinted at the first real building block for the film industry since before the video boom in the 90s. Though she directed my favorite Ghanaian film in the period, the black comedy ‘Six Hours to Christmas’, I can’t say she lived up to the promise of 2009. To put on my pretentious hat, I would simply say she never made a film that felt important to the culture.

Like most things having to do with Africa’s development, there will have to be some form of compromise from cinema purists, I must admit. Industries are built on wealth not prestige, ideals and critical acclaim. Grants and aid from foreign sources will gift as a couple of great films each year but there is no real viability there. Worst of all, these films don’t really get seen by Africans. They get no real screen time in our cinemas if any at all.

So what’s the way forward then? Nollywood I guess (insert shrug emoji). The Nigerian film industry’s foothold is getting deeper and deeper and it is kind of impressive. Streaming services, Netflix in particular, are to thank for this; helping entrench their influence and standing in popular culture which begun with the video boom from two decades ago. A carousel of Nigerian films greets me anytime I scroll through Netflix because there is a growing appetite for Nollywood content on the continent and in the diaspora. We are at a point where Netflix was compelled to place its strongest bet on the industry by purchasing Genevieve Nnaji’s ‘Lionheart‘ for distribution.

But it’s mostly pulp. As much as we love to tout the unprecedented capture of our screens by Nollywood, there is a frivolous method to the madness. It needs more substance that will elevate it to the next level. Whilst a filmmaker like Kunle Afolayan has demonstrated his ability to consistently deliver more thoughtful stories about his setting I need to see more textured stories from the Nollywood behemoth.

And that next level for Nollywood should be more pan-African and possibly involve a scenario where Ghana, Liberia and other Anglophone countries are reaping the fruits of its gigantic market. We should get to point where a production has the diverse business DNA of a film like the widely acclaimed ‘Rafiki’ which had a Kenyan director, was produced by a South African and adapted from a Ugandan short story.

Like in the socio-political realms, Africa’s success in the cinema scape will depend on us coming together. The only route to success is pan-African – a structural counter to the decimation of the continent by the colonial powers. The same thinking required to overcome existing and emerging neo-colonial forces is needed to ensure a higher cinematic discourse.

I’ll conclude with what Wanuri Kahiu, Rafiki’s director, said to Quartz Africa: “I think it’s high time that we come together and do more pan-African collaborations because west Africa has a really great history of cinema.”