The stout government minister, himself an actor in his youth for the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, stood before a gathering of his country’s leading moviemakers. “All is not well with local films,” Jake Obetsebi-Lamptey declared in a manicured English accent. “We need to project a better image of Ghana in our movies. Our negative stories ill serve our nation.”
In the audience, Ghana’s leading film producer, a gentle Muslim man named Moro Yaro, stared into space. At Ghana’s third annual version of the Oscars, held on October 12, Yaro’s movies would sweep the prizes, winning best film, director, screenplay and male and female lead actors. But critics gave Yaro no chance to celebrate, hijacking the event, which was broadcast live on national television.
First, the head of Ghana’s commission on national culture, a government agency, excoriated local films for peddling stereotypes about dishonest husbands, faithless wives and “evil” in-laws. Then the chairman of the awards committee whined that too many of the 24 films made over the prior year relied on “supernatural” plot twists, a codeword for juju, or African magic. And finally there was the withering attack from the government’s chief mouthpiece, Obetsebi-Lamptey.
In visits to Ghana, I’ve gotten to know Yaro, and I sat next to him at the ceremony. As the criticism mounted, I gently asked why he did not take the microphone and defend himself. He shook his head and whispered, “No one wants to hear from me.”
Yaro’s answer to his critics is to keep making movies. For less than $15,000, he produces a 90-minute feature. The budget alone seems amazing given that the cost of a single lunch for a Hollywood crew can exceed his total spending, including promotion. His company, Princess Films, runs out of a shabby office on a nameless street in Osu, Accra’s only trendy neighborhood. Yaro directs visitors to a local landmark, a police station, from where a small Princess sign is barely visible.
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The week after the awards ceremony, Yaro commenced work on another installment in his Ripples series. In last year’s debut, a female lead extorted money from married men who impregnated girlfriends and then abandoned them. The woman even went so far as to arrange for the beating of the daughter of a greedy business executive who at first refused to pay.
In the Ripples sequel, which won four awards, a young woman is forced by circumstances to live with an aunt, whose husband then relentlessly pursues her for sex. In a part of the world where mistresses and indeed multiple wives are widely accepted, a rebellious woman, bent on revenge against men, seems shocking.
Yet the women characters in Ripples are sometimes defeated for reasons that suggest an unwillingness of directors to challenge common prejudices. The vengeful woman in the original Ripples, rather than achieving a heroic apotheosis, is arrested and, without any irony, disgraced and discarded in the end of the film. “We need better stories and a broader portrait of our lives and society,” says Veronica Quarshie, who directs and cowrites the Ripples films.
Studiously avoiding the images of abject poverty and filth that are hallmarks of daily life in Ghana, Quarashie’s melodramas offer an escape from reality, showing characters driving foreign cars and chattering on mobile phones, a lifestyle available only to a few privileged Africans. But while whitewashing poverty and ignoring politics altogether, these films discomfort elites because of their relentless assault on the inequities in male-female relations, portraying African men as backward, if not downright cruel.
Frank talk about the routine brutality against women is rare in Ghana, which is probably why Yaro’s films strike a chord with ordinary people. “There is a growing desire among women to settle scores, and even men realize that they must moderate their behavior,” says Juliet Asante, the actress who starred as the rebel woman in the first Ripples.
These populist films, while didactic and predictable, at least present an alternative to elite allegiance to the visual arts of former colonialists. In the quarter-century following Ghana’s independence from British rule in 1957, government subsidized filmmakers through a state agency modeled after the British Broadcasting Corporation. State financing led to the production of such minor classics as Love Brewed in the African Pot (1981) by director Kwaw Ansah.
In Francophone Africa, subsidies to filmmakers from the French government spawned a generation of well-trained and high-minded directors, including Ousmane Sembene (Senegal), Souleymane Cissé (Mali) and Idrissa Ouedraogo (Burkina Faso). These and other French-speaking directors made movies that were acclaimed by discerning critics in Europe and the United States, but rarely screened at home. The French justified African movie subsidies as part of a defense of the French language globally and the influence of France with its former African colonies, but African directors gradually began to mourn their alienation from their roots.
But the collapse of African economies in the ’80s led to the gradual withdrawal of state support for moviemakers. In Ghana, for instance, the government sold off its film unit to a private company a few years ago, and only a shell of the former operation remains. Ansah’s classic is out of print and impossible to find in Ghana, and he has stopped making films, unwilling to work in lower-cost video.
The new generation of movie producers in Ghana, led by Yaro, have resorted to short shooting schedules, semi-professional actors and videotape to pare down budgets. Films sell on the streets of Accra for $2 each. Moviemakers sometimes earn extra from theater exhibitions and broadcasting on one of the country’s three television stations. All together, a hit film is lucky to take in $20,000.
To be sure, globalization influences the aspirations of these filmmakers. Pirated American movies flood the country via the United States and Britain, often selling for little more than Ghana’s own films. While Ghana’s government censors forbid nudity and even passionate kissing in Ghanaian-made movies, foreign films enter the country uncut. In another contradiction, the government bans video rentals of domestic films, though no such ban against foreign movies exists.
Meanwhile, movies from Nigeria, a nearby English-speaking country, threaten to swamp Ghana’s audiences. While Nigerian movies also adhere to restrictions on sexuality, they can boast larger budgets because of the sheer size of Nigeria: At 120 million people, Nigeria has six times the population of Ghana and producers are turning out an estimated 400 movies a year.
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These films follow the same formula as Ghanaian movies. They tend to present cartoon versions of crime dramas, invoke juju to explain plot twists and concentrate on everyday betrayal between men and women. The market for “art” films in Nigeria is virtually non-existent, but the country’s pulp movies dominate television and movie theater screens. The most popular titles sell an estimated 200,000 copies on videocassette.
Filmmakers in both Ghana and Nigeria say their work is bound to improve. Zack Orji, a leading actor and director in Nigeria, has increasingly tackled more serious themes, such as the plight of a woman who cannot bear her husband a child and is forced to endure the presence of a second (and fertile) wife. “We need to be more daring and try new things, even as we struggle with the reality of making money,” Orji says.
Orji, who is self-taught, recently toured French-speaking countries of West Africa, where leading filmmakers are beginning to accept that government subsidies will likely never return. They’re eager to learn from Nigerians how to make low-budget movies. In this regard, technology is on the side of Africans who are on the verge of switching from analog to digital video, which will allow for sharper pictures, better sound and easier editing.
“The question is not whether we Africans can make great films,” says Orji, whose latest movies are filmed and edited in Ghana. “The question is whether we play in movies at all given all the foreign productions out there. I believe, whatever the quality of our films, our people will get any chance to hear their own voices and see their own faces.”
And out of the identification with those voice and faces, great art may someday spring. Until then, the global homogenized culture, which threatens the regional and continental distinctiveness of Africa, is held at bay. And that’s no mean feat.