BIBI OWUSU SHADBOLT’S
An Interview With The Writer, Producer & Co-Director of Afua’s Diary
” I love the originality of African literature. I grew up studying works of greats like Ama Atta Aidoo, Ayikwei Armah, Prof Awoonor and Aminata Sowfall, and one thing I liked about their works was the ability to use art and beauty to deal with important issues affecting the societies they found themselves in.
Statistics shows a huge decline in the study of literature on the continent, which is a shame, as I believe writing plays a huge role in shaping our future.”
Bibi Owusu Shadbolt (November, 2015)
Last October, Bibi Owusu Shadbolt brought Afua’s Diary to the big screens in Ghana. Prior to this, it had gotten rave reviews in the United Kingdom where it was first premiered. A love story that touches on the pertinent issue of immigration, Afua’s Diary follows the journey of a young Ghanaian woman and her quest to make a life in the United Kingdom, amidst dealing with. Bibi Owusu Shadbolt, the writer and producer of Afua’s Diary film, takes what she describes as the controversial and boring topic of immigration and the hustle migrants go through, and infuses it with humor and wit to create this critically-acclaimed movie. The movie has gotten nods from renowned international film festivals, including Cannes and an award from New York WAD Film Festival. Afua’s Diary is a story a lot of immigrants can identify with. The film has a diverse cast, which includes British model of Ghanaian descent, Cleopatra Wood, Italian-Egyptian actor Fabio Abraham and renowned Ghanaian comedian and actor, Kwaku Sintim-Misa (KSM).
Afua’s Diary is Bibi’s first feature length movie, co-directed with Ben Owusu of Pixelex Aspect, and its success caught her by surprise. Bibi Owusu Shadbolt, who is based in the UK, has always loved writing but to her, her journey to becoming a screenwriter, film producer and director, which began in Ghana, happened by chance. However, she is the epitome of hardwork and discipline with her attention to detail and the importance she places on learning her craft. Design233 caught up with Bibi following a successful premiere in Ghana to chat about Afua’s Diary, her experiences and what she has in store for her next production.
Design233: Firstly, Congratulations on Afua’s Diary! It’s your first feature-length film, it’s gotten rave reviews, won the New York WAD Film Festival award along with a number of nominations and a successful premiere in Ghana, your home country, in October! This must be a dream come true! What is going through your mind at the moment?
Bibi Owusu-Shadbolt: It’s definitely an exciting time at the moment. The support that Afua’s diary has received has been amazing and to have the opportunity to showcase the film in my home country is really humbling.
D233: Family first for me! How is your family taking all this excitement? Tell us about them? You had just had a baby at the time you were writing Afua’s Diary!
BOS: Yes, I had a baby at the time. I took a filmmaking course with the Raindance Film School in London while I was pregnant and decided to use my maternity leave to write my first screenplay. I must admit it was quite daunting combining first-time motherhood with first time screenwriting but I am blessed with a very supportive husband. He has been my rock throughout this whole process; encouraging me to follow my passion and push on when things get tough. He is very proud of what I have achieved so far.
D233: What inspired the story and influenced the decision to pair comedy with a pertinent issue as immigration for an African immigrant.
BOS: It’s a story many people can relate to. Afua’s Diary was inspired by a friend’s story. Like the male character in Afua’s Diary, my friend had a relationship with an African woman who had immigration issues. I felt the story had all the makings for a great love story. The problem I had, however, was that the subject of immigration can sometimes be considered controversial and boring so I felt it was important to inject some comedy into the narrative.
“As a screenwriter, I believe research is essential to creating authentic characters and storylines.”
Bibi Owusu Shadbolt (November, 2015)
D233: Did you have to do a lot of research on the topic?
BOS: Yes, I did. As a screenwriter, I believe research is essential to creating authentic characters and storylines. Much as I was familiar with many of the issues in the story (being an immigrant myself) I interviewed several people to find out about their experiences too, to add to that authenticity. I also spent a lot of time researching home office and other government sites to familiarize myself with immigration laws. The issue I was tackling in Afua’s diary was one that many people face and I wanted to do justice to the theme by telling the story as real and accurate story as possible.
“As to KSM, I couldn’t think of a better person to play the role of Mr Forson. The character is so exaggerated and ludicrous that it required an experienced comedian and actor to tackle the part. KSM was the first person that came to mind when I was thinking of Ghanaian comedians and he really brought the character alive, even beyond my expectation.”
Bibi Owusu Shadbolt (November, 2015)
D233: What determined the cast, working with Cleopatra, Fabio and KSM in Afua’s Diary?
BOS: Our choice of cast was purely based on suitability for the role. In addition to having the necessary skills to play their characters individually, Cleopatra and Fabio also had great chemistry together, which is of key importance when telling a love story and making that story believable.
As to KSM, I couldn’t think of a better person to play the role of Mr Forson. The character is so exaggerated and ludicrous that it required an experienced comedian and actor to tackle the part. KSM was the first person that came to mind when I was thinking of Ghanaian comedians and he really brought the character alive, even beyond my expectation.
D233: A larger portion of the cast for Afua’s Diary has ties to different parts of Africa. Was this strategic on your part?
BOS: I wouldn’t really say it was strategic. Yes, we wanted to represent Africa in the British film industry but we also wanted a film that portrayed the society that we live in today. London is a random melting pot of cultures and the fact that many of our cast have links to Africa and other continents is actually a reflection of this.
D233: What went into the production- the team, the set, costumes, locations, shooting in London and Ghana?
BOS: I was so blessed to have one of the most talented, hardworking teams anyone can ask for. The production company, Pixelex aspect were just brilliant. Ben Owusu, the director of the company did the on-set directing and I learnt so much from him. He taught me a lot about shot composition, framing, camera angles, etc. My editor, Jason Gurr was brilliant too. I am a perfectionist and can be a bit pedantic at times. There were times I would go back and change things after so many edits. For an editor that can be quite a grueling task, but he was so patient and was always prepared to rework something until we got it right, such an amazing guy.
D233: Will Afua’s Diary show in other parts of the continent?
BOS: Yes, we are currently in talks to release Afua’s diary in Nigeria & South Africa, and on the 31st of October, there will also be a one-off screening at the Out of Africa Film festival in Nairobi where it’s been nominated for an award.
D233: Design233 is curious about your background. You majored in English literature at the University of Cape Coast and then onto London to study finance, worked as a financial advisor afterwards, but kept on writing and producing plays on the side. Why the switch to Finance and what kept you going back to writing and producing?
BOS: I studied finance and marketing obviously because of the financial opportunities they presented. Writing, however is my passion and I feel very privileged to now have that as my career.
D233: Which production was the defining moment when you realized this was your true passion?
I wrote a religious satire for my local TV station called ‘…and forgive us our sins’. Enamored by its success, the station producer told me I was going to be a big comedy writer/director one day. They were simple words but I ran with them and decided to chase that dream.
D233: Tell us about some of your stage productions and writings? What stories do you like to write about?
BOS: I wrote different stories with different themes and subjects ranging from religion to social issues. My best production, however, was a modern day rendition of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet which I produced with a youth group in Edmonton in London. It was the first time I wrote romance for the stage and I really loved it. (Perhaps that was what motivated me to do a romantic comedy for my first film)
D233: Do your personal experiences play into them? What inspires your plots?
BOS: I get inspiration from different sources. Just about everything I see, hear, read about or experience can spark an idea for a story.
Good screen writing is all about character development as well as story and structure so I spend a lot of time on characterization. The questions I try to answer when creating a character are: Who is this character? where are they coming from? Why are they in my story? To make the character as believable as possible, I normally do a lot of research into real life people with similar traits and disposition. This helps me create three-dimensional characters who come alive not only for me but for the audience.
Bibi Owusu Shadbolt (November, 2015)
D233: What goes into creating a character?
BOS: Good screen writing is all about character development as well as story and structure so I spend a lot of time on characterization. The questions I try to answer when creating a character are: Who is this character? where are they coming from? Why are they in my story? To make the character as believable as possible, I normally do a lot of research into real life people with similar traits and disposition. This helps me create three-dimensional characters who come alive not only for me but for the audience.
D233: As a writer, at what point do you say stop, this is ready to go? Describe your creative process.
BOS: Afua’s Diary was my first feature film so I did about thirty drafts. Lol.
But ideally, four drafts are enough to get the script ready for production. I normally do the first draft to get my thoughts on paper. On the second draft, I look at technique, style and overall structure and ask a fellow screenwriter to look through. I then incorporate all relevant suggestions and send it to a screen editor for the final edit.
D233: What made you move from stage plays to film and how was the transition from playwrighting to screen writing?
BOS: As I said, I went into screenwriting by chance. My local community group wanted a writer for a short film and as there was nobody available for the task, I decided to give it a try. That script was well received by the producers who advised me to go into screenwriting. What I realized when I started the screenwriting course was that while playwriting mainly requires narrative skills, screenwriting was very technical. Luckily, I had good tutors who made the transition easy for me.
D233: For someone looking to make such a move, what are things to consider?
BOS: First of all, write/acquire a good and exciting script because great movies are made from well written scripts.
Secondly, write a good business plan that details budget, production, marketing and distributing as this is likely to attract investors. I must however say that funding is the most difficult hurdle to jump especially for first time filmmakers. One of the avenues to exploit in the area of funding is fundraising sites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter.
Finally, do not let the harsh realities of filmmaking (rejections, objections, depression, early aging, hundreds of unanswered emails) stop you from achieving your goal.
D233: Which genre of movies appeal to you and what stories are you looking forward to telling in future productions?
BOS: I love different genres as long as the production is good. In terms of stories I would like to tell for future productions, I am looking at telling African themed stories. My main aim is to bring African cinema to Western audiences and Afua’s Diary has done well in that regard.
D233: Any actors from the African continent you would like to work with and what would be your dream movie production?
BOS: I like Genevive Nnaji, Joselyn Dumas and Joseph Benjamin.
D233: The reception for your debut production and directorial work has been phenomenal and everyone who has not seen it, myself included, is looking forward to watching it. What would you do again and what would you do differently? Lessons learnt?
BOS: I would work with the cast again. They were brilliant and I wouldn’t change a single one of them if I was to do it again.
Being our first feature, we made a few mistakes which cost us time and money but I put everything down to experience.
D233: As a creative writer, what are your thoughts on African Literature and its education in Ghana and the African continent?
BOS: I love the originality of African literature. I grew up studying works of greats like Ama Atta Aidoo, Ayikwei Armah, Prof Awoonor and Aminata Sowfall and one thing I liked about their works was the ability to use art and beauty to deal with important issues affecting the societies they found themselves in.
Statistics shows a huge decline in the study of literature on the continent which is a shame as I believe writing plays a huge role in shaping our future. Initiatives like the Burt Award for African literature is a step in the right direction when it comes to creating interest in the arts.
D233: African cinema is…(what comes to mind when you think about African cinema)?
D233: How can filmmakers and writers successfully tell the African story, most of which are undocumented?
BOS: You are definitely right. We have so many stories to tell and with the right scripts and the right distribution approach, we can attract a wider audience. Collaborations with other industries is also essential if we want to attract mainstream audiences. The world is gradually waking up to Africa and the success of films like Half a Yellow Sun proves that mainstream exposure is possible for African filmmakers.
D233: What are the plans for bringing Afua’s Diary to the small screen, in homes for people who are unable to catch it in the cinemas?
Afua’s Diary will go on VOD, DVD and in-flights early 2016. It will eventually go on TV by the end of 2016.
D233: What message would you want viewers of Afua’s Diary to leave with?
BOS: Afua’s diary deals with immigration, which is relatable to many Ghanaians who have either lived abroad or have relatives who have. I would like audiences to have insight into the challenges some young immigrants find themselves in when they travel to the UK. But more importantly, it is a light hearted romantic film so I would just like people to just go and relax and enjoy the film.
D233: Lastly, what next for Bibi Owusu Shadbolt?
BOS: Our next production is in development and is scheduled to start next year. It’s another romantic comedy with cast from Nigeria, UK, Ghana and America.
D233: Thank you so much your making the time to give us this interview. Design233 is highly honored and wishes you the very best in your upcoming premiere and future productions.
Afua’s Diary is scheduled for release in Kenya this March and to go on Video-On-Demand (VOD) world-wide, in English and French subtitles, in April. Follow Afua’s Diary on Facebook.
All images provided by Bibi Owusu Shadbolt