AKOSUA ADOMA OWUSU
Saving Rex Cinema
PART I | PART II
The world is looking rather curiously but with excitement at Akosua Adoma Owusu’s, the producer and director of the award-winning documentary Kwaku Ananse, attempt to revive one of Ghana’s oldest cinemas, Rex Cinema. Rather than celebrate the selection of her documentary at the recently held Africa Movie Academy Awards, Akosua is transforming the energy derived from this opportunity to reawaken Ghana’s slumbering cinema culture. This effort to put breath back in the lungs of the Rex Cinema, which is strategically located in the heart of the central business district of Accra, is an indication of a desire to not leave behind Ghana’s rich cinema legacy in the face of her fast yet uneven development. A material heritage of Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, the Rex Cinema is not simply a testament to the vision for a Pan-African cinema that questions the partial truths nourished by the ideological and material debris leftover by colonialism but a reminder that there was a time and there existed a space where radical ideas that incited change flourished.
The African cinema, a place where creativity from the continent was expressed through the compelling media of the visual—the screen—will effectively and remarkably foster an anticolonial mindset that immensely paved the way to independence. The cinema was therefore not only a site for cultural production and transformation but a space that saw the incipient development of radical political ideas at the dawn of independence and beyond in Africa. Nkrumah therefore saw value in cinema, acknowledging the compelling power of visual narrative. Recognizing the independent state as coterminously a neocolonial state Kwame Nkrumah’s desire to harness the cultural resources of Ghana led him to pursue a cinema culture that transformed and liberated reactionary colonial mindsets. The Rex Cinema, among other cinemas, thus helped to sustain a radical trans-African liberatory project, a project prominently linked to the liberation of Africans in the diaspora or what Paul Gilroy so cleverly calls the Black Atlantic.
To resurrect the Rex Cinema is therefore part of a project to obstruct the transition to the brink of extinction of some of Ghana’s vital organs, which are the visual, aural and oral, in a culture that appreciates the value of those multiple Ghanaian stories inhumed in the making of contemporary Ghana. Undoubtedly, therefore, the erasure of the Rex Cinema like other cinemas constructed in the same era reflects the erosion Nkrumah’s vision for a pan-African cinema with a liberatory tenor. And this tenor leaves much to be desired. To reawaken the Rex from the doldrums caused by the vagaries of both material and immaterial losses is to reignite the candlelight of hope and of creativity. Adding to that, it also represents an effort to harness knowledge to recover the once powerful and compelling feature of the cinema as a site where the political, psychological, cultural, intellectual, economic, and social ideas interfaced.
Design233 interviews Akosua Adoma Owusu on her life works and the drive behind saving the Rex Cinema which gave birth to a successful Kickstarter project in November to raise funds to rehabilitate the cinema.
Design233: It is well known that the kinds of decisions that animate our career choices are often influenced by our complex backgrounds. In this regard, how did your multiple backgrounds help shape your career path as an up and coming producer on the world stage in general and in the Ghanaian cinematography scene in particular?
“I want to explore what it means to be a Ghanaian-American filmmaker involved in the Ghanaian film industry.”
Akosua Adoma Owusu (December 2013)
Akosua Adoma Owusu: Even though my family is from Ghana, I was born and spent most of my adult life in America. I am the only one of 7 children who was born and raised in America. In my films, I like to move between American and Ghanaian contexts, creating everything from art films to video installations. I call it my “triple consciousness,” which includes identity and memory discourses as well. Since my experience with filmmaking thus far is primarily based in Ghana, I have found a place for myself in the Ghanaian art and creative community. My films and art reflect memories of Ghana and my strong connection to it. At the same time, my film studies at the University of Virginia and the California Institute of the Arts have also heavily influenced my creative process. Some have said that my films are unconventional, but I’ve simply tried to tell stories from my own perspective and share them with others. I want to explore what it means to be a Ghanaian-American filmmaker involved in the Ghanaian film industry.
Design233: Representation and interpretation are powerful themes in documentaries that are thought-provoking and moving. Do you have any expectations from the audience in terms of how they interpret, represent, and convey the packages afforded them through your documentaries and short films?
Akosua Adoma Owusu: Well no, not really. I studied fine arts in college and grad school. And, though I used film as a medium, I didn’t necessarily adhere to a particular filmmaking style. My approach is to enjoy the process of experimentation rather than to focus on pleasing an audience or follow classic narrative film conventions. As a result, my films often take on a more playful cinematic form. I struggle with getting into a flow of writing scripts, so, I often start with stories I already know. Then, I layer the existing story with broader concepts of Black representation and my own personal experiences. The resulting films have provocative interpretations, while appealing to universal audiences at the same time.
Design233: Your short film, Me Broni Ba (My White Baby), obviously brings to the fore some of the thorny issues on race, gender, and beauty in postcolonial Africa. In making the film, would you argue that Ghanaians conceptualize and engage with the subject of race, a concept that is commonly understood to be non-existent in Ghana?
Akosua Adoma Owusu: I wouldn’t say the concept of race is non-existent in Ghana. I guess we are wrestling with post-colonial issues in a racialized society that is majority Black. Ghana is a predominately Black society wrestling with postcolonial issues, so racism isn’t a priority like it is in the West. Back in 2009, I was invited to show Me Broni Ba to NAFTI film students in Ghana after having a number of screenings at international film festivals. The students struggled to contextualize the race issues in the film, which uses symbolic representations of beauty to tell the story of a young person trying to belong. In addition, Me Broni Ba did not follow a narrative style the students were accustomed to, so, their inability to engage in the work was understandable. My parents and siblings came straight from the village of Bodomase, Kumasi to America without experiencing much city life in Ghana. When my sister came to America, she was the only African girl in her elementary school class. Until then, she had not interacted with many foreigners, and she was fascinated by all the white children—in particular, with their hair. She wanted to understand why their hair was so different from her own. With Me Broni Ba, I created a personal ethnographic travelogue by documenting hair salon signs in Ghana – an art form that rarely exists anymore – and used them to convey my sister’s childhood memory. As a Ghanaian of the diaspora, I was fascinated by these signs, and saw them as art forms, but the Ghanaian film students couldn’t see it because most of them grew up in the city with a middle-class experience. We are deeply embedded in a system that blinds us to the subtle structural and symbolic racism surrounding us. Despite the contextual challenges, Me Broni Ba received a Special Jury Mention at the Real Life Documentary Film Festival in Ghana, in 2010.
Design233: Your award-winning documentary Kwaku Ananse has certainly garnered a lot of attention on both global and local scales. In what ways do you think that it will shift thinking about the significance of the uncertain co-existence of the local in the global, tradition in modernity, the past in the present, mythology and reality, to give but a partial list, in postcolonial Ghana?
Akosua Adoma Owusu: Kwaku Ananse is about preserving a traditional oral story, long forgotten by mainstream Ghanaian culture, while being sentimentalized by many peoples of the African diaspora. I don’t expect my film to do any major shifts in Ghanaian thinking, quite frankly. I mean, it’s a short film that transcended challenges from its conception of an ideological myth to its completion of cinematic reality. However, I hope Kwaku Ananse’s success can help stimulate cinematic creativity, and encourage others in the Ghanaian film industry to adapt our cultural myths to film.
Design233: Your recent emergence on the Ghanaian scene certainly presents the promise that Ghanaian cinema will be revitalized, and it is also evidence that the nation’s movie industry has a future. Locally, who inspires your work?
Akosua Adoma Owusu: There are several heavyweights doing great things to promote the Ghanaian film industry, so, I’m not sure I can take credit for revitalizing the Ghanaian film scene. And, I am not concerned about making films for profit, as my work appeals more to the arthouse crowd. I just love everything about Ghana so, locally, I am inspired by the mundane aspects of everyday life in West Africa. I don’t think I can identify one particular place or thing. I very much admire the works of Kwaw Ansah, who I approached over the phone to produce, my short, Kwaku Ananse. I finally got to meet him a few months ago at the Africa Womens Development Film Forum, and his television station, TV AFRICA is one of my four media partners for the television debut of Kwaku Ananse in Ghana. I also like Efua Sutherland’s adaptation of the traditional Kwaku Ananse story, in her play, “The Marriage of Anansewaa.” And I admire the work of quite a few Black British filmmakers and artists. For the longest time, my mentor Kevin Jerome Everson, was the African filmmaker with whom I had the strongest connection. He is a prolific African-American filmmaker from Ohio, and one of the very few Black filmmakers who possess a specific Avant Garde style. Last year, I discovered the work of British-Ghanaian filmmaker John Akomfrah. A friend from grad school invited me to the screening of his film “Nine Muses” at George Washington University. I was, and still am, in such awe of that man, and getting to meet him was a huge thrill. His films are incredibly enigmatic, so visually poignant, and the fact that he’s Ghanaian inspires me greatly. This year, he has a new documentary about one of my favorite cultural theorists, Stuart Hall, and I hope to see it very soon.
Continue on to Part II
The “Save the Rex” Launch Concert is happening tonight, 7th December at 6pm GMT at the Rex Cinema. Click here for more information.
Videography By Giulia Terra; Photography By Charles Lawson.