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?
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.
Design233: What Ghanaian or African stories need to be told?
Akosua Adoma Owusu: I’d like to see more adaptations of African literature, and collaborations between African authors and filmmakers as well. African filmmakers are a new wave of storytellers, and we aren’t limited to one particular genre or style of filmmaking. The stories that inspire us are very playful and creative. The African continent has a wealth of fascinating stories, and cinema can be used to engage different audiences of our world. As we were denied the privilege of using film for so long, we should be encouraged to create magical stories and innovative moving pictures. And, international audiences are recognizing a market for our stories; specifically when they are told from authentic African perspectives. That international support can offer us an opportunity to tell our own stories and further develop a new African cinema movement.
D233: What do you think is the trajectory of the Ghanaian film industry in the age of Nollywood, Hollywood, Bollywood, and the rather nascent “Ghallywood”? Should our movie industry be coined after another movie industry’s?
Akosua Adoma Owusu: I think the current trajectory of Ghanaian film industry to continue experimenting with the way we tell our stories. African films are already globally more successful than Hollywood and even Bollywood. I find that they are viewed by Africans all over the continent, and also by Africans in the diaspora. However, “Ghallywood” is a problematic term to me, because it implies that we are still dependent on Western colonial structures, when in fact we can simply call our style type of film industry. Unfortunately, I find myself alternating between the use of the world “Ghallywood” and “Ghanaian film industry” when describing film productions coming out of Ghana. And, I’m hoping to decolonize my mind and stop making this mistake when talking about it.
Design233: What kinds of hurdles confront emerging producers, filmographers, and documentarians in Ghana?
Akosua Adoma Owusu: Some of the challenges facing Ghanaian producers, artists and filmmakers are: making significant profit from DVD distribution sales, finding the space to exhibit work locally, and reaching a global audience. In Ghana, the marketplace is vast with thousands of films produced every year. So, it’s difficult for films that don’t feature celebrities to get attention. And, even though documentaries are great ways to educate Ghanaians about the state of our world, they, unfortunately, do not enjoy much financial or mainstream success. Also, there are major initiatives and resources available for cultural producers from third world countries, Ghanaians receive very little of this information, because our film industry thrives on individual production as opposed to international co-production. The challenge is that individual producers have to compete with international co-productions for limited funding sources. Many African film producers struggle to get their work noticed, because they don’t get the financial support they need. There are, however, major funding initiatives to support African filmmakers who tell stories from our own perspectives, which can encourage a new African Cinema movement.
Design233: Any reflections on how your position as a black woman, born and raised in the United States to Ghanaian parents, interact with your becoming an artistic, erudite, keenly perceptive producer, who produces didactic and transformative films?
Akosua Adoma Owusu: Being a Black woman who was born and raised in America to African parents is, naturally, where I draw my inspiration from as an artist and filmmaker. And, I see myself growing into a whole being now that I am living here. I grew up and spent most of my life as an adult in Virginia, with a strong Ghanaian community and occasional childhood trips to Ghana. Living in America, I felt a sense of otherness, and a longing to connect to my parents’ country, which influenced my desire to mix American and West African cultures in my films, because they are my reality. And, I think the personal nature of my films connects to this feeling of loneliness, which is universal. Now that I am living in Ghana, I am learning more about my “Ghanaianess” just by being here. I like to say my work is a manifestation of my “triple consciousness:” of being American, Ghanaian or a mix of these cultures. Now, however, I think I am learning to simple be conscious – aware that my cultural backgrounds are not separate parts of me, but rather they influence my whole being.
Design233: Traditionally our modes of story-telling as Ghanaians had spatial implications. What is your interest in the Rex cinema and how do you envision it in the future as a bridge between past & current modes of “story-telling”?
Akosua Adoma Owusu: My interest in the Rex Cinema came from my search to find alternative cultural spaces to exhibit my short film, Kwaku Ananse. I was searching for a communal space in which to exhibit the film; a space that simulated storytelling by a fire side or in communal settings. I found very few exhibition places in Ghana specifically for films that do not fit into the mainstream. Films are not films unless they have an audience, and, I saw so many of my Ghanaian creative peers struggling to find venues and, consequently, to find an audience. The Rex Cinema in Ghana will be like the Apollo Theater was in Harlem – where artists, musicians, or filmmakers can find an audience. In addition, I envision the Rex as a transatlantic collaboration space where artists of the Black diaspora can show their work to a new audience, while having Ghanaian audiences exposed to other examples of storytelling. In terms of design, I want to collect or commission hand-painted Ghanaian horror movie posters from the 80s and have them framed in the cinema. I also want to work with archivists in Europe and the National Archives in Washington DC, to create a digital archive of early Ghanaian films and films from the colonial era and make them available for public viewing. I foresee The Rex Cinema as a kind of Colored museum really – an archive of history and history in the making.
Listen to the two-part interview with Akosua Adoma Owusu here: Part I | Part II.
The Kickstarter for Save the Rex project raised over $9,000 which went towards the renovation of the historic cinema!