"We are doing worse than Hollywood": Interview with Kwah Ansah
Steve Ayorinde is a journalist, author, and one of Nigerria's best known film and art critics. He is also a foundation juror of AMAA since 2005. Olivier Barlet has translated a number of books on Africa and of African authors, and is also the author of different books himself. He is a member of the Syndicat français de la critique de cinéma and has been a film correspondant for Africa international, Afrique-Asie and Continental, and now for Afriscope and Africultures.
Steve Ayorinde: Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you. The name of Kwah Ansah is to a large extent one of the most significant of African cinema. As far as cinema is concerned, we did not hear much from you in Nigeria since Heritage Africa. Has there been a break or change in your focus since that outstanding film?
Kwah Ansah: No, there hasn’t been a break. There hasn’t been a shift. There has been rather a pause to reorganize, perhaps to meet a bigger challenge. There was a time when cinema in Ghana was quite active. When colleagues like Ola Balogun or Ousmane Sembène and Co. were meeting at various forums to discuss the future of the industry. Of course, it was very expensive and to make one film, it took nearly a million dollars. Having no color laboratory, we had to do the post-production outside, in our, shall I say, masters’ countries! The English speaking Africans had not the chance of the French speaking. Fortunately for them, there was the French Ministry of Cooperation which helped them to do a lot of films, whereas our colonial master didn’t think of a place for us. So, we had to struggle on our own to do the little we did.
Whenever we met at any festival, there were very few English speaking filmmakers, not because we couldn’t make films, but because the support to make the films was not there. That is why it took me eight years to come out with Love Brewed in an African Pot. The whole story is a film story. Being able to do it in the private sector and to get it out was quite a challenge. I collapsed several times. Fortunately, the film became a success. I remember when it first premiered in Lagos at the National Theatre, Mko Abiola was the guest of honour. Before the film started, he said, “My brother, I have to fly tonight and I don’t have much time for films, but amongst the things I understand, one is the jingles of money. As soon as the film starts, I will beg to leave.” The film started and Abiola sat through it to the end and he said that it was a long time since he had sat through a film. He donated 5,000 Nairas. In 1981, it was quite a lot of money; you could buy three or four cars!
Unfortunately, just as it was about to start, a friend that I had been helping a lot called Eddy Ugbomah, wrote in a Concord that for the first time one Ghanaian film comes to Nigeria, Kwah Ansah had been made to sit in the president’s chair, which was not true. He had to create a myth for me. When I saw that, I said, “Look, this is dangerous” and I didn’t bother to let the film be released at all. But then, it became very successful. Luckily I was able to make about a million dollars, but just through the African English speaking continent. I thought doors would open for me to make my second film, but it took me another four years. Heritage Africa was the first film to make the grand prix at Ouagadougou in 1989. Apparently, they wanted a Burkinabé to win it. (He shows the “etalon de Yenenga” Fespaco trophy in a glassed case of his office.) They made the trophy much larger than it normally is. That day when I won it, I was ill with fever. Nobody would help me! I left it on the stage, I went home and went back with a taxi to pick it up. My prize money, it took me one month to get it.
But coming back to the cinema itself, I think video has played a role in making the Ghanaian film industry go down a bit. We had been struggling with the Ghanaian government to put a film policy together, as they are not aware of the role the film industry plays in the development of a nation. We started for a film policy 25 years ago! It’s now in Parliament. I don’t know when it’s going to come out. We did the best we could. I must say that the advent of video has come in handy though it has created a bit of danger. Nigeria hasn’t realized what Africans have gone through. They put the film in a very positive light.
We have stories to tell in Africa. 90% of the film I see are juju, juju, juju, what is it? I know Nigerians, I grew up with them. They were the best traders. They came to our village and were very hardworking people. And I didn’t see many Nigerians making it through juju! They worked hard and sweat for it. What is this wrong impression that every successful person from Nigeria should have gone through juju? They say, it is reality. I say this is nonsense!
Then there are other difficulties. If you go to our campuses today they are studying Occultism, because of what is appearing in Nigerian films. Occultism! I could see the potential of great things coming from Nigeria, because I thought they had come to fill a vacuum. Hollywood has made so much against the black race and when we have the opportunity to tell our own stories, we are confirming the same thing! Even we are doing worse than Hollywood! It has been a very painful thing. And I must say that Ghana also has gone to sleep a bit, as far the film industry is concerned. We are very few people, but you have Ghanaians who are following the same Nigerian example. But I told you though of the pause to reorganize. We are trying to reorganize.
I will take you to what I am doing. I try as much as I can and what I put up here are the largest studio spaces in the whole of West Africa. What I am going to do is to try and organize African filmmakers from all over Africa: we’ll equip the studios very well and we’ll set certain standards to tell healthy stories, not the juju, juju, juju and the murder, murder, murder! I’m not giving up. I’m writing a lot of series. For instance, I have a TV-series called The Good Old Days. I’ve written so far about 25 episodes, which will give us about 50 or 60 parts. When I start, I’m going to launch it for those who care to see. I want to show children of Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, because we all had one tradition of upbringing. Those were the days of community life. Each child was a child of the community. It’s a drama, the parental care for their children, discipline in the house, and the tricks we play. These days, you get any silly boy, he comes to your house and says he is going to take your daughter for cinema! That wasn’t on for us. We always had to escape to meet our friends. It was fun. We must bring back some of these nostalgic things for parents to share with their children. These are good stories.
For example, my father had a car. None of us was allowed to sit in the car. We’d be walking to school and my father would toot his horn to say ‘Hurry up’ and then drive away. My father made you feel that you had to sweat to own a car. We had to learn the hard way. When I was struggling with all the handicaps in my quest to make a film, I had been hardened. It didn’t kill me. I’m still alive. The children have to learn a bit more about this world. The African child today doesn’t want to sweat. As a result, a few African children have been able to get married. In my time, when you meet a girlfriend, the girl wants to show you how well domesticated she is. These days, the girl says, ‘Take me to a Chinese restaurant.’ The girl knows you cannot afford it. So, what do you do? You have to steel it! You have to go to your father and lie and say, ‘I have to buy twenty-five books!’ And you use it to have one dinner with your girlfriend. We Africans are today conditioned to want an unaffordable life, to have pretenses. Even though we can’t afford to, we just want it. ‘Just do it!’ Parents contribute to the problem. They feel they have to satisfy every child rather than say, ‘No.’ My parents were not poor but they had values, and with these values, you grow well in dignity. These are the values I hope we can come back to.
Olivier Barlet: You spoke about financing. How did you manage to make your films ? Was it private money?
K.A.: I had to go to the bank and let me tell you something. I had gone all over the place and everybody said, ‘How can a private make money?’ The bank said ‘It is a risky business. We are not prepared to finance it.’ But one said, ‘Ok, we will try it, but we need a house from you’ I didn’t have a house. My wife got to tell her father. My father-in-law calls me and says, ‘I heard you had a lot of hard time and you want to make a film and the bank wants a house. Why didn’t you tell me? I have faith in you, I believe you can make it. You are a very modest man. Here are the papers, take it.’ I nearly collapsed. Your father-in-law is giving you a house. If you are not able to take the house back, there’s a chance of losing your wife too! You can imagine, I couldn’t sleep. Eventually, I did Love Brewed in an African Pot and paid off the loan and took the papers from the bank, which I brought back to my father-in-law. He said to keep them, but I said, ‘No please take them back! Those things have been too heavy on my mind!’ The second time, luckily, I had my own house and I used it as a collateral. You can imagine how difficult it could be.
O.B.: Did it then come to a time where it wasn’t possible to finance a big production by private means?
K. A.: After Heritage Africa, the experience has been so bitter! I thought that the success of Love Brewed would have opened doors for me but even windows were shut. It was like starting all over again! And during that time it didn’t take too long for Ghana to sell its industry, for the Malaysians to turn it into a TV Station. Alongside the films, my film production was starting its owned advertising agency. Then I was selected to lead African filmmakers like Cheickh Oumar Sissoko to team up with Henry Hampton’s Blackside serving as Co-Executive Producer to produce Hopes On The Horizon, a Ford Foundation sponsored documentary series on the struggle for independence on the African continent and democratic governance from 1945-1995.
But before I took up that challenge, I told the Americans that I knew how to tell my own story. I had the trust of my African colleagues and I didn’t want to abuse it. I didn’t want history to be distorted. I knew that at the end of the day they would want to please their American public. The true story has to be told. They put 13 million dollars in the first episode, in just one episode! And they wanted to film a school here, something else there, to put a traveling there, etc. Then it came to telling the story and even the academics said that if you want to tell the African story the first president you have to talk about is Nkrumah. It was agreed. My counterparts were African-Americans. Unfortunately, they wanted to please the American public. Henry Hampton said that the American public wouldn’t be happy about Nkrumah and that there was a very famous farmer at that time. So they used that story and it was an insult.
Then, it came to another issue: women. I said that we are always talking about men in struggle. They proposed an important woman in South Africa called Mama Ngoye. She actually led the thing. We took her. Another woman came to mind: Winnie Mandela. An African American woman said, “But she’s a murderer.” I said, “No, this is getting too far.” Then, they wanted an African achievement. We traveled to South Africa, to Ethiopia, to Eritrea and found a story there. Eritrea’s independence was unique because they took it from another African country, Ethiopia. After Eritrea took independence they realized that the mass public transport had been damaged. Trains and tracks had been damaged, the sleepers taken to be used in the war and so on. They wanted to revive it and The World Bank offered 40 million dollars for the reconstruction. So they put out a call to all the old railway engineers and about ninety of them came. The youngest was about seventy five. They started work and they managed to put a train back on the rails, but it was a smaller train as they couldn’t get the spare parts for the original train and they made their own to produce a smaller train from what was left and we rode on it for about 60 kilometers. I thought that this would be a good thing to show. Then, my team came back and said that the World Bank wouldn’t be very happy. I washed my hands and said, “You can have your project because I cannot tell a lie.” And the project collapsed.
But as far as I am concerned, I am very hopeful. I want to believe that it’s better late than never. The issue of, for instance, Nigerian films not really according the positive values of Africa, to me, is temporary. I’m sure it can be rectified very soon. One day minds will meet to really set the stage for the African cinema to continue.
O.B.: Is TV Africa taking this direction to show an emerging Africa?
K. A.: Yes. But I must say that the Ford Foundation project helped me quite a bit. 300,000 or 400,000 dollars were [Ford] Foundation money. The rest comes from my advertising agency, the billboard, outdoors and whatnot. It has been quite a struggle for the past twenty years to get this far.
O.B.: It’s very rare in Africa to have a cultural channel on television.
K.A.: What we want to do is to show that it is possible. I won’t say that we have 100% African: there are also good culture films from elsewhere, because we have a lot to share. We try to set good values of the universe.
O.B.: How long have you been running the channel?
K.A.: Officially, about two years now. So far, it’s not been bad at all. It’s been very capital intensive and, if we have the support, we’ll gradually move. We need to get to 45 millions dollars. The little we have done has been very appreciated. We’re gaining support here. We get to 85 km radius from Accra and hope by Christmas to get to Kumasi and Takoradi.
S. A.: Now that you have developed a business model, how much of a cultural nationalist are you still?
K. A.: No matter how big I grow, my passion to make a contribution towards the upholding of the African values means a lot to me. Because, the way things are going, if we don’t sacrifice to pay the price now, a time will come where the damage will be so severe, that we will not have a way to go to repair it. That’s my way. I want to share the positive values of the world. This is very important to me.
S. A.: Would you involve yourself in politics?
K. A.: Well, I try as much as possible not to meddle much in politics, even if I am a Nkrumah-ist! He did a lot for the African continent and I so respect him. I am a patriot, to start with. It makes little difference who comes to mess Africa up, providing they do the right thing for the people. A number of the African leadership do not think about the common people. This is very sad. They keep blaming the First World, but we live in a survival world. If you don’t want to learn how to survive, it’s your problem. Stop blaming! We had enough education. You cannot live in a vacuum. The British and the French were once under the Romans. It got to a point when the French wanted to be French. The British did the same thing and wanted to have their own values. Globalization to me is based on choices. What contribution are we making to the global world in order to be respected? We are passengers. When are we ever going to be drivers?