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GUESTBLOG: Ghanaian Cinema From 1970-1980

A History of Ghanaian Cinema - by Emmanuel Quist-Haynes

The 1970s and 1980s period was marked by frequent change in governments dominated by the military, growing foreign debt and increase in public unrest was some of the reasons why a viable film industry was not an immediate option. The GFIC was exploited by each government by producing on-commercial documentary films to justify each government decision and reason for being in power. The period was also experiencing culturally transformation of the postcolonial era where there was a conflict between modern ways of living influenced by the west and traditional cultural practices. Some films of this era reflected these cultural dynamisms (Nanbigne, 2011)

I Told You So (1970) directed by Ebert Adjesu captures some of these postcolonial events that gradually shaped the nation. The film is set in the early days of independence which saw many people enlightened about their nationality and individual and collective responsibilities. The film opens inside a Ghana Airways aircraft where passengers look wealthy and enjoy the hospitality of the airline. The aircraft landed at the Accra international Airport; among the passengers is Jones, a tall well dressed man. He is chauffeur driven to a plush hotel where he takes a cigar and expensive food and drinks. He is approached by a less flamboyant man who introduces himself comically as Esua Abor Buo Otsimdee Otsim, the chief letter-writer of the city. He turns out to be trickster and opportunist whose friendship with Jones is driven by greed. Jones tells him he just returned from Nigeria where he has been working, made a lot of money and he wishes to marry a girl from Ghana. Esua Abor Buo promises to help him find a beautiful bride on condition he does not make friends with anybody aside him (Nanbigne, 2011, pp. 180 & 181).

Jones became the centre of attraction because of his display of wealth and everyone wanted a share of his wealth. Kwesi Twiiis sceptical about Jones’ wealth and does not trust rich people because he believes one can never tell their source of riches. He vows that his daughter, Rosina will not be allowed to marry any rich man. This brings him into conflict with his wife, daughter, brother and the entire community, who view Rosina’s marriage to Jones as an opportunity to make money. Despite Kwesi Twii’s stand, Rosina follows Esua Abor Buo’s advice and marries Jones. During the marriage ceremony, members of the Secret Police Service arrest Jones for diamond theft. This shatters Rosina’s dreams and disgraces her collaborators because of their involvement in the fraudulent marriage. Kwesi twii reminds them of his caution against the pursuit of easy riches and tells Esua Abor Buo, “I told you so.” This expression and many more humorous and witty dialogue in the film were popular and appreciated by audiences all over the country when it was first released. It became a household name and was shot in the Ghanaian language, Fanti (Nanbigne, 2011, pp. 181 & 182).

The popularity and commercial success of  I Told You So did not change the military government’s approach to commercial development of filmmaking but the government and state officials continued to use the corporation for its own agenda. Even though the corporation’s name changed from State Film Industry Corporation (SIFC) to Ghana Film Industry Corporation (GFIC) there was no mandate change or funding for commercial film production. The corporation had to rely on rentals of its facilities to foreigners and co-productions because it struggled to raise its own funds to produce films. The Corporation was able to produce Do Your own Thing (1970) by Bernard Odidja which talks about a young Ghanaian girl aspiring to be soul singer.

The sustainability of the corporation was at stake, so Sam Aryeetey embarked several co-productions with European producers that unfortunately failed financially (Ukadike, 1994; Hesse, personal communication, 2004). One of such was with an Italian company, Ital Victoria, represented by Giorgio Bontempi to make Contact (1974) which was directed by Bontempi. The GFIC for the first time faced an acute shortage of funds, so it had to borrow from the Ghana Commercial Bank ¢1,000,000.00 (one million Ghanaian Cedis) to finance it part of the deal. Unfortunately the film failed financially and left the corporation with a huge debt which prevented filmmakers from borrowing. An example was Kwaw Ansah, who in 1974 finished writing his script for Love brewed in the African pot but many years he could not find a bank willing to fund his film. He was constantly reminded of the GFIC’s debt for which the banks were reluctant to release funds to filmmakers. A few banks however offered a loan on condition he had collateral security but had none (Nanbigne, 2011, p 183). Despite the financial constraint, the GFIC tried and for many years later, produced another important film, Genesis Chapter X (1978) directed by Tom Ribeiro. This film was quite successful and gave hope to the corporation that it could turn its fortunes around.

 

The Establishment of the National Film and Television Institute (NAFTI)

That same year, the military government issued the SMC decree 151 (1978), paved the way for the setting up of the National Film and Television Institute, the premiere film school in Sub-Saharan Africa sited in cantonment in Accra to train professionals in various fields of film and television. The following year the first batch of students were admitted for a three year diploma programme in Film Directing, Television Production, Motion Picture Photography, Editing, Film Sound Recording, Set Design, Graphics and Animation. Two of the pioneering batch included, Kofi Bucknor, an award winning actor (Best Actor for Heritage Africa at FESPACO), filmmaker and former Director of Television at the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) and Kwaku Sintim-Misa (KSM), actor, satirist, filmmaker and CEO of Sapphire Ghana Ltd. The Friedrich Ebert Foundation of Germany supported the institute since its inception. They provided training, technical staff and funding. So most of the teaching and technical staff were foreigners mostly Germans. NAFTI provided professionals to feed institution such as the GFIC, GBC and some private film companies at the time.

Today Alumni of the Institute hold high position in all aspects of the film, television, advertising, music video and media industries in the Country. Some Alumni also have their own production companies like Shirley Frimpong-Manso’s Sparrow productions, Juliet Asante’s Eagle Production, Ivan Quashiegah’s Farm House Productions, Ramesh Jai’s Apex Adverting, Kofi Asamoah’s Kofas Media, Peter Sedufia’s OldFilm Productions and the list goes on. Foreign students from other African countries such as Nigeria, Namibia, Burkina Faso, Benin, Cameroon, Burundi, Swaziland, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Ethiopia, Gambia, Mali and Zimbabwe were also admitted at the Institute. NAFTI has trained 214 diploma students with the last batch graduating in 2001. In 1998, NAFTI went into Affiliation with the University of Ghana, Legon to upgrade the programmes into degree levels in the areas of Film Directing, Television Production, Motion Picture Photography, Editing, Film Sound Production, Animation and Art Direction leading to the award of a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) Degree. Also in 2012, as part of NAFTI’s strategic development into a fully fledged University, it introduced two new departments, Broadcast Journalism and Multimedia Production. Theoretical and liberal studies programmes are also taught to support the training programmes.

The first director of the Institute was Mr. Henry H. Hemans-Mensah (1978-1980) next were Mr Edward K. Abrebese (1980-1982), Mr. Kweku Adu-Gyamfi Opoku (1982-1984), Mr. Bill Marshall (1984-1995), Mr Martin Loh (1995-2010), Prof. Linus Abraham, first rector and graduate of the school to hold this position (2010-2017)  and currently Dr Samuel Nai, another graduate of the school (2017-), majority of the teaching staff are Alumni of the Institute. NAFTI will soon be upgraded into a Media Arts University to revitalize and make the school relevant in the training of professionals in the film, television, media and creative arts industries.

A scene from Kwaw Ansah’s Love Brewed in the African pot (1980)

At the end of the 1970s, the GFIC could not sustain itself in terms of commercial filmmaking. The corporation functioned as a propaganda unit for the government’s own purposes. Filmmakers were also not able to fund their films. A few like Kwaw Ansah who had been looking for funding for his film Love Brewed in the African Pot finally had support from his father-in-law who gave him his house and a cocoa farm as collateral for a bank loan. Films by independent filmmakers demonstrated the cultural and political issues of this period. Love Brewed in the African Pot (1980) which won the Oumarou Granda Prize for ‘remarkable direction and production line with African realities’ at the 7th Pan African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) in Burkina Faso in 1981 is set in postcolonial Ghana about the Appiah’s, a middle class family seem to carry on a certain life style emblematic of the colonialist. The father, Kofi Appiah, a retired clerk lives with his family in suburban Accra. Kofi and his wife have three children, two sons and a daughter, Aba.

The conflict in the story comes about when Aba refuses to marry a lawyer that her father suggests for her. The daughter defies her father and marries Joe Quansah a semi-literate auto mechanic and to top it all, marries in the traditional way, as opposed to the western-style wedding. A series of sub-plots designed to foil the otherwise happy relationship between the two leads the girl to end up in a mental institution. The film won two other awards the Special peacock Award for a feature film at the 8th International Film Festival of India and the UNESCO Film Prize, France in 1985. The next film which was produced was Kukurantum, Road to Accra (1983) by King Ampaw another independent filmmaker whose films were co-produced with European funds which Kwaw Ansah rejected because he thought foreign funding would change the authenticity of his story through an experience he had with his next film Heritage Africa. Foreign funding and co-productions did not in any way affect King Ampaw’s narrative themes in his films. Kukurantumi, road to Accra and Juju (1986) were produced by his company Afromovies and with Reinery Film Produktion and NDR Television, both of West Germany.

 Kukurantumi, Road to Accra (1983)

Kukurantumi, road to Accra is a story about a truck driver, Addey and his family plagued by misfortunes. Addey shuttles between his village, Kukurantumi and the capital Accra. Carring passengers with old fashioned Bedford lorry. He is involved in a series of unfortunate incidents which puts him in a big debt. In the cause of raising money to pay his creditors, Addey decides to give out his daughter, Abena for marriage to Mensah a wealthy businessman from Accra. Abena rejects her father’s proposal. In order to prevent confrontation with her father, Abena leaves for Accra to seek better fortunes. She finds herself confronted with the realities of the life in the big city such as unemployment, corruption and prostitution. Abena without any skills or education finds herself indulged in prostitution which her friend, Mary engages in. King Ampaw’s next film, Juju showcases the changing nature of African traditions and what traditional leaders, elders and people need to be aware of the dynamic world around them and adjust along with it. The story is set in a village where the chief sends his son to college. After his return, he proposes a communal project to construct a bore-hole to supply portable water to the people of the village. But this clashes with his father’s ambition to build a new palace through the same communal efforts.

A scene from the film Heritage Africa (1988)

Despite Love Brewed in the African Pot’s success, banks were still reluctant to fund Kwaw Ansah’s second film Heritage Africa (1988). It took about eight years after his first film that he got a loan from three banks-Social Security Bank, Ghana Commercial Bank and the National Investment Bank together raised two hundred million Cedis, ¢200,000,000.00 (about half a million US dollars, $500,000.00 at the 1998 exchange rate), quite a huge amount according to Ghanaian standards (Nanbigne, 2011, p 189). Heritage Africa tells the story of a native African, Quincy Arthur Bosomfield, who becomes the first African District Commissioner of His Majesty’s Gold Coast. As a graduate from the acclaimed Cambridge University in England which sets him a class above many of his countrymen, he becomes obliged to ‘dance to the tune’ of his European bosses, which meant denouncing everything African, and keeping up with his peers of similar affections. Named with a traditional African name-Kwesi meaning ‘a Sunday born’, Atta ‘part of a twin’ and Bosomefi ‘an illustrious ancestor is reborn’. He anglicizes these names which thus becomes Quincy Arthur Bosomfield. The film won the Étalon de Yennenga Grand Prix at FESPACO in 1989, the first from an Anglophone country. At the 1991 edition of FESPACO, it was honoured again with the Institute Black Peoples Award. Heritage Africa is considered as one of the most powerful and innovative films to come out of Africa due to its political and cultural significance (Ukadike, 1994, p 141).

The GFIC rented out its facilities to foreign film productions such African Timber, Cobra Verde, Deadly Voyage and Sankofa. Two other Ghanaian films were produced at the GFIC, The Visiter (1981) and His Majesty’s Sargent (1984) by Ato Yanney. Apart from these, the 1980s witnessed a new phenomenon that was the beginning of video film production which transformed cinema in Ghana.

The Emergence of Video Film Production in the 1980s in Ghana

Video technology emerged when Ghanaians who lived abroad started returning to the country brought along VCRs and Home Video Cameras. Eventually people started recording social activities such as weddings, funerals, birthday parties and picnics on video. Several theatre groups also took advantage of the medium to record their performances which were sold in the open market. One such popular group was the Osofo Dadzie group, whose popular TV drama series Osofo Dadzie shown on Ghana Broadcasting Corporation-Television (GBC-TV) was recorded weekly and sold on VHS cassettes (Nanbigne, 2011, p 198)

At the National Film and Television Institute (NAFTI) the high cost of film stock and processing due to the economic hardship at the time and the Government’s inability to sustain film production on celluloid, Electronic News Gathering (ENG) equipments were brought in by foreigners from Germany for training in 1981 which marked the beginning of training in video technology. They were used to produce student’s short fiction and documentary productions. Despite the economic downturn in that era, early experiments at the producing of video films were successful which uncovered the commercial potentials of the medium. Individual entrepreneurs took advantage of video one example was Allen Gyimah who is arguably the first to use video commercially. He recorded football matches in the early 1980s involving popular Ghanaian football team, Asante Kotoko when he then duplicated on VHS cassettes for sale (Nanbigne, 2011, p 198). He later whent into agreement with the Osofo Dadzie theatre group to record a skit in filmic style which was a video film Abbyssinia (1986) which was distributed commercially via his production company Video City on VHS cassettes. Abbyssinia is about the vicissitudes of city life. The film set the stage for the productions, ushering in the video phenomenon.

William Akuffo of Worldwide Motion Picture is credited as the first person to successfully pursue the commercial potential of video by shooting the first feature video-film Zinabu in 1987. Akuffo, a son of a film exhibitor was fascinated about film and would discover how they were made. He sought out to produce his own motion picture by various means by playing with his father’s 16mm camera. He later discovered commercial viabilities of video and abandoned film projection, inherited from his father to produce Zinabu. Despite this novelty of filmmaking, Akuffo was afraid his film will be rejected because audiences were not used to the watching of video projections in cinemas (Garritano, 2008). Exhibiting Zinabu was a risky venture because the size of the picture on screen was smaller than that of celluloid film and the quality was lower than the former. In spite of these deficiencies, audiences enjoyed the film at the first commercially screened video-film. Audiences were not too particular about the technical quality of the film but were happy about something presented in an idiom they were familiar with (Ogunleye, ibid, p 4).

“Zinabu tells the story of a beautiful and wealthy woman, Zinabu who meets Kofi, a poor auto-mechanic, and offers him an irresistible deal. In exchange for a life of wealth and comfort Kofi agrees not to make love to any woman, not even Zinabu herself. Kofi thinks the deal is a condemnation to life of impotence, but the promise of an ostentatious life style is too attractive to reject. Unfortunately, he is not able to keep his part of the deal as he succumbs to his sexual desires, and consequently pays with his life.” (Nanbigne, 20011, pp. 199-200)

The GFIC was not left out in this development. Some early video film producers approached the GFIC for collaborations but were turned away because it was difficult to appreciate the idea of cinema on video. The corporations regarded video as simply inferior and did allow for cinematic artistry. Akuffo was one of those producers who were turned away by the GFIC when he tried to show his film at the Kanda Film Theatre on the corporation’s premises and all 18 theatres the corporation owned (Nanbigne 2011, p 200). Filmmakers like Kwaw Ansah and Rev. Dr Chris Hesse were also against the use of the medium since it was regarded as of a less quality than celluloid Film. They were also concerned about untrained individuals taking advantage of the medium of film and the kind of content produced, such as witchcraft, spiritualism, occultism and the like. They felt that individuals should be properly trained before entering the film industry because they believed that the audiovisual medium is a very powerful tool which could be misused if left in the hands of unqualified people. By 1990s however, Kwaw Ansah shot his first video-film Harvest at 17 in 1994 and all his subsequent films.

Akuffo therefore turned to other privately owned cinema’s most of whom offered him the ‘four walling’ deal which required that the exhibitor alone bears the cost of hiring the theatre, exhibition equipments and any other liabilities. Fortunately, in spite of its low technical quality it appealed well to audiences and was a box-office success. Crowds gathered at the Globe Theatre in Accra for weeks to watch the video on the large screen. This paved the way for the replacement of film projection systems in theatres to video projection systems in the country (Meyer; Garritano, 2008). The success of the film encouraged Akuffo to produce four sequels to Zinabu in collaboration with another Ghananian, Richard Quartey such as Diablolo (1987-1988); a series of films which was a story about a ‘Snake man’ who is on a quest of vengeance against all prostitutes who claims are responsible for his dual identity, Zinabu and Diabolo started the visual representation of spiritual forces which will be common during the 1990s and 2000s especially with films produced in the local language particularly in the ‘Twi’dialect. By the end of the 1980s, Akuffo produced two more video-films, Mobor (1989) and Cult of Alata (1989). Other producers also joined in video production trend, such as Socrates Safo who produced Unconditional Love (1988) and Sidiku Buari produced Aayalolo (1988).

After the success of Zinabu at the cinemas Akuffo sought out to maximize profits with other means. Just like other video-film producers, Akuffo distributed his film through small video parlours which were popular in those days across the country. With the proliferation of video entertainment systems, marketers and distributers were found and commissions were worked out with these producers for their films to be exhibited nation-wide and copies of their films were also sold on VHS cassettes. Early video producers mostly concentrated on issues regarding prosperity and survival which were commonly raised during public discourse. The themes for their film were derived from issues in popular newspapers, strange occurrences in communities and these videos reflected the regular struggles of the ordinary Ghanaian’s daily life rather than narratives of independence, nationalism and post colonialism of the past.

Written by, Emmanuel Quist-Haynes (Art Director)

 

REFERENCES

Garritano, Carmela (2008). Contesting authenticities: the emergence of local video production in Ghana. Critical Arts, 22(1), 21-28

Meyer, B. (1999). Popular Ghanaian Cinema and ‘African Heritage’. Africa Today 46(2), 93-114.

Nanabigne, V. (2001). Cinema in Ghana. History, Ideology and Popular Culture. PhD thesis. Bergen: University of Bergen.

Ukadike, F. N. (1994). Black African Cinema. University of California Press.

Ogunleye, F. (2003). Video Film in Ghana; An Overview. In Ogunlaye, Foluke (ED) African Video Film Today. Manzini-Swaziland: Academic Publishers.  

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