I Don’t Want to be Known as a Ghanaian Filmmaker. I Want to be Known as a Filmmaker.
Leila Djansi is one of the new voices emerging from Africain recent years to help shape the narratives of the diverse people of the continent using the visual platform to portray its culture, values and shared experiences. An award-winning filmmaker, Djansi’s film credits include, I Sing of A Well, an ‘intriguing piece of film’ exposed the subject of slavery from the African perspective and Sinking Sands. Her most recent offering Ties That Bind, explores the pain of loosing a child and features American actress Kimberly Elise, Nigeria’s Omotola Jalade Ekeinde and Ghana’s Ama K Abebrese. Sinking Sands was endorsed by UNIFEM for its ‘Say NO’ to violence against women’ message and was awarded aBritishAcademy of Film and Television Arts (BAFFTA). The film has screened in selected cinemas across the US, Ghana, Nigeria and Canada, and was picked up by IndieFlix Studios. AUS based film company in a deal that covers distribution on platforms like iTunes, Netflix and Amazon Video on Demand (VOD). It is the first Ghanaian film to achieve this feat in the North American movie market. In her own words, Leila Djansi and why she wants to be known as a filmmaker with “no definitions or racial responsibilities.”
Belinda: Issue based films that explore taboo subjects is not an area some filmmakers would consider for the purpose of commercial success but this is one of your passions. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
Leila Djansi: It was a conscious decision. I think I’ve always had a humanitarian in me. I started out wanting to be an OBGYN, then a forensic scientist, now a filmmaker who deals with social issues. My home, during my growing years was always open to less privileged relations and others. My parents are very outspoken and are humanitarians themselves so I guess its something that is inherent. Film is a dynamic informational tool and we are all evangelists in a way. Not all of us can stand in the pulpit and preach. Some of us choose to send out the message of salvation this way. Salvation is not only a biblical journey. Salvation comes in many forms. I of course want to get my bills paid, but, it’s not my priority. The joy of telling stories about issues I am passionate about comes first.
What kind of stories do you want to tell and are they based your personal experiences, those around you or the various cultures and environments you have found yourself over the years?
I want to tell stories about deep seated emotional and societal issues. Places we don’t want to explore because of all the murkiness in there. Yes, they are founded in my personal experiences – some of them I should say. Growing up was very interesting. Step-sisters, an angry mother whose anger came from years of childlessness that led to the step children. She did not have a son that was a whole different story. So yes, I have some deep issues I write about that come from dark days at home. Then the rest are issues I have experienced as an observer. My mother is in the medical field so we get to hear a lot of stories; girls being raped by their fathers, babies being dumped in pit latrines etc.
You have made successful films in recent years, including Sinking Sands, which explores the theme of domestic violence, a subject that is still hidden, what’s the discourse that you were hoping to evoke?
Well, discussion – Is abuse ever deserved? Is it ever justified? I have been asking myself whether a person running out of the theatre during some scenes is a good or bad thing. It is very dark, very graphic but that is the representation of the truth as we see and hear. We’ve heard stories of husbands cutting wives with machetes or pouring acid on them and vice versa. Depending on the country, the audience response varies. For example in Ghana, people laugh at the scene where the husband rapes the wife, in other countries, the theatre is quiet. You can hear a pin drop. Sinking Sands will do better in Africa and Europe than in America. In America such things are hidden, swept under the carpet. They pretend it does not exist. In Africa, I guess because the entire community is involved in your marriage, it is freely spoken or gossiped about though nothing proactive is done about it. So, it’s a different response to the subject, but the same treatment to the solution.
The African narrative has been shaped by the news media for decades, as an individual and a filmmaker, who has been able to go outside the continent and seen life from the other side, do you find that narrative troublesome and is it important to you to change that however you can through your films?
I do find it troublesome – Movies or images that show a hopeless Africa. But, I understand where it is coming from. The sale. America, which is sometimes your biggest buyer, is not going to want to buy an Africa that is vibrant and positive. Hollywood loves stereotypes; the tested and trusted formula. So bringing an African story that portrays normal people, living the kind of lives that can be lived anywhere and experiencing the same kind of emotions are not always accepted. Mind you, I am not in support of the plastic Africa either. You know the one the home-video makers portray. The hummers, big mansions, fancy clothes and fancy colours. I am not into that either. The poor and deprived and the over-top portrayals are all unrealistic as far as I’m concerned. That is why I find myself in the middle, showing a balanced blend of the two. I am giving MY AFRICA that identity I think is positive, realistic, truthful and of course beautiful. It’s something South African Filmmakers do and I truly admire them for that. The blend of culture and civilisation is very beautiful. Going to two extremes is just over-kill. Until Hollywood takes a chance on something nontraditional, you know studios like HBO or the Weinstein Company do, we’ll continue to see such horrible portrayals. Until African filmmakers unite, create a formidable body that builds a strong market, an impregnable and well structured market for our art, it is going to continue like this.
What do you hope your film adds to the narrative of Ghana and Africa as it is today?
I hope they inspire us to create our own Africa. One that blends all we have. Our mud huts are beautiful; it’s ignorant to say we don’t have them. My uncle was living in a mud hut with a tin roof till recently. But it’s up to us the way we decide to portray that mud hut. I hope they represent an Africa that is proud of what we have and I hope they add to the beauty of Africa.
The Ghanaian and Nigerian film industries are different to each other, among other film communities on the continent because there are narratives specific to Ghana in spite of our shared cultures and traditions as a continent. How significant are the various films you have made over the years, from Grass Between My Lips and I Sing of A Well within the Ghanaian film industry and in what ways have your films been able to challenge the norm and approach to filmmaking on the ground?
I do my best to tell universal stories. I am a filmmaker first, before being a Ghanaian who is a filmmaker. Those two films you’ve mentioned could have been set in any African culture. Grass was not even shot inGhana. It was shot entirely in the states. We created the Africa or theGhanavia narratives and not locations. Well, a lot of filmmakers inGhanahave upped their game when it comes to picture quality. I don’t know if I can take credit for that because other people were doing that before I showed up. More films are award minded and award geared. But, I doubt I am responsible for that.
I read a piece where you made a comment along the lines of not being ‘branded a Ghanaian filmmaker.’ – “I am Ghanaian but I do not make Ghanaian films. Considering we know what Ghanaian films are. It’s restricting my market. I need to break that tag so I’m stepping out for a bit.” Can you elaborate on this?
A Ghanaian filmmaker could mean a Ghanaian who is a filmmaker or a maker of Ghanaian films. I don’t want to be known as a maker of Ghanaian films. I want to be known as a filmmaker. Period. No definitions or racial responsibilities. I can appropriately answer that question if I know the context in which the Ghanaian filmmaker is being used. But I hope my definitions can clarify that. I don’t want to be considered to make Ghanaian films. Whether it be the kind of movies they are churning out now or someone who tells stories about Ghana. I want to be neither. I can tell stories about anything and anywhere. I am also an anthropologist in the making, studying about various cultures. I want to server stories worldwide.
Location wise, anywhere the story and budget takes me I will go. I am not moving to a specific place. I’m going to be floating, sailing and anchoring anywhere I feel inspired to. Why? For many reasons, some of which I’d not disclose till the time is right. For now, lets just settle with I want to sail on uncharted waters. Prove myself on other levels and with other bodies of work.
Ties that Bind is described as the story of three women from different walks of life bound together by a similar pain, the loss of a child. An emotional subject to say the least, what was the inspiration for the film and what was it about the loss of a child that you wanted to explore?
Interestingly, not until this interview did the real emotion behind my doing this piece came to me. I mentioned earlier of my mother’s anger and bitterness. I lived with that all my life. My father was a good man. A very good man, but, family pressure, community scorn at not having a child, and when he did, not having a son made growing up quite sad for me and my sisters. Each character in Ties That Bind represents someone in my nuclear family or an emotion they have experienced. Although when I did the story, the inspiration came after watching a documentary on the Osu Children’s home and discussing adoption with fellow women. Society places such a large burden of proof on women. A friend of mine got married recently. Barely a year, and on Facebook no less, another friend publicly asked if she was pregnant yet. I was like are you crazy. Facebook? Is it even your business? A woman has no right to enjoy her marriage and her life. Once the ring goes on, the belly must show. Once you do not experience that, then there is something wrong with you. My sister’s marriage failed because of this issue. The other part of the story is about women who do have the child but then are unable to love that child right. Some simply give birth so they are called mama. Their duties as mothers end there, at the word mama. It takes more than pregnancy and childbirth to be a mother. It’s a lot of sacrifice and self deprivation. My mother has sold her clothes to pay our school fees before. A woman I admire, when her husband died and his family took all they worked for, she was selling plastic bowls over the weekend and working in an office during the week days to feed her 4 boys. They were living a two room mud house. Today that mud house is a huge mansion and all her boys are graduates. Yes, I have seen a lot of pain women go through, the prayer camps and anointing oils when the simple solution, is for society not to place such an emphasis on childbearing as a sign of womanhood.
Based on the synopsis on the films Facebook page, it says, “In a destined meeting in a small village in Kroboland, the women journey together to redemption, love, life and forgiveness as they renovate a dilapidated clinic for the villagers.” Does the village serve as a metaphor for the wider society and why use the symbolism of a village, which can/could be isolated and hidden away to bring the process of a village to the fore?
The village is indeed the metaphor. So is the ghost, the haunted clinic etc. I used a village because that is the core of the African society. All our traditions and cultures and beliefs are kept there. It’s metaphorical on many levels. It’s ironic as well because one character leaves the city, the civilization to seek refuge in the village, and it’s in the village that she finds her courage to face civilization. Africans are Africans where ever you place them. Humans are humans no matter what. Ultimately, it’s about you and your happiness. It’s hard to change people’s opinions and mindsets so live your life and find peace. What I was going for with that was to create a world that had options and choices, where all you need is courage to live with your choice and not have to answer to anyone but yourself.
Why present your female characters as heroes in the film and what are the stories about womanhood that you wanted to bring to the fore?
We’re all heroes. The mere thought of going through the day and rising up the next day takes heroes to accomplish. These women all found the courage to live life as human beings first, societal effigies second. The stories about womanhood we portray are the various challenges and emotions women have to deal with as they strive to please society.
I believe Ties That Bind was shot in Ghana and so have your other films, what authenticity were you aiming to bring to the screen and viewers about ordinary life on the streets of Ghana/Africa?
The authenticity of Africa, the spirit of the people and the soil, not a flamboyant expression and not a depressing one either. The simple truths and things embedded in the simplicity of the land.
You have a number of narratives/themes running through films, from pain to violence to redemption to love to forgiveness. Issues many can identify with, yet for some reason unknown to mankind, we are not comfortable talking about them, not even the loss of a child, why are you keen to address issues of this nature and what it about us as human beings the complexity of our make-up that you want to bring to the fore?
Wow! I guess they are the little things we often overlook in our daily relationships and that’s why they become big problems. In Africa for example, to show emotion is a weakness especially among men folk. We are raised to bear pain in silence and not ask for too much. I remember a proverb from back home which says marriage is like a parcel. When you open it, whatever is inside is what you get to keep. Interestingly, in western nations, you can always take that parcel back even if it’s a gift. Once you have the receipt. But in Africa, once it leaves the store, that’s it. Thus we learn to “give it to God”. Suffer in silence. Suffering and smiling. I like to address these issues because I was raised to express myself. I’m very vocal. I will express myself and move on or move away. When you keep things bottled up inside for too long, when there is no communication, everyone gets hurt. When my father died, because we were all girls, we were asked not to talk. The male members of the family were making plans and bringing us bills. Finally I resisted. The outcome was not pleasant. If only an avenue of communication were there, things might out turned out better. A lot of times we are scared to say things because we are afraid to loose love, loose respect and other things but in the end, it does hurt us anyways. We have to start communicating. There should be non-judgmental platforms where people can express themselves. People come to me after watching Sinking Sands and say “you told my story” and I am very happy I can be a voice to the voiceless. I am hoping Ties That Bind does the same.
When it comes to breaking barriers with filming in African cinema, from sexuality to marriage to dealing wit taboo subjects, how far do you want to push that boundary and why aren’t you afraid to address such barriers?
As far as the subjects go, I am very excited because I will be dealing with two very vital subjects soon – Female circumcision and sexual slavery and Child slavery on cocoa plantations in two upcoming films. When I wrote Red Soil I got calls, many calls and threats. But I am ready now. Tulips had its own challenges as well. Considering it is the darkest of subjects in my library, I wasn’t too surprised at the setbacks. But I am ready to go on with it now and I intend to make it as truthful and revealing as possible. There’s no reason to be afraid. If someone can perpetuate, you can also expose.
Let’s talk about the Ghanaian film industry, also know as Gollywood, how would you describe its current state?
Hello. Well. It’s growing. I’m not sure what direction it’s growing in but its growing. Right now for most of the players it’s about making more money more money and more money to live the flashy lifestyles so art forms are non existent. I am happy people like Kwaw Ansah who are storytellers are back working. I have to mention King Ampaws no time to die as well. Two people is not enough for such a relatively large industry but what I think will happen is the young ones, due to globalization will be more passionate about the art.
Of course, Africa’s famous film industry, Nollywood, why has been so successful and what do you think, it will take to show the world an African film industry that is beyond the remit and boundaries of Nollywood because there are other film industries taking shape, from Ghana to Liberia to Cameroon and South Africa has always had a film industry?
Nigeria is large. They are business men. I don’t know too much about Nollywood. I’m still learning a lot about them. But what I do know what makes them successful is that they are businessmen. There are African films. In fact Nollywood is not even considered a real industry but for the production quantity. When you say African films the world knows what you’re talking about and it’s not Nollywood. Maybe the attention on such films is not enough because they are not commercial films but they are successful films when it comes to recognition. Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya; they make some of the most amazing movies I’ve ever seen. There are people coming out of Nollywood right now who are almost on the level of such art house films but they are making it commercially, like what I’m also trying to do. Make art but commercial enough. Yes our films don’t make noise in theatres like the Salts and all that but really, how many foreign films without the Hollywood influence do? A film will do better in its country of origin. If we want to make our own blood diamond, then the influences, manpower, resources and finances must be there. And when we make it, the world will be ready to see it. If you give the world what they want, of course they will rise to applaud.
Where criticism is concerned, it has become very interesting in recent times with bloggers turned critics and Facebook and Twitter becoming sounding platforms. How do you respond to the critics and the praise that you get?
Occupational hazard. I love critics though, constructive ones. The hate comes with the territory and so does the praise. I guess you can’t take one without the other so I am learning to let people have their way by saying what makes them feel better. I appreciate the praise and pray it doesn’t get into my head in that regard, I appreciate the hate too. Keeps you on your toes.
What do you hope this film and your future projects evokes in people about Ghana, Africa, the world and humanity when they see it?
Africa, Ghana, we are human beings too. We eat, we sleep, we die, we smile we laugh. We are not always killing each other and living in filth and poverty. I hope people find the courage to speak up. Be honest and open about their fears and weaknesses. And when they do that, I hope the people on the listening end have compassion and patience. The world is beautiful when you clear your eyes of all the dust and debris.