African Cinema: Roots

I recently read a 1993 interview by Kofi Anyidoho with Kwaw Ansah [Ghanaian director of Love Brewed in the African Pot (1981)]. The interview covers a range of topics including funding issues in Africa, problems finding trained technicians and Kwaw Ansah’s then new production A Woman Abandoned. What I found most rewarding from the interview was Kwaw Ansah’s provocative take on the origins of Ghanaian cinema.

Kwaw Ansah states, “I think some of us don’t have much appreciation of history. I don’t know whether you ever had the chance of seeing films like Mr Mensah Built a House [Mr. Mensah Builds a House (1954)] or Progress in Kojokrom [1953]. These—if you look at the time when they were made, The Boy Kumasi [The Boy Kumasenu (1951)] and so forth—should be our heritage. This should be the rich aspect of our filmmaking—the fact that it shows what Ghanaians as artists could do with the little they had when facilities were not that sophisticated.”

Kwaw Ansah’s statement asks film historians to examine these early Gold Coast Film Unit colonial sponsored films not as simple examples of the process of making colonial subjects, but also as the emergent films of a Ghanaian national cinema. He is asking us to reconsider the roots of African cinema—complicating the notion propagated by many anthologies of African cinema, which position it against colonialism. For instance the introductory paragraph in African Experiences of Cinema states, “African film-making is in a way a child of African political independence. It was born in the era of heady nationalism and nationalist anticolonial and anti-neocolonial struggle…”

However, this antagonist relationship between African cinema and colonialism is also apparent in many current analysis of colonial cinema. For example, analyses of the early Gold Coast Film Unit films that Ansah sites as Ghana’s film heritage, tend to overlook the agency of the African assistants and technicians involved in the making of these films, looking instead for European authorship. In a recent analysis of The Boy Kumasenu an author writes, “While contemporary reports considered this an ‘authentic’ representation of Africa, the film — with its British director and crew — contains strong European influences.” The author goes on to demonstrate the ways in which the film employs common western depictions of Africa by explaining the use of ethnographic visual cues typical of British colonial productions and the dominate presence of the British commentator’s voiceover that seems to render the African characters speechless. These observations are not inaccurate, but they do continue to deny the agency of the many Africans that participated in making this film both on and off the screen.

According to a Gold Coast Film Unit catalog from 1953, the Unit employed 20 African technical staff, two of whom had been with the Unit from its beginning, and three of whom were given technical training in a British film studio for six months in 1952. Kwaw Ansah asks us to draw our attention to and seriously re-consider the active role of these African technicians and actors in the making these colonial films. The collaborative production of these films between British and African staff suggests that the line that has been drawn between what is colonial and what is African in these films should be interrogated. Colonial Cinema is, in fact, a shared heritage and should be written about as such.

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