An Interview with a former Cinema Van Commentator

This is an edited excerpt from an hour and a half interview that I had in December 2010 with James K. Amuah, a former Information Services Department cinema van commentator.

Mr. James Amuah
Blaylock: How many commentators were there when you joined Information Services Department as a cinema commentator in 1969?

Amuah: At that time there were few. In the Central Region we were three. Initially I was employed in Sekondi. About a week later I was asked to go to Cape Coast to join the staff there.

Blaylock: And you’re from Cape Coast area, right?

Amuah: Yeah. My mother was still alive then but I had lost my father in 1967. So I went to the Information Services Department in Cape Coast. There were two senior cinema commentators and I joined them as the third person. I was with them until I was transferred from Cape Coast to Winneba in 1971. And then in 1973 I was promoted to Assistant Cinema Officer.

Blaylock: What was it like being a cinema van commentator?

Amuah: Yeah, at that time it was more exciting than today! You see being a Cinema Commentator in those days—you know the facilities were not as today. Today you have so many facilities like electricity, water, and many other things. At that time there was only one television station but it was not very widespread. Many of the places we visited were in total darkness. So whenever we visited any of these places, because of the generators we used, it brought some excitement to those particular villages. There was so much fun and excitement watching films in the open. Even in the big towns, at that time, even in the big towns. And wherever we visited all the people would come with their families just to come and watch the film show. Oh, in those days it was very exciting. We used the occasion to inform and educate the people—not only to entertain. But at the end of the day, after the film show, we had enough time to entertain the people. We would play music and then people would come and request for songs. And we would play it and they would be dancing because that would be the opportunity for them to have lights in their village. And they would dance until we were tired.

Blaylock: How did you play the songs? Did you use records?

Amuah: Yeah, records. At that time we had a turntable.

Blaylock: And you had speakers?

Amuah: Yeah. Speakers and everything was blaring at that time. It was fun. It was really fun.

Blaylock: Do you remember any of the films that you showed?

Amuah: Oh, many of them. I can remember Piki the Champion. Some of these films are no longer in the system: Progress in Kojokrom, Insects are Carriers of Diseases, Good Nutrition for Children, Mr. Mensah Builds a House, and The Boy Kumasenu. Yeah, Piki the Champion is no longer in the system. But it was a very popular…

Blaylock: What was it about?

Amuah: Well, there were two friends who were working on a tea farm. One liked tea. The other liked liquor and alcohol and so he was always weak. But this Piki the Champion was (you see it was to promote tea—tea drinking) was always drinking tea. Eventual a bully came to town to brag that he was sooo strong. Everyone in the town became scared of the bully. So Piki challenged him to a fight, and because of the tea he was taking, had enough strength to withstand this man and beat him up to a pulp.

Blaylock: Oh! [laughter]

Amuah: So he was declared the champion. That was Piki the Champion. And we had some other development films like Daybreak in Udi where people were encouraged to do communal labor to improve the sanitation and environmental situations in their towns. And then we had films like…um, many, many. But those films were films that actually attracted a crowd. Many of the films were in English and we were able to make the people understand the film. We also got them interested in the films.

Blaylock: Would you talk over them in the local languages?

Amuah: When the film was on, because it was in English, we would be running commentary alongside in the local dialects of the people so that they would understand what was actually being said in the film. We would let them understand the importance of that particular film. We used the films to educate. Even when there were outbreaks of cholera and other things, they would simply call us. Sometime you don’t even prepare. They will ask you, “Come. There is a problem here. Come and assist.” Then we would go and show them films to educate them. While they took the film show as a form of entertainment, we took the opportunity to educate and inform them of government policies and educate them on what to do to combat the situation if there was a problem. So that was the situation at the time. In fact we were very important in this country—very, very, important because at every opportunity we would be called. At that time there were not many public address systems and it was really a preserve of the Information Services Department. So we were actually at all functions, both private and public. The demand on us was huge, but we always lived up to expectation because we also made ourselves popular. That is the truth. As a commentator people got to know us very, very, well because we were Masters of Ceremonies at these functions.

Blaylock: So they knew you by name?

Amuah: Yeah. Oh! And we were also always creating fun. I mean people were cracking jokes with us. You would be in the cinema van, and if there should be a problem, or if a private person wanted to send out any form of information they would call us during the daytime. This was the private sector service aspect of our job.

Blaylock: Like they still do today?

Amuah: Yeah they still do. You know the world at that time was not as small as today and so we were easily recognized. People could even identify our voices in town and they would be calling us whiles we were on the job. We were really happy. We were people about town. Everybody knew us.

Blaylock: So did you crack jokes during the movies?

Amuah: Yeah. Oh! We had to be humorous to attract, otherwise the whole film show would become dull. So we would crack jokes and create humor and we had a way of commenting about some of the scenes and that made the people like coming to our film shows. As I’m saying in those days it was more exciting than today. Because today you have television. You have the radio. In those days they didn’t even have this modern type of radio. There were these re-diffusion boxes. I don’t know whether you’ve seen any. But there was one central radio station in Accra. That’s all. And that went throughout the whole country with only the re-diffusion boxes. They managed to send speakers to individual houses. So…

Blaylock: Even in the 70s it was like that?

Amuah: Yeah, even in the 70s they still had the re-diffusion boxes. You would just open your radio—the re-diffusion box—and it’s all over the place, but it was only one-way. No, nothing else. One-way. However, some people had wireless set to tune into other foreign stations. Some of us, my father had wireless radio, but it was not as common as the re-diffusion boxes. Those were the times when the communication was not as good as today so the little roles that we played were very significant. Very, very significant. No matter what. And eh…let’s say if there should be a public program in Accra, we would be asked to mount our public address systems in the center of the town and the people would go there and then we would use the re-diffusion box to monitor and broadcast it louder for everybody to hear. So that was the system at that time. Television was not as wide spread as today. So if there was anything, we actually played a great role. Very, very, very great role… But still they find us relevant today. Even in the mist of technological advancement.

Blaylock: Why do you think that is?

Amuah: Well because there are so many information facilities. You have the radio, all types of radio. In this time people don’t even write letters, because there is e-communication like email, text, Internet and Facebook. These developments have made the work of the cinema van very difficult.

Blaylock: But they still exist. There are still cinema vans. Why?

Amuah: Yes, we always argue. I have been making this point: that the cinema van is quite different from the television. [He gestures toward a television behind me playing the daily news] Now the man is giving the news bulletin. This one. You see it. Fine. And he will say anything. But you don’t have the chance to interact with the newscaster or the broadcaster or whomever. You don’t have the chance. But here, when we go and give the film show, you see me, I see you. If there is anything, you can even discuss with me. You can ask me questions. You can dispute my message. You even have the chance to react. Immediately. You see. And here when the man says anything he goes away and that is the end. That is why we beat them to it, you see. And also we have the newspapers. In those days there were only two major newspapers in this country. The Daily Graphic and The Ghanaian Times. Period.

Blaylock: Whoa. Now, how many are there? [laughter]

Amuah: So many you can’t even count them. And now look at the proliferation of radio stations. Even in Accra alone you have about 30 stations. That was why in those days it was easier to overthrow the government because there was only one radio station. So when you capture it you tell the people that you’ve taken over. But in this time if you go and takeover GBC [Ghana Broadcasting Corporation] and you tell them that you’ve taken over another person will go to another station, and tell them that it is not true. But in those days if you were able to capture GBC you have finished. You see. So things are different today. And that is making our democracy work better. Yes. So, that is the issue. The difficulties in those days played to the advantage of Information Services Department. It became very prominent in this country. So I enjoyed it. I enjoyed being a cinema commentator. I very, very much enjoyed it. I remember even when in 1973, when I gained admission to the University of Ghana, Legon I refused to go. And at that time the entry qualification was not as tough as it is today. But I was enjoying my work! I was enjoying my work with all the trappings. All the trappings! I could get money. Even though the money quantum of money was not as much as today, but the value was good. The cedi was more valuable than what it is today. If I went on trek for 30 days, I would be sure to get 50 cedis at that time. One cedi at that time…eh…it was such a valuable currency.

Blaylock: So you were paid well?

Amuah: Yeah. I enjoyed the little that I was given and could do a lot with it. You could do a lot. Cause at that time a cinema commentator collected 50 cedis. 50 cedi—Oh [chuckle]—for the month. That was the basic salary. 50 cedis. In 1973 I was promoted to the rank of Assistant Cinema Officer, which later on was converted to Senior Cinema Commentator. And then in 1975 I was promoted again to Principle Cinema Commentator. Then in 1977 I was promoted to Assistant Information Officer. From ‘74 to ‘78 I was in Accra here. I came down from the villages and all those places and I had come to Accra, the city. It was here that I got serious because I was no longer going on trek. I was no longer enjoying the fun. So I said, “Oh, why shouldn’t I go to the University.” But then, my mother too died in 1974. And so, at that time too, there was no Study Leave. It was soon after Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown Study Leave was canceled and they had not restored it. I applied for leave, but I was told if I wanted to go back to the University I should resign. Go and come back. And I said that since my mother too was not there to support me, as I was a bachelor boy, I just couldn’t do it. I also had to support my brother (who is now in Italy). He was then going through school. In 1978, I was transferred to Sunyani to head the Cinema Section. At that time all the regions had their own units. So I went to head Cinema in Sunyani, Brong-Ahafo. I was there when General Akuffo was overthrown, and Flight Lieutenant Rawlings became the Head of State. That was AFRC era. I was still there in 1981 when Dr. Limann too was overthrown.

Blaylock: Well I had a question about—because you worked doing cinema with Information Services Department for so long—how it has changed with each new administration. You said that you were there when Acheampong was in power, Akuffo, Limann, and Rawlings. Did you see changes in the way the cinema section was run during these different administrations?

Amuah: You see before, because of the relevance of the Department or cinema at that time, people gave it more attention. But with time, when people saw that information could be given to people through other means it started losing its relevance. And that is what I was always fighting for, that they should still have some confidence in the Information Services Department because of its tradition. I remember during Acheampong’s time, he liked the Information Services Department especially the Cinema Section. He became personally involved with their activities. Acheampong liked the Information Services Department and there was also another person who was also executed like Mr. Acheampong, that is General Kotei. He was the Commissioner for Information at that time. And he liked us. He liked us. As for Mr. Acheampong, oh, every Christmas—ho—he threw a party and invited the cinema boys. [Much laughter]

Blaylock: Why did he like the Cinema Section so much?

Amuah: You know, because we were projecting him. In those days too, the Ghana Film Industry Corporation was very valuable: very, very active. They made films about Ghana’s leaders. You see they started from Kwame Nkrumah’s time. So Kwame Nkrumah was always being projected. But Busia too was also being projected but not as much as when Acheampong came. There were always films on Acheampong. Acheampong would not go anywhere without the Information Services Department. And in those days the vans were very few so cinema was traveling all over the country with him.

Blaylock: How many vans were there at that time?

Amuah: Oh there were not many. I mean, before Kufuor bought 146 vans there were only about 40 vans throughout the country.

Blaylock: It is my understanding that cinema van operators have to write a report about each program or campaign they work on.

Amuah: Yeah, when they go out, after every campaign. Even during the campaign they send us weekly dispatches and in the dispatches they tell us what the people feel, the people they have met so far. What they feel about the programs and the messages. Then after the whole exercise, yes, they write a summary report to the agent that got Information Services Department involved. So if it is the government, we send the report to the government. We also do a lot of surveys and some other side issues, anything you find that is of interest or unpleasant we let the appropriate headquarters know.

Blaylock: Like if there were sanitation problems or something like that?

Amuah: For example, there was a time I went to a rural area and I realized they didn’t have a public toilet at all in the village so they were just defecating around. So I spoke to them, and I wrote back. I wrote it in my report. And so the government sent agents there and the next time that I went there they had put up a proper public toilet. If you see anything good too, we let the government know to replicate it elsewhere. We also bring it up for consideration by the government.

Blaylock: Do you think that the films that you showed were successful at changing things?

Amuah: Yes. In those days, in fact that was the means of change in this country. That was why I’m saying we were prominent because if they wanted any change they had to pass it through us with appropriate films. Even elections. We were publicizing or educating people about how to go vote and all those things. Some of these things too helped me a lot. It broadened my outlook. Because now if I’m talking about elections I wouldn’t go into the books or go into any university, I can tell off hand what happens because I’ve taught people, over and over and over and over. Ah-ha. Let’s if there is an epidemic, I don’t need to have any briefing, I can tell you how to go about it because I’ve done it over and over and over. What I’m saying is that it has rather broadened my outlook and it has helped me a lot. So that is that.

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