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Africa First 2012 Profile: Chatting w/ Ghanaian-American Experimental Filmmaker Akosua Adoma Owusu

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act April 2, 2012 at 5:39PM

Africa First 2012 Profile: Chatting w/ Ghanaian-American Experimental Filmmaker Akosua Adoma Owusu
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Akosua Owusu

Announced last dall, the 5 filmmakers selected for the next class (2011) of Focus Features' Africa First program were Oshosheni Hiveluah (from Namibia); Cedric Ido (from Burkina Faso); Mark Middlewick (from South Africa); Akosua Adoma Owusu (from Ghana); and Zelalem Woldemariam (from Ethiopia).

For those unfamiliar with the program... launched in 2009, Africa First was created "to foster and develop long-term relationships with some of the most promising up-and-coming filmmakers from continental Africa."

The aim is that, through financial support of the program and mentorship provided by the Focus Features Africa First Advisory Board, to bring African filmmakers into an environment that will allow them to grow as filmmakers with an international audience. Each year, five filmmakers are awarded $10,000 each for production on a narrative short film made in continental Africa.

Kisha Cameron-Dingle, producer of such such projects as Spike Lee's 2000 film, Bamboozled, and the 2005 TV drama about Rwandan genocide, Sometimes in April, runs the Africa First program for Focus Features, and her company, Completion Films, has a first-look and consulting deal with the company.

As well as on-site work in Africa, the progam includes a weekend of workshops in New York City with the program’s international advisory board of experts in African cinema.

We posted an interview with Kisha a few weeks ago (read it HERE if you haven't; you're strongly encouraged to do so); and, as I promised, interviews with the 5 new filmmakers selected for the new current class (who are likely in production on their films right now, or soon to be), as well as the advisors, were forthcoming.

And starting today, I will be posting all of those interviews here on S&A - one at a time, starting with Ghanaian American Akosua Adoma Owusu.

Long time readers may immediately recognize her name; in 2010 I posted an experimental short film she made titled Me Broni Ba, which translates to My White Baby. "Me Broni Ba" is a phrase of endearment used in parts of Ghana, as in when a mother refers to her child, or even a husband referring to his wife; in either situation, the adorer will refer to the adored as "Me Broni Ba," or, "My White Baby;" essentially, it speaks to that age-old idea that, for blacks, "whiteness" is the ideal.

More specifically, the film's synopsis reads: "The tangled legacy of European colonialism in Africa is evoked through images of women practicing hair braiding on discarded white baby dolls from the West. The film unfolds through a series of vignettes, set against a child's story of migrating from Ghana to the United States. The film uncovers the meaning behind the Akan term of endearment, me broni ba, which means “my white baby.

The 22-minute film has screened at numerous film festivals worldwide, to much critical acclaim.

A year+ later, Akosua's name was one of the 5 filmmakers selected for the Africa First program, and I had an opportunity to chat with her about the honor and what we can expect from her; the transcript of that interview follows below:

S&A: Your name, just little bit about your background, and your project?

Akosua: My name is Akosua Adoma Owusu, I’m from Ghana, and I’m working on my project Kwaku Anansi with Focus Features Africa First shorts program. Mi Broni Ba (My White Baby) was my thesis film at Calarts. It’s a lyrical portrait of hair salons in Ghana but it explores the Ghanaian term of endearment Mi Broni Ba, which means my white baby. I completed that film in 2009 and it had been traveling the festival circuit for about two years and then after that I recently finished a film called Drexciya made in 2010. Now I’m very fortunate to be a part of the Focus Features Africa First shorts program.

S&A: The second film Drexciya- I haven’t heard of or seen that. Is it traveling festivals?

Akosua: Yea, it is. It premiered at Rotterdam and the studio museum of Harlem. Yea, it’s also very experimental, similar to the style of Mi Broni Ba. I come from the fine art world and this is actually my first fiction film using actors.

S&A: The Focus Features project?

Akosua: Yea.

S&A: But it will still be in your experimental style?

Akosua: Absolutely, of course.

S&A: In terms your style, you’re more of a film arts filmmaker in the same vein as Kevin Jerome Everson or Steve McQueen?

Akosua: Yea. Actually I studied under Kevin Jerome Everson at the University of Virginia before I went out to Calarts and got my Masters out there. So he’s actually the person who initiated my interest in experimental filmmaking. So, then I went to Calarts to study film and fine arts.

S&A: And how long ago was that?

Akosua: Since 2008.

S&A: So you are excited about being part of the program?

Akosua: Absolutely. I actually applied last year and I didn’t get in so this year has been really, really exciting to adapt this folktale. Kwaku Anansi a prominent figure in West African storytelling and the story I’m working on is adapting one of the many tales about Spider Man. It’s the West African Spider Man.

S&A: Have you seen the first two Focus Features films?

Akosua: Absolutely. I actually learned of Focus Features when Mi Broni Ba showed at the New York African Film Festival at Lincoln Center in 2010. My film was programmed before one of the Focus Features films and I got to meet all of the previous winners and including Wanuri Kahiu. We had been traveling together with our films and it inspired me to apply in 2010. When the project didn’t get accepted, I was encouraged to apply again and here I am.

S&A: Do you feel any pressure? Were you thinking, “Those are some really good shorts. How am I going to live up to those?” or were you thinking you could take care of it?

Akosua: I think my biggest fear right now is actually seeing how I can translate my own style into a fiction film that’s being backed by a studio. Most of my films have been- I’m a one-man show holding my Bolex camera shooting on 16 millimeter, and to work with a crew is something that I’m really excited about. It’s a challenge and I’m curious to see what I would produce myself. It’s funny because yesterday we had our one-on-one advisor meetings and I was in despair kind of like- I use film as a tool for art-making and most of the time through the editing process is when my story comes out and so when you have to present a script and people are saying, so what’s your story, well I say my story’s about many things and they’re like no, no, no, you have to have a story. I’m curious to see how it’s all going to unfold.

The great thing about it is yesterday we screened some of the short films at the Museum of Moving Image and I heard about some of the challenges that previous filmmakers had and it’s very encouraging.

S&A: So, this is your first time working in such a rigid constraint and confines. You have to follow very set procedures and not just the one-man/ one-woman show. So, filmmaking is what you wanted to do forever? It’s a definite future or path?

Akosua: Yes, I’ve been fortunate to keep producing work like every year. So I make shorts and because it’s part of my process of art-making, this is another excuse for me to keep producing and keep making work. So I’m really excited that I have this opportunity.

S&A: And I assume you want to continue working within your experimental style? I mean I assume you’re not chasing some Hollywood dream- so you’re not so concerned that your style may not translate to dollars for example?

Akosua: No, that’s not my intention at all. I think it’s funny because traveling the festival circuit, people always ask me, oh you’re a Ghanaian filmmaker but you’re making experimental films? Like what is this about? How do you fit into the Ghanaian community of filmmakers in Ghana making videos and films, or Nigerian Nollywood- Gollywood, whatever we want to call it-style of filmmaking. And I’m like, I’m just a type of Ghanaian filmmaker. You know, African cinema can’t really be defined. You have people like Andrew (Dosunmu) who made Restless City who I met and I’m just excited to be a part of a New wave of African filmmakers just crossing all sort of genres. I realize too that I’m not going to be making as much money and I have quite a number of student loans to pay off so I’m just inclined to put another face to Ghanaian filmmaking.

S&A: And that leads me to this idea... do you feel as an African filmmaker that you are carrying some kind of a burden to represent your country or Africa as a whole on the global film scene?

Akosua: Yes, but I think a lot of my films explore the notion of identity and what it means to be African and American at the same time. I am a Ghanaian filmmaker and I was born here but then I lived in Ghana for a year when I was young. And I’ve been living there as an adult so I divide my time between the states and Ghana. All my work explores that idea of being in that space of the in-between. So I don’t feel like I really feel like I need to carry a weight about representing the global Ghanaian community but I feel like it’s important to break certain- the expected face of African cinema... The face of Africa made outside of Africa and currently I think a lot of people think of African cinema in terms of Nollywood.

They do and it’s very difficult because even for financing, my films don’t fit a Ghanaian/ Nigerian film and I’m not a Francophone African filmmaker, my style is very experimental, so it’s hard to place me in a category and people are always like how do you see funding and this program has been so great because they’ve embraced all sorts of filmmakers with different kinds of backgrounds and that’s just really awesome. I got to speak with James Schamus and he looked at a lot of our previous work so this was something that I was like Oh my gosh-

S&A: It’s a wonderful opportunity, and do you think about what it could mean for your career and after... What happens next?

Akosua: I’ve been so underground for so long, showing in experimental programs, documentary programs, museums, and to cross over is like, woah, you know? I’m curious, but Steve McQueen and all of these other artists that crossed the art world and the film world are definitely sources of inspiration to me.

S&A: And that was going to be my next question. What would your ideal, professional career look like?

Akosua: Just to really keep making work and keep loving making work and not have it be about the glitz and glamour. Because honestly, traveling from festival to festival is great and everything’s fun and exciting, but in the back of my mind, I’m like, I need to make another film. I need to keep making work. So my ideal is just to keep making work and be happy and love what I’m doing.

S&A: And make a living doing it...

Akosua: Yes, and pay off those loans. Sally Mae is calling me as we speak.

S&A: So when does production begin?

Akosua: I’m hoping it will begin in April. That gives me time to really process and marinate all of the thoughts and notes I received yesterday. I am giving myself about 4-5 months to really work it out and then I’ll be in Ghana in February. So January and February, just really crewing up and working in the village and producing short films.

That's it for Akosua! I'm really looking forward to seeing Anansi tale realized on celluloid!

I should also note that Akosua also has a feature-length experimental film in development which we've profiled on S&A. Titled Black Sunshine, it's about a promiscuous Ghanaian hairdresser,and was one of 23 projects to be selected to receive a Creative Capital 2012 grant in Film/Video earlier this year.

Here's how Creative Capital describes it:

Black Sunshine is a feature-length experimental film about a promiscuous Ghanaian hairdresser, Effie, and her albino daughter, Asabea. Born albino, everything about Asabea sets her apart. Her days are spent caring for her ailing mother and dreaming of escaping with her mysterious friend, Shebere. When she tries to balance her life between Effie and Shebere, she finds herself pulled down two separate paths—and the places they lead her are darker than she could ever imagine. The film weaves together scripted and nontraditional documentary forms, and examines albino Africans as tropes for crosscultural identity. Albinos have been chastised, ridiculed and killed in many parts of Africa because of their skin color. The film explores conventional beauty, emotional violence, the social stigma of albinism in Africa and its impact on family dynamics.

Creative Capital will provide up to $50,000 in direct project funding, plus advisory services valued at more than$40,000; to date, the initiative, which emphasizes the importance of risk-taking, encouraing projects that are bold, innovative, genre-stretching and topical, has committed nearly $25 million in financial and advisory support to artists since 1999.

Tomorrow, I'll post another interview - this time likely for one of the advisors.


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