Despite the fact that some internationally recognised filmmakers have hailed from Ghana, including Kwaw Ansah, Shirley Frimpong-Manso and John Akomfrah, it’s the star combination of Idris Elba and Cary Joji Fukunaga that has put Ghana’s film industry in the spotlight.
Beasts of No Nation, written and directed by Fukunaga (who helmed the first season of award-winning HBO television series True Detective), was a labour of love for the American filmmaker.The film was shot on location in the jungles of Ghana during monsoon season, where resources were scarce, sets washed away by floodwaters, cars ambushed by bandits and extras imprisoned. Fukunaga caught malaria and Elba fell off a cliff, only surviving by clinging to an overhanging tree. The grueling shoot paid off, however, when Netflix bought the film for a reported US$12-million.
While Beasts of No Nation, which Rotten Tomatoes, arguably the world’s definitive website for critical reviews, describes as “a sobering, uncompromising, yet still somehow hopeful picture of war’s human cost”, has certainly put Ghana on the map, the country’s developing film industry remains stymied by the usual suspects: lack of funding, lack of local distribution channels, and piracy.
Ghana's film industry dates as far back as 1948, but it’s only since the October 2015 release of Beasts of No Nation that the country’s cinematic potential has been gaining recognition across the globe.
In a BBC interview, celebrated Ghanaian director Frimpong-Manso (38) said that despite her recognition, she wishes more people could see her work. “Ghana needs more cinemas and more distribution platforms to be able to generate the interest for us to build this industry.”
With only two major cinemas in Ghana, filmmakers distribute their offerings on DVD at street markets, which leaves the already cash-strapped industry vulnerable to piracy. Filmmakers are increasingly looking to Nigeria’s film industry, Nollywood, to make a name for themselves, and are succeeding. Interestingly, Ghana shares borders with Francophone neighbours, such as Côte d’Ivoire, Burkino Faso and Niger, but there have been no co-productions to hit the Ghanaian screen as yet.
While Beasts is set in an unnamed African country, the filmmakers originally wanted to shoot in Kenya, but the 2013 terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi made that impossible. Despite Ghana’s widespread corruption, stifling climate and total absence of a filmmaking infrastructure, it became the more sensible option. This is the first western film to have been shot in Ghana in 30 years; the last was Werner Herzog’s Cobra Verde (released in 1987).
Moving the production across the continent became jocularly known as ”Operation Black Star” after the Ghanaian flag, and Elba, whose mother was born in Ghana, called some friends in high places (one was a nephew of the President) who could help arrange the promised tax breaks and provide access to military vehicles and weapons that couldn’t be brought in as props.
“A movie is a short-term industrial operation that requires a lot of co-operation from many different parts of the government, and is very expensive for a very short period of time,” Fukunaga said in a Think Progress interview. “You need specific help with logistics from the government to move equipment in and out of the country, for lodging, transportation and to feed people. Those things we take for granted, they only exist in places with a tourist infrastructure.”
But in spite of these challenges, Ghana’s film industry is a resilient one. Before 1957, film production was carried out solely by the state, which considered film as a medium of public education, as opposed to private entertainment. After independence, private filmmakers and other untrained individuals began to produce full-length feature films, which were hurriedly strung together using ordinary VHS cameras. In 1987, the first Ghanaian film, Zinabu, directed by William Akuffo and Richard Quartey was released. Since then, Ghana’s film industry has evolved from producing an average of 50 films annually in the 1990s to over 100 annually in the 2000s. And in 2009, the Ghana Movie Awards were established to acknowledge the efforts of distinguished crew and cast.
Though it’s difficult to measure progress in the midst of struggle, Ghana continues to propagate talented filmmakers whose unique work keep the industry afloat, such as Frimpong-Manso, who produces films through her own company, Sparrow Productions. In an interview with Variety, the filmmaker said that there’s hope in Ghanaian films maturing and flourishing beyond the country’s borders through avenues like Nollywood and the Africa Channel.
“These are people who want African content,” she said. “Our stories need to be able to cut across borders.”
Nollywood is estimated to be worth about US$800-million. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Ghana’s film industry, which is worth less than 2% of its Nigerian counterpart. However, although plagued by low funding and poor distribution networks,Ghana’s film industry is still in its early growth phase with many lucrative prospects for the smart entrepreneur. At the 2015 Ghana Trade and Investment Forum in Johannesburg, officials highlighted Ghana’s stable political climate and strategic location to entrepreneurs looking to expand their investments to the rest of the Economic Community of West African States, citing the country’s film industry as an investment opportunity.
It’s the tough times that reveal and build character, and it’ll be interesting to watch the evolving Ghana film industry continueto grow and eventually shine.