The state of the Ghana Film Industry is dire. I have sat back and watched keenly the semblance of a revival taking place in the industry and doff my hat to filmmakers such as Kwaw Ansah, Shirley Frimpong Manso and Leila Djansi for keeping the film industry alive. Other filmmakers including Socrates Safo and Abdul Salam Mumuni have also made a name for themselves. I dare say, however, that the Ghana Film Industry is on the brink of death.
In 1948, the Gold Coast Film Unit was set up within the Information Services Department (ISD). Shortly after independence, Dr Kwame Nkrumah created the State Film Company which later became the Ghana Film Industry Corporation (GFIC). Nkrumah built the very first complete film facility which then included the Information Services Department Film Unit building opposite the French Embassy and the whole of the land currently housing Afrikiko restaurant at Kanda as well as the premises of TV3.
In the early days of filmmaking, stalwarts such as Rev. Chris Hesse, Tom Riberio, R.A. Fenuku, Frank Parks, Sam Aryittey and Ashong Katai gave their all to nurture an industry that was new and vibrant. From the early 1960’s all the way to the mid-1970’s, the Ghana Film Industry welcomed filmmakers from Nigeria, Togo, Senegal and Kenya. These students of film came to Ghana to learn from the very best in Africa. How quickly did the tables turn!
The demise of Ghana Film Industry
There is no doubt that the military coup of 1981 led to the demise of the Ghana Film Industry. This I will explain later. Dr Kwame Nkrumah set up the Ghana Film Industry and built the largest studio in West Africa in what is today known as Studio B at TV3. The premises that today holds TV3 and all the facilities including the Executive Theatre were part of Nkrumah’s plan to create an African film industry to rival what he had seen in America during his school days and what the colonial government, championed by the BBC, were doing; though, he may have had a plan to use the industry to propagate his message. There is no denying that he built a well-equipped, world class facility for film production.
Early Ghanaian films
In those early days long before the great Kwaw Ansah gave us ‘Love Brewed in the African Pot’ starring Reginald Tsiboe and Anima Misa Amoah in 1980 and ‘Heritage Africa’ starring Kofi Bucknor in 1988, Ghana had recorded some achievable feats in filmmaking such as the very first Ghanaian film shot on celluloid ‘The Boy Kumasenu’ (1952) directed by British Director Sean Graham, and others such as ‘Baby Ghana’ (1957) directed by Jean Rouch, ‘Genesis Chapter X’ (1977) directed by Tom Riberio and starring George Williams, and ‘I Told You So’ (1970) directed by Egbert Adjeso. Indeed, actors such as Lord Bob Cole and Margaret ‘Araba Stamp’ Quainoo became household names during this period. The presence of Kwaw Ansah and King Ampaw paved the way for a new generation of actors and filmmakers to emerge. David Dontoh and Evans Hunter are remembered in ‘The Road to Kukurantumi’ (1984) by King Ampaw.
With the emergence of video, the Ghana Film Industry Corporation had to readjust to be competitive. Their very first video starring David Dontoh and Mavis Odonkor and also directed by Tom Riberio was called ‘Dede’. The company went on to produce several films including ‘A Stab in the Dark’ (1998) starring Pascaline Edwards and Edinam Atatsi and ‘Baby Thief’ (1991) which launched the acting career of John Dumelo.
I have no doubt that the foundation for the demise of the Ghana Film Industry is steeped in the Jerry John Rawlings led PNDC and NDC governments. The film industry was seen as a drain on government resources then, so the PNDC and NDC governments starved the company of funds, gradually bringing it to its knees. Moreover, it became apparent that the government had no use for a Ghana Film Industry Corporation which with the exception of GBC and perhaps the ISD, had the largest collection of authentic Ghanaian films both on celluloid and on video. Thai company BEC-TERO set up TV3 in 1997 and sold it off two years later. In 1999, Media Prima of Malaysia took over TV3 and annexed the GFIC, renaming it GAMA Film Company Ltd, with government as a shareholder. Outrage by filmmakers over the sale at that time fell on deaf ears.
There is evidence that the Malaysians were not interested in GAMA; their primary objective was television and together with their Ghanaian partners including heavyweights in the Rawlings government, GAMA was again starved of cash to operate. The incentive to take over the Ghana Film Industry Corporation was simple. The facilities were already in place, they had the studios and the equipment which TV3 could readily use. It is important to note that the Kufuor-led NPP government did not also make any firm commitments to reviving the industry, but also sat on the fence watching filmmakers struggle to get their films made.
Good news for filmmakers
According to the terms of reference, the Malaysians had 10 years to operate the business. In 2010, the agreement with Media Prima of Malaysia ended so TV3 was quietly put up for sale and the government of Ghana already a shareholder in GAMA, regained its shares in GAMA to once again become 100 per cent shareholder.
Filmmakers who heard the news at that time were ecstatic that the dream of Nkrumah to create a vibrant film industry could finally be realized. The facilities of the Ghana Film Industry Corporation were once again available to filmmakers and the staff of the company gloried in a new beginning for GFIC. They were wrong! Certainly the priority of the Mills led government in 2011 was not filmmaking in Ghana.
When the Coleman-led administration of GAMA, after government took control, decided to charge TV3’s new owners rent of $26,000.00 for the use of their premises so they could raise seed capital to revive the fortunes of the ailing corporation, a Deputy Minister of Information at that time, asked him to proceed on leave. All staff of GAMA also went home. Ironically, the very filmmakers charged to make and preserve our heritage were shoved out of GAMA. It is not surprising then that GAMA was again placed on divestiture and within three months was snapped up by the new owners of TV3 giving them full control of all the facilities. This brought to an end over 60 years of the Ghana Film Industry Corporation.
A new generation of filmmakers
In the meantime, private filmmakers were struggling to keep the industry going. Students of the National Film Institute, the only one of its kind in West Africa, who could have made use of the GAMA facility, were graduating in droves to find an industry all but dead and buried. The hundreds of editors, producers, directors, scriptwriters and cameramen became disillusioned with the apparent lack of support for the industry. Many faded away and some gave up on their dream and ended up doing other things. I dare say that one of the challenges brought about by the lack of support for the Ghana Film Industry Corporation was the emergence of certain filmmakers who by virtue of seeing a huge gap in the industry, started new dimensions to filmmaking. The emergence of the so-called ‘Glamour Movie’ genre and Kumawood were born. Of course, the gap had to be filled and filled it was with sub-standard scripts and poor quality acting and no one to correct the mistakes being made by these producers, actors and filmmakers.
Yet there was a silver lining. A number of people shone through. They stepped up their game and gave us a peek into the future of filmmaking. A rebirth took place and Ghanaians now had an opportunity to see some well-produced movies once again.
Shirley Frimpong Manso and Leila Djansi became icons of the industry. They both took us to new levels of digital film production. Shirley brought us ‘Life and Living it’, ‘Perfect Picture’, ‘Scorned’, ‘Checkmate’, ‘Adams Apple’, among others. Leila Djansi came with ‘I Sing of a Well’, ‘Sinking Sands’ and ‘Ties that Bind’. At the same time Ghana’s most celebrated filmmaker Kwaw Ansah continued to make movies with ‘The Love of AA’ and ‘Papa Lasisi’s Bicycle’.
I wonder sometimes where the great actors of our time are. Many have simply gone into hibernation and only come out when something worth doing comes out. The likes of Ebenezer Brew-Riverson, Dzifa Glikpoe, Akosua Abdallah, Mawuli Semavor, Oscar Provincal and Doris Sackitey were the role models for many of us in acting school. We marvelled at Kofi Middleton Mends, Martin Owusu, Mary Yirenkyi, Kofi Yirenkyi, Kofi Bucknor and Anima Misa as they honed their craft.
Is there any hope for the film industry?
President John Mahama promised a revival. He set up the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Creative Arts to facilitate and bring together all the Creative Arts under one Ministry. That in itself is a difficult thing for one Ministry to undertake. The Creative Arts, according to any dictionary, is the study of the following: dramaturgy, music, graphic arts/cartooning, performing arts, film, publishing, galleries, museums, and the visual arts. Some may say that anyone who is creative and innovative should be recognized as being part of the Creative Arts industry. Therefore fashion designers, carpenters, weavers are all part of this rather broad industry. What Ghana needs is a comprehensive film policy or a film commission to look closely at the film industry again. There is no way that a Ministry so enthused by Tourism will spend its time on the Creative Arts Industry. I may be wrong but that is so far what I gather. It may try to set up a bureau within the Ministry but there is little or really nothing it can do to change anything. An example is the uncompleted theatre building belonging to the School of Performing Arts at the University of Ghana. If President John Mahama is truly passionate about the Creative Arts, then he must lead the charge to revive the Ghana Film Industry Corporation.
The sale of GAMA and its assets is unfortunate and a failure on the part of government to look beyond parochial interests and personal gain. Many of us would have been happy to see government find a way to keep the film industry alive. Selling what could have become a huge industrial base for filmmakers was certainly not the best move. The movie industry creates jobs, and gives opportunity for many young Ghanaians to make money and provide support for their families.
Our movie stars today have to travel to Nigeria to be part of Nollywood in order to survive. Yet many of these Nigerian producers saw Ghana as the home of African filmmaking in the early ’60’s, and ’70’s. Remember that many big budget Hollywood films have been shot on location here. These include ‘Cobra Verde’ (1987) starring Klaus Kinski, ‘Ali’ (2001) starring Will Smith, ‘Deadly Voyage’ (1996) starring Omar Epps and ‘Ties that Bind’ (2011) starring Kimberley Elise.
The potential of the film industry is huge given the right support, yet the very people whose support we need, turn a blind eye to the plight of filmmakers. Today, the dream of Kwame Nkrumah lies in the sole hands of private businessmen who do not understand the tenets of filmmaking or television. I love Ghanaian businesses and appreciate efforts by Ghanaian businessmen to succeed; but anything that ties us to our Heritage must not be disposed of. Soon we may decide to sell off the National Museum and then perhaps Ghana Broadcasting Corporation. Who now owns all the films produced under the watch of the Ghana Films Industry Corporation? The Ministry of Information also played a part in the disposal of the Corporation, yet it finds it prudent to hang on to the Film Unit of the Information Services Department. Could the two units not merge to form a formidable unit? I guess GFIC was easy pickings just like tossing a penny in a pond, yet when we recite the pledge, we say with pride, “Our heritage won for us, through the blood and toil of our fathers”.
The writer is a Media Practitioner, Actor, Author and a Content Development Consultant.
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