Leila Djansi & the rise of new African film
Once upon a time, it was such a difficult and costly process to make a movie that Ghana only generated a handful of films every year. Out of this period came films like I Told You So, Kwaw Ansah’s Heritage Africa and Love Brewed in the African Pot, and The Road to Kukrantumi; films into which directors poured heart, talent and vision; so much so that some of these films won international awards and are still studied abroad.
Then came the digital revolution and filmmaking suddenly became easier, cheaper and more commercial. Today, the Ghana Film Industry churns out hundreds of films; ten times the number of films it once did. While these films have generated stars, cedis, and stories that make people laugh or cry, the art of filmmaking has been lost in favour of what turns a quick buck.
Enter Leila Djansi from stage left.
Leila (who is cagey about her exact age) is a surprisingly young writer/director on a mission to return the industry to its artistic roots. She wrote the screenplay for the award-winning film, I Sing of a Well and now she has introduced a new film, Sinking Sands starring newcomer Ama K. Abebrese alongside Jimmy Jean-Louis (‘The Haitian’ from popular-but-cancelled TV show, Heroes) and Nigerian actor, Yemi Blaq.
The film is the most expensive Ghanaian film ever made and yet it is not a commercial film. Rather, it harks back to earlier times when Ghanaian films were not divided into several parts and actually had something to say in a beautifully-filmed way.
In her own words, “Sinking Sands is about a seemingly fairytale relationship that spirals into one of abuse when the man gets disfigured in a domestic accident at the hands of the woman. I’ve been told it’s not everbody’s cup of tea. It wasn’t made in the way most movies are made here that people have become used to. It’s very artsy and not a lot of people dig that.”
“Some people tell me they didn’t understand the trailer – it was too soft – or the poster. There were no fancy-looking girls; no bright, bright colours; no one shouting, so they didn’t really know what the film was about. What strikes me however is that whoever does go to watch the movie comes out saying it was great.”
“I hope it conditions the minds of Ghanaians and shows that there are different ways of making a movie. I am still on that journey myself. I’m still very interested in seeing people’s reactions.”
Leila’s relationship with film began when she was very young. The first film she remembers seeing was classic fantasy film, ‘Clash of the Titans’: “I am not sure how old I was but I had a fever right after watching it, induced by a nightmare about the Kraken. I remember that very vividly.”
Her first steps into the world of movie making came when she wrote a screenplay for Akwetey Kanyi at the age of 19: “I used to write and direct plays in school. But I never really thought I was going to be a director. I wanted to be a gynaecologist but my mother took me to see how a woman has a baby and I got scared! Then I got into Nancy Drew and decided I wanted to be a forensic scientist. But I had a phobia for corpses. I quit school actually and sat at home for a year. But after Akwetey made my script into a movie, I decided a change in direction. That same year I got a job with Movie Africa. Then I got a scholarship to study film in the States.”
Out there, she says her favourite director is Wolfgang Petersen (Troy, Airforce One): “I like his directing style: It’s very real time. He doesnt make you feel like you’re watching a movie. He allows dangerous and sad things to happen. He doesn’t direct fairytales: he will kill your favourite character. He isn’t a sentimental director. I like that about him a lot. It takes a lot to become unsentimental as a director.”
Coming back, she has very strong opinions on what has come to be called ‘Ghallywood’: “Oh my god. Don’t even say that name. I dont know who came up with it. I call it ‘the Ghana film industry’. My favourite Ghanaian film of all time is definitely The Road to Kukrantumi. However, I don’t have a favoruite Ghanaian director. Frankly speaking, there has never really been anyone consistent enough for me to say they are my favourite, so I don’t know.”
“I don’t have a best Ghanaian film yet. I’d say Cobra Verde, but it’s not a Ghanaian film: it was simply shot here. I don’t think we have one yet. I have not seen No Time to Die, but I’ve heard good things. Being the director I am – very stylized – my answer would be based an adventurous movie, but I doubt we have that yet. Unless we do and I just haven’t come accross it. We used to have good, adventurous movies but not anymore.”
Nollywood – she says – is “a very commercial industry. I wouldn’t call them filmmakers, except maybe Kunle who directed The Figurine. We’ve spoken a couple of times. He’s a nice guy and a filmmaker. Also the Amata brothers: I’ve seen some of their stuff. They are filmmakers, but the greater majority: I dont think they do too well making moves. They treat it like selling tomatoes in the market. They are not interested in making films for festivals.”
“The problem is that there are no investors in Nollywood. People rather take loans from marketers. Marketers are not long-term investors. They give short-term loans. They are not interested in films that will win international awards. They want to feed their kids. Now. They are all about paying their bills: that’s what matters most.
“In Africa, living from day-to-day is what matters. All the other stuff is book-long and icing on the cake.”
“The local film industry is too commercialized. Filmmaking here is not an artistic industry. “Let me do what will make me money.” That’s what’s happeneing right now. We don’t plan. A lot goes into making a movie. You can take a year just to prepare for a movie but here we only take a few months. Then the movie becomes very rough and you watch it full of regret and think things like “hmm. I could have improved this and I could have done this scene better.”
“Another thing here is that a good number of film directors think that having a crisp-looking picture makes a film artistic. This is just not true. You can make an excellent picture with a crappy camera. It depends on the scene. It can be better to take images of poverty and hardship with a gritty camera, for example.
She is not all doom-and-gloom though: “The good things right now have everything to do with the people watching the films: the audience. Ghanaians are starting to getinto the entertainment groove. They are going out to cinema. They are talking about movies. They are recognizing movie stars and giving them their credit.”
So does she think can be done? “Education. Lots and lots and lots and lots of education. That would go a long way towards making things better. It’s not necessarily about going to sit in a four-wall classrooom and learning. It’s about travelling to go and understudy a proper director. Not even far away. South Africa has some of the best directors in the world. It’s about reading about the history of film; how Hollywood came about; the various film movements that have come and gone…”
Dust asked her who she thought people should keep an eye on in the industry: “I don’t know any up and coming scriptwriters whose work I’ve seen yet but one upcoming director is a guy called Kobby Rana. It is very impressive the way he has started out. He has this adventurous mind: the mark of a very good director. He doesn’t allow himself to be inhibited. He steps out of his comfort zone and explores.”
“As far as up and coming actors go: Ama K [Abebrese]. I have to give it to her. Absolutely. After I cast her, I was having sleepless nights because she’s always happy. I didn’t know that about her when I cast her. Then we got closer and became friends. Oh my God: Ama is the happiest girl I’ve ever met. I thouht to myself, “how is this happy girl going to play this dark, intense role.” But she pulled it off. Ama listens. She doesn’t argue or think she knows better. She listens and that is going to take her very far. She’s great.”
Dust asked her how she goes about picking talent: “It all depends on the script. On what the character demands. After writing a character, I immediately begin to sketch what they could look like and start looking for someone who has some resemblance to that. Then I audition them. Make sure they can listen. No airs. No pride. Someone who can become an empty vessel and leave their pride and celebrity status at the door. Come ready to imbibe something else. Be ready to listen. Be obedient. Understand. Communicate. Be.”