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Interview: Filmmaker Priscilla Anany

Ghanaian filmmaker Priscilla Anany has won plaudits around the world for her storytelling. Her first full-length feature film focuses on the plight of a young child with special needs and his mother’s ostracisation from traditional communities

Priscilla Anany
Children of the Mountain

The film deals with a heartbreaking subject matter. What was it that brought you to this subject?

A very good friend of mine has a child who has Down Syndrome and she wrote a short prose that expressed her personal rationale to why she had such a child. I read the prose and I was inspired to tell a bigger story about women who have kids with special-needs. My goal was to let mothers all over the world know that it wasn’t their fault their babies were sometimes born with health issues or with deformities. There’s no such thing as a perfect child or human, all children are a great gift, and they should be loved and accepted no matter how they come. I especially wanted to reach mothers  in developing worlds who face far more challenges amidst blame and criticism for having “imperfect” babies and then not having adequate health care that caters to children with special needs.

How did you go about casting the people in the film – what were you looking for in the protagonists? Some are well-known actors, but others perhaps not? What about Jessica?

We held a casting session and we had a lot of well-known Ghanaian actresses, but none seemed to be the perfect fit for the protagonist especially. I was quite worried. I needed a beautiful, simple and natural looking woman and of course a very good performer who could carry the weight of the character’s journey. When I saw a photo of Rukiyat Masud, I knew right away she was the one. She wasn’t famous and nobody knew her, but her audition was great. And then I cast some pioneer Ghanaian actors to support the unknown lead. Many of them are household names whom I watched when I was growing up in Ghana.

Finding Jessica was the most challenging. To establish the realism of the film and to have it as realistic as possible, I wanted to have a child with the real life conditions projected in the story. Besides, this was a low budget indie and I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford CGI. Fortunately we found the Graft Foundation, which is a Ghanaian-based and funded foundation that offers free surgeries to deformed children not just in Ghana, but in neighbouring West African countries. They do a very great job. Once they read the script, they were willing to assist. They had a list of kids who were awaiting surgeries but then the next challenge was to find a family that would agree to have us work with their child. Prior to finding the Graft Foundation, we had gone to the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in Kumasi and had found some kids with cleft lips, but their families were uncomfortable with us featuring them in a films. Many were ashamed of the condition. Fortunately, Jessica’s parents were willing to allow me to work with Jessica.

Why did you choose to film it in the local language (is it Twi?) excuse my ignorance!

The film was made in Twi and in Ewe, and there was a little Fante in there as well. I thought it was very essential to make the film in the local dialect, also to add to the realism as well as to highlight the culture. A lot of Ghanaian filmmakers shy away from this, which I think is very sad. The Nigerians do this very well too and I think it’s because they really appreciate their cultures, which is very admirable. I wish I had used more dialects just to include most of the ethnic groups. Besides, I also wanted to make a foreign language film, for the international film market, a foreign film especially from our part of the world would not be complete unless it was in a foreign language.

Women are central to your storytelling. Why do you feel it is important to highlight their struggle and bring out their strengths?

First and foremost, I’m a women’s empowerment advocate and I feel it’s important to remind women that no matter who or where they are or how they look, they still matter to the world and their stories are important. I like to encourage women to stand up to their problems and struggles, and continue to fight on.

What are the central themes to your films overall?

I like to explore the theme of bravery, of course from a female protagonist. I also like the theme of friendship, the idea of sisterhood, women supporting other women. I like female antagonists too because they exert strength and power, and they’re brave enough to be bad. I also like existentialist themes, the desire to know thyself, the question about the existence of God, the purpose of human existence and the  idea of living life on one’s own terms. You’ll find these themes in most of my films and scripts.

Some of the movie’s scenes, particularly in the markets, capture the sometimes grim reality of life in Ghana. Did you think it was important to show this to the wider world?

Absolutely, I wanted to show the life of the lower class and in this case a hard working market woman. I don’t think the storytelling would have been complete without showing her world as thoroughly as it is. 

How do you expect the film to be received in Ghana? Do you think it will strike a nerve?

At this point I’m not sure because Ghanaians are used to a certain type of films: escapist, quite westernized films set in seemingly upper class settings and they are used to seeing some particular known actor. My film has none of that. I don’t know if they are ready to see a more close to home reality, which covers the lives of the majority. It definitely will strike a nerve though. Disability and deformity is a subject matter that has received little to no attention, not just in Ghana, everywhere, even in the US. People are uncomfortable discussing such matters, just like how you walk on the street and look away when you see a disabled or deformed person. Of course some of us look away because we don’t want to make the person uncomfortable but many also look away because it makes them uncomfortable to look. If it makes you uncomfortable to look at a person with a deformity, what do think these people feel when they look at themselves in the mirror?

What’s your general take on Ghanaian filmmaking? Children of the Mountain has extremely high production values. Would you like to see that inspiring other Ghanaian filmmakers?

I think some Ghanaian filmmakers have good stories but the final product isn't always top quality. It’s true, you don’t have to attend film school to become a filmmaker but I think it’s important to educate oneself, read and research, and watch a lot of movies to know and understand the profession. I also think a lot of Ghanaian filmmakers focus too much on the money-making aspect and they forget it’s an art that deserves to be expressed in a certain way. I heard some people use a week or two to shoot an entire feature and then quickly edit and sell. That’s just insane. We used a month to shoot and we spend a whole year doing post-production. It could have been less but I wanted to take my time and get it done well. I absolutely would love to have my film inspire upcoming filmmakers. I’d like for them to focus on writing good stories and then take their time to shoot the films.

You’re working on a new film, Green Bird. What’s the concept behind the movie? 

Green Bird is my next feature film, it's set both in the US and in Ghana. It’s about an American psychologist who leaves his life and practice in the US and comes to West Africa to find answers he’s been seeking all his life. It’s an existentialist drama the hope is to cast a well-known American actor to play the role. We’re currently in the development stage.

How do you see Ghanaian filmmaking developing? How can it be helped to reach a wider audience?

I think it’ll be worth it if Ghanaian filmmakers told stories that were true to their cultures and ethnic background, and took their time to make the films. That way the films would be good enough to be submitted to international film festivals around the world and also attain world distribution. In the US for instance, a lot of African Americans and people from the Caribbean like to see Ghanaian and Nigerian films, so imagine if the films were made better.

Which other Ghanaian directors, actors and others in the filmmaking business are worth looking out for?

The two Ghanaian directors I think the world should look out for are Frances Bodomo whose movie “Afronauts” went to Sundance and Akosua Adoma Owusu whose short film “Kwaku Ananse” entered a lot of festivals. It’s amazing the leading filmmakers from Ghana are all women. Rukiyat Masud is a very good actress. She always comes to set prepared, she honestly made my job easier during the shoot.

 

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