Desperate to return to America years after his deportation, Ghanian Police Inspector Boniface Koomsin finds that his newly acquired counterfeit passport is missing, and embarks on a dangerous journey through modern Ghana to retrieve the stolen document. His own search is linked to a series of violent crimes, and he joins forces with a seasoned police veteran, who is still optimistic about his country.
As their investigation brings them closer to the truth, Boniface finds he must choose between his dreams of a future abroad and the reality of life in his homeland. Director Deron Albright crafts a brilliant policiér that is also a poignant story of one man’s journey to find and understand the value of his own culture. [Synopsis courtesy of ND/NF]
[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the 40th edition of New Directors/New Films to submit responses in their own words about their films. To prompt the discussion, indieWIRE asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]
“The Destiny of Lesser Animals”
Director: Deron Albright
Writer: Yao B. Nunoo
Producers: Deron Albright, Francis Gbormittah, Deirdre Maitre, Yao B. Nunoo
Cinematographer: Aaron T. Bowen
Editors: Jacob Bricca, Lisa Molomot
Music by: John Avarese
Production Designer: Francis Gbormittah
Cast: Yao B. Nunoo, Fred Nii Amugi, Abena Takyi, Francis Gbormittah, Amanorbea Opoku-Boakye, Grace Bud-Arthurs, Edinam Atatsi, Veronica Wathome, Kennedy Ofori, Garth Van’t Hul
Responses courtesy of “The Destiny of Lesser Animals” director Deron Albright.
European beginnings, an art-house initiation…
I studied philosophy as an undergraduate, but in my last semester at Oberlin I enrolled in a European Cinema course where I discovered film as something that engaged me in a genuinely special way – a combination of right brain and left brain, of eye and ear, of head and heart. Growing up for many years without a television and living “in the country,” I only saw a few movies as a kid. So crazy as it sounds, the first group of films I loved was the body of work I saw in that class – Murnau and Lang, Renoir, DeSica, Truffaut and Godard, Herzog and Wenders. But it wasn’t for a few years, when I was working as an editor of 19th century literary criticism, that I really re-engaged filmmaking as a serious pursuit. I was assigned an entry on an obscure French writer named Petrus Borel. It was really dark stuff, but everything he wrote was incredibly cinematic. And there I was, as Wenders would say, “Thinking in pictures.” Later, I adapted one of Borel’s stories, “Champavert,” into the film I made as my portfolio piece for graduate school, and it has been ‘film’ ever since.
Location, ambition and striving to make something special…
I first met Yao B. Nunoo first met in late 2004, while casting my short film, “The Legend of Black Tom.” We enjoyed working together so much that we began to look for opportunities to collaborate in the future. Two years later, Yao was developing a ‘policier’ script set in Philadelphia. But when I returned from screening “Black Tom” at FESPACO, and pitched to him the idea of shooting in West Africa, the script and the project sprang to life. Soon after, we formed Bright Noon Pictures, and set forth to realize the dream of making the film in Ghana. But not just any film. First, it had to be a film for people who loved films. Yao’s inspiration for the script was Kurosawa’s “Stray Dog,” and for me, the vision was to wrap the genre pleasures of the policier with the humanity of Neorealism and the best of the West African cinematic tradition. Second, the film – while targeting a global audience – could be neither condescending to its characters, nor exploitative or pitying of its location. Ghana (and by implication, Africa) had to be seen as a place where everyday people lead everyday lives. And finally, the film had to be part of a movement to breathe new life into a disappearing Ghanaian film tradition. In short, we wanted to show that on a similar budget to that of a large local production, we could make a film that not only stood as popular entertainment, but also as a memorable work of cinema.
The general approach of the film was simple: authenticity of representation, honesty of character, respect of location, and a willingness to adapt. So, for example, there was never any question of shooting in local languages – the question was rather, which language was appropriate for the given scene. Two professionals meeting each other for the first time would speak English. Once they became familiar, they moved into their common tongue. Boniface was from Cape Coast, so his first language was Fante, and we simply went from there. The script was written and the scenes prepped in English, and then translated on set prior to shooting. The result was that I had a good – almost musical –sense of the language, whether or not I understood the actual words. When Yao and I built the assembly cut and translated the local languages for English subtitles, there was only a single “disconnect.” However, the performed Fante translation ended up being a more nuanced and culturally specific interpretation of the original English dialogue, and it made for a really nice moment in the film.
A challenging production…
In all seriousness, it is hard to speak of any part of this project that wasn’t a significant challenge. And there are certainly enough stories to fill hours of conversation. But what I did have was a core group of people who believed in the project and – I think – believed in me. Our numbers were so small, that everyone had to come through. So without Francis beating a path through pre-production, the film wouldn’t have gotten made. Without Aaron’s extraordinary patience and professionalism behind the camera, the film wouldn’t have gotten made. Without Dede’s guidance through post and the talents of the post-production team, we wouldn’t have made it. And without Yao’s faith in me, I may not have been able to keep faith in myself. In the end, perhaps the biggest challenge was the relative naivety with which we approached such a daunting task. On the other hand, that just might have been our biggest asset.
“The destiny of the leopard is different than the destiny of lesser animals…”
After a brutal first week in Accra, the production moved to Cape Coast and started filming in the relative calm of the Elmina fishing village. After blocking the scene, actors Yao B. Nunoo and Sandy Arkhurst began to work through the Fante translation. In doing so, Arkhurst suggested adding a Ghanaian aphorism he thought was particularly apt advice for Boniface to remember: “The destiny of the leopard is different than the destiny of lesser animals.” Not only was it right for the scene; it became central to understanding the entire film.
An upcoming project…
The evolution of “The Destiny of Lesser Animals” really began as I cast Yao to act in my short film, “The Legend of Black Tom.” It’s only fitting that coming out of the experience on “The Destiny of Lesser Animals,” I return to the feature project based on the same material – the story of a freed slave who journeyed to Regency England and became a bare-knuckle prizefighter. It’s a fantastic story that, despite being 200 years old resonates with many issues that are relevant today.