Akosua Adoma Owusu’s latest work, “Kwaku Ananse,” is an intensely personal project for the filmmaker, drawing upon rich Ghanaian mythology, combining semi-autobiographical elements with the tale of Kwaku Ananse, a trickster popular in West African tales who appears as both spider and man. Ananse teaches us that there are two sides to everything and everyone. To explore this theme of doubleness, director Owusu combines the Kwaku Ananse fable with the story of a young outsider named Nan Kronhwea as she attends her estranged father’s funeral. Nan’s father led 2 separate lives with 2 wives and 2 families – one in Ghana, and the other in the United States. Nan’s contradictory feelings about her father’s double life reflects an even broader truth about the nature of our personal relationships.
After recently winning the Special Mention prize of the Young Jury at the Cinemas D’Afrique in Angers, France, “Kwaku Ananse” is now on view in the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art series “Do/Tell,” all summer long.
Following is an interview with Owusu for the ICA exhibition:
Rissa Papillion – One aspect of the film that I loved was the dream sequence/ Nyan’s entrance into the spiritual world. I wanted to know what was the thought process behind this break in the narrative and were there any other alternatives to telling this aspect of story that you considered?
Akosua Adoma Owusu – I wanted to find a creative way of visually communicating an oral tale in cinematic language. And, I sort of envisioned the film to be like an African interpretation of a fable or fairy tale – almost like an African ‘Alice in Wonderland’. The story is centered on a Ghanaian-American girl, who comes to Ghana for her father’s funeral, where she is grieving the loss of her father. In the forest scene she is carrying ambivalence with her into the forest to confront Kwaku Ananse’s spirit after meeting his other family in Ghana. I had to find a creative way to communicate that Nyan was leaving the funeral in search for her father, who is in the forest hoarding the gourd of wisdom. The film was originally made on a commission from Focus Features Africa First. Originally, I was writing the script to be a traditional narrative film focusing more on story. And, this did not work for me. I realized I was trying hard to please the studio and writing what I felt audiences would like. In the end, I decided the only way for me to be truthful to my filmmaking style was to focus less on the story. I allowed my location and character choices determine the direction the narrative was going to go.
Rissa Papillion – The film stripped down to it core centers around the topic of death. Can you explain the significance of death in Ghanaian culture?
Akosua Adoma Owusu – Death is a significant state of transition among the Akan of Ghana. Funerals effectively function as theater where the transition occurs. So, before the Nyan enters the spirit world forest, she is participating in a funeral. Going off on what William Shakespeare says all the world’s a stage, so, there are entrants and exits, and each man or (woman) in his life has a role to play. Funerals are celebrations that mark one’s exit into the world of the dead, or the ancestral world. They are ceremonies that bring families together while often times creating tensions among family members as well. In Kwaku Ananse, Nyan carries her ambivalence of Kwaku Ananse’s other family with her into the spirit world or forest to search for her father to confront him. In Ghana, funerals are fundamentally for the living as excessive investments are made to make them elaborate and gallant. As a result, people are glorified more in death than in life. And, the presence of death is clear in the manner in which Ghanaian films are made.
Rissa Papillion – What was the hardest part of making this film and subsequently was the hardest part also the most challenging?
Akosua Adoma Owusu – Well, Kwaku Ananse is semi-autobiographical. The film is about loss and forgiveness. I was making this film to let go of a lot of frustration I had built up around my father’s death, and making this film was a way for me to make peace with that grief. I was born in the United States, I was educated in the United States and lived all my life here. My parents are from Ghana and I came to Ghana to live there for two years to produce “Kwaku Ananse”. Anansi stories started with Ghanaians in the Ashanti culture and made it to the diaspora and I noticed that our legacy of Ananse storytelling is dying. And, my father made sure that I knew Kwaku Ananse stories in my childhood. Taking on the artist as trickster role, I set everyone up in Ghana with this movie to be thinking about “Kwaku Ananse” and how Ghana is going and where it should be. Getting support in Ghana for a short adaptation of Kwaku Ananse wasn’t appealing to many Ghanaians at its initial stages of development. So, the hardest part of making this film was the funeral scene because I was restaging my father’s funeral with family members on both my mother’s side and father’s side of the family as characters in Kwaku Ananse’s funeral. And, the challenging part was working as a producer and director of Kwaku Ananse, a story that is my most personal film-to-date, with cast and crew from different countries who didn’t have sensitivity to my culture and my process of making films. It was challenging to communicate to them what I was even trying to achieve.
Rissa Papillion – What do you consider to be your greatest success in the film?
Akosua Adoma Owusu – My greatest success in the film was having to make a fiction film that won the only award for Ghana during the 2013 Africa Movie Academy Awards. This recognition came as a surprise to me because it was my first attempt at making a fictional narrative film using a traditional film production structure with support from Focus Features. In the aftermath of Kwaku Ananse, there was a revival of the interest in our folklore hero tradition in Ghanaian storytelling. The film propelled me into the scene of short filmmaking in Ghana helping me to partially resolve the conflict of identity that was at the heart of my existential crisis.
Rissa Papillion – How long did it take to make this film from its conception to casting to filming to the final edits?
Akosua Adoma Owusu – The Focus Features Africa First program commissioned “Kwaku Ananse” in November 2012. After which it took about six months to polish the script. Then, it took two weeks to shoot the film in Ghana, and two months to complete the post-production in Mexico City. With over 12 short films to my credit, it’s the longest process I have ever spent on making a short film. As for casting, I went to people in Ghana, who I knew could support my vision. The film stars an emerging multitalented singer Jojo Abot with co-stars Grace Omaboe, a legend in the Ghanaian film industry, who Ghanaians remember telling Ananse stories “By the Fireside”. Koo Nimo, the Godfather of palm wine music portrayed Kwaku Ananse in the film. I also used family members to support the film in the funeral sequences. We were restaging my father’s funeral in the village of Bodomase, where he was born and where he was buried.
Rissa Papillion – Do most of your films have some aspect of autobiography? Do you try to create clear divides between your characters and your real life?
Akosua Adoma Owusu – Yes, my films have some aspect of autobiography. I realize I am the most creative when I am working from lived experience by restaging history or recreating from memories. Most of my subjects and characters tend to be in that space of the in-between and usually there isn’t a clear divide between my characters and my real life. In a way, there is a kind of seamless overlap between their performance and my personal experience as a woman and a first generation Ghanaian-American, which are the most natural spaces I draw inspiration from.
Rissa Papillion – Lastly (and probably most importantly), where did you find all of the gourds?
Akosua Adoma Owusu – In Ghana, there is a cultural center in Accra called Art Center, where Ghanaian artisans sell handicrafts. I found a guy working there, who is responsible for making rattle musical instruments from these gourds. So we offered to pay for any gourds that went missing in the river scene. During the production, I hired a production assistant, who was responsible for blocking the gourds with a stick as the gourds were going downstream so we could return the gourds to the owner after shooting.
For more on the film at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, visit http://bit.ly/19OPOTw.