Fielding a vital phone call beside the Gulf of Guinea
In 2005 I scored a job teaching screenwriting at the National Film and Television Institute of Ghana. I had no idea such a school existed before my friend Cath Moore handed me Fara Awindor's email. He was head of the directing department and she'd met him at a conference in Brussels. He seemed like a nice guy, she said. And that was good enough for me! I had spent some time kicking around Southern Africa and teaching in Uganda and always wanted to head West, land of the mighty empire of Benin, the kingdom of the Ashanti and home to Africa's first modern statesman, Kwame Nkrumah; not to mention music legends like Fela Anikulapo Kuti and King Sunny Ade. Such a rich tapestry of history and culture was sure to produce some incredible stories! What could possible go wrong?
Catering was always a surprise
Well, plenty of things, on a daily basis. That's just West Africa. On my first night I lay wide awake on my thin mattress in the sweltering equatorial heat, wondering how they kept their equipment from melting in such oppressive conditions. Directors could always drink gin and tonics to keep them in fine working order, but cameras were a different kettle of fish. Mind you, my department was screenwriting, so all I required of people was a good idea and enough paper to write it on. No problem. Fara loaded me up with enthusiastic students to whom I espoused all the virtues of narrative unity and the restorative three-act structure, and sometimes, I am proud to say, they stayed awake for almost all the lecture. After a heavy lunch of boiled corn starch and pepper soup, afternoon classes were a sleepy affair, so I never took offence at the gentle snores coming from all over the room.
NAFTI staffers Laurene Addy and Salamatu Yakubu, film dubber Mohammed Musulumi and Dr Jo Black, ophthalmologist and nurse botherer
Eventually I was joined by my lovely wife Jo, who took up a position waking up sleeping theatre nurses at Korle Bu Hospital (and doing a little eye surgery). We settled into a quiet life of working and socialising with the wonderful people of Accra and enjoying all the laid back delights of this tropical town including amazing cuisine, constant dancing and copious G & Ts (for medical reasons) in converted shipping container bars under palm tree canopies. Then my friend Francis Gbormittah suggested I meet Shirley Frimpong-Manso, the formidable head of Sparrow Productions.
Shirley Frimpong-Manso - Ghanaian Film and TV legend
Different shades of blue
Shirley needed a script writer for her new show Different Shades of Blue, about the trials and tribulations of six ridiculously good-looking undergraduates of the fictitious University of the Upper Volta. All cast were Miss Ghana Pageant runner-ups. Sparrow Productions ran the pageant and these girls were still under contract, receiving a regular stipend for basically just hanging about the office. Being a very canny business woman, Shirley put them to work on the small screen, and it was my job to give them dialogue and put them in scenarios that would bring out the best in them.
You just don't get it, do you Leonora!
Shirley was keen to get into production as soon as possible, so I pumped out script after script in record time. Each 50 minute episode was plotted by Shirley and myself before I'd bang out the screenplay, talking to myself in different voices, playing out scenarios involving cheating boyfriends, strict religious parents, juju curses, academic pressures, student elections and refugees from Cote d'Ivoire. I even wrote myself a part - Dr Thomas, brilliant Canadian oncologist who plays by his own rules.
Prognosis negative! Shenanigans on set...
the sound and the fury
Then production began. Very slowly. Having foolishly written myself a part I dutifully turned up at 7am sharp to begin filming. I was alone for some time. An hour and a half later the DOP rocked up and extracted half his equipment from the back of a borrowed van, followed an hour later by a smattering of the cast and crew who all relaxed under the shade of the pawpaw trees, chatting and joking, ordering roast ground nuts and sodas from stray kids keen to earn a few cedis. When Shirley, who was also the director, arrived at 2pm, slipping out of a shiny 4x4 looking like Beyonce on her way to a charity cocktail party, people languidly made an effort to look busy. There was, however, no hurry as lunch had just arrived and for the next few hours we munched on fried chicken and black eyed peas while bitching about the film industry and how this show was sure to be a hit.
Editor Aseye Tamakloe, actor Chris Attoh and Shirley, kicking back during post production...
I'm not sure if Different Shades of Blue really was a hit in the end. We did, however, produce 26 episodes of drama, screened on national network, GTV. At the time Sparrow Productions was not only responsible for The Miss Ghana pageant but also developing the feature film: Life and Living it and the reality TV series Personalities Kitchen, sponsored by 'Yankee Rice' (consequently every recipe had to feature rice, ie. rice balls, followed by jollof rice with rice pudding for dessert - like Iron Chef with the same ingredient every week). The series gave me lots of great friends, some deadline angst and fond memories of the first AD taking off his belt and chasing two actors round the set beating them for not knowing their lines - a technique sadly frowned upon in the Australian film and TV industry.
Leonora Okine, who went on to become a star in Nollywood and hit M-Net series 'Tinsel'
from humble beginnings
Little did I know it at the time, but I was working in Ghanaian TV at the start of resurgence in African screen content. South African based cable network M-Net, was starting to make massive inroads into the profitable anglophone markets of west Africa. While francophone countries like Senegal and Burkina Faso had avant garde film industries propped up by the French Ministry of Culture, Nigerian and Ghanaian producers were making film and TV content that locals actually wanted to watch. Nollywood films were so popular that my friend Mohammed Musulumi had a full time job dubbing them into French. He never stopped working. Shirley went on to produce 12 feature films and 6 TV series winning multiple awards. I would never have imagined it, as I sat in the spartan office with the rest of the staff, waiting for our belated wages. We'd all been working for free for months and it was now looking likely that the company was going under. Yet Shirley turned up, late and smiling as usual, and doled out the large plastic bags full of soft currency (in those days it was 12,000 Ghanaian cedis to the US dollar - highest denomination note was 20,000 cedis: $1.70). An investor had come through at the last minute and we could now finish the rest of the series.
Indeed, Ghana, like Nigeria, is producing far more feature films and TV series than Australia. They are enthusiastically consumed by locals keen to hear their language and see their faces on screen. They're also finding a huge market in the African diaspora. It may be the greatest film and TV industry you have never heard of. But guess what, they've never heard of you either! Streuth, they wouldn't have a clue who used to hang out in Alf's diner!
West Africa's premier film school: NAFTI
In my more deliriously optimistic moments (it's usually around the sixth pint) I'd like to think that we far flung Aussies might take a leaf out of Ghana's book and cease pandering to the dominant film cultures of the UK and the US and start speaking with our own voices, producing our own content, reflecting our own stories. And then, after the seventh pint, it strikes me that a small, enthusiastic band of (clinically insane) filmmakers, actors, directors and writers are already doing this, but few people are listening. Caught up in the vortex of Netflix on screen and rehashed content on stage, the public have all but forgotten what their voices used to sound like and certainly what their faces now look like.
And so, dear reader, I guess this is what the South Australian Playwrights Theatre is all about. Screaming our stories into the wind, not giving up, having the courage to fail, over and over again, until someone listens, and starts to understand.
It's also what Frank Forbes and the Yahoo is about. Come see it, and scream along with me!
Book tickets now