The purpose of the African Women in Cinema Blog is to provide a space to discuss diverse topics relating to African women in cinema--filmmakers, actors, producers, and all film professionals. The blog is a public forum of the Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema.

Le Blog sur les femmes africaines dans le cinéma est un espace pour l'échange d'informations concernant les réalisatrices, comédiennes, productrices, critiques et toutes professionnelles dans ce domaine. Ceci sert de forum public du Centre pour l'étude et la recherche des femmes africaines dans le cinémas.

02 May 2011

A Conversation with Sam Kessie

© Sam Kessie
Sam Kessie a woman of the world with a foot on three continents talks about herself, her films, her company Sankofa Pictures, and how she brought together her eclectic experiences to express herself in media and filmmaking.

Well I am first of all grateful to have had a chance to have this experience because I think it's made me definitively who I am today. I was born in Camden Town, London. Growing up in 80's London was very much eclectic. I had a lot of influences from the pop culture of that time period through all the good, bad, out-of-the-box genres of music, video games, fashion, art, media, etc. I also grew up traveling a bit all over Europe, even living in Wales for a couple of years.

In the mid 80's, my dad took a job with a mining company and so we had to move from London to Obuasi, in the Ashanti region of Ghana. I wasn't too thrilled about the move and didn't really have a lot of "permanent" friends growing up. Mainly because one would say I had very strict parents and it was really hard to fit in. We had just moved into a very small town and so my parents were a bit protective of me. I am glad they were in the end though. So, I spent a lot of time reading and watching recorded videotapes of what we brought back from Europe. At the same time I was an extrovert, adventurous and did get into trouble occasionally resulting in being grounded a lot. I did a lot of writing as an outlet and had a few articles that made it into the local newspaper. The company my dad worked at had a lot of expatriates too and so I was able to still experience a bit of the culture I was used to from Europe like watching pantomimes, art activities and going to see movies at the club house.

Eventually as my passion for reading grew, I got a chance to experience stories and poems by African writers and was involved with some of the culture troupes and activities in school. On the local TV, there were a few interesting, creative Ghanaian children shows. However I was on a path to studying the sciences. Writing, anything within the arts, was encouraged to be more of a hobby. After high school I moved to Wisconsin, which was once again another shock. It was my first time in the States and I was in the middle of nowhere. I've now moved to Atlanta. So, many things have happened in my life. This has by far also shaped the kind of stories I have and want to be able to tell. They come to me in so many different forms but I can always find a way to relate a story that resonates with me. It took me quite some time to figure out what I wanted to become but this storytelling/filmmaking never crossed my radar. I sometimes wish it had sooner. But every experience counts for something I think. At least for me.

Your films, Sales Day (2005), Life 101: Angel's Secret (2005) and Zum Zum: The Career of Azumah Nelson (2010) have been well-received, please talk a bit about them and your filmmaking process. 

Sales Day is my first complete short film. It was my senior thesis for my BA in Media Production in 2005. It was also a careful yet strong attempt to leave the world of psychology and enter my new home in the world of filmmaking. In the end, it was all still an amazing experience. I tried to do something different with this short then, using the Panasonic DVX100A and attaching the PS Technik+Prime lenses to give it the feel and look of film. This was an exciting new thing for us, especially me. At that time, I was the only student at the school to try this. It added a bit to my initial budget, but it was well worth the investment I re-cut the short in early 2010. (Yeah, it's been through quite a few cuts but I am settled on this final one now). The tone is a bit darker now and I tried to work around as much of the imperfections as I could (just for fun really). I am very proud of my original Sales Day cut. I learned a lot from my mistakes and I especially appreciate all the notes and comments I took from it.

Life 101: Angel's Secret was my first directorial feature project right out of school. I was as green as can be, and I mean really green! The total budget for the project was about $10,000 and so there are a lot of things that ended up suffering. But it was a good story and we wanted to tell it and we did the best we could. 

Going back to Ghana after almost a decade, I was lucky to meet this great boxing champ, Azumah Nelson through a mutual family friend. After spending time with him, I came to learn he had been trying for a while to get a documentary about his life done. After showing him some of my work, he was more than happy to pass on all and any footage he had that could be used to tell a simple, low budget story about becoming a world boxing champion. I had to complete the documentary within a seven-month deadline. I drew a lot mostly from stock footage, but also integrating lively sketches as recreations of events. 

Zoom Zoom (2010) by Sam Kessie

As for my filmmaking process? I think I just allow a script or story to move me. Having the opportunity to read as many books as I did as a child has given me the chance to visualize words and settings and so I allow the initial words and feelings I get to help define my filmmaking style/process. I don't think two stories are alike so I don't think two films I create should be alike. Every work put out should be unique to its story. I do believe in spending as much time as possible in being ready for a film. Hence, I love pre-production. I believe with having the wheels of motion set "right" in the beginning, it absolutely helps make the rest of the stages in filmmaking a little less stressful and helps with keeping the budget true. I hope to become the type of director that leaps over unspoken boundaries through film and carry the audience to unseen, maybe even dark places within themselves. Although my style of directing may be influenced, occasionally, by the fact that I am a woman and of British/Ghanaian decent, I don’t want that to define my voice as an artist. I don’t want to be boxed into one particular style or genre of films.

Your company Sankofa Pictures, what are its objectives?

Sankofa, "Sɛ wo werɛ fi na wosankofa a yenky": "There is nothing wrong with learning from hindsight", is an adinkra symbol and is derived from the Akan words; SAN (return), KO (go), FA (look, seek and take). I resonate with this philosophy a lot. I initially had my production company as Jellybean Pictures because of my love of jellybeans. However as time went on and I matured in my new found profession, I realized that I had indeed returned to my roots to do something I have always enjoyed and was much of an extension of who I was. I needed it to be more of what I wanted to do in life. To tell the stories I want to tell and to share what I have learned from my own and other people’s experiences. Hopefully imparting that knowledge to others, especially our youth. So I started a new production company to do conscious-driven films within a unique blend of sharp dialogue, grim humor and striking aesthetics characterized by tense, complicated relationships. In addition to narrative films, at Sankofa we also focus on commercials, documentaries and music videos, yet with the same philosophy as our backbone. 

TKAFoundation, your current project, is a very exciting initiative, how was it conceived and what is the foundation's mission.

I think TKAF was born from my struggle as a child growing up in Ghana, and now understanding that all that happened to be me looking and wishing for an outlet to have my creativity flourish.

TKAFoundation is a huge supporter of the arts and embarks on contributing back to charities that encourage arts education. One of the frontrunners of the charities we support is Akosia, a non-profit organization that develops and facilitates creative projects for underprivileged children and women all over the world.

For Akosia's 2011 summer project, the TKAfoundation will be joining the cause with a team of eight volunteers, all of different backgrounds and walks of life, to help run this summer arts program for its third consecutive year.  We are extremely excited about this opportunity with the kids!

Interview by Beti Ellerson (April 2011)

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