Ghanaian Women in Cinema,
Visual Media and Screen Culture
The presence of Ghanaian women in film production dates back to the 1960s to renowned playwright Efua Sutherland (1924-1996) and the documentary Araba: The Village Story. Produced in 1967 for the U.S. television network ABC, the film documents her acclaimed Atwia Experimental Community Theatre Project, an initiative that has the reputation as an innovative model for the internationally known Theatre for Development (TfD).
Another seminal presence of Ghanaian women in cinema some fifty years later is that of scholar Joyce Osei Owusu, whose work traces the cinematic history and analyzes the works of women in Ghana and the Ghanaian diaspora; she completed her Master’s thesis in 2009 and her Doctoral dissertation in 2015. Her research is groundbreaking in its capacity to frame the evolution of Ghanaian women in cinema; it is becoming the reference in the discipline, as her objective was to fill the gap of the dearth of literature and critical studies on Ghanaian women in cinema. Her work is also indicative of the growing presence of African and Afrodescendant women scholars of cinema, visual media and screen culture, especially those based on the continent. Hence, my discussion of Ghanaian Women in Cinema, Visual Media and Screen Culture draws from dialogue with Joyce in our interviews--at the start of her research in 2011 and upon her completion in 2015.
In our discussion I was able to prod a bit deeper into the legacy of a pioneer on the timeline of African cinema that continues to remain obscure. While Efua Sutherland’s name is etched into the annals of African cinema history, there is little knowledge about the film and the details of the role she played. I asked Joyce whether she had been able to uncover any information concerning the whereabouts of Araba and its availability for viewing and whether the specifics of Efua Sutherland as it relates to her role in the production is actually known. During her fieldwork in 2013, she interviewed key family members and colleagues who worked closely with Efua Sutherland, but she was not able to uncover much information regarding the film. She agreed that information on her pioneering filmmaking engagement still remains obscure and notes that apparently the film has disappeared and that there are very few details about it and the specific role that she played in its production.
Nonetheless, that in the literature Efua Sutherland has always been connected with the film and also promoted as its producer suggests that during the period of its production in 1967, when the film was circulating and viewed by the public, there had been some discussion about it. Yet while in the literature it is often cited in the specific terms of her as producer, the origin of this assertion is also not clear. Perhaps because it was a U.S.-produced film, which was most probably broadcast to a U.S. public, the film may not have circulated widely outside of the country and gradually faded from public view; which is not unlike the early history of Ghanaian cinema. Anita Afonu discovered this reality when she began her initiative to restore the hidden and lost legacy of Ghanaian cinema. Hence, similarly, Anita also plays a seminal role in Ghanaian cinema; as both filmmaker and archivist she directed Perished Diamonds (2013), which traces filmmaking in Ghana from the post-colonial period to the present while investigating the controversial sale of the film industry in Ghana during that time.
In her research, Joyce Osei Owusu examines the cinematic practices of Ghanaian women based both in Ghana and in the Ghanaian diaspora, with a specific focus on Veronica Quarshie and Shirley Frimpong-Manso, and Leila Djansi who lives and works in the United States. She notes that some two decades after Efua Sutherland’s Araba, British-Ghanaian Yaba Badoe directed the art documentary A Time for Hope in 1983 for the British channel BBC Two. And a decade later Ghanaian video film director/producer Veronica Cudjoe made her debut on the Ghanaian moving image scene with the film Suzzy 1 in 1992. Hence, like women in cinema in many other African countries, the transnational practice of Ghanaian diaspora productions was an early trend in the cinematic history of Ghanaian women in cinema, as well as the prominence of video-making in the 1990s. Moreover, Joyce’s research demonstrates that the interconnection between Ghana and its diaspora continues to the present; indicative in her choice for focused study in her research. In her doctoral study she gives the follow reasons for her selection of the three women: (1) they have prioritised women and women’s issues in their films; (2) their films are popular and accessible; (3) they have made feature films; and (4) they were ready to make themselves available for the study. The second and fourth reasons are especially important to consider when discussing research methodology as the films of local productions, for various reasons, are not always available or accessible and hence are confined to a smaller audience based, and in the case of the fourth, many studies by westerners do not reach out to or perhaps do not have the interest in using the makers as primary sources of their study via interviews and other interactions related to their research.
During my project on African women in Cinema, which began in 1996, I interviewed two Ghanaian women who at the time were positioning themselves to play an important role on the Ghanaian cinema landscape, the late Alexandra Duah and Gyasiwa Ansah, both in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso during Fespaco in 1997. Gyasiwa was a film student in the United States at the time and had been immersed in cinema since a child, as the daughter of the pioneer Ghanaian filmmaker Kwaw Ansah. She talked about her experiences working on most of his productions. She now devotes her time to the TV Africa television station founded by her father.
At the time of our interview Alexandra Duah had already garnered a reputation as a stellar actress in award-winning films such as Heritage Africa (1989) by Kwaw Ansah, and Haile Gerima’s Sankofa (1993). However her experiences in cinema went beyond acting as she also studied film editing and film production. She also wrote, produced and directed four children’s films for Ghanaian television. In addition, she developed the juvenile participation in the programme. She also taught film acting techniques and poise at the Academy of Film Acting in Ghana. During our interview she regretted the fact that she had not been able to find work since her role as the formidable Nunu in Sankofa, though she made a cameo performance in Saikati the Enkabaani (1999) by Anne Mungai from Kenya; an initiative in pan-African film production. Her trajectory is indicative of many African women of the moving image, who move across subfields in cinema or wear multiple hats. And regrettably, who make early contributions in the arena and later their story fades into obscurity.
Joyce Osei Owusu’s and Anita Afonu’s work will hopefully rectify these disappearances, especially with the force of new technologies which allows for long-lasting archival storage and preservation, at least that is the hope. In addition, their initiatives as well as several other women provide the important networking, sharing and outreach that are necessary for the empowerment and success of women of the moving image. Joyce’s work definitely offers the groundwork for Ghanaian women, present and future, to read their history, its evolution and its growth. Anita Afonu’s documentation on the Ghana film industry provides the context for a broader understanding of Ghanaian women's place within it, and her involvement as festival producer in the creation of Ndiva Women's Film Festival also contributes to women's empowerment--as makers and cultural readers. The purpose of the festival is to bring African women filmmakers and women filmmakers of African descent in the diaspora (directors, producers, editors, animators, actresses, cinematographers, production designers and all women in the film production chain) together in a space where they can network, collaborate, exhibit their work and celebrate each other.
Women of the Ghanaian diaspora continue to make contributions to Ghanaian cultural heritage through a variety of initiatives. U.S.-Ghanaian Akosua Adoma Owusu launched a successful crowdfunding campaign to save the Rex Cinema in Accra, Ghana, which risked being sold for redevelopment. Juliet Asante, also based in the United States is the founder of the Black Star International Film Festival in Ghana, and freelance film festival and arts & culture consultant German-Ghanaian Jacqueline Nsiah served as the producer of the 2016 edition. In addition, Jacqueline focused her Master’s thesis on a New Media project relating the experiences of the Ghanaian diaspora in Germany. Yaba Badoe of the UK diaspora focused her camera on the art of renowned Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo, who has a long history of African diasporic connections that are reflected in her work. Yaba collaborated with U.S. based Nigerian-British Amina Mama—who initiated the project, thus giving it a three-continent outreach base, and if the success of the crowdfunding results is any indication, the spread is wide-ranging. Yaba’s multi-focused project, a film about a writer, is also a reflection of her own experiences as she is a writer as well as filmmaker. A multiple role that is commonplace among African women makers, who are filmmakers, or who make films in conjunction with or in relation to their main profession or major interests.
This report concludes with a roster of names of Ghanaian women in cinema, visual media and screen culture. Joyce Osei Owusu’s research offers a record of the growing number of women practitioners of the moving image—film, video, new media. In addition to the few that I have added which also include film professionals and other stakeholders, such as organisers and critics, they are presented in alphabetical order, hence, having already acknowledged the pioneers and the firsts, the listing is not chronological, geographical nor based on preeminence, and surely it will be updated regularly to include the others who join them:
Bridget Abadzi, Pearl Adotey, Anita Afonu, Nicole Amarteifio, Barbara Anakwa, Priscilla Yawa Anany, Josephine Anim, Gyisawa Ansah, Amma Asante, Juliet Asante, Akofa Edjeani Asiedu, Nana Oforiatta Ayim, Yaba Badoe, Nana Ama Boateng, Frances Bodomo, Hannah Awo Nkeba Bonney, Bibi Bright, Nadia Buari, Veronica Cudjoe, Kafui Danku, Kafui Dzivenu, Hawa Essuman, Lydia Forson, Nana Akua Frimpomaa, Shirley Frimpong-Manso, Nancy Mac Granaky-Quaye, Alberta Hukporti, Juliet Ibrahim, Sam Kessie, Doris Kuwornu, Hajia Hawa Meizongo, Naana Mensah, Vera Mensah Bediako, Yvonne Nelson, Jacqueline Nsiah, Yvonne Kafui Nyarku, Akua Ofosuhene, Yvonne Okoro, Cecilia Oppon-Badu, Akosua Adoma Owusu, Joyce Osei Owusu, Veronica Quarshie, Wilhelmina Quartey, Efua Sutherland, Afi Yakubu, Zynell Zuh.
Following are articles that have been published on the African Women in Cinema Blog. As I complete this piece and reflect on those who have appeared before now, I notice the abundance of references from the diaspora in comparison to those in Ghana, which has in many ways to do with visibility, and to return to the earlier point, accessibility, but it also highlights the importance of making the effort, taking the steps to reach out more actively to non-western sources, non-U.S.-based search engines and data bases, especially with the availability of social media, where African women have a significant visible presence—and also go beyond conventional means, by word or mouth or other contacts. On the other hand it is equally important for readers to reach out to the African Women in Cinema Blog in order to share relevant information and sources regarding Ghanaian women in cinema, visual media and screen culture—this is how the sisterhood of the screen widens, expands, continues.
Report by Beti Ellerson
Articles on Ghanaian women in cinema, visual media and screen culture
from the African Women in Cinema Blog
Shirley Frimpong-Manso Makes Movies
Foremothers in African Cinema: Efua Sutherland
Akosua Adoma Owusu’s Triple Consciousness
A Conversation with Sam Kessie
Joyce Osei Owusu: Researching Ghanaian Women in Cinema
Leila Djansi: A Portrait
A Conversation with Yaba Badoe
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah talks about the 2nd African Women in Film Forum (23-25 September 2013) Accra, Ghana
Ghanaian-American filmmaker Akosua Adoma Owusu launches crowdfunding campaign to save the Rex Cinema in Accra, Ghana that risks being sold for redevelopment
Report on the 2nd African Women in Film Forum (AWIFF) - Accra, 23-25 September 2013
Anita Afonu: Preserving Ghana's Cinematic Treasures
Yaba Badoe talks about the documentary film project “The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo”
Ghanaian-German Jacqueline Nsiah’s digital Sankofa storytelling experience and other diasporic journeys
Season 2 - An African City directed by Nicole Amarteifio
Priscilla Yawa Anany: Children of the Mountain – 2016 Tribeca Film Festival (New York, USA)
Black Star International Film Festival, Ghana https://africanwomenincinema.blogspot.fr/2016/04/black-star-international-film-festival.html
Joyce Osei Owusu - Ghanaian Women and Film: An Examination of Female Representation and Audience Reception
Frances Bodomo to be part of the 2016 Sundance Institute Directors Lab
Ndiva Women's Film Festival 2017 - (Ghana) - Call for films