|©Joyce Osei Owusu
Joyce Osei Owusu an emerging scholar on African women in cinema, discusses her research on Ghanaian women video/filmmakers and the importance of film scholarship and criticism by and about African women.
Joyce please talk a bit about yourself and your interest in media studies, especially as it relates to the current cinema culture in Ghana.
I am a Ghanaian. I had my secondary school education at Aburi Girls (one of the old prestigious girls’ schools in Ghana) and my bachelor at University of Ghana, Legon where I studied English and Theatre Arts and specialized in Film Studies. After Legon, I was offered to stay on at the School of Performing Arts, University of Ghana to do one year National Service as a Teaching Assistant in play and film analysis. When the Service was over, I had the opportunity to work as a full time Senior Research Assistant at the Department of Theatre Arts which is a department under the School of Performing Arts. Studying and working within this field, I believe were not accidents. They were greatly influenced by my pastimes which were and still are: watching and talking about movies and television programs and listening to radio. Furthermore, my early teenage years in the late 1980s coincided with the emergence of the video film culture, or boom as others will call it, and that was the period individuals could buy VHS copies of locally made films to watch in the comfort of their homes. At the time, my siblings and I usually borrowed from friends and hired some of the films from video libraries to watch. I always imagined how the production process was carried through. However, not for long, as the studying and working environment at Legon allowed me to take part in many stage and some film productions which demystified some of the fascinations I had had about things I had seen in films and they broadened my scope and understanding, though I must confess that I am still learning.
The Ghanaian film industry has gone through different changes over the years as the country’s economy changed and new technologies emerged. Films we saw just two decades ago are not accessible today and if nothing is done in the interim we do not know what will happen in the near future. As a result, I have moved beyond just talking about them to actually study and write on them.
You have pursued your studies on women and media throughout the world, please talk about your academic trajectory and what brought you to study in these diverse locations.
In 2007, I had a scholarship to do my second degree in media studies at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. That was the period the University introduced courses taught in English so coming from an English and film background, I got admission and went there to study for two years. When I finished my course work in early 2009, I decided to write my thesis on women and film because back home as I read on the Internet there were two young female filmmakers, Shirley Frimpong-Manso and Leila Djansi who made news because of the kind of films they were making. I asked my family back home about their films and Shirley’s films were readily available so my family sent me copies of her first two movies which were ready at the time. When I watched them, I was impressed and so I decided to use them for my project. My thesis was titled, "Women and the Screen: a study of Shirley Frimpong-Manso's Life and Living It (2007) and Scorned (2008)".
Before I began the study, I realized that some scholarly works revealed that many popular cultural products including video films in Anglophone Africa (Ghana and Nigeria) conveyed misogynistic and stereotypical images of women. The studies suggested the situation was due to male domination in the media and as a result; women’s identities were defined in line with men’s codes of perception. According to Adomako-Ampofo and Asiedu (2009) who were researchers from the West Africa hub of the Pathways of Women's Empowerment RPC, one potential pathway to alternatively communicate the desired images of women and correspondingly broaden and facilitate progress in a change-campaign was for women to write ‘positive images’ about themselves and tell their own stories and experiences. To move in the right direction, I thought it was essential that women cultural producers especially filmmakers appreciated the tendencies surrounding the term, ‘positive images’ in their call to action.
This was the background from which I commenced my thesis. In the study, I did a content analysis focusing on the generic and aesthetic choices in the two films to see how Frimpong-Manso strategized to appropriate and refashion women's images and how a group of women read and related to the images. Theoretically, the analysis was posited within the African feminist practices and the Western feminist counter cinema. The analysis on Life and Living It revealed that Frimpong-Manso strategically employed generic and stylistic elements of romantic comedy and soap opera to appropriate women’s identity within the African feminist ideologies (which are more liberal). In the film’s world of men, she appropriated and presented educated, intelligent, strong, assertive, liberated and independent women whose codes of conduct fell within the culturally accepted decorum. The study demonstrated that Frimpong-Manso did not just deploy the generic and stylistic elements to present ‘positive images’ of women, but used the women as the change-bringing tools to insist on the need for men to relinquish the long held prejudices about educated women being rebellious to embrace equal rights and liberation which the men adhered to at the end of the film. The film suggested that the change in women’s conditions will come through women themselves and not through any other means.
On the other hand, the study on the second film, Scorned proved that in refashioning women’s identity, Frimpong-Manso adopted western feminist positions (more radical) and in doing so, she engaged, merged and renegotiated the generic and stylistic elements of the woman’s film of the 1940s and melodrama. She used Scorned to challenge the entire notion of the battered women’s none existing right to freedom and released the protagonist into the mode of defiance and justice rendering her actions fantastic, though utopian.
The women respondents who took part in the study favourably received the images of women depicted in Life and Living It, however, they saw the actions of the female protagonist in Scorned as uncharacteristic of the Ghanaian woman she was supposed to represent. This was not to imply the respondents were happy with the image of the battered woman or the violence against her, but they were discontent with the manner in which her freedom was appropriated. From the analysis of the films and the responses from the women, it became clear that writing 'positive images' as desired portraits of Ghanaian women by women should concern a consideration for socio-cultural ideologies, realistic and progressive modes of representation as they relate to the Ghanaian experience. That was the project.
After my second degree, I returned to Legon to work for a year and a half. Through the grace of God and some special individuals who have been kin in my work, I got another scholarship to do a PhD at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. I am just two months into the program. I intend to look at four Ghanaian women video filmmakers: Veronica Quashi-Nai, Vera Bediako Mensah, Shirley Frimpong-Manso and Leila Djansi and investigate how as women they operated or operate (from pre-production to post production) within the larger Ghanaian film industry, their ideologies and thematic concerns, find out if they share recurring motif(s), if they have contributed to a discourse of women's issues, what images of women they have made and audiences' (male and female) reception to the images and their works as a whole among others.
I see that the study will be an extension of your works and also an opportunity to bring more attention on women in the video film industry in Ghana in academic scholarship. My kin interest is to make a contribution to the study of African Women in Cinema and as you know the video cultures in Ghana and Nigeria are significantly our ‘new cinemas’ so-to-speak. I believe it is imperative that we explore what women in the video industry have done and continue to do under the big umbrella of African Cinema.
I am excited to see the emergence of a visible African Women in Cinema Studies and scholars dedicated to it. Please give some reflections on this field of study and the role that you would like to see it play in African cinema studies, women studies and media/cinema studies?
To tell you the truth, I am equally excited and thankful to pioneers like you who have led the way. Gradually, more scholarly studies are paying attention to African Women in Cinema though we cannot deny the fact that more have been done in the area of women’s representation by male filmmakers. It is important that we take stock, examine, and explore the films and images constructed by our African sisters both at home and abroad to become aware of their narratives, ideologies, leitmotifs, images, aesthetics choices and styles, influences, experiences, production conditions, constraints, successes and failures among others. Studies from different approaches will ensure our broad appreciation and give new directions in African women’s films. More research in the area will also enhance the research base and wholeness of African cinema studies and see to the establishment of departments and faculties dedicated to women studies and African women in cinema studies among others.
Interview by Beti Ellerson, August 2011
Follow links to Ghanaian women in cinema on the African Women in Cinema Blog