Testing boundaries: an interview with Gold Coast film co-producer Kwame Boadi

In October, I had the opportunity to speak with Ghanaian TV director Kwame Boadi of inGenius Africa about his move into feature film production.

Producers Michael Haslund and Kwame Boadi
© Michael Haslund
Many of you know may know him for such TV series as Sunshine Avenue, Abiba, and Sun City.

Well, he has recently co-produced an arthouse film set in Ghana called Gold Coast that looks at Denmark’s presence in Ghana during the 1830s.

The 2015 arthouse film was written and direction by Daniel Dencik and is a depiction of 19th century life three years after the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was officially but not totally banned in 1833. Slavery was finally abolished in Danish colonies in 1848, according to details from the BBC.

The film arrived in London on 11 October and was screened at local cinemas for a week. Some of you will have read my assessment of the film in my previous blog ‘Gold Coast: A lucid look at Denmark’s colonial past’. 

I caught up with Kwame to dig a bit deeper into how and why he got involved in the film; when the film will be coming to the African continent and what his views on slavery are. Enjoy!

MisBeee: How has the film been received so far?
Kwame Boadi: It has been very well received. Everyone is saying it is very heavy but you cannot treat a slave story lightly. We hope we can find a sales agent so we can release it in the UK.

MB: Can you tell me why it was important for you to be part of this film?
KB: I was drawn mainly to the fact that for lots of Danes in Denmark, their history of the slave trade is not that well known. So for me, that was a good point because it meant the film would help educate them the better.
And then when I saw the script, it had lots of redeeming values. Very interesting characters such as the missionary’s wife, and the central character Wulff as well. And it was my first feature, so I thought it would be a good learning experience for me. 


MB: So how did documentary and film director Daniel Dencik and the team find you?
KB: So the Danish guys behind the film had not come to Africa before so they started looking around in Denmark for Ghanaian contacts. Fortunately for us, the Ghanaian connection they found happened to be my business partner’s roommate in Germany.

My business partner – Oliver Safo – is half German and half Ghanaian and lived for a time in Germany. His roommate, when he was in Germany, was a Danish guy who is also in the industry – a sound engineer. So, Gold Coast producer Michael Haslund and the rest of the team came across this guy and thought it would work. They called us and we took it from there.


MB: The film is powerful and the scenery is amazing. I have been to Cape Coast and Elmina castles before but it looks as though this film was shot in different locations.
KB: Elmina was the central location - we spent about three and a half to four weeks over there. We had wanted to use the Osu Castle [ the Danish fort also known as Christiansborg] because of course it used to be the centre of government. [Fort Christiansborg was built by the Danes and Norwegians in the 1660s]. But it has been modernised and lost a lot of the historical aspects. 

One of the sites for the film
© Michael Haslund
Instead, we used Elmina. Although Elmina is a Dutch castle, we adapted it and the Danes brought us some Danish motifs to decorate it.
We spent a bit of time at the Cape Coast Castle, Fort Amsterdam in Abandze, Central Region and Fort Batenstein in Butri in the Western Region.

All the greenery and the beaches were in the Western region in the Beyin area. We spent two weeks there and we filmed a very small part of the film in Burkina Faso [north of Ghana and neighbouring Cote ‘d’Ivoire, Togo and Benin, Niger and Mali]. 


MB: So in total, how long did it take to film the entire production?
KB: The shooting time was three and a half months but of course we spent about two years from the moment that Michael and the team got in touch to when we finished shooting.


MB: Did you need background historical knowledge before starting the film or had your Ghanaian education meant you were well-versed in the country’s slave history?
Yes, we needed to do some research but fortunately there is a Wulff family living in Osu on the route to Osu Castle who are descendants of Wulff Joseph Wulff. So, during the research period, we spent some time with the family conducting test shoots and that helped to fill some of the gaps.

The Danes had conducted their own research and so had Jakob Oftebro, who plays Wulff. He also met the family. The rest of the team spoke with the family and even had more information than the family that they were able to share. 


MB: There is this voicelessness that pervades the film. What was the decision-making behind that?
KB: That’s Daniel’s style, you know the director calls the shots. He thought that it would be more poignant if lots of parts of the film were voiceless. So what you find is that some parts are sometimes driven by voice-overs or by the score, allowing the pictures to speak for themselves. And I thought it was fine. 

MB: So was Lumpa - the slave boy  - actually mute because I had read articles saying that he was.
KB: No he was not mute but that is an interesting story …….

 At all the villages we shot at, it was smart to use locals to create business but also to cut down our own costs, so we went round to do castings. We went to this village Alabokazo – it is off the Beyin area also in the Western region – and were conducting some auditions there. But there were these four young boys playing soccer close by who were making a lot of noise. 

John Aggrey aka Lumpa
© Michael Haslund
One of them was asking questions and he was kind of interrupting our auditions. So I turned to one of the camera guys and said: ‘Go and tell these boys we will take some shots of them – so they can go away, and assure them we will add them to it.’

We weren’t going to add it to anything because at that time, they were not in frame. You see, earlier in the script Lumpa was supposed to be 18-19 years old and I was actually planning to cast Ghanaian TV star Lil’ Wayne.

For me in terms of the commercial viability of the project in Ghana that would have been splendid.  But Daniel said he wanted a younger boy on set someone who was 10 or 12 years. We had a long argument over that because that was not going to work too well for me. But the director calls the shots and in the creative areas, you have to follow their lead.

So, we had to start looking for 12-year-old boys. We had not captured any because we had not been looking for them but as we were going through our pictures, lo and behold we found these four boys that we had just taken randomly. These pictures were suggested as possible candidates for the part and John Aggrey – one of the four – was picked and became the star in the end.


MB: And he’s never acted before, has he?
KB: Never ever. He did so well so we have actually decided that we are going to fund his education to university. We have put him in a boarding school and he’s in class 6 now. We will take him through, if he is able to do well, he will go on to university and we will take it from there. 


MB: So when can Ghanaians and other Africans on the Continent see the film?
KB: We own the film rights for half of Africa and the whole of Ghana so that is where my concentration is. Earlier we were looking to premiere in Ghana in December 2015, but looking at the schedule I would rather take it to Easter – March/April 2016, there about. I would have finished the second season of Sunshine [Avenue] and would have more time to organise and make a bit more noise. So it will premiere in Ghana, then I am looking to find a distributor for Africa. 


MB: Is South Africa among the countries interested?
KB: Nigeria is interested and I know that South Africa would be.
I am looking to shorten the film as well. We in Africa are used to the American-style movies that move very fast. Gold Coast is an arthouse movie that drags a bit and I think that people would get tired of it. So I am thinking of bringing it to 90 minutes. I am still talking to Michael and the rest of the team, that is why I am waiting for them to finish the European tour first otherwise we will have two films coming out in circulation at the same point. 

Once it has finished the European rounds (sometime early next year) then we can think about reducing it to 90 minutes. Then it will be pacier, a bit faster and we will indigenise it a bit more for our market by adding some more African pictures and sounds. 

MB: I was one of a few black women in the audience on the opening night in London, and it wasn’t comfortable to see that degree and prolonged bouts of female nudity in the film.
KB: No, no you are right. You are dead right. I am sure if I were sitting in the audience, I would have been uncomfortable too. But for me, I believe in the shock and awe tactic too.

Female extra shot in the castle walls 
© Michael Haslund
 In today’s times, we still have slavery everywhere. In Ghana’s Volta region you have these very small boys who are picked up and sold for a pittance in the Western and Central regions to go and work as divers for fishermen. So I have a different view about slavery. We [Africans] tend to say that we have not done anything wrong. 

MB: I appreciate that slavery still exists today and I know we played our part but I think that marrying what happened then and what is happening now diminishes the brevity of the Trans-Atlantic trade, which many modern-day countries are built on. And I think it gives racists licence to defend what happened then by saying slavery is happening now. 
KB: Not necessarily, I disagree with you a bit on the human trafficking issue. It is not only blacks who are trafficked now. We have eastern Europeans that are being trafficked in containers – right? So I don’t know about it being a race issue. It is white on white, white on black, black on white, black on black. I tend to have a different view on that. If you are racist you are racist, if you are not well read you will pick anything to justify, something that is not justifiable. 

And you must look at it in terms of a work of art. At that time, there was that school of thought that blacks were sub-human, and that is what Daniel wanted to show. And that is one of the reasons he made the black characters voiceless because that’s one of the aspects that will shock you.

I used to be a teacher, I taught for five years at Achimota School in Ghana, and one thing I learnt was that you can teach by positive example or by negative example. When this film was premiered in Copenhagen, some of the people were so distraught, especially the older ones. They came up to us and asked: ‘So do you hate us?’

Those with a good heart who didn’t know that [of Denmark’s participation in the trade] had gone on and saw the brutality of it were completely traumatised. And I suspect it will make them better people going forward. They will tend to be nicer to black people when they meet them and that is fine by me. 

MB: There seemed to be some symbolism attached to the use of white and dark clothing in the film. The Danish were often depicted in white as were the 'native' that had been converted to Christianity, while the rest wore darker or black garments. (check out my critique here). Was that intentional?
Jakob Oftebro and Ghanaian extras
© Michael Haslund
 KB: The blacks you saw and the change in Lumpa’s dressing was towards the end of the film. That was a funeral scene at the village. But apart from that the blacks you saw in the village were wearing calico and those were what they used to wear earlier and those weren’t necessarily black. 

So, I didn’t see that connection that you are referring to and I don’t think that was conscious. But it gives me food for thought.


MB: Film Africa – the Royal African Society’s annual London film festival comes to London for 10 days from 30 October. Since its launch five years ago, there have been very few Ghanaian films showcased. It can’t be for a lack of talent…can it?
KB: Well, I was not aware of this festival and I wonder how well known it is. Ghana has produced lots of films and some may qualify but I suspect the news is not out there.

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Gold Coast will be screened at the Noordelijk Film Festival in Leeuwarden, in The Netherlands from 11-15 November, according to details on the Gold Coast official website. More screenings across Europe and Africa are set to follow.

By Kirsty Osei-Bempong

For more blogs on slavery and its legacies, check
Belle - a new kind of English rose  
Gold Coast: a lucid look into Denmark's colonial past
Dakan: the ultimate love story
Review of N: The Madness of Reason - a Film Africa London Premiere 


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