On more times than I can remember, I have found myself in deep sleep or just bored out of my mind whiles watching West African TV programming- mainly Ghanaian and Nigerian drama series. There are just two that stand out for me, “Wetin dey” and “Hotel St. James” by BBC’s World Service Trust and Revele films respectively; a measly two, out of the dozens of TV productions we see every year.
Again I reiterate that we as West Africans are boring to watch on screen when we’re not in comic situations. The general West African culture of coolness and taking things easy in real life doesn’t make for good TV or film for that matter. On-screen life should mimic real life but should not be a carbon copy of it, if one intends to keep the audience hooked from start to finish. However, my fellow Ghanaians in this regard are more culpable than their Nigerian counterparts.
The one overrated and pompous TV show that comes to mind is Tinsel, which is currently in its second season on Viasat1. Personally I was bitterly disappointed with the show upon my first viewing after hearing all the hype surrounding it. The problem wasn’t because most of the actors were just wrong for their roles, it was because I just didn’t give a damn after watching it. There was nothing memorable and unique about the show since for me it was just a case of same old, same old. Also for those of you who have watched the show, I am sure you will testify to the fact that it sounds “hollow”, literally, in the way sound was managed on set. In some scenes the background “humming” of certain equipments (I suspect a generator) dominated the dialogue of the actors. It is an expensive production that is pretentious and flashy but has nothing to offer in terms of substance or quality in delivery.
Again the overall pacing of this show in particular is painfully snail-like. Slug like actually. I don’t know whether to blame writer’s block or the director. You see with film and television, the more time spent not saying something or stupidly stretching scenes that should have ended before their time, the more air time you fill. So instead of the quick-fire dialogue we see in most American, European, South American and even South African productions, we are treated to the “Kabi na mi kabi” style of dialogue exchange. This is, for lack of a better phrase, mind-numbingly boring when your ears have been cultured by Gilmore Girls, CSI, The Lab, Scandal and Scrubs.
I am not going to savagely attack the writers of Tinsel and similar ones out of there out principle; writerly solidarity. But I have to say that some of them just don’t know how to write a good screenplay. Although I am not declaring myself as some kind of one-man editorial team, I do know a good screenplay when I hear it. These guys might be good journalists or might even have graduated top of their creative writing class but they still, unfortunately, do not have the ear for the type of dialogue that breaths life into a scene without even trying. Even worse are the medical doctors, philosophy professors and the like who think they can write professionally without any formal training because they have the influence to get they’re scripts produced. Writers, the good ones anyway, are constantly working, learning and perfecting their craft. So for anyone who thinks they can write a 120-page screenplay just by watching movies and critiquing is deeply deluding himself or herself for that matter.
That brings me to the issue of funding for our TV and movie productions. This is the scenario, in the case of the Ghanaian movie industry anyway. We have talented professionals, believe it or not, when it comes to our movie/ TV industries. But the way these industries work is this, the pay grade is structured in such a way that one’s experience (number of years working as a professional) and quality of work determines what you earn, which is the case for professionals in other industries. So why do we expect a 10-year veteran of the film industry to accept the same wages as amateurs when called up to work on a project. And that is what happens these days. These professionals would as a result rather work for Ad companies in their respective creative roles or work in a totally different industry all together just so their pay requirements are met.
This as would be expected has created a very big void in our entertainment industry; a void the length of the great Volta River. And as we all know, voids being what they are have to be filled. What fills them becomes a secondary issue when you would have nothing in its absence. Here comes the “Kumasi producer” who is untrained, unskilled, crude, mostly illiterate but with an immaculate business sense who then fills this void with crap after bloody crap.
These types of producers, no matter how much people like me hate seeing their works on screen, are providing employment and unknowingly keeping afloat this hole-ridden ship we call an industry. Their production costs are anywhere between $15,000 and $40,000. And this includes budget for marketing both at home and abroad (mostly for expats more than the locals in these countries)
Some viewers do not mind watching “Agya Appiah in London” parts 1 to 99, shot and edited within three weeks so would not like to see any over hauling of the industry. But with film geeks like me around waiting to see our Ghanaian films compete on a global stage, something has to be done very quickly.
So instead of constantly looking to fund our movies from within for example, we should look for outside funding by bending backwards as far as we can but without compromising too much on the story we’re hoping to tell. There are a myriad of film funds, production houses and private investors sitting on piles of money waiting for the next big thing to invest in. With the success of the movie Blair Witch Project, which went on to gain cult status among film buffs and critics alike and also rake in an estimated $100million at the box office, believe me most film investors WILL listen to your movie pitch if you have a good story to tell.
Every year, there are hundreds and hundreds of productions worldwide that are getting made with the help of outside funding. And these range from low-budget productions to very high budget ones. The Chinese are collaborating with Hollywood; Brazilians with Europeans and Japanese with Koreans.
So what if you have to change your story to make room for an eastern European cast and crew for instance. If that’s where the money is then one has to do what it takes to get the movie made.
One example I can think of is Leila Djansi and her movie “Sinking Sands” which was produced with an estimated $250,000 budget. From what I gather it wasn’t her money. And she didn’t borrow it from her cocoa farmer uncle in Oboase either. She got her financing from Hollywood by putting together a solid proposal. So with the Haitan-born actor Jimmy Jean-Louis she managed to produce and direct a brilliant movie on a “red” camera and by so doing fulfilling both of her artistic and commercial needs. This kind of movie will get screening at major international film festivals, if she showcased it there. This means a larger buying audience, and this could lead to a big distribution deal.
It is high time we as Ghanaians got serious about motion pictures and realized the immense power they wield in shaping culture. It is also time the government supported the industry and not dismissively bunch up all creative fields under one idiotic “Arts & Culture” umbrella. Film needs special attention just as music and fine arts need special attention. Spreading available funds among these industries dilutes the impact the money will have on the individual industries.
But in saying that also the creative engine that will make all of this possible needs to get the right oil to lubricate its parts. Our writers need to give respect to the language which they use as a tool in communication. Get a deeper familiarity with it. Know it off hand, so it becomes second nature; as natural as breathing. And directors need a broader appreciation of the art of visual communication as well so that monotony doesn’t end up killing their careers.
When an engine ceases up, it stops functioning. It is an engine alright but is as useful as a toothpick in a rainstorm.