Fo­cus on bring­ing back Ghana’s movie houses

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE - CHRIS STEIN

AC­CRA: The Rex, a sin­gle-storey, slope-roofed movie house, was once the hot spot for film fans in Ghana, but, like many of the coun­try’s cine­mas, it hardly shows movies any more.

The build­ing is now aban­doned, ex­cept on Sun­days when dozens of Chris­tians cram in­side for bois­ter­ous weekly prayer ses­sions.

The Rex’s fate is part of a wider de­cay of film-go­ing cul­ture in Ghana, the first sub-Sa­ha­ran African coun­try to gain in­de­pen­dence and which be­come the hub for the con­ti­nent’s film in­dus­try in the im­me­di­ate post-colo­nial era.

But a 29-year-old Ghana­ianAmer­i­can film-maker, Ako­sua Adoma Owusu, has launched a plucky grass­roots ef­fort to save the pic­ture house and fight the trend.

The “save-your-lo­cal-land­mark” cam­paign is com­mon­place in the West, but re­mains a rar­ity in some de­vel­op­ing coun­tries like Ghana.

For Owusu, the mo­ti­va­tion be­hind “Damn the Man, Save the Rex” was partly per­sonal: af­ter build­ing a rep­u­ta­tion abroad as a maker of short films, she re­alised there was nowhere to show her work in the coun­try of her birth.

“Whether it’s short films, or per­for­mance, or any­thing, you have to kind of pay a venue to screen your work,” Owusu said.

Owusu, who won the best short film award at the 2013 African Movie Academy Awards and whose pro­duc­tions have been added to the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion at the Whit­ney Mu­seum in New York, man­aged to raise $9 000 (R91 280) online.

It was enough to hire the old movie hall for a night and show her lat­est work. But she has big­ger plans and wants to con­vert the Rex into a ded­i­cated artis­tic venue.

If “Save the Rex” suc­ceeds and the struc­ture built in the early 20th cen­tury by Le­banese im­mi­grants be­comes a per­ma­nent film­screen­ing venue, it would dou­ble the num­ber of func­tion­ing cine­mas in Ghana’s cap­i­tal.

Cur­rently, the only work­ing movie the­atre is an Amer­i­can-style cine­plex em­bed­ded in an up­scale shop­ping cen­tre.

But more are planned to serve the coun­try’s grow­ing con­sumer class, with Ghana boast­ing one of the world’s fastest-grow­ing economies, fu­elled by gold and co­coa ex­ports as well as a nascent off­shore oil in­dus­try.

Ex­perts voiced frus­tra­tion at the cur­rent state of film cul­ture in the West African na­tion, re­call­ing a time when the head of state per­son­ally over­saw the in­dus­try.

At in­de­pen­dence in 1957, when Kwame Nkrumah was pres­i­dent, “Ghana was the hub for film-mak­ing in West Africa and gen­er­ally Africa,” said Anita Afonu, a di­rec­tor and ex­pert in Ghana­ian film his­tory.

Nkrumah be­lieved he could shape opin­ions in the new na­tion through in­dige­nous films and per­son­ally read scripts and viewed pre-re­lease cuts, she added.

The for­mer pres­i­dent, ousted by the mil­i­tary in 1966, had set up the Ghana Film In­dus­try Cor­po­ra­tion, which helped as­pir­ing artists ac­cess film and edit­ing equip­ment.

“His abil­ity to change the mind­set of Ghana­ians… to tell them (they) are equally worth what the white man thinks he is worth… and to be able to teach them to do things for them­selves was very, very para­mount,” Afonu said.

Af­ter the coup, Ghana’s on­ce­bur­geon­ing film in­dus­try crum­bled. Mil­i­tary rulers im­posed cur­fews in the cap­i­tal, keep­ing peo­ple in­doors and away from cine­mas.

The film cor­po­ra­tion’s prop­er­ties were even­tu­ally sold to Malaysian in­vestors, who sloughed off the movie the­atres to pri­vate own­ers who grad­u­ally con­verted most of the halls to churches.

As in other coun­tries, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of DVD tech­nol­ogy also dev­as­tated his­toric movie houses such as the Rex.

But the im­pact has been more acute in Ghana, which is flooded by straight-to-DVD pro­duc­tions from Nol­ly­wood, Nige­ria’s film in­dus­try, which pumps out more than 1 000 ti­tles a year.

Mark Amoon­aquah, owner of the Roxy in Ac­cra, said he held on as long as he could, show­ing movies to the dozen or so peo­ple who would sit on the out­door cin­ema’s faded blue benches.

Ul­ti­mately, he had to close tem­po­rar­ily, he said, be­cause un­less “a strange movie or a very in­ter­est­ing movie” came out, Ghana­ians had ef­fec­tively aban­doned go­ing to the cin­ema.

Owusu’s films bear lit­tle of the shaky cam­er­a­work and scream­ing matches that typ­ify Ghana’s cur­rent in­dige­nous pro­duc­tions.

Her lat­est film, Kwaku Ananse, is a semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal imag­i­na­tion of an old Ghana­ian folk­tale and was awarded best short film at this year’s African Movie Academy Awards.

Owusu or­gan­ised a spe­cial screen­ing at a lo­cal French cul­tural in­sti­tute for the film’s de­but.

Her next work, she hopes, will open at a ren­o­vated Rex.

“I think it would be like the mecca, the place to be,” Owusu said. “Who knows? Per­haps it could make a trend of re­viv­ing cin­ema houses all over that are aban­doned.” – Sa­paAFP

FILM BUFF: Kwame Nkrumah, the ruler who liked movies

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