photo credits: Afia Nkrumah
Did you always know you wanted to create your own world through art?
I didn’t know, but it is something I have always done. I spent much of my childhood creating characters and telling stories to myself. For example if I was told to clean my room, I would imagine I was a single parent moving into an apartment and incorporate my chores into my stories which I acted out. I would often use snatches of conversations I had heard from the adults around me in my stories, which got me into trouble once or twice! Indeed the main character from my latest film Shadow Man, is based on my uncle’s friend Okokobioko, who always wore a cowboy hat and boots he never took off, even when he slept. I found him fascinating and different in so many ways. I would often watch them as they got ready to go on a night out on fridays and eavesdrop on their conversations about seducing women and finding wives, which amused me greatly even as an eleven year old.
Do you feel being born and spending most of your childhood in Africa has influenced your work?
Being born in in Africa and spending the first ten years of my life there has definitely influenced my work. I lived with my great aunt Lucy when I was growing up and she was a wonderful storyteller. Every night as the sun was going down, great aunt Lucy would tell me traditional stories and she would weave whatever was happening in the village into the stories. She could make me weep and laugh so hard I peed in my pants, be so afraid after a story I daren’t look up off the floor for fear of seeing some of the spirits and apparitions she had created with her words. And to this day the most important reason I tell stories is to move people, engage an audience emotionally and give a different perspective on some of the things we take for granted, without clubbing the audience on the head.
Also in Ghana, and I suspect in most parts of Africa, the line between ‘reality’ and ‘magic realism’ is very thin. This lack of separation is a very clear influence in my work. So for example in Shadow Man, which is set in present day London about a young African man’s attempts to become a British citizen, his dead uncle’s spirit arrives to give advice through proverbs and help him escape during a raid by the UK border agency. Okokobioko’s misunderstanding of the proverbs is very funny.
Is there anything you would like to express through your films that you find is not paid enough attention to in mainstream media?
I like to put characters that are not in the mainstream or are often periphery at the centre of my stories because they are the people who interest me. I enjoy writing about people who are slightly outside of society, be it a migrant, someone with mental illness, or a young woman returning to her estranged mother’s African village after years in the UK.
Shadow Man (©) BombaxMedia 2014
I think this is because I straddle two different cultures Ghanaian and British, giving me the privilege to be both an insider and outsider at the same time. It is when we have an outside view of our own society that we can truly have insights and new truths about ourselves. Humour is also a really useful way in shedding light on some of our assumptions and shifting our perspectives.
What kinds of stories fascinate you?
I am quite broad in my tastes when it comes to stories, if a story moves me, or makes me see life in a different way or challenges my assumptions then I am interested. I grew up hearing Ananse stories and other traditional tales, as well as my family history. Learning to read at the age of ten, was for me was a magical thing, I thought and still do today that it is a form of telepathy. One person puts their thoughts on paper and another person can read those thoughts across time and space and know what that person was thinking. For me that is truly magic!
Every saturday, BBC 2 showed two movies (mostly classics) in the afternoon which I watched religiously. From Buster Keaton to the women centred films of Hollywwod’s golden era and non mainstream films by little known filmmakers.
As a kid I loved myths and legends and I suddenly had access to stories like Ovid’s metamorphoses from centuries before I was born. At school I was introduced to Chaucer and Shakespeare, Jane Austen and George Orwell. My dad was an obsessive book collector and our house was literally bursting with books, even under the stairs and in the shed. He had all sorts of books from Russian classics to strange esoteric leather bound books and beautifully illustrated limited editions by the folio society. It was wonderful to have these books in my hands and be transported to all sorts of places or by new ideas. I also discovered writers from Africa and the diaspora like Amos Tutola, Sembene Ousmane, and Toni Morrison, Mia Angelou, James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston. So I’m fascinated by all kinds of stories from different cultures and different eras.
Charlie Chaplin once said that the power of laughter and tears is the only antidote against hatred and fear. Would you agree with that?
I definitely would agree with that. When I was a kid living in Accra, I was caught on the wrong side of a military coup. I managed to persuade a soldier to let me live by making him laugh. As a filmmaker, I am committed to telling stories that explore the power of laughter, compassion and what it means to be human. That is why I chose to explore the contentious topic of immigration through comedy in Shadow man.
Shadow Man (©) BombaxMedia 2014
Afia Nkrumah is a writer, director and producer living in London. Afia holds a masters degree from The London Film School and has produced documentaries and shorts for various companies including the BBC and UK Film Council. She has written and directed short films that have played at national and International film festivals and is currently developing several feature projects for film and television for her company Bombax Media.
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