Damn the Man, Save the Rex! – Akosua Adoma Owusu Reinvigorates Ghanaian Cinema Culture

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Photo: Design 233/Obibini Pictures

Akosua Adoma Owusu is an award-winning filmmaker whose films have shown all over the world.  Earlier this year her film Kwaku Ananse won the African Movie Academy Award for Best Short Film.  She recently changed her home base from suburban DC to Accra, and in her latest project, she’s aiming to reinvigorate film-going culture in Ghana’s capital city.

Last month Owusu launched “Damn the Man, Save the Rex!” — a Kickstarter campaign to revive one of Ghana’s historic cinemas.  The campaign ends later this week on November 15, and she’s raised over two-thirds of her $8000 goal.  The BFC/A’s Nzingha Kendall interviewed her about the impetus for the project, the history of the Rex and her vision for the space.

BFC/A: One of the goals of your “Damn the Man, Save the Rex” project is to add to the vitality of the arts scene in Accra by providing a multifaceted space to showcase art and music in addition to film.  Can you tell us why you decided to launch this venture at the Rex in particular?

Akosua Adoma Owusu: Absolutely! Well, my motivation for launching the Save the Rex campaign came from how I could see this lack of support for African filmmakers, and even more, a lack of spaces for African filmmakers to exhibit and showcase their work.  Moving back to Ghana after the AMAAs [African Movie Academy Awards], I struggled to secure a venue that would premiere a short film because the film didn’t even fit the mold of any film industry structure – abroad or in Ghana.

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Photo: Design 233/Obibini Pictures

Also, Ghana has lots of historic cultural institutions that have been left abandoned or have been sold for redevelopment and yet it is not really a cinema-going culture.  These spaces were originally used by local Ghanaian cultural producers and are now left unattended so they are no longer considered fascinating to people in the context of contemporary Ghanaian community.  I want to revive the Rex to give the local Ghanaian creative community and my peers opportunities to be cultural producers in a culture where memory and cultural heritage is often discarded in order to compete in a globalized world.

BFC/A: A follow up question: What role did the Rex play in Ghanaian cinema-going culture?  And why are other historic cinemas in Ghana endangered today?

Owusu: To say it simply, the Rex, among other cinema houses, was built to promote and exhibit Hollywood and foreign movies for local Ghanaian audiences.  With the fast growing and successful video film industry, there was no longer a need for a cinema-going culture. Films could go straight to DVD and directly profit the filmmakers themselves, which is very similar to the Nigerian film industry.  Many private investors in these cinema houses were more concerned about making profit from African ticket sales or promoting foreign cultures, that the cinema houses were no longer profitable.  Then other models developed, like showing locally produced films in the cinema houses.  This model was not profitable either since every household had access to a television, and people prefer to watch films at home, or on a computer or even a phone. How can these cinema houses make money, especially when theaters are also dying abroad?

I think it is time we turn the cinema house into a place where local artists can show their work for the sake of having their work seen by a local audience, which in turn will stimulate cultural production and cultural productivity.  I believe if local Africans can have opportunities to be seen by the local community, they can eventually get noticed by an international one that often rejects their voice.  In Ghana, we live in a culture where the local community would rather see more movies made from our own voice from our own perspective.  That said, I feel it is time we consider investing more in spaces where Africans can have freedom to be cultural producers and stimulate cultural production of our own culture in our own cultural spaces.

BFC/A: On your Kickstarter trailer, you mention that you’ve encountered many situations where people discuss ideal and exciting projects, but that in the end these projects rarely make it past the theoretical stage.  How is it that you’re able to take your ideas and make them reality?

Owusu: Well, I think my process of taking ideas and turning them into reality is similar to my process of making films – they just come together organically.  I really don’t have the time and energy to wait for funding to pull my films together.   I just have to do it.  I cannot wait for funding to get my films made.  I usually make my films with very little and with what already exists out there.  Kwaku Ananse, to date, has been my most expensive film and it was a co-production of 3 countries that came together to make my vision become a reality.  So, I feel that if it takes 3 countries to make my short film, and I am of 2 cultures, it is my duty as an African filmmaker of the diaspora who makes work in Africa, with Africans and foreigners, to collaborate and be of service to my creative community.

BFC/A: Who are some of the Ghanaian artists you plan to showcase at the Rex?  Or if perhaps you don’t want to let the cat out of the bag quite yet, who are some young Ghanaian artists whose work we should keep an out out for?

Owusu: Oh Yes!  Absolutely!  Many of the artists I plan on showcasing at the Rex are my great friends and this is no secret so I’d love to share who I am collaborating with and their involvement in the Save the Rex project.  One artist is my sistren, Nana Offoryiatta-Ayim, a cultural historian, curator and filmmaker.  I’m a filmmaker and curating cultural programs isn’t my forte.  However, I love how Nana has such a great great eye when it comes to spotting great local talent.

There are sculptors Nana Anoff and Mahama Ibrahim.  There is filmmaker Anita Afonu, who made a documentary, Perished Diamonds, about our dying cinema houses,  there is performance artist Serge who comes to mind….There is Wanlov the Kubolor and M3NSA, of the FOKN BOIS,  there is Kyekyeku who is the protege of legendary guitarist Koo Nimo, there is Jahwai who blends hiphop and reggae…there is Nana Asaase…and Mutombo the Poet…and a young singer, Lady Jay…gosh, I could go on forever!  All of these guys are so incredibly talented. They are the new wave of Ghanaian creatives and I can see them making history and being legends in our future. And, an organization like Accra Dot Alt brings all of these artists, including myself together for cultural events. These guys helped me find a place in Ghana when I didn’t know where I could fit in the current Ghanaian film industry and I’m looking forward to growing with them.  That’s my utopian vision of Africa…it’s right here in Ghana at the Rex Cinema, a place where a gray area of artists can unite and really have the freedom to create.

Click here to contribute and find out more about Owusu’s Kickstarter campaign.

For other information about the Rex and Ghanaian cinema culture:

Jennifer Blaylock (UC Berkeley doctoral student) on the Rex

Blaylock’s slideshow of cinemas in Accra in the late 1960s

JOT Ageyman’s blog post on the Ghanaian film industry

Brigit Meyer’s “Popular Ghanaian Cinema and African Heritage” (subscription required)

About BFC/A

The Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University was established in 1981 as the first archival repository dedicated to collecting, preserving, and making available historically and culturally significant films by and about black people. The BFC/A's primary objectives are to promote scholarship on black film and to serve as an open resource for scholars, researchers, students, and the general public; to encourage creative film activity by independent black filmmakers; and to undertake and support research on the history, impact, theory, and aesthetics of black film traditions. View all posts by BFC/A

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