On location in Ghana with Juliet Yaa Asantewa Asante - President of the Black Star International Film Institute
I was bitten by the film bug at 17 when I got my first acting job. My career took off very quickly with a supporting role in HBO’s 2001 production Deadly Voyage. I also won ‘Best Actress’ in Ghana in the same year.
I then went back to college to do a business degree and started my company Eagle Productions Ltd. After my degree I felt like I needed to back my craft with some real expertise so I returned to the National Film and Television Institute (NAFTI). I then took a second degree in film directing.
I have always been interested in leadership and the dynamics of public policy, especially as a black woman in film. I took my masters in public policy and my MPA at the Kennedy school of Government in 2011. This was a monumental turning point for me. It convinced me to spend some time in helping to shape the policy direction of Ghana.
My journey in getting my 2015 movie Silverain to market also opened up an entire world to me and made me very conscious of the gaps that needed to be closed. This lead to the setting up of the Black Star International Film Institute, organisers of the Black Star International Film Festival.
I have always been big on education, focusing a number of my pieces as a blogger for the Huffington Post on the subject. When the invitation came to chair NAFTI it felt like it was the culmination of many years of preparation and I was very happy to take the opportunity.
"Having the credibility to help motivate change is what I enjoy most about my role."
What does this role involve and what do you enjoy most about the job?
Both roles give me a very unique bird’s eye view of what the gaps are and what needs to be done. Having some power to make some of it happen is very exciting! An important part of my role is building consensus and motivating stakeholders to take actions that move the sector forward. Ghana has very strong players and having the credibility to help motivate change is what I enjoy most about my role. One of my goals is to help Ghana define itself as a film hub in the region. The message is beginning to sink in and we are well placed to achieve this with the right intervention.
You are both a creative person and a business savvy, organised leader which is a rare combination. Why didn't you just become a filmmaker?
In today’s world it is important to be multi-skilled. I love being a filmmaker, but it is equally as important to me to help others achieve their dreams with our very limited funding and support. I know that I would be very successful as a filmmaker as I have already done that. However, I come from a mindset of sustainable outcomes and that society is better off winning together. To be recognised as a filmmaker from Ghana who has done well doesn’t satisfy me. What success looks like to me, is to be mentioned together with other successful filmmakers from my country and for the world to recognise the collective readiness of our market. For me, that is what success looks and feels like. Without the business side of things, it will be difficult to open that door and keep it open. Which is one reason why the festival is focused on the business of film. As a filmmaker, reaching new audiences at film festivals is important, but even more important to me is getting a deal. the question for me is can we help the next filmmaker navigate the terrain successfully?
"NAFTI has supplied the region with skilled, and relatively cheap, film crew for the last 40 years."
The Institute recently signed an MOU with the Government to show Ghanaian content at all Ghana missions around the world. This is a big win for us as it will help Ghana sell itself more forcefully at points of contact around the world. This excites me!
What can you tell us about Ghana as a location filming destination?
Ghana has many things to offer. You can find some unique landmarks and architecture here. For instance, many of the castles and forts used to transport slaves from Africa are in Ghana. As a country that is both Christian and Muslim, depending on which part of the country you are in, there is some very interesting architecture for filmmakers. There is also an abundance of sunshine, forests, seas etc.
Ghana is also a very safe country, ranking fourth safest in Africa. It has a very stable democracy and financial market. We are now the second fastest growing African economy at almost 8%.
A country so rich and diverse in its people and cultures can be a filmmaker’s heaven giving inspiration to design and costumes. Recent films like Black Panther and Aladdin attest to this as they reference Ghana in the art and costumes used.
"Like any country, it is important to identify the right people to work with."
Ghana has one of the most, if not the most, credible film schools on the continent. NAFTI has supplied the region with skilled, and relatively cheap, film crew for the last 40 years. There is also plenty of equipment available in Ghana so all the filmmaker has to do is bring minimum crew and equipment to shoot.
Our Government is looking into the incentives needed to support this. We are looking into what others have done around the world and how we can meet or surpass the incentives offered by them. But even without an incentive, our low labour costs and general cost of doing business will help filmmakers choose to shoot in Ghana.
What locations are most commonly used by foreign film and TV productions when they film in Ghana?
Co-productions have worked in Ghana for many years. A recent success story was Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation (pictured above). It showcased the diverse nature of Ghana’s terrain – beautiful waters, forest areas, unique architecture etc. Ghana even has a prop house for the filmmaker who needs to rent props.
A beautiful airport experience, great hotels and rentals, good food, a well developed transportation network and ‘visas on arrival’ are things filmmakers also find very valuable.
What are the more unusual locations that Ghana has to offer?
Ghana’s castles and forts are quite unique shooting opportunities. Not many people are aware of them. Ghana also has beaches and many lakes, rivers and waterfalls. As a filmmaker, I also find the market places in Ghana to be real gems. The kind of character that scenes like those may bring to a production is invaluable. I know this personally because I have shot market scenes in Ghana and it was amazing for those productions to have that additional character that I didn’t have to build a set to achieve.
What locations worldwide can Ghana easily double for?
The cities have a great outlay with some really good infrastructure and so may pass for many small cities around the world. The airport looks like any airport in the developed world and looks very new.
What are the advantages of filming in Ghana?
Like any country, it is important to identify the right people to work with. With a good local producer, things like permits, police assistance (where needed), visa on arrival into Ghana, getting your money in and out of the country, getting equipment through the ports should be very speedy!
Ghanaians are known for being very congenial, welcoming and hardworking. Most of the crew I have worked with fit the bill. Those who have shot in Ghana also have good things to say about the Ghanaian work attitude and general disposition of the people.
What has been your most difficult location assignment or request in Ghana to date and why?
Shooting in the markets of Ghana, though beautiful, has been my most difficult location so far. Simply because there was so much that was out of my control. Knowing the job and going with the flow to some extent was helpful. The experience left me with a better film and with elements I never envisaged when writing the script.
Are there any particular tips that you would like to share with our readers about filming in Ghana?
Like everywhere else and with everything else, it takes some effort to find the right people to work with. With that taken care of shooting in Ghana should be a relative breeze compared to many other locations within the region and outside of the region.
What would you recommend crew and cast do to have fun and relax in Ghana?
I love the live music culture that Ghana has. This is not to be missed under any circumstances and there are many places that offer it. In fact the entertainment and night life in Ghana is one of the reasons why I love being here so much. Many of the things I find here are either not available in other countries or are really very expensive. Ghana’s cuisine is also amazing.
I have to mention the month of August as one of the most exciting times to visit Ghana. The Black Star International Film Festival and the Chalewote Street Art festival together create a filmmaker’s ideal wish list.
What’s your favourite film friendly hotel and restaurant in Ghana?
We do a lot of work with the African Regent Hotel for a number of reasons. It’s minutes from the airport and small enough to offer a cosy experience. The food is great, especially if you are looking to try some Ghanaian dishes. It really offers a contemporary African experience.
What do you do to relax and chill out yourself after a big production?
I love music! For me, it is either live music or music videos. I also love that most clubs go to almost daybreak. I can really do the all night if I am in the mood
What was the last film you saw and loved?
I am presently watching a series based in Japan on Netflix and I am loving it. It is subtitled and because of that I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, but I have been binging on it for two weeks, so there you go!
What book are you currently reading?
The Spiritual Imperative by Lawrence Taub. Great book!
Thank you Juliet, it has been great talking to you.
Click here to contact Juliet.
Images courtesy of Yaw Pare.
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