Entertainment of 2014-02-20

From ice cream seller to international filmmaker - Leila tells her life story

Award-winning Ghanaian filmmaker, Leila Djansi has made a good impression on the African movie scene with her films; ‘I Sing Of A Well’, ‘Sinking Sands’ and ‘Ties That Bind.’
Last year, she took a step further and shot her first Hollywood film titled, ‘And There Was You’. She also directed ‘Northern Affair’.
Leila, in an interview with NEWS-ONE’s Francis Addo from her USA base, said that her success is a long journey of struggles. At a point, she said her family became broke when stroke rendered her father bedridden - she had to sell ice cream to survive.
Good to have you here.
Thank you.
How did you start your career?
Long story. I’m not sure we have enough time. But to paraphrase, I had wanted to be an OBGYN (Obstetrics and Gynaecology), but so many things about it freaked me out. Albeit, I’d always put friends together and directed school plays since I was in class 4. So, after some soul-searching and God leading, I knew my hobby was my career. I started out with Socrates Sarfo as a writer and production coordinator. I wrote a bunch of films for him. Never got paid or credited for it so I left and went to GAMA Films. Just days at GAMA, I got an artistic honour scholarship to study at SCAD in Georgia so I took off and the rest is as you see it.
How was life in Georgia?
I was the only African in the Film Department. We were probably about 15 black students. It took some adjusting to. Because these are fellow students who’ve been exposed to amazing filmmaking and I didn’t have that luxury or experience. And it was like being an ambassador, because whatever wrong you do or good you do, would be a reflection on Africa, Ghana. And I’m happy I held my own. My films were played on the Film Department’s website for two years. That was a good feeling. I did writing and producing track there for three years and then I went to Art Center College for a directing track. That took me two years due to transfer credits.
How long have you been in filmmaking?
Wow, since 2008, professionally. That would be five years now. But all through Film school, I was interning and working. I was 19 when I started working in film in Ghana.
You shot in Hollywood last year. Is it expensive as compared to Ghana?
Yes and No. For example, if I had shot ‘Ties That Bind’ here, it would have been cheaper for me here than in the US. But if I’d wanted to make ‘Ties That Bind’ affiliate to all the unions, like IASTE, DGA, etc, it would have been way more expensive. Making what we call a Non-Union film in the US is very cost effective because it has its own structure. Making a union film is where you are paying 650 dollars a day to a below the line crew and so that becomes expensive.
Who is Leila Djansi?
I am who you want me to be. People see the glass half full, others see it half empty. Who I am depends on who you are. At the end of the day, I am one living in the space God designated for me, doing what he’s provided for me to do. I live thankful everyday because I am a filmmaker, a free spirit and a friend of God.
How was growing up like?
Well, it started out fun. My dad was quite wealthy and we lived well. He was an aeronautical engineer. Then he got sick with stroke and things began to go downhill. But luckily, we were raised very well though; they knew no condition is permanent so we survived. We are all girls, so the danger was going wayward. Because it got to a time we were so broke. So broke. My mum went to Medical School then, and my dad was bedridden. Things were tough. But my mum graduated, got a good position in the hospital. Things didn’t go back to normal because my dad was still sick. But we pulled through. It was around that time that I knew I wanted to make films and I was under studying with Socrates Safo. I wasn’t making money there because I’d said I wasn’t doing it for money. But you’d think I’d be given something small when you turn my scripts into films and make money right? So I’d come back home to Ho, sell ice cream and go back to Accra. Even when I came to the US, I had two jobs and school, so I could help my mum. But God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him. Although my dad died right around the time I was becoming who I am, I know he’s proud and happy wherever he is.
Touching story!
Those years shaped me and made me strong. If I hadn’t gone through those difficult times, I don’t think I’d be this determined and aggressive at making something great out of my life. Brings to mind what God said that when we go through fire, he’d be with us. Meaning, you will go through terrible times but he’ll be there with you.
Where is your mum now?
My mum is retired now. She’s living in Ho. Enjoying the fruits of her labour.
Does her life and your life experience influence your film scripts?
It does. Always. You don’t go through what we went through and not have some level of pain inside. So when I write and I go deep, those things come up. Sometimes I’m writing and I’m crying. Hard.
Is the medical beat in your films an inspiration from your mother?
It is. I like to be honest in everything I write. I won’t write about something I’ve not experienced, lived or known about in-depth. So I end up having the same beats in things I do. But also, I believe I’m still holding on to the bitter past so it keeps coming up. Letting go is something I find very hard doing. But…I’m learning and I’m trying.
Hope you will let go one day.
I will. I need to surround myself with the right people and then it will happen. In this industry, it’s very easy to surround yourself with people who are only there to exploit you. When that happens, you start to build walls and you get trapped. Which is why people in the arts are so crazy. Drugs, etc.
Sounds like some people in the arts have betrayed you. Countless times; from the very first day I set foot in Ghana. You think oh, this is my friend, my sister and bam! They stab you in the back in the dark. But I’m learning. I’m lazily writing a book about my life. Don’t know when I’ll finish it. It’s quite vivid.
Some say Leila is an iron lady.
I don’t know about that. I am tough when I have to be. Funny thing comes to mind. When we were making Northern Affair, a crew member came up to me and said ‘Aunty Leila, when we’re not working, you are very nice, but when we start working, you are so hard.’ I found it funny. There should be a clear distinction between work and play. Life is not all about smiling and laughing and having fun. It’s hard work. You just need to find a balance that suits you. That’s what I do. I’m fiercely protective of my work so if you’re going to work with me, you must be very committed and disciplined and innovative, otherwise you won’t have any good memories of me.
People say you are controversial and dramatic.
I never know what to say when people say that! But my mother used to say something when we were growing up: a bad guest would always say his host is bad. Life is about cause and effect. Some said to me last week, oh Leila you like to fight. And I said please give me the name of who I fought. And he said Ghana Movie Awards. I don’t know when voicing an opinion became synonymous with fighting. The fact that you are too cowardly to speak up when things are going wrong doesn’t mean I am. God did not put me here to be a robot. If you are doing the wrong thing and I see it, I will say it. I don’t think people misunderstand who I am. I think the people who say that feel threatened by my confidence and knowledge. I’ve worked in America for years and no one says that about me. So why Africa? When you are a woman they don’t consider you worthy of what you have achieved and yet you are confident, they come up with all these tags; ugly, controversial etc. It’s pathetic and it’s weak minded. Funny enough the people who say these about me have never met me, or have never even spent 10 minutes with me. They form their opinion from idle gossip and feeding themselves from gutter tabloids. You never form your opinion of someone based on another person’s view of them. You form yours. Example, a guy came up to me at a party in Ghana and said he saw me at an event and wanted to come say ‘hi’. But his friends told him I’ll abuse him so he didn’t. So he found it hard to believe I was sitting there with friends talking and laughing. This is someone who is a very good friend of mine now. If he were dumb, without experiencing me for himself, he’d go and tell someone else bad things about me.
Do you get hurt by what people say about you?
I used to. Not anymore. Because really, the only thing I owe the public is good work. I would never exploit them by making bad work for them to patronize. That’s the only relationship I have with them. My personal life is mine just as theirs is theirs. The only person qualified to judge me is my God and my immediate family. I won’t change who I am to please anyone. Neither would I pretend to be something I’m not. The side I show you, as a result of the side you show me, is who I am. If you change, I’ll change. It feels very good when people come up to me and say, “Wow, you are not what they say you.” I like that “duh” moment for them. Haha.
Is Socrates Sarfo your friend?
I have never been at odds with Socrates. He told me not to come back to Ghana because the industry was choked. I did. He told me not to work with Akorfa, I did. Then he made a film I thought was exploitative, I told him about it and he got upset. When I see him, I go up to him, he ignores me. He goes about trying to sabotage me working in Ghana but I really don’t care. I buy all his films. Good or bad to support him and I’ll continue to do that as a sign of gratitude.
Looks like the female directors are doing better than the men.
You think so? And those very men control the industry at the top and do everything possible to frustrate us. It has nothing to do with the sex but everything to do with standards and practices and know-how.
Will women be better controllers of the industry?
There are women leaders in FIPAG. I met one. She’s none different from the men. Same with the distributors.
Does our industry have a chance to grow and compete with acclaimed industries?
The one and only way forward for the industry is UNITY. Everyone, even opera square has something to offer. If we unite and bring all our ideas to the table, great things will happen. We need to stop pitching against each other, jealousy, gossip, bitterness all of that. We all make different films. When we were casting for Northern Affair, an actor we were trying to cast told Aunty Mabel he did some research on me and I think I’m the best in Africa. It was so hurtful because I have never and will never say that about myself. I can’t. But this is how fellow industry folks, out of jealousy go about spreading lies and creating disunity. There’s a guild in Ghana called equity. I heard a member say she would frustrate the efforts of the guild if she is not made president. I mean listen to that. But that is a representation of the kind of persons in the industry. Everybody wants to be the ‘best’, the ‘recognized one’ and ‘famous’. It’s ridiculous. With multiple selfish interests, how will the industry go anywhere talk less of competing with major industries?
Have we as Africans been telling the story with our movies?
I’ve seen that Nigerians are and I’m excited. In Ghana, we are still recycling. But, there’s no money to make good films in Ghana. And there’s no money because one, Ghana is small. And every little act of piracy goes a long way. Two, there are no proper channels of distribution. Opera Square will sit on your product or your money until they choose. It’s hard.
Which schools did Leila attend?
I went to Kabore Primary/JSS, Mawuli Secondary, Savannah College of Art and Design and The Art Center College.
Is Leila married?
No. But I’m a mum to two adorable little girls I adopted three years ago.