Leila Jewel Djansi, the Ghanaian God of the 7th Art, Speaks about her Work
I SING OF A WELL, a film set in the ancient Ghana Empire that seeks protection against slave raiders from an equally ancient Mali Empire under Mansa Musa, won two awards—Achievement in Sound and Achievement in Costume—during the 6th Africa Movie Academy Awards in Nigeria in April 2010. It had received 11 nominations. What is more, it also won the newly-introduced Special Jury Award. Previously specialising in short films and documentaries, this was the debut long fiction feature by Ghanaian Leila Jewel Djansi who describes herself as “a carefree, free-spirited, and ambition-driven person” who, like the ancient Greek god Zeus, enjoys “creating characters and throwing them into tough circumstances and watching them battle their way out.”
With the success that you attained at the sixth Africa Movie Academy Awards—three awards—in April 2010, what is next for you?
I am working on a couple of projects now. Shooting currently; and well, we’ll see where God takes me.
What inspired you into writing your award-winning film—I SING OF A WELL?
I have often times wondered what would happen if a well could talk. Everything happens by the well during the days I was growing up and visiting my grandmother in the village.
How long did you work on I SING OF A WELL?
Almost a year
Do you think critics of the Ghanaian film sector are right when they say movie producers, directors and actors have not learnt the craft of making films?
I will say a very delicate yes. They are in the business of filmmaking, not the craft of story-telling.
Are African filmmakers doing enough to spread the ideals and cultures of their respective nations through film?
I can’t say. I don’t know enough about the films made here. I do know of the Francophone countries’ exploits, and I am proud of the way they uphold their heritage. If you are talking Ghana/Nigeria…I don’t know what to say. I am not sure of what I am seeing.
Do you think African actors and actresses contribute much towards the success of the film? How did the cast you used in I SING OF A WELL make or break your production?
Of course, an actor can make or break your film, both creatively and in the business aspect of it. I had good performances in I SING OF A WELL. I am honest enough to say I failed in packaging the right actors to help the business of it. But, all is well that ends well.
How did you venture into filmmaking?
Awww, it is a very interesting story. But the long and short of it is that I have always been a story-teller. I read and write every minute of the day. I put my friends and dolls together and direct them in plays. I’ve been doing that since primary school. Being a filmmaker is something I was destined to be.
Is filmmaking your only source of earning your living?
How does censorship in Ghana affect you and other filmmakers?
I have dealt only once with censorship office in Ghana. I have nothing to really say about them. I think some reshuffling should happen there because some of the movies they have allowed on the market are beyond ridiculous. In my opinion, there is no censorship in Ghana.
Apart from the usual challenges of inadequate funding, what has been your greatest challenge in this venture?
Wow. Nothing is free in Ghana. You will be ripped off at every turn if you are not careful. You will be cheated, lied to, taken advantage of. Sometimes I am not surprised our movies are below standard. The atmosphere to make good movies is not always there, but I do not give up.
Tell us about your next film; it is SINKING SANDS, isn’t it?
SINKING SANDS is my comeback film. It is very simple story of a love turned sour when a domestic accident alters the life of the couple. It is an interestingly, dark story. Prepare to cringe.
How far have you got now, and what are the challenges you have encountered while working on SINKING SANDS?
We have nine days left to work. It has been fun so far. I love the crew. I turned around to look at them on set one time and apart from Uncle T our gaffer, the rest of the crew are below 30—the next generation of filmmakers. I felt really good. The challenge, we have a lot of crew, including Hollywood stars and white people. Our convoy is a huge one with over 10 large vehicles, mounted gen sets and all. We smell of money. We don’t even have enough, but our sight says so. Thus, everywhere we go, we have to deal with people demanding money. It is very embarrassing for me as a Ghanaian and as someone who always boasts of Africa, my own home Ghana and yet what these visitors see is greed.
According to the 2010 AMAA College of screeners Ghana and Nigeria films are said to be more daring when it comes to sex matters; why is this so?
A large percentage of these filmmakers are exploiting the morals of the audience in my humble opinion. If the sex you are shooting is justified and you create something tasteful, I doubt that anyone would even notice it. But when you make something so on the nose…sex is a part of life. So is going to the toilet, but you are not graphic with that… you make it look tasteful and “normal” if you have to make a film on it.
How do you describe yourself? Who exactly is Leila Jewel Djansi?
I am a carefree, free-spirited, and ambition-driven person. I like to live my dreams and be happy. I enjoy creating worlds and people. I like Zeus a lot, and I fancy myself to be him sometimes. Creating characters and throwing them into tough circumstances and watching them battle their way out.