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Verisimilitude: The Blind-spot In Our Artistic Consciousness

Mon, 24 Aug 2009 Source: Tawiah, Benjamin

The other day, I wrote that our journalism is very adequate for our purposes, despite its many shortcomings. And that is independent of what happens in Great Britain and America. I particularly stressed that we are a standard unto ourselves, and that The Wall Street Journal or the Daily Mail in the UK remain our inspiration; they don’t define our standards. Our standards are defined by our own sense of what is good and what is bad. We can improve on them, correcting ourselves where we go wrong and patting ourselves at the back when we manage to get things right, even if it seldom happens.

Today, I would have to say the same thing about our films and the arts in general. They are not as bad as we think. Now, as has become my custom in recent times, let’s start with the bad things. Is it ‘cool’ to watch African movies? Or, to put in a less sinister way, are our movies meant for a particular social class? My ‘intellectual friends’ find it amusing that I spend time to watch Ghanaian films, instead of the Hollywood blockbusters. I enjoy the bad acting, the rough and often unnecessary code-switching between English and Twi, the bland characterisation and worst of all, the scripts. But I enjoy them all the same, including Asew Red Card 1,2 and 3, Aboa Onni Dua, 1, 2 and 3 and my favourite, American Boy. It is still a delight to watch Ntow and Apakye in Sika Sunsum, and Bob Cole and Asuoabrobo in I Told You So. And for those who want to appear quite upmarket, there is always a perfect date with Shirley Frimpong-Manso’s Perfect Picture 1,2 and 3. It is probably the finest account of the Ghanaian film trade since Kwaw Ansah’s Heritage Africa, which for many, would pass for a canon.

Filming is now a business with a coherent structure, even if the professional and the amateur are indistinguishable. The standards keep improving by the day, just as each new day sees a very bad film hitting the TV screens. It is like that in Hollywood too. Judd Apatow, the celebrated producer of The 40 year Old Virgin, Knocked-Up, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, recently released his latest work-Funny People. The notoriously unfunny creation, very much uncharacteristic of Apatow, features Hollywood Greats such as Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana among others. Reviews have been very bad but they haven’t pushed Apatow out of the business. He still remains a rich film producer. The plot of the film is so chaotic, the acting not particularly fantastic and the lessons, if there are any, are buried in the womb of never-ending confusion. It is not as long as King Kong, but you spend more time watching the dry jokes of the unfunny people. You want it to end so that you can go home.

With almost limitless financial resources, excellent technology and very highly paid personnel, Hollywood sometimes struggles to satisfy their own high standards. Ghanaian films too have some problem areas. We have gone past the times when the films came out as though they were dramatic afterthoughts or sketchy jokes from some lazy fellows. They were mere extensions of what used be called TV theatres if the characters spoke English, or Cantata if they spoke Twi. Now, we have good props and some very talented actors and actresses. The plots are no more as predictable as the father who rejected his son, and the son becoming a doctor to cure the father after a terrible car accident. These days, you go to see a film with expectations, and you come back with a lesson or two. One area where we seem to be improving is what art critics call Verisimilitude. A literary creation must be very similar to our idea of a natural life situation. Most probably, verisimilitude derives from the words very similar, and because we are used to things that are very similar to life, life itself being a very familiar project, it is often not difficult to tell when a dramatic action resembles life. He may not be our most perfect example, but Prince Yawson, aka Waakye, brings us closer to what we expect a fool to do in our homes. It is important to see the role a character plays as something different from the character chosen to play the role. In any case, you play a role only when you are in character. But how do you let the role play out as though you were not in character? Here, Waakye provides a good explanation: "Whenever people tell me that I am a fool, I am happy, because I know it means I am playing the role of a fool quite well." Spot on. You would always trust Clem Ohameze to do a brilliant job as Pastor. Well, Osofia is versimilitude personified. Agya Koo must never be King; he is fine as the King’s spokesperson. He would bring it to life. Psalm Adjeteyfio is credible.

When Kofi Adjololo played the pastor in God Loves Prostitute, he wasn’t quite a pastor. He was supposed to be a money-grabbing minister of religion, but he ended up playing the role of a religious money grabber. He could barely preach the sermon. He ditches it and right away goes for the kill-the money. You don’t trust him because you know that money-grabbing pastors preach the sermon very well, well enough to lure you to voluntarily open your wallet to bring out the money. Kofi had improved in Innocent Soul. The plot was not altogether successful but Kofi’s composure in the face of calamity, as Rev Dr, is not disappointing. He has some good screen presence, which at once communicates the importance we normally associate with the clergy. In Ofori Amponsah’s Delilah 1 and 2, Kofi Adjololo is a near-perfect man for the role of a rich, adulterous uncle. You feel caught when he is seen by his son in a hotel, having fun with the wife of his nephew. You pity him when his children would not listen to him, but you also enjoy the retribution and the justice he deserves. That sounds like life. Must he die for that? Well, Ofori Amponsah, his nephew, shoots him for having his wife. Do we feel that justice is served? No, because we don’t feel the nephew’s pain.

That was not a perfect picture in any way. In Shirley Frimpong-Manso, we have a Perfect Picture to brighten our screens. The film had better been called Sex and The City. If that American production was Shirley’s inspiration, then she more than inspired everybody with the Ghanaian version. The cast was great. We might not have had a Sarah Jessica Parker quality, but Shirley’s girls did a great job. In this lively live-for-what-you believe-in creation, a kiss means a kiss. No improvisations on the cheeks. Costume is upmarket, props are good and the acting is bold. The cosmopolitan, near megapolitan persona of city life is captured in quite vivid terms. Here, we have sex magazines, advice on role play in sex by a modern physician, who also has an addiction problem. There are teasers, cheats, office romance and decent women who smoke. Who is the protagonist in this picture? It seems to be Jackie Appiah and Chis Attoh, but there is an underlying ubiquity to the plot that transports us into a world where everybody is as vulnerable as them, no matter their social standing. Jackie’s frustration is almost palpable. Her man cannot rise to the occasion. Does she consult a jujuman for a potion? There, we have a director punching past a certain Ghanaian reserve, and venturing into something that even sophisticated city life frowns on. The irony there is even biting. He is able to rise for the first time with his wife’s best pal. There is a natural response. The jealous woman in her pops out when she finds out. The rest is all natural, just like what we expect to see in life.

The Perfect Picture succeeds in the relationship between a low-life air conditioner repairer and a sophisticated metropolitan elite. It celebrates the one night stand city practice, to signify liberation, but the celebration is ephemeral. We are led into the heart of a woman who has emotional needs and values chemistry. When Adjetey surfaces again, this time dressed to city standards, we are sure of a sparkle. But that too, takes a very interesting detour. Is she blown away on discovering that her low life lover is actually a successful lawyer? Like Akeem’s wife in Coming to America, she remains composed, satisfied that her emotional investments have been rewarded with a rather bigger scoop, but she does well not to betray the ghost of her earlier suspicions. In the end, the perfect picture ends quite well, with a cocktail of romance for everybody to share.

What are my credentials for making these judgments? The first day I went on stage at the Efua Sutherland studio at the School of Performing Arts, I forgot my lines. All I had to do was to say to a King that one of her subjects had been kidnapped. As I stood there prancing about like a disinherited peacock, the King (Ekwow Blankson, the School’s finest actor at the time) noticed my frustration and shouted: “Now, depart from my presence,” a line that wasn’t in the script, and I run very quickly backstage, to burry my head in my palms. On another occasion, I was a nephew to a rich uncle who had been prosecuted for ritual murder. I had to speak in defence of my uncle (Ricky Anokye) in the court room. I turned the tables on his big head. Chris Taki-Yaboi, the director, panicked.

Since then, I have advised myself to leave a respectable distance between the stage and me. But, like many of us, especially those who have had some training in drama and theatre, I can tell a good play from a terrible one. And I want to see our films succeed, even with the resources we have. That is the wish I made years ago when I bumped into Mr Imoro, a jolly good fellow at Ghana Films. The film industry in Ghana had just about started picking up. Fatal Decision had been produced. Reviews had been encouraging but there were still so much to be done to get things right. Finance was the biggest problem. The scripts had to be tightened to remove unnecessary scenes. We also lacked actors.

That was some ten years ago when I served at the Ministry of Communications on national service. Today, we have moved on. If Shirley Frimpong-Manso had a quarter of the $65, 000, 000 budget that Michael Patrick King used for the production of the initial series of Sex and The City, perhaps she would do an equally good job. The gross revenue from the Sex and the City productions is $415,129,126. How much has Perfect Picture made so far? How many people buy African movies? How much are actors paid? And why are the films available on the internet for free? I feel guilty when I watch movies for free on www.ghanaexpo.com. You can also find a good collection on www.galizur.com. There are a few other websites that show people’s creative work for free. Despite the many problems and the bad scripts, the industry is doing fine. And here, I have to acknowledge Alexandra Akoto Duah (Ante Alex) of blessed memory, a personal friend, for playing her role. Pity she had to leave the stage before the curtain call.

Benjamin Tawiah

btawiah@hotmail.com

Columnist: Tawiah, Benjamin