Kwaw Ansah’s seminal film, Heritage Africa, is three decades old this year.
eight years before the making of Heritage Africa, in 1980, the ghanaian filmmaker had released what turned out to be a landmark production in postcolonial african cinema – his debut feature film, Love Brewed in an African Pot. Love Brewed… is a story of forbidden love: Aba, a young woman with a prized formal education, falls in love with, and eventually gets married to, Joe, an auto mechanic son of a fisherman, against the plans and desires of her retired civil servant father. Kwaw Ansah employed this narrative as a conduit to broach issues around acculturation and class disparity.
the film was a remarkable success. but that was not the case at the dawn of its release. in a december 1993 interview, appearing in FonTomFrom: Contemporary Ghanaian Literature, Theatre and Film, Kwaw Ansah related some of these drawbacks to the poet and cultural activist, Kofi Anyidoho. “When Love Brewed… came out in 1980,” he said, “many film exhibitors – both local and foreign – would not touch it; because they felt African films did not draw enough audience to make them commercially viable.”
the work spoke for itself when it eventually opened in ghana. “Realising that it was fetching them more than the American films, they got interested, and other cinema houses came for it.”
this phenomenon replicated itself across the continent. in the interview with Kofi Anyidoho, Kwaw Ansah shares an amusing anecdote about the film’s success in kenya, where officials (of the kenyan film corporation) were initially “very reluctant.”
“Eventually they put it on and luckily for me it opened at the same time when James Bond’s For Your Eyes Only was also opening – and i tell you, for three months the queues for Love Brewed… were so heavy that James Bond was not making any profit and it was quite embarrassing, and they had to write officially to the Kenyan Film Corporation to withdraw my film for a while for them to make money.”
delightful. for, Kwaw Ansah had gone to the bank, with his father-in-law’s house as collateral, for a loan to make the film. and with the spectacular success of Love Brewed…, the loans were smoothly paid off. one can surmise that this turn of events supplied copious amounts of confidence to the then almost middle-aged man on his journey to use film as a tool to, yes, express himself, but also to examine – and possibly heal – his society’s historical wounds.
now to Heritage Africa itself. written, produced, directed and scored by Kwaw Ansah, the film is set in 1955, on the cusp of ghana’s independence. (political events of historical significance such as the 1948 christianborg shooting are dramatised therein.) the protagonist of the film, first african to be appointed district commissioner in the british colony of the gold coast, is a downright colonial casualty. take his name: Quincy Arthur Bosomfield, reworked from his birthname of Kwesi Atta Bosomefi, to suit his colonised palate. this classic gesture of cultural waywardness is emblematic of his degenerated african identity.
in one of the film’s early scenes, Quincy whips his son, Archibold Bosomfield, for going to see what he considered “a fetish dance.” the child dies of tetanus, after being flogged again in school for the same ‘crime’; so ruthless were the whippings.
and when Quincy’s mother bestowed him with the family heirloom – a 500-year old casket containing “the soul and pride of our people,” stockholm syndrome sent him scudding to the governor, Guggiswood, to present the priceless ornament to him as his (Quincy’s) “humble token of high esteem.” it would not be out of line to see this casket as a symbol of the ‘heritage’ in question here.
is Quincy able, in the end, to retrieve the casket, i.e. his (lost) African heritage? in fine, things end rather tragically for him; which makes the story – one which is, in essence, a call to action: for Africans to retrieve valuable parts of ‘heritage’ which have been either stolen, destroyed or rendered abominable by colonialism – a rather painful one.
indeed, as painful as some of Kwaw Ansah’s experiences during, and post production. for starters, there was the fact that Heritage… is a blatantly political movie, which fact made the film rather unsavoury for stakeholders. for instance, most of the cinema houses then – and now? – were owned by non-Africans who, according Kwaw Ansah, “did not want to promote [the political message of Heritage].” this parallels an incident that happened when the film was being edited. Per union regulations then, films had to be sent to rank laboratories in britain to be edited by a european editor. Kwaw Ansah related to Kofi Anyidoho how jarring the whole process was: “From time to time, he (the editor) reacted so violently that I ended up having such heavy tiffs with him. Eventually, the stress was becoming too much for me to bear, so I collapsed and was put in Cromwell Hospital.”
we learn from Kwaw Ansah’s wikipedia page that “he emerged from the experience with his health seriously compromised.” an almost vague way of putting it, when compared with words from the lion’s own mouth: “Heritage Africa really put me into hospital for quite a period of time and I could hardly lift a bunch of keys. I was completely gone and my whole body was full of carbonical boils.” some of all that, Kwaw Ansah was informed by doctors, “had to do with having gone to the banks to borrow so much money at about 37% interest, [to make the film].”
and as though all of that was not enough sacrifice and pain, the film was pirated. sales dwindled exponentially. and the film’s commercial success was thus sabotaged. that was the last straw. Kwaw Ansah proclaimed he wasn’t going to make another film – ever again; a decision he rescinded with time and a lot of persuasion.
at a point in that december 1, 1993 interview, he said to Kofi Anyidoho, after telling of his ordeal with Heritage Africa, that: “I’m glad that I’m alive today and the film was able to happen.”
well, we couldn’t be gladder, could we, for the man’s life and for Heritage Africa.
thirty years later, what assessment can be made on the impact of Heritage…, judging by pertinent happenings in ghana, a demographic microcosm of africa? at the top of this year, ghana’s births and deaths registry, in a directory which has thankfully been overturned, informed the general public that ‘title names’ such as Naa and Nana were no longer going to be registered; and on the occasion of the country’s 61st independence anniversary, the blueprint was revealed for what is apparently a monumental need for a postcolonial african society: a national cathedral; also, the government has agreed to a deal with china to destroy and mine the atewa forest – home to direly-needed vegetation, rare flora and fauna, rivers that serve millions of people… – in exchange for ‘infrastructure projects’; and signs that scream: ‘ALWAYS SPEAK ENGLISH’ still litter school compounds; and, and, and…
that we are yet to thoroughly rehabilitate our societies is beyond obvious, but we shall not here lament the fact that thirty long years after the film was released, there are still many, many more colonial tragedies than it had hoped to salvage. instead, we give 30 massive cheers of appreciation to Kwaw Ansah – for making such a timeless film – which is indeed still polished in all respects – from acting to directing; and also, ultimately, for loving us – african people.
Written by: moshood
moshood lives and writes from accra