Representing northern Ghana

A hierarchy exists against indigenous film industries in the Ghanaian film industry.

Still from Azali.

Ghana’s first ever submission to the Oscars International Feature Film category was in 2020, for the 2018 film Azali. In the end, the 2020 Oscar was won by the now legendary Korean film, Parasite. Azali is still available on Netflix. Despite losing out to Parasite, it is refreshing to see the diversity of Ghanaian-ness represented in Azali, especially its depictions of Northern Ghana.

Azali follows the life of a 14-year-old girl who escapes child marriage and is sent away by her mother to have a better life elsewhere. Amina ends up in the merciless streets of the capital Accra, where she engages in kayayo (as a market porter) and becomes a victim of child prostitution.

While film was used by the British colonial government as a tool of colonial propaganda to “civilize” the native, film on the African continent has grown tremendously, with Nollywood leading in its ability to increasingly globalize its content (read: Netflix Naija). Still, the Ghanaian film industry has been in decline for decades, and several scholars attribute this decline to piracy, the importation of Nollywood films, poor quality films and a lack of governmental support to the industry, among other reasons.

Although it is important to examine the ways in which African filmmakers can globalize their work and make enough money to sustain their film careers, it is imperative to examine the ways in which filmmakers are serving local audiences—the very people these films talk about.

Just like there has been a linguistic hierarchy in many postcolonial African countries which elevate languages like English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Arabic over indigenous African languages, there seems to be a hierarchy in the Ghanaian film industry where indigenous film industries like Kumawood and the Dagbanli film industry are constantly demonized for poor video quality, their juju themes, focus on village life and their general disinterest in the affairs of the elite class.

This among other reasons is why it has been refreshing to see a Ghanaian movie explore the important topics of child marriage, poverty, child trafficking, rural-urban migration and the kayayo while centering the language and culture of a historically marginalized ethnicity and region in Ghana: the Dagbamba.

Asana Alhassan, in her debut role, gives a riveting performance and her proficiency in Dagbanli is refreshing to witness. Beyond Alhassan, a few popular actors in the Dagbanli film industry are featured in the film; Sherifatu Issah (the first female director in the Dagbanli film industry) and Sagani who gave an incredible performance in Leonard Kubaloe’s Pieli (a seasonal movie in Dagbanli) a few years ago. Pieli follows the life of Katari who embarks on an ancestral journey of self-discovery. (Sidenote: Sagani is my cousin on my father’s side of the family.)

Yet despite these successes, there are several major problems with the film. Despite attempts to include a handful of actors from the Dagbanli film industry to serve as supporting cast in the film, Kwabena Gyansah, the director, did a great disservice to the Dagbamba and Dagbanli speakers by casting actors who neither speak nor understand the language. With their unbearably unintelligible cringe-worthy accents and general inability to pronounce words that would easily roll off my 4-year-old nephew, Tiehisuma’s tongue, the lead actors Adjetey Anang and Akorfa Edjeani (popular Ghallywood actors), no matter how much they try, cannot capture the essence of the Dagbanli language.

For many Dagbanli speakers, this film is painful to watch as they are forced to witness the butchering of one of the languages with the most speakers in the country. This matter could have been easily addressed if Gyansah and the team had cast actors in the decades old Dagbanli film industry in lead roles.

Beyond the casting and desecration of language, some of the story could have been historically true to Zebilla with the representation of indigenous languages like Kusaal (the dominant language), Mampruli and Busanga, which are all spoken there. While the film was set in Zebilla, it did not capture the history, present and linguistic essence of the town. By not addressing this, the filmmaker and his team used a nationally marginalized language and ethnicity to erase an even more marginalized language and ethnicity, when both could have been adequately represented. Alternatively, the film could have been set in a Dagbanli-speaking community like Zabzuɣu, Tampiŋ, Gusheɣu, or Paɣazaa.

In addition to representation, the production team could have made the film more accessible to not just Ghanaians but the regions the film was set in. A series of screenings in Zebilla, Tamale and other Northern Ghanaian towns and villages would have made it accessible to local audiences, many of whom do not have Netflix accounts or alternative means to stream the film online.

Consulting extensively with stakeholders in the Dagbanli film industry like filmmakers, directors, actors, and scholars would have helped address some of the issues that many of us would consider quite obvious to anyone familiar with the region. In my larger dissertation project, which is the first ever scholarly work on the industry, I map the relationship between the Dagbanli film industry and indigenous knowledge systems in Ghana. This is an important resource for understanding the film landscape in the Northern Region.

Overall, this was a good film but let’s hope that next time, the production team makes an even better film by doing extensive research and also consulting with stakeholders and experts in the Dagbanli film industry.

Further Reading