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10 April 2014

Perished Diamonds

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An Inconvenient Truth, I advise anyone sceptical about the power of documentary film to speak inconvenient truths to politicians, to watch Ghanaian director Akuba Afonu’s courageous new film, Perished Diamonds.  This thoughtful half-hour documentary, made on a shoe-string budget, was recently screened at the first Accra Francophone Film Festival in March 2013. Perished Diamonds is a labour of love and a testament to Anofu’s passion for Ghana’s film heritage. The documentary relates the painful story of how the Ghana Film Industry Corporation (GFIC) was sold – or to use IMF jargon ‘divested’ – in 1997 to a Malaysian company for the sum of 1.23 million dollars. The idea behind the divestiture was to recapitalize GFIC before it was eventually returned to the state. The sale included all of the GFIC’s assets, its studios and equipment and, most controversial of all, Ghana’s film archive. On October 1st 1997, TV3 a private television broadcaster, began on-air transmission on GFIC’s site. By 2006, TV3 was the most watched television station in the country.

A catastrophic by-product of TV3’s success was that soon after the station was set up, Ghana’s precious archive of celluloid films was destroyed. Perished Diamondsdescribes how this catastrophe occurred. Who better to tell the tale of the destruction of Ghana’s film heritage than those who participated in creating it, and make up a Who’s Who of the Ghanaian film industry: Reverend Michael Hesse – cinematographer and former chairman of GFIC; Kofi Bucknor – cinematographer and actor; Ernest Abbeyqyaye – actor and director? Also interviewed are directors Kwaw Ansah, Kofi Middleton-Mends and Veronica Quashie.  Fitz Baffour, Minister of Information in the Atta Mills’ NDC government and Professor Kofi Awoonor, a former director of GFIC, provide a much needed political context to what happened. Unfortunately, no one identifies who was ultimately responsible for the divestiture, or who, in the end, gained financially from it. Anofu’s spell-binding narrative begins with the arrival of cinema in Ghana in 1903. Film production started in 1948 with the setting up of the West African Film School.

A decade or so later, GFIC was established by Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah loved film and understood its power to transform lives.  No doubt influenced by the way the colonial administration had used film for education, Nkrumah laid the foundation, through the GFIC, for an industry that would help shape a post-independent consciousness and national identity. In the light of their commitment to the film industry, those interviewed in Perished Diamonds describe the sale of GFIC to Malaysians in 1997 as ‘an act of murder’; ‘a tragedy for Ghanaian culture and African civilisation. A betrayal of the Kwame Nkrumah dream that we ourselves must be able to tell our own story’. Fitz Baffour, though apparently ‘mortified’ by the decision, tries to excuse it by saying divesture was the ‘fashion’ at the time. Presumably, members of the government of the day would argue that they had no choice in the matter – they had to follow the IMF’s stipulation to ‘divest’ national assets at all costs.  Nevertheless, which country in the world, I wonder – other than Ghana – would have allowed its cultural treasure in film to fall into foreign hands? Cinematographer and actor, Kofi Bucknor, articulates the profound loss of national pride succinctly: ‘A country that sells its own film studios and its library of historic materials to another country is one that does not value film. But more significantly, is in some sort of conflict about who we are.

If selling off a national asset – one that tells stories in pictures and is able to capture the imagination of citizens young and old, rich and poor alike, wasn’t bad enough – what happened next was truly heart-breaking. The Malaysian buyers of GFIC (and Ghanaians who worked for them) indifferent to the nation’s cultural heritage, proceeded to burn Ghana’s film archive. In the process the country’s pictorial past in moving images was wiped out.  Up to now, no one has taken responsibility for this act of devastating cultural vandalism, presumably because governments past and present do not care one way or another. Under the chairmanship of Reverend Hesse, an archival retrieval committee was mandated to save the remaining 10% of the archive, which was moved to the Ministry of Information.

In 2010 when I visited a Ministry of Information building that houses archival material at the Accra Industrial area, the Ministry’s film archive was in a parlous state. Unable to maintain the low temperatures necessary to keep film stable because of lack of resources and frequent power cuts, the nitrate films were rotting. Indeed, they was giving off such toxic fumes that it was deemed hazardous to health to inspect them. As well as giving a moving account of the sale of GFIC, Perished Diamonds contains short gems from Ghana’s film past, such as: The Boy Kumasenu, 1952 (the first feature film shot by the Gold Coast Film Unit with a non-professional African cast); Hamile: The Tongo Hamlet, 1964 (Tongo is the home of the Frafra people who live in the far north of Ghana); and Kwaw Ansah’s Love Brewed in an African Pot, 1981 and Heritage Africa, 1989. Watching clips from these gems not only reveals how important film can be in giving a nuanced depiction of the past, it also indicates the immeasurable significance of what was destroyed. In as much as Perished Diamonds awakens awareness in Ghanaians of the value of archive film, all is not lost. Whether by accident or incredible foresight, some of Ghana’s film archive was kept in storage in London. For years the rent for storage was in arrears. But thanks to the persistence of campaigners led by Reverend Hesse, the government of Ghana recently paid the money owed and the films will be housed safely in London until 2015. Yaba Badoe April 2013 Yaba Badoe is a Ghanaian journalist and filmmaker based in the UK. She is best known for her award winning documentary ‘WITCHES OF GAMBAGA’

 

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