November 17, 2018
People
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Ghana
Women in Film Fight to be Seen

By Tim Kennedy

Sitsofe Akoto has built a certain level of name recognition in Ghana’s film and television industry. As head of productions at Eagle Productions, she’s in charge of directing and producing most episodes of Eagle’s three currently-airing television programs.

Her phone rings frequently, conversation can turn awkward fast.

“A lot of people don’t know I’m female. Sometimes they call, and they say, ‘Can I please talk to Mr. Sitsofe Akoto?”‘ said Akoto, 30. “It’s like people think females cannot do it.”

Akoto is one of a handful of female filmmakers in Ghana’s fast-developing film and television industry determined to prove them wrong.  Although very few, film industry women are quite visible, and perhaps especially successful. Their struggles and achievements mirror the struggles and achievements of the Ghanaian film industry — an industry practically nonexistent 20 years ago.
Film production in Ghana has a long but inconsistent history.

Although President Kwame Nkrumah made state-sponsored film production a priority after Ghana gained independence from Great Britain in 1957, the political and economic instability of the 1970s thwarted the industry’s growth. Filmmakers like Kwah Ansah and King Ampaw produced a handful of acclaimed pictures in the 1980s, but the celluloid film stock required proved too expensive to allow the industry to thrive.  It was only with the rise of digital video in the early 1990s that film production began to develop more widely.

Still, the relative youth of Ghana’s modern film industry makes production difficult. There are no large studios to fund potential filmmakers. Ghanaian films are almost exclusively self-produced and financed, sometimes with the help of commercial sponsors.

Nanabanyin Dadson, the editor of Ghana’s largest entertainment newspaper Graphic Showbiz, stressed that economic pressures overshadow gender in this arena.

“A producer, whether a man or a woman, can go to a bank,” said Dadson, 56. “If the bank says “yes” or “no,” I don’t think it will relate to whether one is a woman or one is a man.”

“It’s hard for anyone,” agreed Akoto. “People really don’t understand why they should invest in the movie industry.  Whether you are a man or a woman, it is hard.”

Still, female directors face extra cultural pressures.

“The African woman is judged, and is not expected to have a voice,” said Eagle Productions founder and CEO Juliet Asante. “And what does film do? It gives you a voice. So it’s not something that I would say is welcomed, especially to be a market leader or to be a director.”

Asante, 34, has an imposing but gentle presence. An award-winning former actress, she shifted her focus to directing, and launched Eagle Productions in 1999. In person, she comes across as proud, eloquent and a little vain.

In her immaculately furnished office, a framed, mock issue of Fortune magazine, dated October 2018 reads: “Eagle Productions’ Juliet Asante, media mogul and philanthropist, talks about the potential of Africa and women at the forefront of the leadership chain.”

“I see my work as trying to be the best that I can be as a human being. I don’t define myself in terms of woman [or] man,” she said. “[But] I recognize that there are those limitations, and I get it thrown in my face a lot.”

Eagle Productions is raising financing for its first feature film, a decades-old goal of both Asante and Akoto.

“It’s not a matter of just doing movies. We can do movies,” Akoto said. “But we want to do a quality movie, and apart from the quality we want to hit the international market. We take our time to get it right.”

Akoto credits her commitment to quality to her years spent at the National Film and Television Institute (NAFTI), the only official film school in Ghana.

Anita Afonu, a documentary student in her final year at NAFTI, also spoke highly of her education.
“I’ve always been interested in filmmaking. I’m an artist,” said Afonu, 23. “NAFTI being the only film school in Ghana, I saw it as an opportunity.”

But Asante’s enthusiasm has been tempered by experience. She chooses her words deliberately and stoically, though with a kind of weary humor.

“I’ve taken no financier, and I have extended myself beyond the barriers. It took a while, it took a lot of effort, but I kind of raised myself above the fray. So people have no choice but to listen to me,” she said, with a satisfied laugh.

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