A desynchronized symphony of chickens, donkeys, goats, dogs, crickets and school children wake me up at 7 o’clock every morning. I live with five other people in a tiny house next to the local primary school in Nakom, northeast Ghana. You won’t even find it on the map. Go ahead and give it a try…
The crew consists of five Americans, two Ghanaians, and myself. Unlike me, they all have much experience in filmmaking. Obviously operating on a whole different level of practical knowledge than me.
Although, maybe it’s to my advantage that this project isn’t taking place in a traditional professional setting. Hopefully my greenness is somewhat concealed by all the other obstacles this production forces to deal with. Obstacles are inevitable when you work under pressure in a demanding place, capitalizing on what you got. Guerilla style.
Three of them have previously been Peace Corps volunteers here in Ghana. It’s a US national service established by John F. Kennedy in 1961. You basically live and work in a foreign country for two years. Generally with something like agriculture, water & sanitation or education. One of the co-directors, Travis says it’s like “the military without killing people”.
The movie we’re working on is called Nakom, taking place in the village with the same name. Travis spent his two Peace Corps years here and it was during that time the idea of the script slowly came together. It’s impressive how accurate it is in terms of local traditional customs, phrases, sayings, environmental changes and cultural aspects. You wouldn’t be able to write this sort of story without being Ghanaian or as a foreigner, spent much time in the country. You have to be well familiar with the culture and its people.
Their last film project, “Sombras de azul” (Shades of blue) took place in Cuba. Indeed another demanding place to shoot a movie in. US and Cuba’s Facebook relationship status would be “It’s complicated”. A relationship tainted by its history of political differences and economic embargos. It’s a weird grey zone to say the least. For instance, as an American citizen it’s illegal to spend money in the country. However, you are technically allowed to enter!? Travis, Kelly and Bob conducted more or less the first film helmed by an American director on-location in Cuba, since the embargo 1962.
The film has world premiere in a few weeks at The Austin Film festival in Texas.
Nakom is, as I mentioned earlier, a very small place. Well, that’s not entirely true. In terms of size, Nakom is probably considered a pretty big village. The low density of compounds makes it different from other Ghanaian villages. Much more stretched out.
The rusty red main road cuts through the entire village. On each side you’ll find compounds in which people dwell. The compounds are surrounded by a wall and composed of huts (generally used for storage and stock) and houses where you sleep. Everything made of mud with tin or grass roofs.
I’m telling you (like the Ghanaians say), it’s absolutely beautiful here! I was lucky enough to arrive before harvest and dry season. Nakom is a farmers’ community. The predominant crop around here is millet. Imagine corn, that’s what millet stock looks like. Majestically towering tall above the otherwise so flat landscape.
I’ve seen more lightning here than in my entire life put together. It’s mesmerizing indeed. Stunning to watch. Every night the sky gets lit up every other second. First it’s black. Then, suddenly a discharge assists you to reveal the sky for a blink of an eye. In my imagination the sky is desperately trying to hide its shape. As if the draping darkness was its’ ally. The lightning its antagonist.
Then back to darkness. Uncertainty. Curiosity.
Nakom doesn’t resemble anything else I’ve seen in Africa so far. No palm trees. No crazy traffic. Nothing like the rainforest-covered hills I encountered in East Africa. It actually reminds me of the Swedish countryside in many ways. Cows, green grass lawns, flat rocks popping up here and there, barns and huge deciduous trees.
Although it’s much hotter. It’s ridiculously hot here.
The initial plan was to shoot the film in Pusiga, which is the nearest village (you might find it on the map if you for some reason want to track me down). Although, yet call the film Nakom. To pretend as if it was taking place here.
Apparently the movie Fargo wasn’t taking place in Fargo (that’s how the directors justified their decision).
It makes sense though. Pusiga has electricity. A larger variety of food. Running water. Shops. In other words, living standard would be considerable higher and from a filmmaking perspective, it would be easier to charge batteries, set up lights so on and so forth.
However, I think it was a wise decision to shoot the film in the community in which the film is about. It’s their story, we just tweak it into fiction. Creating a filter over their daily environment with a little bit of help from a camera.
This film could never have been made without the people from around here. Almost all participating actors are from here. Well, none of them has ever acted before, which is another challenging aspect of this project. Not only do we not speak the same language, these people have never acted before in their life. Some of them don’t even know what the concept of acting means.
It’s a curse and a blessing. What they deliver is very honest and authentic. But on the other hand, it’s accompanied by a lot of frustration sometimes.
Nakom is a half Muslim half Christian community. The other day it was Salah. A Muslim holiday where you sacrifice and eat an animal. Which animal you sacrifice depends on what you can afford. Generally it’s goats of different sizes.
In my head a scene plays out where all pigs around here are mocking the goats “Not so fun to be a goat now, huh? You know what’s coming up, don’t ya? Salah! Yeah.. That’s right!”
And the goats are hoping that they miraculously will survive, only to mock the pigs back when it’s Christmas time.
”Christmas is coming up you filthy pig. Just you wait! Inshalla”.
After about two weeks in Nakom we decided to go to Bawku for some time off. Spend the weekend in a guesthouse. Spoil ourselves with a cold drink for once, a shower that wasn’t a bucket shower, use an actual toilet (we currently relief ourselves in the millet field. Initially, a disturbing experience that has grown to be everyday life and borderline appreciated) or even a beer. On the motor-king (local transportation, essentially a motorcycle with a bed) to Bawku, we were all excited about our little field trip.
Bob, the cameraman kept shouting “Spring break! Spring break!”
The excitement didn’t last long, however. Five minutes after we arrived to Bawku the electricity died! So there we were, ready “to do” the big village, and nothing works. Back to complete darkness. No running water. No cold beers. The wind and heavy rain soaked us on the motor-king back to the guesthouse after eating fu fu.
Obviously the day after, five minutes prior to our departure back to Nakom electricity come back to life.
The irony of it all.
A fun fact about Bawku is that MEN are not allowed to drive motorbikes. First time I heard about this I though I heard wrong. “It must be illegal for women to drive motorbikes. Men never get deprived of anything in this world?”
The fact is that you’d never see a man on a motorbike in Bawku. You might actually end up in jail if you’re unlucky getting caught doing it.
This law came about a few years ago when a tribal war was unfolding in Bawku. During the war, Bawku was notoriously know for its’ drive by shootings. Basically one man driving the motorbike and another man with a gun behind aiming at his victims. An effective method to eradicate your enemy. Easy to sneak up on someone. Easy to get away. Easy to hide.
Apparently the ban has been very efficient. No drive bys have been committed since the law was installed.
We’re living in the middle of this community and work with the people every single day. Integration is inevitable. It has been one of the best experiences so far. My Kusasi (the local tribe) name is Abugrabo. It means something like male God or man who can speak to smaller Gods. Pretty accurate.
When I visited the mosque for Friday’s prayer I got a Muslim name too. It’s Isaaka. Names work great to connect with people. At this point, the whole village knows my name. You greet these lovely people every day.
Next post will be about malaria, which is lurking around every corner. What happens when you all of a sudden live a primitive lifestyle with five strangers on top of each other. What it’s like make a movie in the middle of nowhere. And how to fake a Kusasi funeral.