The Ghanaian-American co-production marks the first feature from Ghana to play at the Berlin Film Festival and celebrates its premiere on Monday, February 15th within the Panorama section of the festival. The film, which is co-written by TW Pittman and Isaac Adakudugu, focuses on Iddrisu (Jacob Ayanaba), a medical student, who returns to his rural home village of Nakom in the north of Ghana after his father had suddenly passed away. There he is confronted with the complicated family dynamics, the debt of his family’s farm and the weather conditions that threaten the harvest and therefore the community’s survival. With its rural setting and its concentration on communal life Nakom discusses issues such as gender roles and hierarchy but further demonstrates a young person’s inner conflict of feeling obligated to his family and his desire of self-fulfillment outside of the community.
Before its premiere in Berlin I sat down and talked to T.W. (Trav) Pittman and Kelly Daniela Norris, Nakom’s directors, about the challenges of shooting in a village without electricity, the general background of the story and the fact that the film is completely produced in the Kusaal language.
Next Projection: This is the first fiction feature from Ghana playing at the Berlin Film Festival yet neither of you is actually from Ghana, which is why I was wondering how you got the idea for a story that is taking place in Nakom, a rural village in Ghana?
Trav: I was in the US Peace Corps for two years from 2006 to 2008 and I was living in a village in the northeastern part of the country where the story is set which is Nakom. That was my home for two years. It was several years ago but I had this inspiration for the film and wanted to tell this specific story but also to communicate what I felt was the story of that place. It was a few years later that I sat down to get some of that story on the page, and then we went to go and shoot it. It was an incredibly intimate and positive relationship for me, and an incredibly eye-opening experience, and without me having been there for more than two years there is no way that the kind of access that we had and the trust that was required to make this film would have manifest.
Kelly: I don’t think we would have felt right telling this story if it had not been for Trav’s relationship with the community. Nakom is one of her homes and she is considered a Kusasi and a part of the tribe. I don’t think we would have dared to intrude ourselves if it hadn’t been for her. Because of her we all were welcomed really quickly and eagerly.
Next Projection: Did you come across or witness some of the incidents that are depicted in the story while you were in Nakom?
Trav: I think it is a very common kind of story. Obviously the specifics are unique to this character and his family, but he is a young person who is ambitious, intelligent and who has that drive where he is going to look outside of this community and this lifestyle. It is a very patriarchal system where the first born son has a lot of responsibilities on him. I saw this play out a number of times - that a young person’s ambition was kind of thwarted by death or illness and had to return to the village and the lifestyle they had in a way rejected and wanted to leave.
Kelly: And then on the flipside we also were witnessing a lot of the younger generation leaving the village because the lifestyle of their forefathers wasn’t of interest to them, and they wanted to go to the larger cities where there were greater opportunities. We even had to recast the character of Damata three times because every time we had cast it, the woman who we chose would end up moving to a bigger city. It was sort of like the conflict and the theme of this fictional story were playing out in real time for us, even in the casting process.
Next Projection: The fact that a lot of younger people move from the rather rural areas into the bigger cities to pursue better opportunities is actually a very universal aspect of your story as well as coming back to that place where you once belonged to. Is this aspect of returning home something you can relate to?
Kelly: Yes, absolutely. I grew up in a suburban area just north of San Diego and even though my dad had a way of making it seem like a constant adventure, it was not a very diverse area, and that really pushed me to explore different places. For college I tried to go as far away as I could and went to New York City, which is where Trav and I met. It can be hard for me to go back home. Returning home is always that reminder of who you are and a way of measuring how far you have come. At times it can feel like you are regressing when you go back home, but at other times it’s a special relief that can only come from being back home. It’s a complicated thing.
Trav: One of the most universal aspects to me about the story of leaving is leaving but still feeling the pull. It is a clash of your obligation to your family and to your community versus your own desire to self-realize as an individual, and that’s something that I felt in my life up to the present. In a way it is a clash of selfishness versus obligation. It is funny because a place like Nakom is very communitarian unlike a lot of western cultures which can be very individualistic. A place like Nakom has that very strong sense of community and communal obligation and so that push/pull is even stronger for a character like Iddrisu. Not only is he feeling this obligation to his home, he is also seeing these images of the West and other ways of living that are pulling him in opposite directions.
Next Projection: Why did you decide to shoot on location in Nakom, which is a very rural area with no electricity and no running water for example? Didn’t that complicate shooting the film?
Kelly: Extremely, yes. During pre-production we actually didn’t think that we would be able to shoot in Nakom because of the fact that we wouldn’t have electricity, and so we were planning on shooting in a neighboring town, Pusiga, because it does have electricity. But once we got there it just looked so different than Nakom, and we felt like we weren’t doing any favors to the film by substituting it just because it would be an easier shoot. We ended up having to get a generator and we had to stuff it into the ground because it was too noisy. We have a lot of night scenes in the film which complicated matters because the generator would fail and we would have to shoot into the night just so we could stay on track. It is a much more difficult shoot when you don’t have the amenities that you take for granted, but I think we adapted pretty quickly. For me the one thing that was the most difficult one was that people were getting ill with Malaria and stomach parasites. But you can’t slow down, you don’t have time to slow down.
Next Projection: That really does sound challenging. Did you get behind on your schedule then?
Trav: That’s a good question. We were there for four months shooting and had known that we would face these challenges that this was a production that couldn’t move that quickly compared to [a production in]an environment that was more controlled. We didn’t have any money but we did have time and one of the big reasons why we had wanted that amount of time was because we were trying to capture the transformation of the landscape that happens during the rainy season. Even with being there for four months we had to shoot that in reverse. We started at the end of the rainy season where everything is really green and lush and then we waited for the rain to stop. We went from praying for the rain to praying for it to stop in the course of a week. For the most part the rain obliged and the whole village dried out pretty quickly. Because we wanted to capture that transformation we had the production schedule stretched out to overcome these obstacles.
Next Projection: Nakom was shot completely in the Kusaal language, which is not a standardized written language. How did that work in terms of the script? Did you have to improvise or give very precise instructions concerning the dialogue?
Kelly: I did not know that it was not a standardized language when I first got there. I was under the assumption that the script would be translated from the English language into Kusaal and that we could print out the script and hand it out to cast members. When we found out that there wasn’t really a standardized written language or that a lot of the older generation wouldn’t even be able to read it necessarily, that meant that Isaac (producer, co-writer and translator) had to work with each actor and go through their scenes and help them learn their scenes orally. That serves multiple purposes. For one they were going through rehearsal as they were practicing single lines out loud with Isaac who knows the script better than anyone and then also because it is not a standardized language it meant that the actor him or herself could adopt the version of the lines that was most natural to them.
Next Projection: How did that work for you as a director when you are shooting scenes in the Kusaal language when you don’t speak or understand the language yourself?
Trav: I do speak the language and that helps with communication and it helped to make sure that the meaning of the lines wasn’t being changed. Sometimes there would be confusion so at least I would be able to quality check, but the directions still happened in English. Facial gestures, the tone, the speed of the line, the tenor of the voice – all of these things don’t require language and are so fundamental to a scene being captured in a realistic way.
Next Projection: I read in the production notes that most or even all of the actors were actually non-actors. How was your experience in working with them? Did the fact that these were not professional actors bring authenticity to the film or was it rather complicated because you had to instruct them more carefully for certain scenes?
Trav: You get a lot of authenticity but it comes with challenges. All of them were non-actors. Our lead, Jacob, had the most experience because he did a couple of plays in high-school. Of course there is a pretty thriving film industry [in Ghana]so the idea of acting and performing is not unfamiliar even in the villages. That provided a basis. Working with non-actors is something that we are familiar and comfortable with to a degree, for example with Kelly’s previous film. There are definitely lessons to be learned. One of the big lessons for me is casting very well and very precisely, and trying to bring out the natural qualities of that person rather than forcing our own preconceptions on them. I think if we didn’t understand that it would have been much more challenging for the story to work and be convincing. Sometimes it meant making adjustments from what the original vision of the character was, but the benefit of that is that at the end you do get that naturalism and authenticity.
Kelly: A mentor recently said to me that we are neorealists. I never thought about it in those terms but I think we do tend to work with people who might not necessarily have acting experience but have a certain quality to them, for example their gestures, their mannerisms or the quality of their voice. Especially if that person is not camera-shy, it can create certain types of characters that feel very natural. We do spend a lot of time trying to cast correctly. That is our philosophy.