Saturday, 29 May 2010

A taste of Ghana: Elmina by Doug Fishbone

A story of a Ghanaian village, one man and his wife and what happens when oil is discovered on village land, politics of the elders and troubles in the family. Not typical film viewing if you are not from a strongly Ghanaian or Afro-Carribean community, and perhaps not even then. Even less typical is if one of the characters - the main character - is played by a white person.

This is the scenario in Doug Fishbone's Elmina, a feature-length film that is an entirely Ghanaian production: script, director, producer, locations, and all actors - except, incongruously, Fishbone. Doug Fishbone is an artist living and working in Britain, originally from the United States. He is not a trained actor (which sometimes shows), although all of his co-stars are big names in Ghana. It is difficult to know how the film will be read there: Fishbone's other intervention, aside from casting himself in the film, is to ensure the distribution of the film on inexpensive DVDs in Ghana and among the Ghanaian urban communities in Britain.

Because the film is screened at Tate Britain on a continuous loop, it is likely that the serendipitous viewer will arrive partway through, and be disorientated as to the position of Fishbone's character in relation to the others. It is hard not to wonder initially what the relationship is between Fishbone's character and the leading lady - not because of any improbability of a mixed race relationship, but due to an assumption (on this viewer's part) that the white character must be 'temporary' or 'visiting' in some way - this, despite years of patiently explaining that I myself am not in fact on holiday, that I do live here in Britain and have done so for some time. As the film progresses it is apparent that this character, though played by a white person, has a longstanding pedigree in the town (there are references to his father being a 'great drunkard', and to the achievements of his grandfather). There is a constant tension, and perhaps an uncomfortably politically incorrect one, as to whether or not Fishbone's character is 'really white' - i.e. is this character meant to be a white person, fully integrated into an otherwise black community, or is he a white person playing a black character, the way young men in Shakespeare's day used to play women, or, more disturbingly, the way white actors used to dress up in 'blackface' as late as the 1970's. This vacillation pops up at unexpected moments: a close shot shows Fishbone's character writing on a chalkboard, and we are absorbed in the story; when the camera pulls back, he is shown to be wearing an Obama t-shirt proclaiming 'Yes we can!' Comically, at one point Fishbone's character exclaims something like, 'We've been taken advantage of by white people for long enough!' - which seems to resolve the question in favour of black character, white casting, except that ironically many white people could quite legitimately claim to have been taken advantage of by white people too. But somehow, in the shadow of coastal colonial architecture erected through the wealth of the slave trade, now inhabited by the black chief who is engaged in swindling land out of his own people for his own profit, and the greater profit of the foreign investors (in this case, the now ubiquitously-invested-in-Africa Chinese) the reading of that line as the cry of a disadvantaged white rings hollow.

Here indeed are many issues of real Africa, not just the zone of disaster and war portrayed on the news: Chinese investment in infrastructure in return for profits from resources, the real discovery of oil off Ghana's coast, the role of women both as strong within the family, and submissively sitting on the ground peeling a fruit which she hands to her indifferent chess-playing man, the dominance of foreign consumer goods such as Guinness in the bar, the importance of evangelical Christianity as political messages are delivered through sermons, the connections with extended family and traditions of gift-giving and hospitality, the appearance of traditional animism alongside Christianity, the urbanites out of place walking through the forest and the red earth roads, the question of who has and who has not been able to read news from outside to gain perspective on the possible implications of development. Nobody is starving, nobody is dying of AIDS, nobody gets shot (though there is violence), nobody lives in a shanty town or a nomadic hut surrounded by herds of gazelle. It is a representation of Ghanaians, by Ghanaians - except for the bizarre inclusion of Fishbone. It is impossible not to think of how many Western films have had the token black character, the sidekick not the hero (Die Hard, for example). Or of films ostensibly about Africa where the main character is really the white person (in Biko, for example, the eponymous Stephen Biko dies partway through the film, so the focus can shift to the white journalist - lest the audience have to identify with a black character too deeply).

The viewer is left sliding between acceptance of the casting, and being pulled up short by lines or instances when surely if he were 'really' a white character instead of a white casting, there would be conflict or comment on his status as a perpetual outsider. For example, during the preparations for his wrestling match, Fishbone's character deals with many problems, but none of these has anything to do with his race. Perhaps in a way this film is a vision of a colour-blind utopia, both for Ghanaian society and for ours in the West, and also for the world of cinema and other fictions. We now consider casting a man as a woman only in light of either comedy or transvestism, and not as the natural order of things, as the Elizabethans did. Fishbone's film may be looking towards a future when...? Not to one when we cast whites or blacks interchangeably and unnoticeably in films, but perhaps to one when race is no longer an issue in the real world.

Playing at Tate Britain in the Lightbox (past the entrance for the Turner Prize exhibition), until 3 January 2011. Free. Approximately 90 minutes duration.

Link to info on Elmina at Tate

Link to Doug Fishbone's re-title website

See the trailer on YouTube

Please vote for me to become the official blogger / artist for an expedition to the North Pole!

No comments: