A Matter of Representation – Documenting Ghanaian Artists
When Peter Guyer and Thomas Burkhalter started making their film Contradict about the music scene in Ghana, an early topic of discussion was how to deal with the ethics of representation. Together with local artists, they decided to shoot a documentary that was not just about the scene, but created with it.
When two white filmmakers fly from Europe to a country in Africa to film a documentary on the local youth music scene, what is their duty of care? Between 2013 and 2018, Peter Guyer and Thomas Burkhalter attempted to find out. They interviewed seven crucial Ghanaian musicians, while also speaking with bishops, ministers, professors, health professionals, activists, DJs, and record label owners. Those conversations, presented in juxtaposition with documentary footage of Accra and the countryside, and a set of specially commissioned songs and music videos, became the basis for the film Contradict.
Before Guyer and Burkhalter first visited Ghana for the shooting, they were drawn to the controversial Ghanaian rap duo FOKN Bois (M3NSA and Wanlov the Kubolor). As iconoclasts, they were turning the stereotypes associated with western depictions of the continent on their head, while challenging Ghana’s social and political landscape. The FOKN Bois were a fulcrum for new ideas, trends, changes, perspectives, and ways of doing and being. They brought Guyer and Burkhalter into a space where they could create a more collaborative documentary that eschewed a leading narrative in favour of letting the viewer draw their own conclusions, while also learning more about the Ghanaian perspective on what they were doing.
Who Should Get to Tell These Stories?
During the first round of interviews, Joy Fm's DJ Black, one of the most prominent DJ's in Ghana, gave them an honest-but-friendly perspective on overseas musicologists, journalists, and filmmakers arriving in Accra to document the scene.
One of the things that is annoying for me is the fact that they come over, ask the questions, edit [the footage], and we don't get to watch it, to see how we look behind the camera. Like now, I don't know how I look behind the camera; I don't know whether what I'm saying is really making sense to those watching… of course, having interest from the global community in what we do here encourages us. But let's be careful because it means that when you bring stuff out, you need to make sure it's professional and world-class.
When you're creating a documentary, representation, or better put: how the subject is represented should be a central concern. For Contradict, Guyer and Burkhalter invited six Ghanaian artists to write their own songs, and work with their own crews to produce video clips which would become short films within the film. Guyer and Burkhalter documented the filming of these video clips with their camera to record additional material that was later used in the film.
One of these video clip shoots was for the singer, actress, model, and former journalist Adomaa. After the filming, they spoke with two women who appeared in the video clip, writer Yaba Armah and videographer Sharifa Issaka. What did they think about what Guyer and Burkhalter were doing?
Because I'm part of this, I don't mind, but if I was sitting at home and I got sent a video, I don't know how I'd react. It depends on who is in front of the camera. So, if I see that you are interviewing Ghanaians and you are getting their voices, it's okay. But if I see maybe you, telling us the story about Ghana music and where it's going, then I will start to question everything.
Issaka grew up in Canada, before returning to Ghana in the early 2010s, which gave her a keen awareness of the privilege foreigners have around documenting Ghanaian culture.
I've never been one to say that only this type of person can create art, or only this type of person is allowed to talk about this story. I think, it's important that the story gets heard, but then it's important to consider how it's treated. As a documentary maker, even if you are objective, you are still inserting your voice into the narrative. Even the way that you cut the final product that makes it to the screen can carry some of you in it. It's a matter of understanding your position.
«Represent Us Realistically»
What can we learn from these thoughts? As an outside filmmaker documenting African music, you're operating from a place of privilege, which comes with the power to misrepresent or illuminate. The broadcaster, television show host, and activist Nana Akosua Hanson in 2018, she shared similar sentiments to DJ Black: «the camera on Africans has been the most exploitative tool», she said.
«The most common one is showing poor Africa, or misrepresenting it. You do not need to do this, but if you have to do this, check your privilege, and make sure you tell the stories as honestly and realistically as possible.» Hanson also echoed Armah and Issaka's thoughts around representation: «As you watch, you are being watched behind the camera, and you may not always get your subjects being truthful to you, but make that effort», she said. «If you've decided you're going to do this, make that effort to get the truth and honesty, even if you're going to have a black man behind the camera, instead of you doing it, you know? Represent us realistically.»
After that discussion, Hanson conducted three interviews for Contradict with filmmaker Selasie A. Djameh, mental-health nurse Emmanuel Kofi Danso, and soul musician Ria Boss, with a focus on the topic of mental health and wellness in Ghana. She is currently preparing an essay for Norient about her thoughts around that topic.
This article has been produced in the course of the film project «Contradict – Ideas for a New World» by Peter Guyer and Norient founder Thomas Burkhalter (Switzerland/Ghana 2020). More info on www.contradict-film.com.
Published on January 14, 2020
Last updated on January 15, 2020
Martyn Pepperell is a freelance jornalist, broadcaster and DJ from Wellington, New Zealand. He writes about music and the cultures that surround it. Martyn’s work has been published and broadcast by Boiler Room TV, Dash Radio (US), Dublab (US), Dummy (UK), i-D, Junkee (AU), Newtown Radio (US), Noisey, The 405 (UK), The State (AE), Radio New Zealand, Red Bulletin, Red Bull Studios and Resident Advisor.