|What brought you back to Ghana in 2008?
I grew up in Ghana. Well, I was born in Switzerland but arrived in Ghana at the age of three with my parents. My family has roots in Ghana. My grandmother’s side of the family goes back to the Ashanti. To this date the Ashanti kingdom is one of the most influential traditional kingdoms remaining in Africa.
I spent seven years in Ghana, between the Ashanti capital city of Kumasi and the country’s capital, Accra. I grew up in a diverse cultural environment marked by different ethnic and traditional influences. Ghana has a myriad of indigenous groups spread out through the ten regions of the country. Interesting enough for Ghana is the fact that most ethnic groups inter-marry, which I believe plays an important role in the stability of the country.
I attended local schools, then the Lincoln International School, an American school in Accra and later the Swiss school. As the political climate in Ghana was heating up we were preparing to return to Switzerland, so my parents thought it wise to learn how to read and write in German.
The early ‘70s marked a time of artistic and musical excellence in Ghana, but by the end of the decade the country had lapsed into political instability and mismanagement. In 1979, I experienced my first military coup. As a child it seemed more exciting than frightening. Even when the execution of political leaders was broadcast live on TV, I wasn’t fully aware of what was really going on. I was only nine by then. Nonetheless, the images of the execution on television stayed with me forever.
A year after the 1979 revolt we packed our bags and left the country. The economy was at rock bottom; inflation was high and the hopes of the nation low. At the time I believed we were going on a vacation so I didn’t bid the country, my friends and pets farewell.
28 years later I returned to the playground of my childhood memories, maybe just with the excuse to round off a chapter in my life. I arrived to Ghana with the excuse of making a documentary about the country. I was looking for images, scents, tastes and sounds of the past.
What were you hoping to find?
I was trying to find traces of my past. I’m turning 40 in May and I was looking for missing links in my life. I had the desire to fill-in some gaps; that’s all. I became aware of how important identity was to me and I had questions on my mind. What better way I thought, than to start with boyhood. I met with old friends, whom I hadn’t seen in over 28 years. The food tasted the same; the languages sounded the same; yet, obviously it wasn’t the same.
What were the main differences you noticed between the Africa of your childhood and the one to which you returned?
I had changed and so had the country. In the early ‘70s the population of Ghana was around five million. To date, about 25 million people live in the country. So you can imagine the traffic and noise levels I encountered. Contemporary architecture and skyscrapers had replaced the majority of colonial and modern buildings. The semi-open-air cinemas — where I first encountered the delicious smell of kebab on charcoal fire, mixed with a Chinese martial arts film — had all been converted to churches. Where there had been open fields, there were now modern, urban family houses, neatly squeezed together. The make and models of the cars had changed. Where you had once seen Peugeots and Land Rovers you now saw Toyotas and some Chinese brands I had never heard of before.
But, most importantly, Ghana had become a stable country with a democratically elected government, and one in which people had access to universal healthcare — something that the U.S. was still at odds with. I forgot to mention, I studied most of what I learned about film in New York and Los Angeles. To answer your question, I left the country when free and fair elections in a democratic environment were a dream and I returned when it had become a reality, though still a relatively new reality of only 16 years. For Africa, it might seem like a lot. But let’s be realistic, it’s not.
Were you already familiar with the politics of the country, or was making this film a crash course for you?
I was always aware of Ghana’s politics. Prominent political figures from all ideologies on the political spectrum were part of a close circle of friends of the family, so I grew up with politics walking into and out of my home. But making this film brought an awareness of how fragile the political arena can be — yet, how strong when people truly want their country, and not just an agenda, to succeed. Yes, it was a crash course.
Was it difficult to obtain access to the candidates and party meetings?
It was challenging because nobody knew who we were. At the same time, I believe that is what gave us unprecedented access to unknown political territory. I must also add that many of the key political players knew of my Ghanaian roots and had known my parents in one way or another. I also believe we were one of the first foreign film crews to arrive several months prior to the elections. People simply got used to us.
Was either party more eager to work with you than the other?
Difficult question. I don’t know if they just tolerated us out of pity or even knew exactly what we were doing. I don’t even know if I knew what I was doing. I had come to Ghana to trace the footsteps of my nostalgic memories and suddenly found myself on stage in front of thousands of cheering people during a political rally. There was a moment when I decided to abandon my original idea of making a personal film about my own journey and signed up for one about the journey of a country and its people. Some people did grant us more access than others and that shows in the film.
Did you approach the events with a preconceived narrative in mind?
Not really. We shot more than 220 hours of film not knowing where this story was headed. I did want to make a film about the elections but had no clue where the events would lead us. We started following several characters, then lost track of them because they suddenly disappeared or because I lost interest in their stories. I must admit though, that I captured inspiring footage of many people and events whose stories, unfortunately, remain untold.
Were there any situations in which you or your team were in danger during the filming?
Whenever you have people firing with live ammunition, riots breaking out, your car being pounded with brick-sized stones or a mob of a thousand or more people threatening to squash you, you are in danger. And then of course you are confronted with malaria and other diseases. Fortunately we had a great crew that included locals who had been a part of my childhood. They helped me to understand the political and ethnic dynamics in the country, which I had been oblivious to, thereby protecting me and my crew and keeping us out of danger as much as possible.
You worked with your brother on this project. Is he a frequent collaborator?
He’s one of the best in the business. When he’s available and likes the project, we collaborate. We both speak five different languages, but we don’t need to talk too much to understand each other. We worked on a project called Glorious Exit, a documentary filmed in Nigeria. It’s the story of a man coming home to bury a father he hardly new and all the obstacles he encounters in the process. Altogether, I worked with a very young and talented crew that was open to an unpredictable adventure.
Covering an election as a documentarian, it is probably one’s intention to remain neutral, but as your exposure to the parties progressed, did you find yourself favoring one side over the other?
Yes it did happen. You simply like some people more than others; some treat you better than others do. The interactions make you rethink and change your opinion — again and again. The back-and-forth assessments go on until you realize: Stop! You are making a film about politics and not a “who’s the nicest-guy-on-the-block and promises to change-the-world-for-the-better contest.” You follow what you know could be your story, that’s it.
Was there a particular look you were trying to achieve with the cinematography in this film? Did you have a model or idea of what you were going for?
When we were Kings is an all time favorite of mine. The intimate camera and the dynamic editing used in that film always made you feel a part of what was going on. The use of handheld camera, extreme close ups and long lenses create an unusual and beautiful esthetic. It is truly a documentary in its rawness but one with a cinematographic ambition. The idea was to create cinematic images no matter how unpredictable those shots would be. I wanted both, the events as they unfolded in the here and now, and I wanted them to look good.
As someone who has been a citizen of more than one country, how much did Ghana feel like home and how much did you view it as an outsider? Was anything about this dynamic a struggle for you?
The people of Ghana made me feel at home. They are unique; they are generous and loving. Nonetheless, I was physically exhausted by the harsh, living conditions and the pace of making the film. I was adjusting to being gone for almost three decades and comparing my past with the reality before me. I was struggling with the disappointment of discovering that, after 28 years, the country still suffered the kind of poverty I was encountering.
Believe me when I say, there has been improvement and progress, but not at the level I expected. After traveling around the country from one end to the other, I must say that I feel that I have failed — that we all have failed. I think that as long as I pass by people in the streets living in poverty, whether I’m in Los Angeles or in Africa, and say to myself how sad and terrible, then run off to dinner and maybe later to donate for a good cause like a water fountain in Nicaragua, something is deeply wrong. Naturally there will always be people who have more than others — or less, which sometimes might be better — but if I don’t give poverty true value and meaning in my life, how can the collective?
Yes the world has failed Africa but Africa has also failed itself. Nonetheless aid is needed there, especially in those places that are being exploited by special interests — which by the way, is a universal phenomenon. It doesn’t mean we can’t improve things, but I believe we first have to accept failure rather than always trying to point out what has been successful. Something is altogether wrong in how we see Africa and how Africans see themselves. I’m holding up a mirror with this film. Sometimes when we look into a mirror we are fooled because we see only what we want to see. For instance, we donate money, we build hospitals and we believe that is enough. But, I’m trying to reflect back, to myself and to others, that it’s not only about what we give, but what we take. We shouldn’t be fooled by our own reflections.
I don’t know, let’s watch the film and see.
What did you hope to portray in this film and what do you hope viewers take away from it?
We portrayed a nation taking its political destiny in its own hands, constantly fighting obstacles to continue the road to a permanent democratic culture and stability. I tried to provide a more in-depth view and access to a world about which most of us know very little. Ultimately the audience will decide what to do with it. I’m giving them a piece of my Africa. What more can I ask for?