In Conversation With…
The value placed on Africa’s rich oral tradition sets the context for Chinua Achebe’s assertion in Things Fall Apart that: “among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” While the ancient Egyptian scribes and Hausa copyists exemplify critical actors in the transitioning of African oral history to literary form, today we observe a dearth of production houses translating African stories into film. When Mati Diop became the first female African film director to win a Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival in May, the same time that the African Pavilion was debuted, it felt as if there was a reluctant parting of clouds in the uncomfortable truth that the global film industry desperately needs diversity.
On the numbers alone, this makes commercial sense, and some are tuning in to that fact. Nollywood is the world’s second largest film industry after Bollywood, producing some 2500 films annually. Last year, Netflix pumped USD8bn into the Nigerian film industry, for original content to be popularised on-demand. The youth forms a critical segment of the film consumer base, and with the world’s youngest population resident in Sub Saharan Africa – an average age of 18 – coupled with a mobile phone penetration rate of 44%, the opportunity for film content to be disseminated widely on the continent cannot afford to be overlooked. But for African filmmakers and creatives, the challenges are multiple and complex: the high cost of borrowing, absence of significant public sector investment, distribution networks which prioritise foreign rather than local content, few cinema screens and gaps in mentorship, to name a few.
Yet, it is in this setting that one London-born Ghanaian film producer, Jay Engmann, has a vision to flip the script by breathing new inspiration into the way that film is fashioned in Africa, for Africans in Africa and in the Diaspora. Currently working on two biopics which will share the stories of two icons in Ghanaian sport and history: Azuma Nelson and Yaa Asantewaa, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Jay to understand his ambitions for the industry. Here’s a snapshot of our conversation.
Could you tell us a bit about The First Creatives, who you are and what you stand for?
On the surface, we’re an international film development company and creative talent agency. But the subtext is that we’ve built a network and community of like-minded creatives; those appealing to the content creation sector. Directors, actors, illustrators, screen writers and creative directors who wish to display their talent outside the borders of Africa and are trying to compete in that global space.
When I first came to Ghana, I did a lot of complaining and experimenting. I then began to focus on the solutions. My team and I wanted to create a new type of industry in addition to the current one. Rather than focusing solely on the local market, we would make an industry that would target Africans that live outside of Africa.
We’re from an era where we get the majority of our information from entertainment. It’s one of the strongest tools - it influences behaviour and interests. But when you turn on the tv here in West Africa, it’s mostly imported content. I want us as Africans to be the tellers of our own stories, such that the global perception of Africa will be very different.
What stirred this desire to change the narrative?
Watching Black Panther had an impact on me and on the African Diaspora. People before Black Panther thought that Africans didn’t care too much about [their] roots but when this came out, it made people come together to say, “wow, we’ve never seen Africans put on such a high pedestal, how amazing,” and this led them to support the movie as a huge community of Africans. Black Panther was the highest selling movie of all time in 2018 because of the support from the Diaspora.
I think that creativity is the best way to claim our identity but it has to be of high quality to get people to engage. So for me, the question was, “how do we create African content that consistently meets the international standards to connect with the African Diaspora?” This will change the narrative and build the new industry.
My passion is in movies and I have a background in film and production. I’ve always had an obsession with wanting to see an idea in my mind come to life on screen and I’ve been fortunate to have a team see these dreams come true. The new idea I had was, “what would it be like if the younger generation of Africans were equipped with visual content that has positive African morals?” This would also have a large impact on the overall narrative of Africans.
You mention the youth. Is the youth an important driving force for what you do?
The younger generation needs to be influenced positively and we should be the ones that are influencing our own youth. It’s your environment and the visual content you see that raises you, not your parents and friends alone. In Africa we’re processing a lot of foreign content which obviously has an impact upon behaviours, some of which is positive, but some isn’t. There are some deep, African values which shouldn’t be lost. So, from a business perspective, I think African production companies should also be thinking about this.
How do you find the stories which need to be told?
I’ve spent a lot more time listening than talking here and I’ve been a student of culture ever since I got here three years ago. I’m always asking questions to find out about stories and I’ve noticed that everyone has a catalogue of stories to tell. You can walk past hundreds of people in the streets and you’ll overhear a million and one stories. We did a lot of research around the folkloric stories in Ghana. And so, we decided to go with the Asante Queen Yaa Asantewaa story first and we raised a development budget to get the script written – the project is underway and were currently speaking to international production companies about collaborations.
Our stories hold a lot of weight and morals; you learn a lot about the culture. West Africans love funny stories. I normally speak to my Dad a lot for influence. The best people for me are the older generation - they just give it to you raw and unfiltered!
As a returnee, has there been any challenge in getting people to open up?
I haven’t had any trouble at all or friction. Africans love to share their stories or those they’ve heard. I just want to make the rest of the world hear and understand [the stories]. I feel that Ghanaians and West Africans think that people outside Africa don’t care about African culture much so it’s probably one of the reasons why they don’t tend to target outside of Africa but times have changed and all eyes are now on Africa.
Where does African film fit into the global context?
The international film market is worth USD286bn. Out of that less than 1% is African content. But if we’re talking African & Diaspora consumers we’re over 30-40%.
The market I’m targeting is Africa and the Africa Diaspora. So, the narrative will be different from that which is portrayed by typical Western filmmakers about the continent- i.e. the slavery, poverty or dictator narratives.
It feels like this is a seminal moment for the continent, and for the Year of Return?
Year of the Return has made so many want to come back and find home and for the first time, the African Diaspora community is really engaged and interested in what goes on here. African Diasporans have the power to change everything because they have the capital, they’re going to the cinemas and they’ll be the ones to watch quality African content on Netflix. I honestly believe we have that audience of a billion here. We want to create the Golden Age of African Cinema.