By Yun-hua Chen.
I am from the André Bazin’s school of thought about realism. If I could let the camera roll non-stop, without touching it, I would let it run, if what is in front of me interests me….:
Debut feature of the Ghanaian born Kofi Ofosu-Yeboah, who writes, directs, produces, and edits the film, Amansa Tiafi is a labour of love, a protest, and a voice for the unvoiced. When the mysterious Ama in large sunglasses and eye-catching hoop earrings returns to the city where she was adopted by a white art collector as a girl, she embarks upon a mission to reclaim what has been taken away from her by white men, accompanied by her ex-lover. Meanwhile, two indebted elderly men, intoxicated by alcohol, undertake an act involving public toilets; a crooked politician promises villagers solar public toilets in his campaign. It is on a remote countryside road that these characters’ paths cross with one another.
From urban to rural, from the seashore to the land, the Ghanaian film Amansa Tiafi is a unique collage of noir, auteurist cinema, comedy, femme-revenge, and social-realist drama. “Public toilet” in the English title of the film, Public Toilet Africa, is slapstick humor, a trope for colonial and neocolonial consequences, a metaphor for choicelessness, and much more than that. Touching upon issues of colonialism, race, gender, urbanism, regional discrepancies, and social inequality, Amansa Tiafi is overtly critical, but also with a pinch of humor. This highly stylized, hybrid, and fervently political film is both fictional and ethnographic, and both storytelling and abstract.
It was selected by Locarno Film Festival’s “Concorso Cineasti del presente” (Filmmakers of the Present). As Kofi Ofosu-Yeboah says in the director’s statement, “it is a personal manifesto, a libation to my continent.”
Amansa Tiafi is about chance encounter between people. You seem to experience a lot of chance encounters yourself too. How spontaneous is the script-writing process?
It’s a fully scripted film, at least on the pages. I landed in Ghana with a crew to join the other half of the crew in Ghana. I have always said that film school, with all these Aristotelian formulas of writing or getting work out, messed me up. There is oral storytelling tradition here. The stories that are memorized, naturalized and internalized within a community and retold in colorful ways. Each time a story is retold, it is retold in a different way. I think that’s how human beings have always been. And then writing and reading showed up, which is really beautiful. That’s why we said in Africa that when an old woman dies, a library is burnt to the ground. They are the repository of knowledge, wisdom, culture, and memories. I am in no way espousing one or the other. I am just saying the two can live side by side, where you write, and where you don’t write and just memorize. For me, when I see my pages, I feel that life is more beautiful than I imagined it to be. I am from the André Bazin’s school of thought about realism. If I could let the camera roll non-stop, without touching it, I would let it run. Only if what is in front of me interests me, and I feel that there is more in that than how much I can manipulate to get extra. So, if you ask me about my approach, the film is made three times, when it is written, when it is shot, and when it is edited. What you get at the end is what you get at the end. What you see on the screen is more the way I think than anything else. I think in a very disjointed way about life, and I am learning that human beings do not see the way we think we see. What you are seeing, your eye is piecing together different dots and different pixels to form it, but it’s scanning so fast that you do not see that it’s happening. I am just a human being, and I am not a fully evolved human, so you guys can see through me. The eye’s ability to see 24 frames per second, all these film images running so fast that our eyes are doing the compensation for the spaces in between, it’s real. We are replicating life.
You feel that western film schools are not capable of bringing out your true identity?
By western film schools, you probably meant that it doesn’t matter where the film schools are located geographically. You were talking about curriculum everywhere, right? We have all inherited this postcolonial world for colonized people. Neo-colonialism is at work, in medicine, banking, financial institutions, the way we organize our society; there is an identity crisis. We are not building on something that is ours. We are building on somebody’s way of life and somebody’s way of seeing. It’s not unique and specific to film schools. The same for medicine, architecture, just about everything when it comes to how formerly colonized spaces, how the globalized world in general work. No wonder that there is not much emphasis on learning or studying or reading the founding fathers of African cinema. I don’t believe that you should study any of that. I believe that you should expand knowledge, and wherever. When something that is not your own yet is foregrounded, that’s the problem there. I think you begin to learn anything by beginning to learn yourself, to learn who you are. There are advantages in learning different ideas, but not if that idea is a part of the tools which were used to take away your personhood and towards the denial of self.
I am talking about colonial gaze here. As clichéd as it may sound, with the colonizing gaze, we are actually seeing through somebody’s eyes of what we think we are. We artists, by nature, aspire to be like other artists. If they put an image before you, eventually you will become like that, consciously or unconsciously. So, the more you are introduced to that image as your own, you will eventually believe that you have access to it. It’s the reverse for me. I am thankful that even though film schools introduced me to these works, 99% of the time they gave me an opportunity to also reflect on what is me. It became something to measure something with.
This question of looking for one’s identity. How do you feel about being based in the US and bringing a kind of outsider perspective when you went back to Ghana to make a film there?
When you come from a place, where you see how you live and you look across the street, and you see how other people live, but not just the way they live, you find out that you are way, way more privileged. The problem is not that you are privileged, but with all the system, all the practice, there is no plan for the guy across the street to at least live with some dignity. It’s generational. They are kept in the same place for generations. A policeman takes a man by his shirt and slaps him around. The question is, why is the man not responding? That man has accepted his place in society and he has been told that he is nothing. He has accepted it. Who told this policeman that it’s ok to slap someone around? You know that it goes around worldwide in some places, especially the Global South. I am privileged, let’s not forget that. When you watch Amansa Tiafi, there are people who do not have a say and they have decided not to have a say. They are all fugitives. They are all running from something, but they are defiant.
Ama has the power of vengeance in Amansa Tiafi…
There you go. Do you know how many maids and servants there are in Ghana? Including my own family, guilty. When we talk about slavery, we talk about North America and Europe. Within Africa, petite bourgeoisie, we Africans, who is in our kitchen cooking our food? How much are they earning to do that? Who is cleaning our bathrooms? Who is watching our children? This is inequality and injustice all around the world, but for me, this is my Africa I am talking about. And I am not asking the rest of the world to solve that problem for us. I am asking, look at ourselves, this is who we are. Ama doesn’t come from space.
A unique collage of noir, auteurist cinema, comedy, femme-revenge, and social-realist drama.”
How do you see “public toilet” as a metaphor and a pastiche?
It’s open to interpretation. I tried to put my own spin on it. The politician in the film was promising solar public toilets. That’s where everything started. In fact, anything solar in Africa is suspicious. So, the idea of toilet is the absence of a choice. If you have to go, you have to go. If you have to use it, there is no other way. So, the metaphor of a toilet is fortunately or unfortunately so loaded that you can also look at it as a place where everybody comes to make a dump and goes away.
It is complex, multilayered, crazy, fun, satirical, and socially critical at the same time. How did you manage to do this collage?
When I was making the film, I didn’t know how it would come across. The whole point for me is to be sincere. That’s where I start. I would throw away everything I write if it is not sincere. If I cannot relate to it, I cannot do it. Making a film like Amansa Tiafi is a risky business. Who is going to watch it? I have experienced things and I have seen people experience things which made me feel very pissed. I have always wanted to say something, but nobody is going to listen to me because I am a nobody. Werner Herzog said that films don’t change the world, but guns do. Look at the history of the world. It’s guns that changed the world and are continuing to change the world. I am in no way thinking that I have made a film that would alleviate Africa of all its problems. No, this is a man frustrated, trying to say something. This is my frustration, Amansa Tiafi. And, it is a fear that I might not make another film and I might not have another opportunity to say it. I feel that I have to say everything that I want to say in one film. Corona is ravaging the world. If Corona doesn’t end all of us, something else will. Before we leave, I would like to at least leave a document to show that I was here, and I wasn’t quiet. So, the film ended up being a little bit more loaded than you would want. You can actually break down Amansa Tiafi to five different films.
Did you feel that art and activism are connected?
I am not a journalist. I am not built to do a reportage, and that’s not what cinema is for, but when you have an opportunity to enshrine something in this moving image, that’s it till you are gone. You cannot have Tom & Jerry. You cannot do Scooby-Doo. For you, it is a luxury to make Public Toilet Africa number 1. We have taken some weight from what “activism” really means. I try not to be caught up in the wording of that. Making a film is a political act. It is also beyond activism. You actively put something there, and it’s going to be there. It’s real. Activism is an aspect of it, I am sure. I can see provocateur in it. One minute in a squat toilet in a slum does not make it possible for you to say that you have experienced everybody’s pain. If you are going to speak on behalf of these people, don’t use them as bargaining chips to just get your film and walk away. You are going to be engaged for a long time. You cannot profit on all the misery of the people. How can I engage with the people there, and the broader population? My story is just a portion of what needs to be done. Everybody has a role to play to move the ball towards something that would give everybody some form of dignity.
You mentioned that you belonged to the school of André Bazin, and at the same time you use a lot of genre elements in your film. Is that something you thought about?
This film has been in the making for years. Sexiness and other stuff in it, you take it out and everything you are watching is life unfolding right in front of you. So, how all of it came together was dictated both by form and by circumstances. We talk about genre films. I love noir, neo-noir, my femme fatale. What is a world without femme fatales? It’s standing between hell and heaven, and that is life. It’s interesting that we are talking about genre films, and in my mind, it’s all film. This film is more ethno than anything. And so, genre means a way of seeing the film, and if some of the elements ended up being with us, I am more than excited.
A good way is to borrow and subvert. I went to the film school, studied different things, but I never really understood them. I rarely see films by the way, but I am fascinated by the idea of making. I was inoculated because I saw too many films when I was younger. I love all things audio-visual. I love archives, curatorial aspects of the moving images. Human existence is interesting. If we don’t know we exist, we see ourselves in a reflection. We are looking for it too, where is the reflection? Cinema has always been that.
If your film is about giving a voice to those people who don’t usually have a voice in Africa, do you think your films will be watched by them as well?
The original deal was that the film was going to be finished earlier than we thought and seen in the slum where we shot it before it is shown anywhere else. But realistically speaking, for film festival qualification it means that you cannot screen the film everywhere. When cinema opens, the film will be seen in villages and in the city slum where it was shot. I intended to take the film on the road, very small places. I believe in micro-cinema, carrying a micro-something and just travelling everywhere. Who needs to watch it now? It is what we need to think about before putting money in another film.
Do you also find it a paradox that films are consumed in western European film festivals and not watched in the films’ original locations?
Yes, the history of African cinema shows that. The Africans have not seen their films. We make films about us, and you can see the intentions. The film wasn’t made for western eyes. But in distribution, in exhibition, the opposite happens. It has to do with infrastructure. When they were made in celluloid back then, you needed to set up apparatus at your disposal, and hire mechanics and engineers who know how to maintain the equipment. It needed money to run. You know the history of the continent, with interferences from the United States and Europe – coup d’états. Anybody who wanted to take Africa to the next level and to be divorced from its colonial power was assassinated. Everyone was forcefully removed violently. When that happens, you lose a lot of cultural material and heritage because the army does not recognize what culture is. They come and take away cultural heritage and dispose of them in most cases. They chase out artisans. The infrastructure is broken, and what has been produced disappears. These films need to be seen where they are made. For me, that is more important than anything.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and her contribution to the edited volume titled A Darker Greece: Film Noir and Greek Cinema will be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2021.