2016 Berlinale Interview: Kelly Daniela Norris & TW Pittman (Nakom)

NAKOM  is a historic film – the first film from Ghana to ever play the Berlinale, and the first feature film made in the Kusaal language.  Inspired by the pull of Western modern life in a remote African farming village, NAKOM is a tremendous achievement.

After his father’s sudden death, Iddrisu, a talented medical student, returns to Nakom, his home village in northern Ghana, to repay a debt that threatens to destroy his family. Over the course of a growing season, Iddrisu confronts both the tragedy and beauty of village life, and must finally choose between two very different futures – one for himself in the city, or one for his family and entire village.

NAKOM premiered at the 2016 Berlinale, and continues to screen this week on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, as part of the festival’s Panorama program. With that, we caught up with the film’s Co-Directors Kelly Daniela Norris and TW Pittman to get some insight into the filmmaking process in Ghana, as well as their own approach to the form.

Find more information & tickets on NAKOM at the 2016 Berlinale HERE

How were you first introduced to Isaac Adakudugu? What was his role in developing the screenplay? How was the screenplay also a collaborative effort?
TW: Isaac is a close friend. I met him in 2006 in Nakom during my Peace Corps service. He was always a talented artist and storyteller, and I would like to think that both of us were able to develop our abilities in film as the result of a mutually beneficial relationship, centered on mutual curiosity in each other’s culture and knowledge base. This is a young man, much like NAKOM’s protagonist Iddrisu, who has to deal with the tension between tradition and life outside the village. As our primary Producer during the production phase, his passion to see the story through was astonishing – he threw his full weight behind the production, mobilizing cast, extras, crew, translating dialogue and scenes, and anything else that required doing. It was the single most important relationship we had for the success of the film.

As Co-Directors, how did you split the responsibilities on set?
TW: As collaborators since 2008, splitting up responsibilities as co-directors is second nature. Everyone on set is aware that we are equal partners, which expedites decision-making in nearly every case. With a production like NAKOM, with its strong ensemble cast, it meant we were both able to give direction to individual actors in between takes without skipping a beat – a vital aspect in keeping our complex and lengthy production schedule moving. Our limited budget likewise mandated a flexible style – we were routinely responsible for scheduling, translation, the direction of actors, and even costuming decisions and tracking on a regular basis. There is simply no room for ego – we do what is necessary for the film, day or scene – and are driven by the overriding knowledge that the difference in our directing styles – in our knowledge, taste, personalities, and abilities – means we’re stronger together.

On the visual look of the film, how did you go about ‘Nakom’s cinematography? What was your original conversation with the Director of Photography like? How (if) did this original strategy evolve over the course of the film’s production?
KDN: We knew early on that we wanted a very smooth, almost glossy classical aesthetic. That meant little to no handheld, deliberate lighting, and thoughtful “controlled” compositions.  This vision of a classical aesthetic was born out of what read to me in TW and Isaac’s script as a very classical narrative – a legible 3-act structure, snappy dialogue, strong characters attributes, etc.  But greater than that even was the desire to combat and subvert the all-too-often used trope of a raw, shaky look when characterizing the “developing” world.  We wanted to visually accentuate Nakom’s stability, not its instability.  That meant using crisp imagery to draw attention to the rhythms and steadiness of life in Nakom – rhythms in the ways families spend time together, in the ways subsistence farmers manage, and even in how interfaith friendships and relationships play out without any tension or controversy. (Side fact: Nakom – a place where religion is central – has one church, one mosque, with a population that is half Christian and half Muslim. It is a place that forcefully demonstrates a harmony and tolerance, where interfaith marriage, for instance, is common, and, in my opinion, ought to be a beacon considering the instabilities and tensions that reign in many areas of the West.)

What was your primary equipment used on set? Camera, Sound, Lighting, etc.?
Bob (DP): Due to the restrictions we had in the village we had to be very careful about selecting what gear to bring into Nakom. Our main concern was electricity, as Nakom had none. In the end we chose the SONY FS100 because it had the ability to dual record to an onboard hard drive and SD card simultaneously, and the camera had very low power draw. With no electricity we could not use computer time to download and look at dailies, having to instead opt for offloading every few days when we could get to the nearest town with, albeit spotty, electricity (a 40min moto ride away). Our lighting package was limited to what our DP could physically carry into the country. We had one Arri 300w fresnel, 2 small LED lite panels, a 100 w battery powered tungsten light, and about 8 light bulbs to put in Chinese lanterns. As filming continued we lost lightbulbs to our spike-prone generator, which purchased in nearby Togo and ran on a 200v system that regularly overpowered our 110v bulbs and battery chargers. For sound we had a boom mic and 2 lavaliere mics, running one into the camera and the others into a Zoom H4. At one point our boom operator was stricken with malaria, and we had a local from the village take over. He did an exceptional job and what made the situation extra special, other than it being his first time seeing a boom mic, was that he was deaf.

How did you come across Jacob Ayanaba? How did you go about casting the rest of the film?
Kelly: Jacob Ayanaba was a godsend for our production. We knew going in that we had very limited time to find someone who could convincingly occupy Iddrisu’s two distinct worlds: the world of his life in Kumasi as a university student and the world of Nakom.  He had to speak English with a certain brand of confidence and sass and had to be able to do the same in equal measure in Kusaal (the language of the Upper East Region of Ghana), and that’s not even accounting for screen presence, charisma, and the ability to carry a film with nuance.  During our first weeks in Ghana, as we were making our way up to Nakom, we were asking pretty much everyone we met – especially university students while location-scouting at KNUST – if they knew anyone who spoke English and Kusaal and fit that description. One student immediately came up with a friend of his who lived in Bawku (a city/hub that is an hour outside of Nakom) and put us in touch with him. We arranged for an audition once we arrived in Bawku.  With only two weeks before our shoot, I distinctly recall Trav and I looking at each other as Jacob approached.  It was clear that we both felt what the other was feeling – intense relief.  It was as though he walked right off the page.

As Kussal is not a language standardized in written form, how did you manage to convey the lines to the actors, especially given most were non-professional? Were there ever moments where you felt things may have been lost in translation?
TW: As with all tribal languages in Ghana, Kusaal was not written and Romanized until European colonists did so in the 19th and 20th centuries. During auditions we realized that many of the older generation were not able to read a script written in Kusaal fluently – simply because it was not their own particular version of Kusaal – which made the decision NOT to translate the script, and instead leave it up to the interpretation of each individual actor, a no-brainer. Mr Adakudugu became the point-person for dialogue translation, and Ms. Pittman, having lived in the village for 2+ years, was able to quality check the scenes during rehearsal and/or filming. We owe so much to our talented cast as well, who handled that task with ease. In addition, from a directing standpoint, so much can be learned and understood without language – facial gestures, tone of voice, the speed of the line – all of these things don’t require language and are so fundamental to a scene being captured in a realistic way.

In your opinion, in order for Ghana to develop a striving filmmaking scene on an international scale, what does it most need in order to do so? What does Ghana already have that may incentive itself, or even international productions, to film there?
TW: The Ghanaian film industry is thriving actually! Yes, many of the films produced are over-the-top comedies or supernatural dramas – but those are the exact genres that mainstream Hollywood films and television conform to on a regular basis! To call out that particular industry as broken or in need of improvement, while not calling out our own, is – frankly – hypocritical. We disagree with the argument that “Because they don’t replicate a precise international aesthetic means so they’re broken and in need of help.” Granted, it’s true that NAKOM is more in line with an international, consumable style, but – more than anything – that reflects a deliberate desire on our part to produce a story from this community that’s as relatable to western audiences as possible – to bring out the universal aspects of the narrative rather than dwell on differences.

What are you most proud of with this film?
Kelly: That’s a hard one. On a production level, the fact that we pulled it off is mind-blowing. We had many things working against us – no electricity, no money, no equipment stores, light bulbs breaking, a malfunctioning generator, tapped-out SD cards, microphones crapping out before essential multi-character scenes, a 9-volt battery shortage, cast and crew regularly coming down with illnesses (since our immune systems were already taxed with 15/16-hour workdays, etc).  So the physical and technological feat is notable.  But that wasn’t why we made the film. We made the film to question Westernization as the so-called “model” or “standard” for the rest of the world to follow suit, to pay tribute to a place beloved by everyone involved that would simultaneously break away from the type of horror story sensationalism that Western media propagates about African countries (child soldiers, bloody civil wars, etc) – which couldn’t be farther from Ghanaians lived experiences – and to forge connectivity.  One moment of pride came when an early viewer of the film approached and said that Iddrisu’s mother reminded her of her own mother. It seemed small, but it signaled that maybe we managed to achieve what we had hoped – to use this story to cut through the notion of otherness.

What was the most difficult aspect of making ‘Nakom’? Was there ever an aspect of the production you had anticipated as being difficult but turned out to not be so?
TW: The story takes place over the course of a year – an entire growing season in northeastern Ghana, and required a – frankly insane – amount of cooperation with the weather. To capture the remarkable seasonal transformation of the village meant that we went from praying for rain to praying for the rain to stop within a week. Luckily, finding such an incredible lead performer in Jacob let us relax and focus on other essential elements like scheduling appropriate scenes to their appropriate seasons – he was the lynchpin of the whole production.

In your experience in the region and on set, what would you say is the most misrepresented aspect of life in Ghana, especially in its rural regions?
TW: It’s a big question. Ghana is misrepresented just as the whole of sub-Saharan Africa is misrepresented on a daily basis. Ghana itself has experienced remarkable stability in its 68 years of independence from European Colonialism, including several free-and-fair elections involving power swaps to opposition parties that were entirely without violence or incident. The fact that violence, oppression, poverty, war, and barbarism are still routinely associated with the region despite all evidence to the contrary is – simply put – a sad reflection on the west’s need to self-validate. I hope that Ghana will continue to attract international co-productions and – over time – tear down those often racist assumptions.


Facebook: /nakomfilm
Twitter: @NakomFilm


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