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ACCRA, Ghana — Around six years ago, not long after the release of her first feature, “Life and Living It,” the Ghanaian filmmaker Shirley Frimpong-Manso was on an international flight when she struck up a conversation with the passenger beside her. The man was intrigued by her line of work, and before long he asked a question that had often troubled him when he turned on the TV. “Why is it that every time you watch an African movie,” he asked, “you see a woman crying?”
For Frimpong-Manso, the question struck a nerve. Growing up in Accra, the capital of Ghana, she was always bothered by the way women were portrayed in African films as weak and passive — nothing like the bold American stars she saw who smart-talked their way through leading roles. They were also nothing like the women she saw around her.
“I grew up in a totally different environment,” said Frimpong-Manso, 38, remembering the mother and grandmother and aunts who ran the household where she grew up. At the city’s outdoor markets, she saw “strong African women” laboring all day under the blazing sun after waking before dawn to rouse their kids and prepare them for school.
Yet somehow, these weren’t the women being depicted in films. That troubled her not just for the audiences on the other side of the globe, like the man on the plane, but for the young Ghanaians watching in their living rooms at home.
“What is that doing to our young girls growing up?” she recalled asking herself. Though “Life and Living It” had established her as a promising director, the movie’s twisting plot lines revolved around the careers and relationships of four male friends. Frimpong-Manso realized that she had an opportunity — and a responsibility — to address issues that would have a larger impact, especially on Ghanaian girls looking for role models. And so she made herself a promise: “It’s about time we change that image of [African] women.”
That decision marked a turning point for Frimpong-Manso, whose next film, “Scorned,” focuses on a woman’s struggles to free herself from an abusive relationship. In the years since, she has earned a reputation as a filmmaker who focuses on fierce female leads, while evolving into an award-winning writer, producer and director, as well as the biggest box-office draw in the country’s film industry. Along with the accolades, she has inspired a growing number of Ghanaian actresses, directors and producers who are claiming a share of a film industry that has long been male-dominated and is changing the way that women are perceived — both onscreen and behind the scenes.
Equal opportunities are a challenge for women in Ghana. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Global Gender Gap Report, which measures the disparities between men and women in health, education, economics and politics, Ghana ranked 101st out of 142 countries surveyed. Among the report’s findings: Men, on average, earned roughly 1.5 times as much as their female counterparts and were far more likely to hold professional and technical jobs as well as management positions. And women occupy just 10 percent of parliamentary seats — a figure that ranks below those of 40 countries on the continent, including Somalia and Sudan.
In recent years, though, women have made gains in many industries, like banking and law, which were once largely restricted to men. “I think what we’re seeing is improvements in some places, regression in others,” said Akosua K. Darkwah, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Ghana in Accra. Darkwah acknowledged advances for women in the formal sector, while citing the large number of Ghanaian women — perhaps as many as 90 percent of those in the workforce — working in the informal economy, without safety nets like a 40-hour work week, a minimum wage or maternity leave.
Even in traditionally matrilineal cultures, inequality persists. Darkwah noted that historically, women in Akan society — the largest of Ghana’s 90-odd ethnic groups, making up nearly half the population — worked outside the home, often traveling for weeks at a time to trade in markets around the region. But as British authorities established a more formal economy in Ghana, the former Gold Coast colony in West Africa, women were largely marginalized in the workforce and under British law were forced to leave their jobs after marriage. More than half a century after independence, Ghanaian women are still struggling to make up for lost ground. In the workplace, said Darkwah, “Men had a significant head start.”
Perhaps nowhere was that advantage more dramatic than in the film industry, where for many years, the only female-made movie was a documentary about village life, shot by director Efua Sutherland in 1967, for the American TV network ABC. According to Joyce Osei Owusu, who is researching Ghanaian women in film at Australia’s Swinburne University of Technology, it would be another quarter of a century before Veronica Quashie became the first woman to blaze a trail in the industry, producing a string of movies shot on VHS tapes, which were proliferating in Ghana in the early 1990s. Few women, though, managed to follow her lead. “A lot of the women who came onto the scene [in the ’90s] were not able to sustain careers in the industry,” said Owusu. That only began to change in the past decade, in the wake of Frimpong-Manso’s commercial and critical success. “It’s after Shirley that we began to see that sustainability,” she said.
Central to Frimpong-Manso’s work is her attempt to subvert the way Ghanaian women have traditionally appeared onscreen. They are often cast as successful climbers of the corporate ladder who are in control of their own destinies. In “Scorned,” it’s the abused housewife whose search for independence, and vengeance, is the film’s central storyline, while the three heroines at the heart of “The Perfect Picture,” anxiously approaching their 30th birthdays, become proactive change agents in their search for meaningful lives. Even in their supporting roles in “Life and Living It,” women are assertive and accomplished, like the brilliant young defense attorney fighting a custody battle in court or the wealthy, middle-aged businesswoman who in one scene buys a car for her young lover — a radical departure from the typical onscreen depiction of men as the breadwinners. According to Frimpong-Manso, it’s her goal to “show a woman [who] can have a job. She can have a husband, she can have a child, she can make decisions.” In effect, she can be a woman whose life is more rounded than the lives depicted in the male-produced movies of the past.
For the actress Lydia Forson, who produced her first film, “A Letter From Adam,” last year, the changes across the industry have been pronounced. “In the past, all you had to be was a pretty, light[-skinned] and tall girl, and you’d get a part, because they weren’t really interested in your character,” she said. Often that led to one-dimensional roles in which women were little more than silent, suffering foils for male protagonists. She described one of the more popular, recurring themes in Ghanaian movies, where an adulterous husband beats his wife, “finds Jesus” and then is quickly forgiven for his transgressions — a forgiveness, she said, that is assumed rather than earned. Changes in the industry, though, are creating more movies told from a woman’s point of view, and today, she said, “female artists are being taken more seriously.”
Constraints of 'Ghollywood'
Yvonne Nelson, who has appeared in more than 100 films in Ghana and Nigeria, said that industrywide shift has opened up greater opportunities for entrepreneurs, allowing her to make the jump from appearing onscreen to calling the creative shots. “People have been typecasting me for a while,” said the 29-year-old, and “as an actress, you want to draw away from [certain] roles.” In 2011, she began financing her own films. This June will see the release of “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” the fifth feature she has both starred in and produced. Nelson plays a street hawker whose young son has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Based on a true story, it’s a challenging part that goes against the grain of her usual roles — a change the actress welcomes. “You don’t want to be in the same place forever,” she said.
Along with their gains in the industry, female movie stars are using their platform to confront the climate of moral censure against women in Ghana, a deeply conservative and largely Christian country. Last fall, after the controversial pastor Duncan Williams made headlines when he asserted that marriage was a “privilege” for women, Forson set social media ablaze by writing a letter to the pastor, asking, “Can I marry you? I’m in dire need of validation.” Critics rallied to the pastor’s defense, prompting Forson to write a sarcastic letter of apology “for being offended by his statement” and having “an opinion.” (The married pastor rebutted by saying he was “flattered by [her] comments.”)
But perhaps one of the biggest obstacles for both female and male filmmakers in Ghana remains the market constraints of the local movie business. While a small, frantic industry — affectionately dubbed “Ghollywood” — churns out low-budget, straight-to-DVD releases, more ambitious filmmakers like Frimpong-Manso have few avenues to recoup the costs of big-budget productions. Piracy is rampant. In a country of some 25 million people, there are just two multiplexes, and the precipitous slide of Ghana’s economy in recent years has made moviegoing something of a luxury for most consumers. “Businesswise,” said Frimpong-Manso, “it’s not making sense anymore. You can’t make your money back from Ghana.”
It’s one of the reasons the filmmaker is looking overseas, finding a growing market for her work through TV networks like South Africa’s M-Net, France’s Canal Plus and channels targeting black audiences, like The Africa Channel in the U.S. and OH TV in the U.K. The democratizing power of the Web, too, is opening up new opportunities. With her latest project, “V-Republic” — a Web series that debuted in October and follows the friendships, family squabbles, love affairs and career woes of four professional women living in Accra — Frimpong-Manso turned to a video-on-demand platform. “These are people who want African content,” she said. “Our stories need to be able to cut across” borders.
As for whether those audiences will still see images of crying women, the filmmaker confessed that even her strongest protagonists shed tears now and then. “These women have real problems,” she said. “And, yes, there are times you see women crying on the shoulders of their men — just like my friends and I do.”
But the tears, she said, could also be seen as a sign of strength and resilience. “You have a problem. You look at it in the face. You solve it. And you move on.”