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A modern take on an ancient African folktale

Updated: Feb 3

Two long-standing but estranged lovers meet in a dimly-lit street in Accra. One is Ama, the other – Anansi. Anansi is a name that will, no doubt, resonate with most Africans that were raised on the folkloric stories of this spidery trickster on the continent and in the diaspora. But this story, by London-born Ghanaian writer-director Papa-Kwesi, is a twist on that ancient tale.

Film poster. Image © Carl Earl Ocran

'Arachnid' debut on 3 November 2020 at London-based film festival Film Africa and was selected as one of the shorts for the festival’s Baobab Awards. It is a co-production with Africa Film Society - the production company part responsible for award-winning Ghanaian film the Burial of Kojo.

Although 'Arachnid' missed out on this year’s Baobab Award for Best Short Film, it doesn’t take away from the film's brilliance.

It powerfully captures the age-old story of love with the other ancient folktale of Anansi, drawing on raw emotions, intense close ups and arresting dialogue.

Papa-Kwesi or Carl Earl-Ocran, as he is also known, represents one of four Ghanaian creatives that showcased their talents at this year’s Film Africa festival. We spoke to him about his passion for film, the importance of storytelling and what other films he is working on.

How did you get into film and directing?

Film has always been my passion. After school, I studied media technology at university. And while working in entertainment TV, I began writing short films on the side and making music videos and short-form content. ‘Arachnid’ is my first major short film.

Papa-Kwesi. Image © Liam Nugent

You seem to specialise in short films – what’s the appeal compared to longer ones?

The goal is to move to long-form storytelling such as feature films and streaming series. Almost all filmmakers start in short films. They are a good way to harness the skills needed to move to that level. Short films are relatively cost effective, and are a great challenge to get audiences to engage with a character-driven story in a short space of time.

Anansi really pissed me off in ‘Arachnid’. Ama was so resolute at the beginning. You see her soften and just as she is about to give him another chance, he disappears. Like Ama, I felt as though I went through a gamut of emotions in minutes. It was so intense. Was that the intention?

Well, that makes me happy that you had such a visceral reaction to it! That is always the intention - to pose questions to the audience and ask them: "what would you do if that was you in that situation?"

But I like to leave it open to the viewer’s interpretation. I've heard various responses from audiences, including: ‘He's so manipulative’, ‘Good riddance’, ‘Well done Ama’, ‘I feel sorry for him’.

I think each person, who watches the film, brings their own experiences to the film's events and the characters’ decisions – and that’s the way it should be.

Stories help us in the diaspora know who we are, in all our various facets and identities.

Why did you choose to portray Anansi as a god when he’s not in Akan culture?

It was my take on the folktale character. I have seen interpretations of him as a god or spirit character elsewhere in the media. As there are so many stories about him that have been told in Akan culture, I thought a way to bring him to life in the real world would be to humanise him but with the ability to transform into a spider. And just like in the existing folktales, have him living for many many years.

When I lived as a child in Ghana, there was a TV show called 'By the Fireside' which featured folktale stories. I think some of that stuck in my memory and came out in this film but with a twist – focused on someone affected by Anansi's trickster ways.

Tell us more about the behind the scenes of making Arachnid – ie where in Ghana was it set, how did you go about choosing the principal actors .

The film is set and shot in Accra. I wanted it to feel very grounded and 'every day', yet heightened and with a hint of magic realism. I was already working with the brilliant producers Kwaku Obenfo Boateng and Saviour Kwaku Gatogo on another project and they jumped on to produce ‘Arachnid’ with me.

A last-minute wrap-up team selfie © Carl Earl Ocran

Saviour lived up to his name and provided a selection of potential cast options. We were very fortunate that Bless Fortune and Isaac Kofi Arthur were both available and up for the roles of Ama and Anansi respectively. Then with co-producer Van Moses, we got together, planned it out and shot the film. It was a great experience and everyone brought their A-game despite there being such tight budgetary and time restrictions.

Why it was important that they spoke in Twi?

I was keen for Twi to be spoken because I wanted to add to the authenticity of the film, especially for international audiences (although I know Ga is widely spoken in Accra!). My Twi is only average (at best!) so the cast really helped with the translation on set.

What has been the reaction to the film in Ghana and have you linked up with the film bodies over there?

I'm very thankful that the film was well received in Ghana. It made the 'Official Selection' in the Accra Indie Film Fest 2020 and the 'Big Screen' in The Park Film Festival 2020. But this is just the first big step in a journey of telling stories in Ghana and the wider continent - something I'm passionate about.

What interests you about diaspora stories?

Stories help us in the diaspora know who we are, in all our various facets and identities. Although I was born in London, I lived and spent a few years at school in Tema before returning to London. As a result, I've seen the lack of authentic representation of Black/ African characters and stories in front and behind the camera in the UK/USA/Europe.

Promotional poster for Arachnid © Carl Earl Ocran

Things are slowly getting better, and I'm passionate about being part of that movement. Even me using my middle name/day name Papa-Kwesi rather than Carl when telling these types of stories is a reflection of that self-exploration.

What are you working on next and where do you see yourself in the next five to 10 years?

I have a few projects I'm working on including a longer-form adaptation of ‘Arachnid’. I am in the very early stages of that! But in coming years, God willing, I hope to be making various feature films and streaming series, in the UK, Ghana and internationally.

Want to see Arachnid?

And watch this space for information on its wider release at the end of the year.

Papa-Kwesi runs a small independent production company called Little Boffin Films in London and is a director at London-based film company The Keep Productions. To find out more about his work here at Little Boffin Films.

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