The Destiny of Lesser Animals is the result of an unexpected collaboration between director Deron Albright, currently a professor at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and writer/star Yao B. Nunoo, a Ghanaian living in the United States who played the lead in Albright's 2005 short film The Legend of Black Tom. Fittingly, the film itself is a unusual fusion of policier and politically aware exploration of life in Ghana today. Nunoo plays Inspector Boniface Koomsin, a detective consumed with retrieving the forged passport for which he's been saving up, his only chance to get back to the U.S. after he was deported years ago. His actions get him tangled in a larger investigation alongside veteran Chief Inspector Oscar Darko (Fred Nii Amugi), who is frustrated with Boniface's focus on getting out of Ghana. The Destiny of Lesser Animals is making its world premiere at New Directors/New Films.
Did this film begin when you got a Fulbright to go to Ghana in 2008?
It actually started before that, in December of 2004, when I was casting for my short film about bare-knuckle boxing. I met Yao. and cast him in the lead role. Yao is from Ghana, and we enjoyed working together a lot, and tossed around ideas of further projects we could work on together. He started working on the script that would eventually become this film, a Philadelphia-based police script he called a combination between Stray Dog and In The Heat of the Night. I was in West Africa in the spring of 2007 showing that boxing film as part of the big pan-African film festival in Ouagadougou, and it hit me — why not try to do this film in Ghana? Yao was thrilled by the idea, and took off in one direction while I started putting the pieces together for the production and to apply for the Fulbright that would enable me to be over in Ghana for the year.
This is not just a film set in Ghana, it's very much one about Ghana, isn't it?
It really is. It was intended to be a film that was of the country, not about an outsider looking in, nor necessarily a film that only plays in an insular way to its own population. The majority of film production in Ghana — video production — is less successful Nollywood.
Nigeria produces, volume-wise, the third most films in the world behind the United States and India. It's quick turnaround, very low margin stuff, but people work and get paid, and the more successful people in Ghana have tended to migrate toward the Nigerian industry because of that. In Ghana it's catch as catch can, and there isn't really any sort of serious filmmaking. One of the goals of the project was to take the same production budget that would be spent on one of these serials — that would shoot in a week or two, would be very melodramatic, would find its way onto TV as part of African Movies or something like that — and produce something that could play on an international stage, but still feel very much of the country.
African cinema seem to face a divide between the massive amount of home-grown video products that are rarely seen by non-African audiences and films that screen at festivals but don't seem to get seen by locals. Do you have plans to screen The Destinies of Lesser Animals within Ghana?
Absolutely. The first commercial movie theater in a long time opened in Accra in December of 2008 and actually is run by what I believe is a Nigerian company called Silverbird. In the mid '80s as part of an IMF economic deal there was the forced privatization of the film industry in Ghana. Essentially all 35mm production stopped, all image gathering got shifted over to video, and people who weren't concerned with the art of cinema at all were making decisions about how now images are going to be produced.
Is it a different case in other African countries?
In Ghana, film is not as large a cultural institution as it is in some of the francophone countries. For example Burkina Faso, which lies to the north, is extraordinarily more impoverished in terms of what the average person makes a day — there's not really any middle class in that country — and yet the cultural industry of film is a better developed. It's part of the colonial legacy. But in Ghana everything very quickly went to videofilms. There are really only two people — and they're both still alive, they both occasionally make films, or at least one of them does — who are considered at all serious filmmakers.
What did you look for in terms of this being a police procedural as well as a film about Ghana?
The first question that anyone asked when they hear I made a film in Ghana is “What's your documentary about?” It sounds silly to say that it was intentional that we weren't making a documentary, but there were very specific reasons for not only making a fiction film but making a genre film. The dominant narratives of Africa are poverty or war, and there are very empathetic, very good films that have been made, but they reinforce the otherness of Africa and the otherness of the experience. Documentaries that I love tend to do this as a matter of course — the audience is asked to look at something as an object, to consider it, maybe change the way they think about it. It's a different relationship with the audience.
And how does a genre film change that relationship?
What the best genre films do is ask you to identify with the character. They take you through a story, and no matter what the milieu is you're on this emotional journey you feel like you can relate to on a deep level. At the same time, we're in what many people would say is an exotic environment, a very different environment from what a large part of the audience will have experienced. The underlying theme of that is that they're real people living real lives, not so different that you or me. It's not the poor person who sells water off the top of his or her head who dreams of one day coming to the United States. It's about a middle class person who has a good job, yet who is born into a society whose attitude for a middle class person isn't if you're going to go abroad but when.
Can you tell me a bit about the film's depiction of the U.S., and what it meant to Boniface?
Yao is a Ghanaian who's lived in the United States since he came for university. He's been here over a decade. The ironic thing is that when he came for production in Ghana I'd already been living there for about six months, and knew a lot about the country that he hadn't experienced because he hadn't been back in a decade. A lot of the film comes out of his experience, out of his feelings. The whole narrative dealing with the fathers was very much born of an experience where Yao was unable to return to Ghana for his father's funeral. We actually played with developing the United States stuff a lot more, but the decision was made in editorial that giving just the few snippets we do give was enough. I'm a big Egoyan fan, so I never have problems with jumping around in time and location and filling in backstory in that way.
Do you feel that added to that sense of distance between those two places?
Yes. And that was important. From experience — living in Ghana for a year, under not easy circumstances, at any point I could have plopped down a credit card and come back to the United States for a week. But the disconnect between spaces is so tremendous! You're in one place, and… this is going to sound silly to say, but even with the ability to walk into the airport and be in New York in 12 hours, the thought was never there. You were so disconnected from another part of the world. It was very disorienting for me.
Can you tell me about what seems a central idea in the film, that choosing to leave is actually the selfish or easy way out, that staying is the braver choice?
The issue of brain drain is tremendous in Ghana, that pull between when you have the ability to leave and a responsibility to home. That internal struggle of what the choice to make is is more prevalent in first worlders — this was a unique situation for Boniface the character, in that he never really thought about what the impact was for a generation of people who left when he was in the United States. Oscar (Fred Amugi) is very committed, and Oscar has watched this brain drain happen, talented people leaving the country. And returning — it's not that there's not a heavy flow of traffic between the two countries, there is, but somehow it never connects to broader societal change.
For Oscar we were trying to build in this idea that he was a child of the drive of independence. He had this special connection to the independence movement and with the death of his father, that it prevented him from ever thinking that his future might be somewhere else — he's dedicated toward developing his father's legacy for his country. I think there's an entire generation of Ghanaians, many of whom feel that way, that the opportunities they provided for their children to better themselves and better their country have essentially migrated away.