Filmmaker battles to save historic Ghana cinema

By Chris Stein, AFP

ACCRA, Ghana–The Rex, a single-storey, slope-roofed movie house was once the hotspot for film fans in Ghana, but, like many of the country’s cinemas, it hardly shows movies anymore.

The building is now abandoned, except on Sundays when dozens of evangelical Christians cram through its century-old walls for weekly, boisterous prayers sessions.

The Rex’s fate is part of a wider decay of film-going culture in Ghana, the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence and which became the hub for the continent’s film industry in the immediate post-colonial era, experts said. But a 29-year-old Ghanaian-American filmmaker, Akosua Adoma Owusu, has launched a plucky grassroots effort to save the picture house and fight the trend. The “save-your-local-landmark” campaign is commonplace in the West but remains a rarity in some developing countries like Ghana. For Owusu, the motivation behind “Damn the Man, Save the Rex” was partly personal: after building a reputation abroad as a maker of short films, she realized there was nowhere to show her work in the country of her birth.

“Whether it’s short films or performance or anything, you have to kind of pay a venue to screen your work,” Owusu said. Owusu, who won the best short film award at the 2013 African Movie Academy Awards and whose productions have been added to the permanent collection at the Whitney Museum in New York, managed to raise US$9,000 online.

It was enough to hire out the old movie hall for a night and show her latest work. But she has bigger plans and wants to convert the Rex into a dedicated artistic space. ‘Like the mecca, the place to be’ If “Save the Rex” succeeds and the structure built in the early 20th century by Lebanese immigrants becomes a permanent film-screening venue, it would double the number of functioning cinemas in Ghana’s capital.

Currently, the only working movie theatre is an American-style cineplex embedded in an upscale shopping center.

But more are planned to serve the country’s growing consumer class, with Ghana boasting one of the world’s fastest growing economies, fuelled by gold and cocoa exports as well as a nascent offshore oil industry.

Experts voiced frustration at the current state of film culture in the West African nation, recalling a time when the head of state personally oversaw the industry.

At independence in 1957, when Kwame Nkrumah was president, “Ghana was the hub for filmmaking in west Africa and generally Africa,” said Anita Afonu, a director and expert of Ghanaian film history.