Beyond our often contentious claim on who has the best jollof rice, Nigerians and Ghanaians also connect on the cinema they enjoy. This connection is however laced with a little element of professional jealousy over time. Most Nigerians who grew up in the later part of the last decade would remember being treated to films which featured a lot of Ghanaian actors. At the time, not many people were even aware that the likes of Van Vicker, Jackie Appiah, Majid Michel, weren’t Nigerians.
What would later give birth to the prominence of Ghanaian film stars in Nigeria started circa 2006 when Nigerian filmmaker, Frank Rajah Arase, signed a contract with a Ghanaian production company, Venus Films. The terms of the contract includes helping to introduce Ghanaian actors into mainstream Nollywood. At the time, the intention to cross over to the Nigerian film landscape wasn’t even informed by any quest to expand their reach. It was more about survival; of independent and mainstream filmmaking and of the acting prowess of the actors.
The Ghanaian government was stifling the growth of independent cinema in the country. Having inherited the film industry from the colonial government upon independence, the government was the sole producer of films in the country for a long time. Under the administration of the first President of the country, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the Ghana Film Industry Corporation (GFIC), was established in 1964.
In all fairness, Dr. Nkrumah created the Corporation out of good faith and the quest to see African stories being told by Africans. In order to get the best hands to manage GFIC, the government also sent a lot of Ghanaians abroad so as to learn filmmaking.
Ghanaian film legends, Chris Essie, Ernest Abbeyquaye and Kwaw Ansah, among others were all trained by the government. For GFIC, movies were just for socioeconomic and cultural renaissance. The mandate of the Corporation was to use indigenous Ghanaian films to reverse the negative portrayal of Africans in films produced by the colonial government and ‘restore the pride of being a Ghanaian and an African in its citizens’. The mandate sounds great and would have remained so if the corporation didn’t decide to extend beyond being a government- bankrolled film production agency to an insecure competitor with independent filmmakers.
In an interview with Saturday Telegraph, a researcher at the National Film and Television Institute, Accra, Ghana, Dr. John Annan Mensah, said: “The corporation wanted to create an ecosystem where only government-licensed films can be produced. “It maintained staunch antagonism against independent filmmaking and that wasn’t good for the public when you consider that that some of these governmentbankrolled projects are also being used as an avenue to spread propaganda.” It wasn’t until 1981 that the first Ghana ian independ e n t f i l m , ‘ L o v e Brewed in the African Pot’ was produced.
That became possible because the Kwame Nkrumah government was toppled in 1966 and that caused the film industry to nose-dive. The National Liberation Council which took over from Dr. Nkrumah was less interested in the film business hence reduced the funding of the state-owned GFIC. That created a level-playing ground for both the government-bankrolled mega production house and ambitious filmmakers who had wanted a shift from the creatively-austere films earlier produced by the government. By the end of the 1980s, Ghana could boast of a number of films on VHS tapes but the GFIC was against this.
They made it difficult for independent producers to thrive in Ghana. GFIC, which had facilitated the training of filmmakers, prohibited their film directors from assisting the independent producers in making films. The consequence of this decision by the corporation caused the country to lose professionalism in the art of filmmaking.
Even when it rescinded that stance after some years, the corporation still demanded the right to exhibit the films first in the government- owned cinemas in Accra. However, another blow would be dealt on the Ghanaian film industry when in 1996; the government of Ghana sold seventy percent of its equity in GFIC to Sistem Televisyen Malaysia Berhad of Kuala Lumpur, a Malaysian production company. The GFIC was renamed Gama Media System Limited.
Mensah said: “GFIC was in charge of about half the cinema theatres in the country at the time. Even independent filmmakers largely depended on the GFIC production, distribution and exhibition chain to thrive. “So, the sales of about 70 per cent of GFIC literally collapsed the cinema industry. And the new company had little interest in film making and so the film industry in Ghana continued with independent filmmakers whose funding relied only on the popular appeal of their films now.”
With the filmmaking chain collapsing, Ghanaian actors and filmmakers had to turn to their next-border neighbour for survival. Meanwhile, Nigerian filmmakers on their part had their challenges. Before Frank Arase’s infamous contract with Venus Films, a number of Nollywood filmmakers had adopted a phenomenon known as Runaway Production, shifting base to Ghana solely for the production of their films. The production cost in Ghana was relatively cheaper compared to Nigeria with more access to impressive locations and stable electricity.
So, the Arase – Venus Films contract worked a n d this collaboration eventually led to the extreme popularity of a lot of Ghanaian actors, including Van Vicker, Jackie Appiah, Majid Michel, Yvonne Nelson, John Dumelo, Nadia Buari and Yvnone Okoro among others.
They became as prominent in films as their Nigerian counterparts at the time, if not more. According to a 2013 Nigerian Entertainment Today report, Ghanaian actors had 60 percent of the total market share in the year. A survey carried out by the foremost entertainment journal showed that out of 184 films featured on Nollytuned.com, a Nigerian streaming website, between April and August 2013, Ghanaian actors played lead roles in at least 93 of them. It was also reported that there were high demands for Ghanaian acts in video stores.
It’s either Yvonne Nelson; Van Vicker or nothing and many 2000s kids can relate to this. Sarah Obiorah, a retail store owner at Olaniya Ademola Street in Surulere, Lagos told NET at the time that a lot of her customers have become quite taken to the Ghanaian acts. “Different customers have different preferences, but recently, a lot of them always ask if Yvonne Nelson or Jackie Appiah have new films out. Then some of the ladies always like to buy a John Dumelo or a Majid Michel movie,” Obiorah said. In fact, at the first edition of the African Magic Viewers’ Choice Award (AMVCA) in 2013, Ghana’s Jackie Appiah won the Best Actress in a Lead Role award for The Perfect Picture, a film that was more popular in Nigeria than Ghana.
She again won the Best Actress award at the Nollywood and African Film Critics in the same year over Nigerian actresses in the same category. Majid Michel has also been awarded at several Nollywood award ceremonies. Their prominence in the Nigerian film market was fast-tracked by the reluctance of Nigerian film stars to act in home videos. With the rebirth of the cinema culture at the time, Nigerian stars were fixed on clinching bigger roles on cinema screens, therefore increasing their revenue.
So, a vacuum was created in the home video space. This was filled by the migrating Ghanaian actors and they maximised it pretty well. Before the Nigerians smelt the coffee, they had taken over that space and it was easy to do because most Nigerians couldn’t afford the luxury of visiting the cinemas.
Therefore, the less expensive home videos were a viable alternative. At the same time, the physicality and accent of the Ghanaian actors weren’t different from the Nigerians. So, many people didn’t even know they were watching non-Nigerians in films. Over time, allegations of taking over Nigerian jobs, gaining prominence in the Nigerian film market by dating Nigerian stars, being overly sultry were levelled against the Ghanaian actors and actresses by stakeholders in the Nigerian film industry.
Meanwhile, at home, the Ghanaian media was also fuming at what they described as Brain Drain in the Ghanaian movie industry because most of the Ghana film stars have moved to Nigeria. What started out as case of creatives seeking greener pastures for their craft became a pop-culture phenomenon at its peak and it created a bond between the two industries; the impact of which cannot be thrown in with a towel. The increased collaboration between Nigeria and Ghana from the mid-2000s led to the resurgence of the erstwhile ailing Ghana’s film industry.
Handpicked, trained and given a career push by Nigerian producers and directors, many Ghanaian actors have gone back home to develop the film business in Ghana eventually birthing a central English speaking Ghollywood and a regional Twispeaking Gallywood; a similitude of Nigeria’s Nollywood and Kannywood.
Today, many Ghanaian productions are still copyrighted to Nollywood and distributed by Nigerian marketers due to Nigeria’s bigger market. Nigerian filmmakers still feature Ghanaian actors in their movies often using them as a cultural and nationality wedge to market the movies in Ghana. The most recent example being Mawuli Gavor, a Ghanaian who is currently giving Nollywood’s most sought after men, a run for their indigenousness. Also, Nigerian films including King of Boys and Chief Daddy get a good run in Ghanaian cinemas. As the bond grows tighter beyond the borders, it has proven to be good for the culture and for the business. And unlike the Jollof war, this is a winwin for both film industries.