A little over two years ago as part of a tourist trip to Ghana, I learned about the existence of fantasy coffins. I thought: "If these guys have such coffins, they should have a completely different attitude to the issue of death." And I decided that one day I would return and shoot a documentary about it. This "one day" came in the spring: on April 2, I boarded a London-Accra plane and flew to shoot a movie about death. I made the decision to fly a little earlier, in December 2018. The idea felt like it was coming to an end. I had three thousand dollars, enough emotional strength, and ten days off in April. I realized that I had to decide.
Text: Christina Wazowski
Neither in 2017, when I first visited Ghana, nor in the spring, did I have any practical experience in filmmaking. The theoretical began to appear a month before - when the real preparation for the film started. When I talk about a complete lack of experience, I am not flirting: "ISO", "shutter", "aperture" seemed to be incantations; I did not understand how the monopod differs from the tripod and why they knock with a clapper before shooting.
Due to my limited budget, I could only take one person with me. Friends, who understood a little more in filmmaking than I did, said that in documentary films almost any picture would be forgiven, but the sound had to be good, otherwise the film would simply not be watched. In short, I needed a sound engineer - he was found in ten minutes and two handshakes. After a ten-minute telephone conversation, Kolya Aleksandrov and I, a young and desperate soundman from Moscow, decided to go together. I liked his voice so much that I forgot to ask him about the experience and to clarify whether he was dealing with documentaries. Kolya sounded confident, and my intuition told me - he is a cool dude.
We agreed that we would go in early April. I bought plane tickets, decided that the whole idea was fun and it was necessary to document the preparation process. She shot several vidos for YouTube, launched a podcast. A month before the trip, I realized that more time was spent on the documentation of the process than on the preparation itself, and was worried. Apart from plane tickets, impostor syndrome and a number of ethical issues, I had nothing.
Do I have the right to be called a director if I haven't studied it anywhere, haven't watched and read so much and, to be honest, haven't dreamed about it at all? Can I take on such a plot if I am a white Russian-Lithuanian girl living in London, and I have not had any special worries about death? I wanted to avoid exoticisation and not draw a Ghanaian version of Russian bandits from American militants. But I didn't have the experience of speaking on such a taboo topic, moreover, in such a difficult cultural field. It was scary to make a mistake and hurt someone out of ignorance.
Self-study and twenty cans of perfume
In order to leave for Ghana and spend some productive time there, I needed a local team to help me navigate the city, and agreements with at least a few potential heroes. I started spamming - funeral parlors, Instagram users using the hashtag #ghanafuneralfashion, Facebook communities, strangers on LinkedIn - all to no avail. A period of panic and despair ensued. Two weeks before the trip, a lot of money was spent, hundreds of people are rooting for a project that may not happen if I don't come up with something that will get everything off the ground.
After a glass of wine, a life-saving idea came to my mind - to write to a local film school and ask for a vacancy. I was looking for someone to help arrange interviews and find heroes for a salary of thirty dollars a day. The prank succeeded, and soon my WhatsApp changed - I received more than a hundred messages.The next day I met a girl from England who was filming a documentary in Ghana last year. She explained that the reason for this incredible popularity is the high fee, about four times what is usually paid in Ghana for such work. Why did I bet thirty dollars? I divided by ten the amount requested per day by fixers working with big companies like the BBC or VICE.
To organize the entire crowd of candidates, I came up with three rounds of interviews. As a test task, it was necessary to find three potential characters for the film: undertakers, mourners, priests, people who have lost a loved one. As a result, I phoned the most promising candidates. It hurt: poor audibility, unusual pronunciation, constant interruptions in communication.
I hired a local girl, but she quit five days later without having time to do anything. I went further on the list of candidates - it did not grow together either in time or in money. All this time, one of the interviewees continued to send me a video of the funeral - in the end I offered him a job, because there was a week before the trip and he looked as motivated as possible. This is how Alex appeared on my team - an event organizer and model. And after a while, a volunteer cameraman Chris was added to it, who, according to the plan, was supposed to shoot everything that remains behind the scenes, and insure me if I was stupid with the camera.
Two days before the trip, I rented a camera, made insurance for myself and equipment, bought souvenirs for the heroes of the film: towels, caramel and twenty cans of perfume from Poundland. I told myself that it's too late to be nervous - it's time to let go of the situation. Basically, the main advice I got from everyone who tried to do something in Ghana was to learn to relax and wait. I was told that everything would definitely not go according to plan and I had to be ready for this. They were right: the plane was delayed for an hour and a half, luggage - for another hour and a half (I was sure that he was arrested because of twenty bottles oft perfume: no more than 250 milliliters are allowed to be transported). On the way from the airport to our rented apartment, the police stopped our taxi four times. At home, as, indeed, in the entire area, there was no electricity.
The next day we had a meeting with the Ghanaian part of the team, and I was very worried: are they good guys, do I look like a director, if my idea seems too strange to them. But the acquaintance went well - everyone came on time, were positive, and I even managed to give a cinematography lesson to cameraman Chris, recounting everything I learned from the online course on the way to Accra the previous night. He said it was the most rewarding workshop in his entire study and quit three days later.
Despite the fact that nominally they had much more experience in filmmaking, I realized that somehow I knew better about the subject. It helped me to accept myself as a director and understand that in terms of filming, I can only rely on myself. In my experience, one of the most important and difficult steps in new projects is appropriation. Once you learn to say “I'm the director” about yourself without laughing or reservations, things work out much better.
We needed to film fifteen interviews (I was taught to play it safe in Ghana), a funeral and a Christian charismatic service. The next day we started working. One of the main troubles of Accra is traffic jams, so in order to be in time somewhere, we left at three in the morning. The first few days I managed to watch online tutorials on how to work with the camera right in the car on the way to the location. The latter were specific: morgues, cemeteries, churches, funeral homes.
Before my trip to Ghana, I had never been to a funeral in my life and had never seen corpses in person, sorry for the oxymoron. For me, it was a mystery to me what emotions what was going on would cause me - but it turned out that, in general, none. And in general it was not scary - and not even alarming.We got up early, filmed a lot, got tired, everything did not go according to plan. But perhaps due to the fact that we allowed ourselves to be flexible, wonderful moments happened to us: a conversation with a shaman, dancing in a slum with a local barmaid, a demonstration performance of coffin bearers who put on costumes specially for us and walked with with a coffin on his shoulders.
This trip helped to look at what the norm is from a new angle. It's amazing how quickly ideas about beauty change along with the environment. Very quickly it became difficult to select material for the film, because everything became familiar - the local way of life began to seem to be the only possible one. Souvenir chocolates with a portrait of the deceased, dancers with coffins, professional mourners, exalted charismatic services, funeral posters … I often wrote to my friends: "Is this even interesting?" And often she received in response: "It blows away the roof, how can this be done at all?"
I host two weekly podcasts, two interviews a week is my routine. I live in London and have done projects in English, including journalistic ones, but talking to people for the film has become a serious challenge for me. English is the official language in Ghana, but local languages are increasingly spoken among themselves - there are many, and they vary greatly from region to region. Comprehensible to a foreigner and literate English is the prerogative of a very small stratum of people. I also cannot say that I speak English absolutely fluently. Because of this, very often there was a feeling of a damaged phone: I ask a question, but people do not answer it; I retell what I understood - it turns out that I missed important details. A daily exercise for mindfulness and composure.
But even as we built understanding with language, other problems arose. People are very open, ready to communicate and negotiate, they told me very cool, living stories - but as soon as the camera turned on, all conversations were reduced to Jesus and the Bible. Of course, it was possible to follow Mansky's method - not turn off the camera and write everything with and without permission. But, firstly, I did not want to expose people who trusted me, and secondly, even if they spoke to me one hundred percent frankly, it would not globally change the order of things. I had to get out, formulate the questions clearly, but in such a way that a stereotyped answer would not automatically come out.
In preparation for the film in London, I read books about talking about death and the loss of loved ones, studied the maps of narrative practice and was going to work on them. My attempts to play subtly turned into a fiasco: when you see each other for the first time, you have thirty minutes, there are a lot of people around, English is not the first language for both and you talk about the death of loved ones - narrative practices work so-so.
Earnings and reputation
Funerals in Ghana are treated differently than in Russia or Europe. From the outside, they are more like a wedding: a buffet table, all smart, guests give money and all sorts of goodies. In addition, they are very tied to reputation - probably, this is the most important event in the fate of a Ghanaian. It is believed that the more people at the funeral, the more respectable the person was. They are attended by relatives and friends from all over the country and sometimes from abroad. A good funeral begins with three hundred guests, preferably five hundred, if a thousand came - fire. If you have a small funeral, then you were also a mediocre person.
If you want people to come to your funeral, you must go to strangers. Some go every week. The funeral can last for several days - for example, on the first day there is a farewell to the deceased (the body lies in an elegantly decorated room), on the second day - a ceremony in a church and burial in a cemetery, and on the third - a big party. If the family has a small budget, all three stages can fit into one day, but one way or another they should be.Preparing a "good funeral" (this is a stable expression that implies a large-scale, well-organized event) can take from a month. All this time, the body is waiting in the wings in the morgue, which costs decent money.
Another must-have for a funeral in Ghana is donations from guests. The more money you give, the better you will be treated. At smaller funerals, especially in villages, a special person sits by the donation basket and writes down the names and amount of donation in a notebook. It is believed that you should definitely thank the guest for his donation. The party (barbecue, dancing, DJs) after every funeral is the "thank you" party. If you don't arrange it, the guests will say that you are greedy, and this is damage to your reputation.
Ghanaians are not really about saving, in this they are very similar to Russians. Usually, the whole family is thrown off for the funeral (not only the closest, but also more distant relatives - cousins, sisters, second cousins, and so on), if there is not enough money, then they go to borrow. You can borrow either from friends or from microcredit organizations. And then from what they donate at the funeral, they distribute debts. To quote my film: “It’s better to make a good name than live in shame” is the strategy. Better to keep yourself busy and establish yourself as a normal dude than to have a humble funeral with the money you have. And everything is worth it.
When I listened to the first interviews, I thought that when my heroes talk about earning money at a funeral, they mean what agents, presenters, service providers earn, like in Russia. Yes, they earn money, but I was very surprised that the main goal of the family is to raise money at the funeral, preferably twice. And no one is ashamed of this. Making money at a funeral is a whole art: you need to invite the right people, organize everything in such a way that you get twice as much as you spent.
In general, everything is tied to reputation and relationships between people. Well, everyone loves to show off. As the respondents told me, the Ghanaians spy on something from the Europeans and bring it to the maximum. Most of the traditions that seem surprising to us are in fact a copy of European customs from the times of the colonies. For example, funeral posters - on them the face of a deceased person, age, address where the funeral will take place. They are hung at the entrance to the church, at the gates of the house - everywhere. Or, for example, an advertisement for a funeral in newspapers, on radio and television. As I understand it, it was borrowed from the newspapers of the colonial times, where they announced that someone had died - in Ghana they still do this, only on a large scale.
Fantasy coffins are a very well-known story outside of Ghana and, probably, the first thing that comes to mind when mentioning Ghana to a person from Europe. These are coffins in the form of various things - a lion, a bottle, whatever. This is a relatively recent story - they began to be made about sixty or seventy years ago. It is wildly popular with tourists, locals are also buried in them, but not very often. I went to four funerals, and there were ordinary European coffins.
In Ghana, there are several funeral traditions that have not been captured by me - you can go to another region and make a sequel to the film. I filmed in Accra, the capital, most of my characters were from the Ha people. Ashanti live in the second largest city of Kumasi. Ashanti has the most lavish funerals, the mourners are women who are hired to show the intensity of the funeral experience. This is not a separate group of women who stand and sob - mourners mingle with guests, and they can only be calculated by crying too intensely. Even some locals make fun of them. One of my heroes said that at first they sob, then ask: "Can you give me a beer?" - drink and continue to cry.
I was very lucky. First, with people. Sound engineer Kolya turned out to be an ideal partner - relaxed, positive and washing dishes. Alex is surprisingly systematic and responsible. Secondly, I was lucky in life.Due to a power outage, our adapters, chargers and something else broke down - for a total of fifteen thousand rubles. But considering that we were transporting equipment worth a million and a half, we did not cost much. They cheated me a little in terms of money (according to my calculations, another seven thousand), but I consider this to be compensation for the luck that accompanied us. We weren't robbed, no one got sick, and we filmed twenty hours of footage.
Accra, which I saw, is not at all like the city that was shown in Eagle and Tails. This is not a “garbage capital”, but a large, diverse city where poverty and wealth coexist. There is delicious, a lot of color, beautiful, friendly and emotional people, very expensive and very cheap at the same time, there is a rich culture, which is difficult to understand right away. To summarize my feeling about Accra, this is a complex, controversial and cool place, which in two weeks as a director I got to know twenty times better than in two weeks as a tourist. We shot a lot of cool stuff - I'll sit down to edit the film and see what comes of it. But it will definitely be beautiful, and you definitely have not seen this.
PHOTOS: Christina Wazowski