Her Film: Can you talk about your latest project and the path that has led you to this point?
Frances Bodomo: I’m about to shoot a short film entitled Boneshaker. It follows a Ghanaian family taking a road trip to a Pentecostal church in Louisiana where they hope to cure their daughter of a spirit. It’s about the crazy person you become when you’re a mix of clashing cultures, and it’s about the difficulty of performing a ritual when you’re thousands of miles from home. I’m from Ghana, but I grew up all over the place (in Norway, in Hong Kong, and in the U.S.), so I’ve always wanted to make a film about how lost a person can feel without a sense of home, and how constant migration really tests the glue that holds a family together.
The story comes from my own experiences. When I went through my obligatory college depression, my Auntie took me round to various born-again churches to rid myself of the spirit following me. She explained it like this: I come from a family of only daughters, so my relatives in the village were jealous that all my parents’ resources were going towards the college education of someone who would be married off into another family. By affecting me like this, I would be mentally unable to stay in school and the resources would rightfully come back to them.
So I’m here now and I want to make a film that sheds light on this generally unseen experience. It’s the one experience that really streamlined my biography. It was about being a woman, about being African, and about being a nomad. It was life-changing, but I was also interested in how the task became about women physically fighting the patriarchal structure around them. It was something I got to experience with my mother, my aunts, my sisters, but also with my father and my culture. My father always says he became a feminist once his first daughter was born, and I really want to show that side in this film.
You see all I had to write to explain myself? This is why I’m making a movie!
Photo courtesy of the Kheel Center, Cornell University
HF: One of your interests is African-generated images. How do African images play a role in your work, especially concerning Boneshaker which shows a Ghanaian family in the deep American South (Louisiana)?
FB: My college thesis was about the power of Africans creating images for themselves, rather than relying on the Bob Geldofs and Bonos and Blood Diamonds and Hotel Rwandas that use Africa as a device to really reflect on Europe or America (to put it politely). I think the very fact of Africans making films to regain their image—whether overtly or not—is a political one. This is not about excluding Europeans or Americans from the topic of Africa: Claire Denis makes complex films about Africa, but she also grew up on the continent.
Boneshaker doesn’t simply fit into all this because I am African and making a film. I want to create images that use America to reflect on Africa as a way of making visible the characters’ struggle. It’s about Africans trying to bend the American myth (the South, the delta…) to fit their own myth, and for their own purposes. They run into problems—problems that wouldn’t occur if it were the other way round—for this simple reason. I want it to be America as the “dark continent” and I want it to make at least some Americans feel something of what it’s like to have Band Aid speak of your home as a place “where the only water flowing is a bitter sting of tears.” Ultimately it’s not about a rebuttal—that would be hypocritical—it’s about using the very same mechanism to emphasize the difference in experience. It’s about showing an African interiority, which is the whole point of making films that come from Africans.
Photo courtesy of the filmmaker
HF: Your film also deals with themes of immigration and alienation. Can you talk about these themes and how you try to incorporate them into Boneshaker?
FB: Foreigners are always reminded that they are walking on someone else’s land, that they have the privilege of going back to “where they came from.” What of those of us who don’t have that place? Who also don’t have this place? I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’m going to convey this sense of being lost using the cinematic tools at my disposal. Fun!
In Boneshaker, the family is constantly in motion: they’re in a car for a lot of the film. We’ll shoot them against sky and reference-less background, always moving. While we do establish space, they’re never going to be comfortable within it. The big word I’ve been throwing around for this film is nostalgia. I want the film to feel like a memory because it hits home the idea that we don’t have concrete land on which to place our feet. It’s also a huge reason why I want to shoot in Louisiana. The delta consists of specks of land submerged in water. It says everything I want it to say: there is no land. And we have to grapple with that fact.
HF: As you move into pre-production, then production in December, what have you experienced (or what do you expect to experience) in terms of culture clash? Does religion play a role in this type of clash as well?
FB: I just got back from my location scout in Louisiana. What a wonderful trip! Adjusting and assimilating is instinctive to me at this point (though I’m not entirely proud of that fact), so I had no problems moving around New Orleans and its neighbouring bayous. I did, however, have a hard time finding Africans down there. The Africans I did find gave the general response of, “I don’t socialize with other Africans here.” I felt most alienated and saddened by the dismissiveness of a majority of the people I approached. You feel most alienated when the people you have learned to call “yours” want nothing to do with you. In retrospect, I find this extremely interesting. It’s exactly what my film is about (with regards to the people at home sending a spirit) and I intend to use it. It solidifies why I want to shoot down there.
I didn’t find a community in Louisiana, but I found one in the Bronx. I spent September going to a Pentecostal/born-again church on Sundays. I went to a Ghanaian deliverance ministry in the Bronx and got prayed over. These were some of the most welcoming people I’ve experienced in my research. I’m shooting in an African deliverance ministry in Louisiana (hopefully Dr. Stella’s Fire Power Ministries) so there won’t be much of that black-family-going-into-a-white-church kind of clash. I’m more interested in being rejected by the people you feel you should connect with.
Photo courtesy of the filmmaker
HF: What are your thoughts on the role of women in African-made films (both as filmmakers and actors) and how they are received by the larger world community?
FB: This is another thesis! Women play a huge role in the story of Boneshaker. We have a family of only daughters, and I explained why that’s significant. This underlying situation suggests the reason why the Mother character believes her daughter is possessed. It also puts the film in the hands of the matriarch. This is important to me because women in Nollywood (and its off-shoots) are still reduced to objects of desire: how many pans across glossy, shaved legs have I had to sit through? That’s why I’m excited to make this film in which a woman is the driving force and is moving to protect her daughters.
But I’m intensely optimistic about up-and-coming African female filmmakers. Julie Apea and Shirley Frimpong-Manso in Ghana are making the highest-quality films in the country. Outside the continent we have wonderful women like Akosua Adoma Owusu, Sam Kessie, Nikyatu Jusu, and Rungano Nyoni (to name a few) changing the game. The larger world community may not be listening yet, may be thinking, “oh, here’s another film about being a black woman,” and rolling their eyes to oblivion. But check their films out! We’re on the brink of something big.
HF: What is it that you hope to achieve as a filmmaker with Boneshaker?
FB: First and foremost, I want this to be the film for people like me: people that have always felt positively lost and homeless. It’s a beautiful thing to live outside the false security of home. This goes for anyone. We live in a world with so much migration and movement that the idea of home is arbitrary at best (across the board, class and privilege considered). I think this idea of existing in an undefined—but also very much defined by concrete microaggression—space is central to what it feels like to live on this earth and in this century, so let’s talk about that.
I want these concepts to come from an African story and an African voice. Because, to put it in a cheesy way, we’re nomads (traditionally, and given the slave trade, colonization, and subsequent brain drain). When your entire continent is so painfully and continuously devastated, you’re forced to move around. I want African voices to be at the forefront of the international discourse on what it feels like to be in this world today (goodbye to looking to Africa for heritage films, issues films, and images of primitivity).
So yeah, I’ve got small goals.