Adopting Ideas for Documentary Films

30 Nov 2011

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By Yinka Olatunbosun

Granted, every film maker has a statement to make with every documentary film he shoots. In Nigeria, most documentary films are based on contemporary issues that hinge on socio-economic and political crises.

The outcome is that almost all the documentary films treat identical issues with a view to condemning societal ills such as corruption, drug abuse, unemployment and many more. Issues abound in our contemporary society as potential subjects for film making as recent documentary films reveal.

Last Sunday, Adopted, a documentary film directed by Gudrun Widlok was screened for the audience at Freedom Park, Lagos Island at the I Represent International Documentary Film Festival’s monthly film screening series.

The documentary is based on the project of trans-racial adoption spearheaded by Adopted, an agency which finds godparents in Africa for European adults who are detached from their families.

Adopted, an initiative of the synergy of African documentary makers and Goethe-Institute, tells the story of three select Germans who are adopted by extended families in Ghana.

One of them, Ludger leaves his emotionless environment in Berlin where he stays isolated from friends and family. He hesitantly participates in the Adopted project and is selected sooner than expected.

Ludger is not comfortable in his new abode. He lives with a hope of finding a new life of hope each day with his Ghanaian family but that hope becomes faded daily as his personality shrinks and his sense of identity is gradually remolded to fit first into the box of an amateur handy-man and then as a petty trader.

Thelma, on her part, is very enthusiastic about meeting her new family in Africa. Right from the moment she sees the picture of her perfect African family, her mind is made up on the sojourn that is painted beautifully in her mind.
In preparation for the journey, she packs her suitcases and rather than selling, she gives away her furniture, obviously with no plan of returning to Germany.

On arrival, she makes conscious effort to adapt to the strange routine of her Ghanaian god parents who make her cut grass at the farm, strap the baby on the back and board overcrowded commercial buses.

Soon, her stay with the nuclear family of three becomes sour as she comes to terms with some of the things she cannot afford to lose, namely her privacy, a room for self-development and her freedom of choice in many areas of life especially where it concerns the religious faith.
Likewise, Gisela is also excited. She has had a difficult year. After the death of her husband, she becomes lonely. She feels alone in her big house and is contemplating selling it and relocating to her native home in the south of Germany.
In the radio she hears of Adopted and contacts the agency. In Ghana, she finds her new family but does not find the sense of belonging that she hopes for.

The goats bleat noisily, the bathroom is outside the house, sometimes forcing her to go out in the dark at night when nature calls. Worst still, she is made to face the weekly ordeal of watching the spasmic gyrations of church-goers, an activity she cannot tolerate let alone be a part of.

Eventually, all three Germans return home. The hope of finding succour in the African traditional family homes becomes lost. But the lesson is simple. Everyone, irrespective of the racial background, lives with one form of challenge or the other.

For the three Germans, the picture of the suburbia African family is perfect. Being a part of the ‘dream’ life, however, furnishes them the first hand experience of poverty, outmoded civilisations and restricted lifestyles.

Thus, the documentary, like existing ones with the same subject matter, opens up a new perspective in treating racial differences for African documentary film makers.

Still, there are many loose ends in the plot of the movie. For instance, nothing indicates the duration of the stay of each of the three Germans. No line in the dialogue or in the explanatory commentaries by the actors that follow each long scene hints the timing.

That was a clear dramaturgic oversight on the part of the scriptwriter, the continuity manager and the director who interprets the work in images.

Secondly, the image that the African people do not like to see on screen about themselves stares them in the face. That image of being inferior and being poor is brought before the audience.

None of the three African families is rich enough to provide relative comfort for these Germans. If Thelma had been adopted by a rich African family, with luxury home, probably she would have stayed. She is not happy about her decision to leave but she has to move on with her life.

The beauty of the communal African life is not shown. The story-telling tradition of the Akan people in Ghana could have been adopted in the documentary to show how the African people like to entertain themselves.

In the documentary, it seems that African people only work, eat and live each day as it comes. That was Thelma’s judgment of the African lifestyle. For her, and many other international viewers, the African people live anti-intellectual lives.

Ludger’s Ghanaian godfather, though a director of a non-governmental organization, chokes him with chores that are incongruent with his personality.

Ludger is given a beggarly elementary task of selling satchet water in a wooden kiosk he renovates with the help of his godfather. Very anti-intellectual indeed.

The movie should have been a steep cultural interface between the two racial classes of the characters involved.

The effort made by scriptwriter in portraying the African is just slightly better than that of the ‘bush man film’ maker who makes an animal defecate on the head or in the face of an African character.

In contrast, contemporary Africans use the internet, invest in fashion and style and sell intellectual properties.
Continuous portrayal of negative African stereotypes stifles the truth about the real nature of the contemporary African life.

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