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Review: Elmina

Updated: Mar 30, 2022

I went to see American-born, Goldsmiths graduate Doug Fishbone’s new project Elmina in Amsterdam not knowing what to expect. From the sparkling reviews, I guess I was looking forward to the sometimes baffling artistic maneuvering of African cinema. Growing up in Africa, I have to say I was often annoyed by Nollywood. Polished African cinema does exist, but Nollywood seemed to me then, quite subpar. However, I have learned to suspend the inner film critic and enjoy these films for what they are.

Initially, I was only faintly put off by the long lecture before the film, which was to explain Ghanaian history and culture to us; and the characteristics of Ghanaian film. This bothered me. I suppose it would be a perfect world if every artist could order a lecture to the audience before they were allowed to view the work. It was definitely an informative session, especially for the majority of the audience, which clearly knew nothing on the matter, oohing and aahing when they were told how Ghanaians were.

When the film finally began, I suddenly realized that I had been transported back into the old days when low-budget African cinema was impossible to escape. While this satirical presentation could have been expected to open discourse on the nature of mass media and consumerism, the only intervention the artist has made was inserting himself into an otherwise all-African production.

The idea had potential. Fishbone is asking us to suspend our disbelief and consider our preconceptions and interactions with film and fiction. But he scarcely uses this opportunity for any kind of transformation.

For 90 agonizing minutes, one has to be content that the main attraction is Fishbone as the white man who is the producer and lead actor. The artist states that by not at all acknowledging his whiteness in the film he is showing that Ghanaians do not see color (which I have disturbingly heard before), but rather otherness. The other would, in this case, be the Chinese who are in his opinion the real outsiders.

In the film, he defies the chief by refusing to sell his land to Chinese businessmen and encouraging other villagers to follow his lead. While Fishbone avoids acknowledging his whiteness, it is quite apparent not only physically, but also behaviorally and psychologically. While other men in the tribe are seemingly servile to the chief, Fishbone’s character is portrayed as the 'voice of reason. Even the chief of the village is shown as a buffoon in comparison to the moral and upright white (aka non-white) man.

While the other characters are laced with flaws, mistakes, and sheer stupidity, his character remains rational, reflective, and apparently innocent – all cornerstones of the ideological Western male logic. Even when he is defeated during a wrestling match, it is shown that he was not to blame, but it was his wife and his best friend who had erred.

Generally, Fishbone’s film has enjoyed amazing success in the Netherlands. The attendees at the screening at the Netherlands Institute for Film and Media Art seemed smitten with this project. Though I was excited to see a large number of viewers of African descent among the audience (although still few in comparison), I was proud and yet wounded when as the film progressed they left one by one before the presentation could reach its end.

After the screening, I asked about the issues of exoticism and exceptionalism, which to me were the primary implications of such a work and a crucial ingredient to it being a success in the Netherlands. Fishbone then denied any association with exoticism and repeated for the umpteenth time that since he had not written the script he should not be held accountable. It is a Ghanaian film, he insisted – he is just the lead and the financier, that’s all.

I then posed a different question: Hypothetically, if I as an African artist financed and played the lead in a traditional film that featured a Dutch or American cast and crew, would that be considered a meritorious and even satirical work of art? “No”, he replied. Because I am black and there are already black people in the West and because it would cost too much money. Confounding.

Besides the fact that I found the film mind-numbingly boring (I even resorted to texting friends about how bad it was to avoid falling asleep), I am simply not for this concept neither as a film nor as a work of art. It was just bad.

I can somewhat appreciate it as a publicity stunt, but Fishbone does not own up to that. Nor does he claim appropriation as an attitude or at least some sort of playful primitivism. The man claims nothing except the lead role in a Ghallywood film and every form of credit.

He may want us to remember that he is not responsible for the badly made film, but he is certainly reaping the benefits of reusing the popular role of a white man in the lead. Had he relayed his idea in a minute, I would be happier to accept it. Why drag it on for 90 minutes?

To Fishbone’s credit, he is a master businessman. He dips his toes into two totally unattached worlds. While enjoying the success of Elmina as an artwork in the Western art world, he can sit back while audiences in Ghana pay to see the same project as a pop film in cinemas. Lucky Doug Fishbone is sitting pretty in his borderless, raceless world.

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