The Rex theatre in Accra, Ghana. (Pic: AFP)

Filmmaker battles to save Ghana’s historic cinema

The Rex, a single-storey, slope-roofed movie house was once the hotspot for film fans in Ghana, but, like many of the country’s cinemas, it hardly shows movies anymore.

The building is now abandoned, except on Sundays when dozens of evangelical Christians cram through its century-old walls for weekly, boisterous prayers sessions.

The Rex theatre in Accra, Ghana. (Pic: AFP)
The Rex theatre in Accra, Ghana. (Pic: AFP)

The Rex’s fate is part of a wider decay of film-going culture in Ghana, the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence and which become the hub for the continent’s film industry in the immediate post-colonial era, experts said.

But a 29-year-old Ghanaian-American filmmaker, Akosua Adoma Owusu, has launched a plucky grassroots effort to save the picture house and fight the trend.

The “save-your-local-landmark” campaign is commonplace in the West but remains a rarity in some developing countries like Ghana.

For Owusu, the motivation behind “Damn the Man, Save the Rex” was partly personal: after building a reputation abroad as a maker of short films, she realised there was nowhere to show her work in the country of her birth.

“Whether it’s short films or performance or anything, you have to kind of pay a venue to screen your work,” Owusu said.

Owusu, who won the best short film award at the 2013 African Movie Academy Awards and whose productions have been added to the permanent collection at the Whitney Museum in New York, managed to raise $9 000 online.

It was enough to hire out the old movie hall for a night and show her latest work.

But she has bigger plans and wants to convert the Rex into a dedicated artistic space.

If “Save the Rex” succeeds and the structure built in the early 20th century by Lebanese immigrants becomes a permanent film-screening venue, it would double the number of functioning cinemas in Ghana’s capital.

Currently, the only working movie theatre is an American-style cineplex embedded in an upscale shopping centre.

But more are planned to serve the country’s growing consumer class, with Ghana boasting one of the world’s fastest growing economies, fuelled by gold and cocoa exports as well as a nascent offshore oil industry.

Experts voiced frustration at the current state of film culture in the west African nation, recalling a time when the head of state personally oversaw the industry.

At independence in 1957, when Kwame Nkrumah was president, “Ghana was the hub for filmmaking in west Africa and generally Africa,” said Anita Afonu, a director and expert of Ghanaian film history.

Nkrumah believed he could shape opinions in the new nation through indigenous films and personally read scripts and viewed pre-release cuts, she added.

The former president, ousted by the military in 1966, had set up the Ghana Film Industry Corporation, which helped aspiring artists access film and editing equipment.

“His ability to change the mindset of Ghanaians … to tell them (they) are equally worth what the white man thinks he is worth… and to be able to teach them to do things for themselves was very, very paramount,” Afonu said.

After the coup, Ghana’s once-burgeoning film industry crumbled. Military rulers imposed curfews in the capital, keeping people indoors and away from cinemas.

The film corporation’s properties were eventually sold to Malaysian investors, who sloughed off the movie theatres to private owners who gradually converted most of the halls to churches.

As in other countries, the proliferation of DVD technology also devastated historic movie houses such as the Rex.

But the impact has been more acute in Ghana, which is flooded by straight-to-DVD productions from Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry, which pumps out more than 1 000 titles per year.

Mark Amoonaquah, owner of the Roxy in Accra, said he held on as long as he could, showing movies to the dozen or so people who would sit on the outdoor cinema’s faded blue benches.

Ultimately he had to close temporarily, he said, because unless “a strange movie or a very interesting movie” came out, Ghanaians had effectively abandoned going to the cinema.

Owusu’s films bear little of the shaky camerawork and screaming matches that typify Ghana’s current indigenous productions.

Her latest film, Kwaku Ananse, is a semi-autobiographical imagination of an old Ghanaian folktale and was awarded best short film at this year’s African Movie Academy Awards.

Owusu organised a special screening a local French cultural institute for the film’s debut.

Her next work, she hopes, will open at a renovated Rex.

“I think it would be like the mecca, the place to be,” Owusu said. “Who knows? Perhaps it could make a trend of reviving cinema houses all over that are abandoned.”

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