Written by: Ato Kilson
In today’s world, representation and diversity in the film industry are turning out to be one of the most critical things, the emergence of talented Black filmmakers is more crucial than ever.
And for Ghanaian filmmaker Kobina deGraft Johnson, who has just had his short film ‘Barely Made,’ featured at the Black Web Fest, this is something he is prides himself on as he makes a name for himself in the industry.
In an exclusive interview with GQ, the New York-based Ghanaian filmmaker takes us into his creative process, the challenges he has faced as a Black filmmaker, and what the future holds for his career.
Get ready to be immersed in this insightful conversation with one of the most exciting voices in filmmaking today.
GQ: Congratulations on being selected for the grant at the Black Web Festival! How does it feel to receive this recognition for your work as an indie filmmaker?
Kobina deGraft Johnson (KGJ): Thank you, it’s really a great feeling to have hard work recognized. I am super excited to share this pilot with the world now. As an indie filmmaker there are daily challenges of trying to put a vision on screen, but with God, hard work, a great team and vision, we were able to complete it.
GQ: Can you tell us about the project you submitted for the grant and what inspired you to create it?
K.G.J: For clarity Barely Made was made before the grant was awarded. Recently fired Adwoa quickly finds out being an entrepreneur is not for the weak.. she can barely make ends meet and is caught between chasing her dream and returning to the work world all while dealing with her Ghanaian family.
The show was inspired by my 2 nieces Isabella and Olivia, who are second generation Ghanaian immigrants. America has taught me about how important representation is on TV. It empowers us. I wanted them to be able to look on TV and see themselves.
GQ: As a black filmmaker, what challenges have you faced in the industry and how have you overcome them?
K.G.J: The challenges faced always comes down to funding, As a filmmaker once you start thinking as an entrepreneur you find creative ways to solve some of your problems.
Also have to be comfortable being uncomfortable; you have to learn how to raise money for your projects. The challenges are there just like every field but a closer look at the problems bring fresh solutions
GQ: How important do you think it is for festivals like the Black Web Festival to showcase and support the work of black filmmakers?
K.G.J: Festivals are a key part in getting films out there to the world, for our film to screen means people that normally wouldn’t normally see our stories will get to experience something different.
Its very important for the work to be showcased. Our stories are inclusive in the narrative of black culture, so for Black Web Fest to make space for us, we know there are people out there that want to know about what happens in our communities.
GQ: Your previous work has explored themes of identity, community, and social justice especially in your city Tema back home in Ghana and the Bronx in New York. Can you talk about how these themes are reflected in your new project?
K.G.J: Tema is home! Growing up there, there is a lot I got to see and experience. I think our identity as Ghanaians has been lost on us for a while, because we grow up in a culture that defines who you are suppose to be vs who you are or want to be.
Film allows me explore and reimagine life. You will continue to see these themes in my films. I believe humans in general, who want to be part of a community that have identity and also believe in a system that is fair and just.
GQ: What kind of impact do you hope your film will have on audiences, particularly in terms of promoting diversity and representation?
K.G.J: Our objective after the audience experiences our film is for them to be entertained and also acquire fresh knowledge regarding Ghanaian culture. We aim to inspire upcoming filmmakers by showcasing the potential for our culture narratives to have a global impact.
After seeing ‘Barely Made,’ the hope is for the audience to learn new things about being Ghanaian and also showing new African and Black filmmakers that our local and indigenous stories can have global impact.
In terms of diversification and representation, it’s important to me because it empowers us when we see our selves and our stories on screen.
GQ: Can you discuss the creative process behind your filmmaking and how you approach bringing your ideas to life on the screen?
K.G.J: Most of my stories are inspired by experience, either my personal experience; good or bad or shared experience with other people. It’s like, I think about a time in the past and try to relive it in my head and see what really happened, with a little drama for TV purposes.
Also being in New York and working with other creatives has broadened my understanding on what you can do in film. I allow my self to think beyond reality. In terms of approach, there is a lot of preparation before the shoot.
We go through a process to make sure the story we want to tell can be told with the resources that we have. We think about every detail that adds a layer to the story; location, props, costume, hair, makeup etc.
GQ: Are there any particular filmmakers or films that have influenced your work and inspired you as an artist?
K.G.J: I have always watched a lot of 90’s movies like ‘Love Jones,’ and ‘Love and Basketball.’ I love how the stories are told and how the production shot the movie. I am starting to get into Akira Kurosawa’s work as well. Anime is a genre I follow a lot lately. I love the shots.
GQ: What advice would you give to aspiring black filmmakers who are trying to break into the industry?
K.G.J: Learn the business of film. Learn how to collaborate with people, because it’s a skill that’s acquired. For this project I collaborated with Ghanaian music artistes to score the film. We used music from Chase Forever, Jean Feier and Robbie IV.
Don’t only focus on the creative side, work with what you have. I started filming with an iPhone 4s before I eventually bought my first camera a Canon T3i.
As an independent filmmaker, you will do all the work, you will be the director, producer, editor and colorist, so invest in your self and never stop learning.
GQ: Finally, what’s next for you after completing this project, and what kind of stories do you hope to tell in the future?
K.G.J: The future is super exciting considering where Ghana is as a country. I want to tell the dynamic stories of Ghanaians. We are so multi-layered and I think currently, what we have in cinema or content has been able to only show one side of that.
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