Leila Djansi’s feature film Like Cotton Twines is currently screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF). Shot in a village in Ghana, this socially compelling film takes a look at the power of tradition, community, heritage, and how westerners internalize modern day slavery. The film revolves around an eager American volunteer who teaches in his mother’s homeland, a Ghanaian village. He is enthusiastic and eager to help his students fulfill their potential, especially Tuigi (Ophelia Klenam Dzidzornu), a smart 13-year-old girl. But Tuigi’s family must atone for a deadly accident committed by her father, and according to religious custom, Tuigi must abandon her education and be offered as a sex slave. Clinging to his Western moral senses, Micah pits himself in a battle against tribal culture and the state.
Djansi began her film career in Ghana prior to transitioning to the United States. Her independent film company Turning Point Pictures intends on creating “films about significant social issues affecting people globally, using the medium to educate audiences and raise awareness about these pertinent issues, with the belief that these films can act as a catalyst for change.” Djansi’s powerful body of work includes I Sing of a Well, Sinking Sands, Ties That Bind, and most recently Where Children Play.
HBR Media had the pleasure of speaking with Djansi about her latest film Like Cotton Twines.
HBR: In your own words how would you describe your film?
Djansi: Like Cotton Twines is about an American volunteer, Micah (Jay Ellis), who goes back to his African roots to teach, and he discovers that one of his students, a 14 year old girl named Tugi (Ophelia Dzidzornu), has to become a Trokosi (a form of slavery) to atone for a crime that her father committed. In his struggle to rescue her, he discovers a new form of slavery that he related to his own African-American identity.
HBR: What was the inspiration behind this powerful story?
Djansi: When I was 10 years old, I experienced a Trokosi in the market. I was very young, but I could still see that she has lost all hope. Years later, a good friend of mine lost her father. At the funeral, there was a bus load of Trokosis in attendance because her dad was a voodoo priest. The Trokosis were chanting “we are queens not slaves.” These women lived hard lives and their eyes were filled with so much pain, yet they were able to chant such a powerful statement. I started to wonder how they were able to go from being pulled away from their families with their innocence and freedom stripped to chanting “we are queens not slaves.” Witnessing their strength first hand was a very powerful moment for me, and I knew that I had to tell their story.
HBR: What were some of the prominent themes in the film that you wanted to explore?
Djansi: Trokosi is a form of modern day slavery, and when I came to America, I would hear Americans discuss racism, slavery, freedom, and civil rights. I wondered what an American would think if he went back to Africa. I also wondered if an American would realize that he would be an outsider if he returned to his origin. My goal was to mesh these two ideas together while telling the story of resilient women. I also wanted to explore the emotional journey of an African American with roots of slavery, and his reaction when unexpectedly faced with modern day slavery in Africa.
HBR: What was the most rewarding aspect of making this film?
Djansi: To be a filmmaker you have to love it regardless of how challenging the day is. Independent filmmakers must love film so much that they smile in the face of all adversity that comes their way. Completing the film amidst the challenges that presented themselves is what I found most rewarding.
We had very little money for all that we wanted to do. We were not allowed into the real shrines so we had to recreate them, and build them from scratch. We had to build half of Tuigi’s house including the entire kitchen and the living room. It was very ambitious! My production designer must have thought that I was crazy (laughter). We didn’t have fancy and high-tech equipment so the DP and I had to come up with creative ways to make many things happen. I remember when an HDMI cable went out, we had to figure out how we were going to light a scene. We wound up changing the blocking and had to use as much available light as possible. Although Ghana is not developed in the infrastructure of film, the hearts of the crew were in a beautiful place. This alone made up for everything else. We all pulled together to find the solutions, and it ultimately everything came together.
HBR: Was it always your plan to shoot the film in Ghana?
Djansi: The story wouldn’t have worked anywhere else, and going back to the kind of budget we had, I needed to work in an environment that I could manipulate. I am Ghanaian, and the village that we shot in was my dad’s hometown. My dad was considered a bit of a hero to his people, so everyone was very welcoming. The entire village shut down for us while we were filming, and everything we needed was provided. We were even ale to shoot in the Chief’s palace. We were very thankful for this because it was very important for us to be able to work within the confines of our budget. Half of the crew and even many of the actors stayed at my house, and we had to commute 30 minutes from the city to the village that we were shooting in. My mother was even helping out in the kitchen and cooking for the crew (laughter).
HBR: What do you want your audience to take away from this film?
Djansi: I recently started a hashtag on Twitter #MoretoAfrica because I want people to see that there is more to Africa than war and strife. I understand that this movie is dark, and it’s not exactly a positive story; however, in its own way, it’s a story about a brave women and people who are open to change. In Ghana, they are very open to change, we just need that one person who is bold and brave enough to lead the way. The people have great hearts, and the country is ready for good things to happen. I would like the industry to tell stories about Africa without everything revolving around children with guns and HIV. That is not all that Africa is about. We are evolving and growing as a nation, and would like support from the arts to tell stories that project us and allow us to come into our own.
HBR: What advice do you have for female filmmakers who wish to follow your footsteps?
Djansi: You are going to hear a lot of no’s. Do not let that get to you. Find people who believe in your vision and keep working. If the world likes your song, they will sing along with you. Just keep singing.