Filming Without Running Water or Electricity: Berlinale's Inspiring 'Nakom'
The first-ever Berlinale film from Ghana, Nakom was shot with no running water or electricity, with a crew of people entirely from the village.
Nakom was actually made by two Americans: T.W. “Trav” Pittman and Kelly Daniela Norris. Inspired by Pittman’s time in the Peace Corps stationed in the titular village, the film follows a promising college student who returns to his rural home in northern Ghana after the sudden death of his father. Newly in possession of the family property and saddled with his father’s burden of debt, the hero (first-time actor Jacob Ayanaba) attempts to modernize his family’s onion farm, all the while struggling with village dramas and pondering his newly uncertain future.
Ahead of the film’s premiere in Berlin’s Panorama track, NFS caught up with Pittman and Norris to talk about viewing Africa through Western eyes, being influenced by Ozu and the challenges of making a movie in the “developing” world.
NFS: Can you talk about your own relationship to Ghana, and to the Nakom region in particular?
Pittman: I was living in Ghana in Nakom for two years. It’s a place that I consider my second home. It was a warm, welcoming experience, and a totally different way of living, outside of my own experience as an American mostly living in urban spaces. It opens you up to the whole possibility of the way a human being can make a living, make an existence. And that kind of struggle, of this more traditional lifestyle and a more modern, Westernized, globalized ideal, is really the main thrust of the story.
I was lucky to collaborate with a Ghanaian filmmaker from the village, Isaac Adakudugu, who cowrote the script, and he’s a producer on the film as well. He was totally instrumental in bringing all the pieces together… It’s hard to get resources. I guess it’s hard to get resources anywhere for making a film. There is, of course, a fairly thriving Ghanaian film industry, kind of like Nollywood. [But] he likes to tell stories that have a meaning, that have substance, and what he feels like has a value to people.
Norris: Trav and I have been collaborators for the last ten years, with filmmaking ambitions. I got to visit Trav when she was in the Peace Corps, so I was in Nakom five years prior [to the film] for one week of my life. I did not know that we were going to return in five years because we were going to make a film there. My role was very much in support of seeing the script through, but really the faithfulness to the region and to the culture, I was very much reliant on both Trav and Isaac.
NFS: How did your background as Americans inform your approach to both the story and also the physical production of the film?
Norris: Well, I think the story itself is very critical of Westernization. And that’s very much inflected by our own experiences as Westerners. Also, stylistically, at least for me, it’s very important to not have a raw, shaky, handheld aesthetic that is often used to characterize [air quotes] “developing” regions.
Pittman: Those air quotes aren’t going to be on the recorder.
Norris: Oh, sorry.
Pittman: Yeah, the idea of prosperity or even piece – these aren’t images we associate with really the continent as a whole. Having lived there for two years, I know this is a frustration that Isaac has and that our lead actor, Jacob, has: that the narratives, that especially the West is told about West Africa in particular, tend to be negative, pejorative, violent –
Norris: Homogenous. They homogenize the area. I mean, Nakom is very different from even the neighboring towns, let alone when you’re treating countries like they’re the exact same.
NFS: You did a Kickstarter campaign. Did you also have Ghanaian producers? Ghanaian cast and crew?
Pittman: The Kickstarter was for post-production, so we funded production through private investment – wasn’t a lot of money – from a few different sources. It was just five of us on set from outside Ghana. The rest, cast and crew, were all Ghanaian.
NFS: What was it like working with them?
Pittman: It was fantastic. It wasn’t people who had a lot of filmmaking experience generally, so we had the opportunity to shape the production the way that we make films, which is very low-budget, very guerrilla style. Kelly wrote and directed a feature that we shot in Cuba previous to this [Sombras de Azul], which was –
Norris: In some ways even more guerrilla. Because that was pre-embargo lift.
Pittman: And faster. So this one, we didn’t necessarily have more money, but we had more time. And we really wanted to allow ourselves to get the quality of performance, of footage. We were there for four months, and we shot for most of that, in part because we wanted to capture this seasonal transformation that happens, which is crucial to the story.
NFS: Were you pulling from the Ghanaian film industry or were these people coming from outside?
Norris: We were definitely on the outskirts, for sure. We really weren’t working with the Ghanaian film industry.
Pittman: Mostly it’s based in the major cities, Accra or Kumasi. We were in this very remote area. But attitude is so crucial as far as putting together a team. It was astonishing to me how much support we got from the whole village in order to make the film happen.
NFS: Were the villagers also the cast and crew?
Norris: It was all in the village. It was entirely internal. When we first got there, we had to meet with the chief and follow certain protocols, and the elders blessed the film and gave it their approval. And from that point on we were able to move forward. Isaac had already set up auditions through the churches. Religion plays a very large role in this area. They have one mosque, one Christian church – it’s sort of 50-50, very harmonious. We went through the churches and auditioned for each role. And then we had a network of the villagers who were working with us.
"The [village] elders blessed the film and gave it their approval."
NFS: In Nakom, there was no electricity or running water. What were some of the challenges of that?
Norris: Oh, so many.
Pittman: Oh, it was fine. [laughs]
Norris: Sitting in the fields, that was always fun. You get used to that pretty quickly, but after the harvest there were very few places to hide.
Pittman: Yes. She’s talking about using the restroom in millet fields. [laughs] There are latrines, but the more traditional way is to dig a hole.
Norris: Not having electricity for filmmaking is a massive challenge, and a big stress on Bob [Geile], our DP, as well. We had this system of charging batteries in a neighboring town, having to send them at the end of a really long night -- so sometimes in the wee hours – it was, like, a 40-minute bike ride. And then having to go in the early morning to pick up the batteries, to make sure we had everything we needed for each day.
Pittman: It worked, somehow. We also had a really amazing production manager, Alicia Sully, who has a foundation of roving filmmakers called What Took You So Long?
Norris: She knows a lot about how to enter a space [and] turn it into something that’s livable for a small crew.
NFS: What equipment were you using in order to weather the challenges?
Pittman: It was pretty minimal. We’re not huge on the technical side, but the camera was a Sony FS100.
Norris: So very mobile and versatile, less intrusive.
Pittman: We had three Labs in various stages of workability –
Norris: One of which crapped out pretty early on, and we had to rely on a stranger to deliver it to us, from the U.S. to Ghana. It was a social media call for help.
"It was a lot about subverting the Western gaze and trying to combat a type of sensational, headline-driven imagery that is used to portray African regions."
Pittman: Halfway through the shoot. That was great. Basically, Bob brought all our equipment in just two suitcases. So we had to get a generator for the night scenes, which actually turned out really well.
NFS: The film itself feels very patient, not guerrilla-style.
Pittman: We wanted an aesthetic that would give that Hollywood sheen, or Old Hollywood. Our earlier point of comparison in terms of a storytelling perspective was Ozu.
Norris: As far as intimate family dramas, and focusing on internal politics on a very small scale.
NFS: Did you have audiences outside of Ghana in mind when you were making it, or were you making it for Ghana?
Norris: I think in our initial dialogue on this, [it] was a lot about subverting the Western gaze, and trying to combat a type of sensational, headline-driven imagery that is used to portray African regions. So in that way, it was for Western audiences. But I think that started to really shift during the process, because it became intensely collaborative, and the idea of this playing in Ghana seems very important… It’s representing a northern story, where all the stories in Ghana seem to be focused on a southern culture and southern lifestyles, which is the dominant one and wealthier area. I’d like to think it could be for any audience.
To learn more about Nakom, visit its Berlinale profile page.
Be sure to check back for more coverage of Berlinale 2016.