Concerning our civilisation and images, German film director Werner Herzog said, “I think a civilisation is doomed to die if it does not develop adequate language or images.” Over the years, many filmmakers have risen up to Herzog’s challenge to imagine new languages and images to tell stories of the human condition within and outside its extremes, similarities, contradictions, desires and lacks.
British-Ghanaian filmmaker and animator Comfort Arthur is one of the artists whose works travel a wide gamut of stories and storytelling to give audiences fresh perspectives to their everyday lives. Through her numerous projects including Black Barbie (2016), The Cursed Ones (2016), Children of the Mountain (2016) and the web series I’m Living in Ghana Get me Out of Here, Comfort employs language, animation, humour, poetry (and hopefully soon, virtual reality) to create scenes that remain with audiences long after the credits. Her work has been showcased in more than four dozen film festivals and won her more than 15 awards.
Down River Road had a chat with Comfort on her work in film-making, craft, and the projects she is currently working on.
DRR: Tell us about your work and the choice of mixing up different mediums in one project.
COMFORT: Most of my films deal with social topics. Black Barbie is about skin bleaching, Untitled is about sexual harassment faced by African women and Imagine was about the Chibok girls.
I use a lot of poetry in combination with animation because there is something beautiful about poetry.
I am working on another film on malaria which is also a poetry animation. I have a love for poetry and combining it with animation because the words that are used in poetry can be very visual. When you use poetry you can get a message across very vividly. That’s why I like to combine poetry and animation to get my story out.
The project requires me to do several live-action shoots and we’ve had to be on pause throughout last year because of COVID-19 and we are filming in the UK. It has been really hard, especially for me, because this is the first time I am dabbling in live-action and I wasn’t expecting all this to happen.
We are now thinking outside the box. How to get things done and we’ve resorted to a lot of virtual meetings. We’ve also spent a lot of the lockdown time on development and it’s been a learning curve for me.
DRR: How personal to you are the stories you chose to focus on and what does the choice of several mediums and languages add to the narrative?
COMFORT: I always say to people that if you want to know an artist or a filmmaker get to know their work because their work will reveal so much about themselves.
Most of my films are something that I have experienced or that I can relate to. For example Living in Ghana Get Me out of Here is a personal comical narrative about my home country. I am also into humour because it is a very strong tool.
A lot of people assume that I do a lot of serious films but I come from a background of comedy and most of my films are comedy. I just took a break for a while to focus on the serious stuff.
One thing I love is people can relate to the film when they watch it, particularly people from the diaspora, because there is the connection of trying to bridge home in the west and home in Africa and this is something I wanted to do with this film. It’s also not just about Ghana but all over Africa; it’s a generic look.
I was born and studied in England, then moved to Ghana and everything was different. I used to holiday in Ghana all the time but going on holiday is different from living in the country. It was a total culture shock for me returning and having to adapt to living in Ghana and the dynamics of life there. Story is very important but execution is also important. In my latest project we spent a whole year working on story.
DRR: You have also turned your critically acclaimed film Black Barbie into a children’s book. Tell us about this.
COMFORT: Black Barbie the film wasn’t supposed to be turned into a book. I am working on another children’s project called Naughty Me and the publisher reached out to me and wanted to work on that but after he watched Black Barbie, he said to me we should work on a book because film has a different language from film.
What you see in the film is totally different from the book even though the storylines are similar. This is for children and aspects like dialogue for example have changed to make more children understand.
I have also learnt that having a producer on board helps you very much. I have had to do everything by myself in most of the projects in the past without a producer or a scriptwriter.
Where I am at with my career at the moment I am able to collaborate with producers and scriptwriters and this makes life easier. If there was something I could change about Black Barbie is having a producer and even additional animators on board. I love animating but sometimes it gets to a point as you get older you just want to direct.
DRR: How crucial are film festivals and workshops in teaching film-making particularly in our setting where resources are relatively thin.
COMFORT: Before the lockdown last year I flew to Nigeria and I did a one-week workshop for Ladima, teaching young women introduction to animation.
There are a lot of young women in Africa who see animations and are appealed by the art form but they do not know how to go about it. I’ve never had the opportunity before so when they approached me I was thrilled. I love teaching and giving knowledge to anybody that comes my way.
We did a one-week workshop and learnt how to do stop motion animation which was great. Now they are expanding it and have set up a school for women and I will be one of the instructors. We’ll be teaching courses for beginners, intermediary, and advanced stages, delving into both the theoretical and practical elements. After that students can branch off and specialise into any area they see fit.
DRR: What are you looking forward to in the near future and what are some of the insights you find useful today as you develop your craft?
COMFORT: A lot of animation in Africa is produced by one-man teams. Most of us have dreams and ideas and a lot of great stories come from Africa but we are limited in terms of resources. There are so many people who have stories but because they don’t have a team they are unable to bring it to life so it’s not that we don’t have stories.
That’s why collaborating with other local companies to bring together a project is important. We need to learn about outsourcing and collaborating. It’s still hard to get funding for projects in Africa as well as in the UK.
I am now dabbling into virtual reality because that is where things are going. When I visited the UK I went to a film festival and got exposed to all of it and I am interested in interactivity and how we can use films to get audience participation. That’s what I am exploring at the moment and working towards.