Africa's directors have finally found the solution to the question of what cinema-goers want. It’s romantic comedy, and it doesn’t take a genius to understand why.
Stories of doom and gloom, despair and bleakness are passé these days. The audience wants aspirational stories – people they can relate to and laugh at.
They want to escape from their reality, and where better to do that than at the cinema?
That realisation led award-winning director Shirley Frimpong-Manso of Ghana to direct her first romantic comedy, Potato Potahto.
Starring a Pan-African cast, including Joselyn Dumas (Ghana), OC Ukeje (Nigeria) Chris Attoh (Ghana) and Joke Silva (Nigeria), it’s Frimpong-Manso’s first rom-com, a detour from the usual dramas we have come to expect from her.
Potato Potahto is about a divorced couple who have elected to continue living under the same roof. It’s a recipe for disaster.
The film has been touring the festival circuit. Its world premiere was at the Cannes Film Festival, where Frimpong-Manso says it was well received.
It also featured at the Durban International Film Festival, where the reception it received surprised even the director. We spoke about all this and industry politics.
It’s an interesting plot – a couple who still live together after they have divorcedseparated? It’s insane.
It is insane. (Laughs). But think about it, it’s something that real people could do. Sometimes marriage ends because people are not compatible and it didn’t work. Not because they suddenly hate each other. There’s always unfinished business and what if they try to clean this up? They can make it work again.
It kind of reminds me of Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston’s The Break-Up. But I’m sure the similarities end there?
Oh yes. That’s the only thing that’s similar about Potato Potahto and The Break-Up. We have twists no one can predict, which makes for edge-of-your-seat viewing as well as laughter. The last scene? You won’t see it coming.
So it’s a dramatic romcom. But what is it about the story that you felt would make a great film?
Divorce is a topic that never gets the comedy treatment. It’s such a serious topic and always centres on anger, betrayal, revenge and division.
Why not take a different angle and find the humour in a marriage ending? It’s told from a point of view that’s very different from the usual African stories about relationships.
You’re one of the most prolific directors on the continent. Do you think there’s more pressure on women film-makers to make hits?
Definitely. When I started 20 years ago, the pressure was there. It’s even worse now. Like many female film-makers, I’ve had to prove myself “worthy” of being taken seriously and being respected as a director. With every film, you have to think about whether the audience will appreciate it. If they don’t, the criticism is sometimes worse for a woman director.
Potato Potahto is your first movie released in South Africa – why has it taken so long?
It is the first, so I’m very excited. I think the reason we didn’t think about it before was because there seemed to be a lack of interest in films from the continent.
We have had conversations for a number of years and always got the feedback that South Africans didn’t support their own locally produced films, so what chance did films from Ghana and Nigeria have? But we have seen that it’s starting to change, slowly, and we decided to take a chance.
I’m seeing more content from the rest of Africa make its way to South Africa and vice versa. What do you think brought on the urge for us to see each other’s work?
I have been talking about collaborations for many years and I’m glad to see it’s finally happening. We need to start seeing the bigger picture with our films. Let’s make them more Pan-African. That’s the only way we can compete with Hollywood, Bollywood and China.
I was encouraged by the success of Happiness Is A Four Letter Word. That was a Pan-African film and a box office hit. It worked and it showed how much potential we have, as a continent that makes great films, if we work together.
We need to change perceptions of Africa and we can do that through our films. We need to start being a global player when it comes to productions.
You are again working with OC and Joselyn, after you worked with them on Love Or Something Like That. What is it about them, that you wanted to direct them again?
They have amazing chemistry. I cast OC first and was looking for another actress, not Joselyn, for the female lead. I was hesitant to put them together again, but I just couldn’t deny the chemistry they have.
They make magic on screen – it’s effortless. I love that they understood the story. They had comedic timing and when they needed to be serious, they delivered. It’s always a pleasure working with professionals and they are up there with the best on the continent.
They have become superstars, recognised all over Africa. So are you also relying on their star power to get bums on seats?
Of course (laughs). We are relying on their fans to go and see the film and since both are known in South Africa, it’s a bonus. OC starred in Terry Pheto and Sara Blecher’s Ayanda and the audience loved him.
Joselyn is always in South Africa and has a fan base there. And Chris Attoh was loved by the audience in Happiness Is a Four Letter Word. Plus the cast is respected all over the continent, especially in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya.
Who would you still like to work with on the continent?
I’ve worked with so many actors from West Africa, but I’m now looking forward to working with South Africans, like Thishiwe Ziqubu. She’s a force on screen. I loved her in Akin’s (Omotoso) Tell Me Sweet Something, even though she was playing a supporting role.
I then saw her in Hard To Get and fell in love. I really would love to work with her soon. I also liked Khanyi Mbau in Happiness. She has an edge to her.
Are we in the golden age of African cinema?
Without a doubt. Things are different from five years ago. The quality of films we are seeing has improved. We are collaborating with other countries on the continent. It was nearly impossible to get a Ghanaian film to play in South African cinemas five years ago. It’s possible now.
My wish is that we build on this and make our film industry sustainable. We finally have a solid foundation and it’s now up to us to make ourselves global players in the film industry. It’s still crushing to see Africans queue to see a Hollywood film while a better African one is on circuit.
I hope we will all start supporting each other. It’s the only way we will grow.
Potato Potahto will be in cinemas from Friday, November 24