TIES THAT BIND | Review (by D.K.Osei)
Warning: this review contains spoilers and discusses elements the plot in-depth.
Success begets expectations and, fresh off the back of a nine-gong haul at the recent Ghana Movie Awards before it had even been released, the premiere of Ties that Bind ought to have been burdened with the weight of expectation. The audience expected to be treated to a cinematic experience and with the likes of Nadia Buari, John Mensah, Majid Michel and, of course, the cast amongst the numerous famous faces in attendance the anticipation in the foyer of the National Theatre, Accra, was palpable.
The screening commenced abruptly unannounced, catching most of the audience off-guard but, thereafter, organizational mismanagement gave way to cinematographic and narrative brilliance.
Adobea, Buki and Theresa are three women from different walks of life bound together by a similar pain; the loss of a child. In a destined meeting in a small village in Kroboland, the women journey together to redemption, love, life and forgiveness as they renovate a dilapidated clinic for the villagers.
"Village of woes"
The initial scene in which Dr Buki Ocansey arrives to revive the clinic in the “village of woes” and coincidentally runs into an old expecting classmate, set the stylistic tone impeccably and, from that moment on, it was clear that, if nothing else, the audience would be treated to a visual master class.
Ama K. Abrebrese, fast maturing into one of Ghana’s finest leads, played the role of the proud but embattled Buki Ocansey with the poise of an actress relishing the challenge of playing the multi-dimensional characters scripted by Djansi. Slightly encumbered by having to shift her accent for the role, Ama still managed to portray her complex character effectively despite the sometimes staccato delivery of her dialogue. For the rapidly ascending actress, this was a coming-of-age role and, it’s fair to say that Ama (31 years old) has blossomed under the stewardship of Djansi, who has cast her as lead actress in her last two films. The lead character Dr Buki Ocansey is human and hence full of contradictions, laughing at the idea of a ghost initially yet unnerved by an inexplicably ghostly presence later on. In the same vein, she’s logical and employs common sense in the execution of her medical duties, yet is overly emotional and irrational when interacting with her fiancé. Again, seemingly of religious persuasion she couldn’t bring herself to neither pray nor accept God’s hand in delivering a healthy baby. From displays of pride, anger, sorrow and vulnerability, Ama took us on her character’s emotional rollercoaster with competence and credibility. That said, her character wasn’t all misery and Ama’s British upbringing meant that she was also able to deliver to perfection the requisite sarcasm or dry humour on tap, when required.
Buki’s pregnant former classmate, Addobea, is a housewife. Without a job, her main familial role is to be a wife to her husband and a mother to his children. However, as we later discover, her inability to fulfil the latter role begins to impact on perceptions of her suitability for the former.
Lastly, Teresa, played by the American actress Kimberly Elise, was struggling to re-establish contact with the daughter (now 12) that she couldn’t bring herself to love when she was a baby. Although we see her as confident and spirited woman, she is still shackled by her past and evokes sympathy as her attempts to reconnect with her daughter bear no fruit.
"I am a woman... FOUR children!"
All three women are unable to mother whether by virtue of the inability to conceive a healthy baby, the inability to deliver a healthy baby, the inability to keep a child alive throughout its infancy or the inability to gain access to a child. All the struggles and trauma we witness, from the near-breakdown of Buki and Lucas’ (John Dumelo) relationship to the pain of estrangement felt by Teresa to the vitriol and abuse suffered by Addobea at the whim of her mother-in-law, are a direct result of the woman being unable to fulfil what society - and many women themselves - believe is a woman’s incontrovertible natural purpose of birthing and bringing up children. The notion that a female is not truly a woman until she is married and has raised a child she gave birth to was explored in perhaps the most chilling of scenes whereby the mother of a 6-year old girl who had been raped by her father launched a staunch defence of her husband by declaring that Buki was unqualified to judge her for defending her husband until she was a married mother. “What would you know about keeping a family together?” In a comic reversal of this theme, a woman offered Dr Ocansey help to deliver a baby. When the doctor asked whether she was a nurse, she quipped “I am a woman… FOUR children!” Yet, when all three leads finally appear in the same scene together late on in the movie their mothering instincts were clear and innate (in response to the raped girl) whilst the child’s actual mother wailed helplessly in what was to develop into a truly stellar performance from the actress Ebbe Bassey.
Despite the heavy themes tackled by this play, Djansi often employed humour as a tool to highlight some of the societal fallacies we subscribe to. Somewhat disappointingly, the audience mistook the tone of one scene depicting the humiliation suffered by a pregnant Addobea at the request of her mother-in-law and reacted with inexplicable laughter when a local elder was charged with performing a ritual which was painted as a clear violation of Addobea’s body and, by extension, her integrity and autonomy. Irrespective of the immaturity of the audience at that point, it was clear that they were entertained throughout the movie and the din of chatter heard in the auditorium was a testament to the fact that Djansi’s film will provoke conversation aplenty.
Throughout the movie, Djansi explores the power struggles between the dichotomies that lie at the heart of Ghanaian society to depict a country that is, somewhat schizophrenically, at war with itself. Traditionalism vs modernism, religion vs science, prayer vs medicine, superstition vs logic, customary law enforcement vs statutory law enforcement, prideful women vs docile women, the role of man vs the role of woman, the list goes on... The clear inference, however, was that the old norms are shackling the development and advancement of our women, our relationships and our communities in general. A community was happy to go without a clinic because of their mistaken (and ultimately risible) belief that the building was haunted by a ghost. When warned by a villager against going into the clinic Buki asked: –Have you seen the ghost? only to be met with the telling reply: -Hmm, I don’t wish to see it!
Likewise, in what was arguably the best constructed scene of the movie, another community was reluctant to allow science to intervene to prevent a woman miscarrying for the fourth time (: -prophet said it’s not a matter for a doctor!) only to later give God the glory when the woman ‘miraculously’ delivered having finally sought medical assistance. Whilst the other three babies that were miscarried weren’t, this fourth and surviving baby (painfully huge for a new-born, but as he’s the cute son of e.tv Ghana presenter Caroline Sampson we will let that slide!) was “…conceived at the altar…” and that’s why it survived. Apparently.
Further, Addobea would certainly have met her maker earlier than scheduled simply because she was not willing to speak up about feeling ill, perhaps for fear of stigmatization. Djansi’s call for African women to find courage and to find their voices was vuvuzela-esque in its loudness and distinctiveness.
In a particularly harrowing scene, the director succeeded in encapsulating the beauty of the country we live in and overlaid it with the horror of the lives some of us have lived. We are treated to the most sumptuous of wide shots featuring the lush rolling green hills of rural Ghana, capturing Ghana in all her natural beauty only for the camera to the pan from right to left to reveal one woman’s personal Somme – the graves of her seven children, side-by-side. However, this was one such instance when the otherwise impeccable scripting seemed to teeter on the brink of melodrama (the other being when it was revealed to Teresa that her daughter was autistic). Ignoring the observation that the graves all looked like they were laid on the same day, which is incongruent with the storyline, the cinematography here was exemplary and the plight of a woman who was incapable of raising her children was hammered home when her mother-in-law later outcast her, branding her as the witch who ate her seven children, further compounding her grief.
Okyame Kwame makes a cameo appearance as the film comes down from its climax to its conclusion but, for all the woes and grief Djansi had subjected us to over the course of the hour and a half, viewers would have been forgiven for expecting a happy ending. However, the hallmark of a good writer is the ability to resist a happy ending for happy endings’ sake (Uncle Ebo, take note). Instead, what we’re treated to is a hopeful ending. There’s no guarantee that Buki and Lucas’ marriage will stand the test of time once the honeymoon period is over, just as there’s no guarantee that Teresa will be granted custody of Fawzia or, indeed, will ever see her own daughter again. Similarly, Addobea is by no means certain to overcome cancer and, even if she does, she’ll still have to return to face the stigma back in the village. In this way, the film ends on an upbeat note but if we permit ourselves to wonder where each character would be five years on no one’s opinion could claim superiority over another’s.
Waiting for the Barbarians
This film has more issues than Time magazine and even went so far as to interrogate how questions pertaining to Africa, her culture, norms and people are addressed in academia – an issue one felt Djansi was itching to write a thesis on! Another loud cry was Djansi’s insistence that failure to think, analyse and decide for one’s self can have consequences that are risible at best or hugely damaging at worst. The theme of the ghost running throughout the script draws parallels to the works of Kafka, M.Knight Shyamalan (The Village) and J.M. Coetzee (Waiting for the Barbarians), whereby the fear of the unknown or the fear of change becomes a strong form of societal control, safeguarding norms and the status quo.
What Djansi has succeeded in creating is a film that prods at the structures and the belief systems that society adheres to, leaving the viewer to conclude that our perceptions of even the most elementary of dichotomies – right and wrong – are undeniably hazy and are inextricably linked to factors beyond our own immediate control. In the process of creating a thought-provoking film, she has also succeeded in opening a dialogue about our society as a whole and what role its history should have in its future. Don’t expect Ties that Bind to offer any cast-iron solutions to the themes it raises; it shies away from being a didactic manual for change in favour of being a vehicle for thought.
Whilst women’s rights is a pressing issue in the developing and developed world alike, Ghanaian men are said to love their women and there was little in the film from the lead men to suggest otherwise. Leila’s next challenge, however, is set to be a much harder sell to a society with deep-engrained opinions on the topic she will confront – homosexuality. In the meantime, the cast and crew of Ties that Bind can hold their heads high as this production is another shining example of the quality that Ghana’s film professionals should aspire to and Ama K Abebrese can continue to smell the sweet aroma of vindication vis-a-vis her decision to relocate to Ghana.
Ties that Bind can be seen at the Silverbird Cinema in the Accra Mall.