- Commentary:Haunting in Akosua Adoma Owusu’s Short Experimental Films
In an ontological sense, the motion picture is an amalgamation of still images that becomes animated as the filmstrip moves through the machinery of the projector. The act of film projection creates ethereal images on the screen as it revives the ghosts of a frozen past; film is haunting and haunted. Ghanaian/American filmmaker Akosua Adoma Owusu exploits such aesthetics and more through her use of experimental forms.1
In this commentary I reflect on my own experience of an unsettling presence, a haunting, that inhabits Owusu’s work, flickering in and out of the frame, off and on the soundtrack. When I viewed her films Intermittent Delight (2007), Me Broni Ba(2009), Drexciya (2010), and Anancy (2012), a slide show and musical installation at the Studio Museum of Harlem’s Fore exhibit, I felt a haunted sensation, an awareness of something intangible that appears and disappears, unable to be fully pinned down. Intermittent Delight and Me Broni Ba exemplify my sense of Owusu’s haunting, and through close analysis of her film style I will attempt to locate their phantoms.
Me Broni Ba actually haunts my own career, making periodic appearances. I first saw the experimental documentary when I worked as one of the programmers at the 2009 Silverdocs Film Festival. We included it in the final program, where it inspired a lively question-and-answer session between Owusu and the audience at both of its screenings. I have watched the film countless times since then, using it in lectures and workshops as well as programming it in other film series.
Owusu’s work so far privileges the short form.2 Intermittent Delight is almost five minutes long, while Me Broni Ba is just under thirty minutes. Despite her films’ short duration, they convey an intensity that is visual, aural and conceptual. Owusu explores how blackness is intertwined with displacement and memory and how they engage with the construction of individual and collective identity.3 In Intermittent Delight and Me Broni Ba, Owusu takes [End Page 232] full advantage of the filmic form to grapple with the paradox of representing the unrepresentable—blackness, memory, and displacement—in her films. This haunting, in a cinematic sense, can be detected in the way she deconstructs the relationship between sound and image through her creative editing and assemblage technique.
A case in point is Owusu’s Intermittent Delight. A collage of found footage and fabric, the film opens with a grid; multicolored wax print patterns featuring x’s and o’s flash on the screen to a percussive beat.4 This sequence serves as a framing (and ordering) device and is repeated at the end of the film. The abstract yet familiar tic-tac-toe game of the opening montage evokes a playful air, a mood that Owusu sustains through out the rest of the film. She re-purposes found footage of 1960s advertisements for domestic appliances, intermixing them with footage of girls weaving fabric. Midway through the film, Owusu juxtaposes images of white West ern couples dancing with shots of black African girls. The white couples smile while the black girls have serious expressions. The music playing over both these sequences is the same percussive rhythm that marks the entire film. However, moments of dissonance come to light. There is something awry with these 1960s couples dancing to African beats. The cuts to the African girls, barely discernible through the layering of their negative images superimposed over the positive images of batik fabrics, lend a ghostlike quality to their presence. In a later sequence, the positive images of the girls are superimposed over the positive images of the fabric, but this too is jarring. As the title of the film suggests, there are glitches in the spectator’s pleasure, an intangible unease haunts our complete enjoyment of the film.
While Me Broni Ba has stylistic similarities to Intermittent Delight, especially in terms of the assemblage craft and the sound design, it exhibits moments of playfulness albeit accompanied by a more introspective tone. The film is a meditation on hair, and its title is an “Akan term of endearment...