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Amartei Armar is a Ghanaian-American writer, director and producer based in Accra. In 2018, he released VAGABONDS, his first film shot in Ghana, which was also screened in many film festivals around the world.
Recently, with his film, TSUTSUE, which was screened at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, Armar made waves as the first Ghanaian director shortlisted for the Palme d’Or for short films in the festival’s entire history.
Tsutsue is a 15-minute short film set in a small Ghanian town which follows Sowah and Okai, the sons of a fisherman, as they struggle to cope with the death of their eldest brother who drowned during a fishing expedition.
In this interview, the filmmaker gives insight into his filmmaking style and philosophy, as well as how it felt to witness an African story being screened for a global audience at Cannes.
Tell us a bit about your directing style and philosophy.
My philosophy revolves entirely around empathy. Film is an incredibly empathetic medium in which we can bring new ideas, cultures, civilizations, and people to others and use it to strengthen connectivity. My directing style is that I believe in having everyone on set, particularly the actors, to be on board with that vision and push themselves to achieve it
How does Tsutsue embody this?
Tsutsue is bringing the lives of Fisherfolk in Teshie, particularly their younger generation, and relate the struggles they face to the global discourse. We are showing how we, too, are also experiencing the same global issues (climate change and pollution in this case) whilst bringing our perspective to a world audience.
In conversations around climate changes, African nations are usually left out, although we feel the brunt of it too. What choices influenced your casting decision? Do your actors have to be social conscious or they just have to embody the film?
I wanted us to always mix the real people with those we have worked with before. I often go for a blend of non-actors, first or second time actors, and maybe one with experience. I like this mixture because it keeps us all on our toes in terms of performance and where the story can go. For me it was most important for the actors to understand the POV of the characters they were embodying. They had to know what it feels like to live their lives. That’s why most of the cast in this film are actually from the places we shot. Those were real fishermen and real townsfolk in the background. Our main character also comes from the town we shot in. Though his father is not a fisherman, but a teacher.
This film seems personal for you. Is there a past experience, realization or knowledge that birthed the film?
Tsutsue was born through three spiritually interwoven true stories. The first was from an experience our Producer had when a neighborhood boy discovered a dead body in an open sewer. As he went to tell others, it rained a great thunderstorm. By the time he managed to get everyone to the spot he saw the body, it wasn’t there. No one believed him and he was labeled crazy. It wasn’t until three days later that the body was discovered in the ocean near where the sewer connects to the sea and the boy was exonerated.
The second story comes from within my own family. Some years ago we lost the eldest brother of my father. He is survived by ten children, all grown except for the last born who also happens to be the only male. His father passed and even buried in the UK whilst he was still in boarding school here in Ghana. Because my cousin never got to see his father buried, he couldn’t emotionally comprehend the loss when he was told. This manifested with him believing on numerous occasions that he saw his father constantly in the streets and in the faces of other men. The spiritual connection to his late father and the mental toll it took on him during his formative years is something that has stuck with me since.
The third true story came from a documentary we were doing on the fishing industry in Ghana. How 70% of what the fisherman take out of the ocean with their nets is just trash. Because of this, they must go deeper out into the ocean and into harsher, sometimes life-endangering, fishing conditions. It is a fearsome task for them because in Ghanaian culture to drown at sea is to have a spirit condemned to wandering the earth without knowing where home is.
Interesting. Three stories led to Tsutsue. How did it feel to see this screen at Cannes, to see the film connect with people?
That was the best part. To see everyone’s curiosity and willingness to learn more about Ghana and our culture was truly fascinating. Cannes is a festival that brings people in from all over the world to watch cinema. And to have Ghana/Africa be a part of that global cinema village was a dream come true.
We are currently making distribution deals with a few companies in Europe to release the film on TV channels and streaming networks. We are also looking to have a few private screenings in Ghana as well.
Any screenings for us in Nigeria?
We certainly hope so!
We are actively rooting for you, Tsutsue, and more exposure for African stories and cinema.