Friday, March 23, 2012

A Sense of Place: Deron Albright’s DESTINY OF LESSER ANIMALS

By Nina Zipkin, BMFI Intern

Deron Albright’s thrilling feature directorial debut The Destiny of Lesser Animals tells the story of Boniface Koomsin, a Ghanaian National Police Inspector who was deported from the United States a decade ago. He longs to return, but a stolen passport, a dangerous trip to the capital, and an unsolved murder stand in the way of his dream. The film was shot on location in Ghana and was written by and stars Deron's frequent collaborator, Yao B. Nunoo.

Following BMFI's screening on Tuesday, March 27 at 7:30pm, the local director will join us for an audience Q&A. In anticipation of the event, Deron took the time to answer some questions via email about teaching, collaborating, and making a home in Ghana. 

Why did you want to tell this particular story? What is it about Ghana that you find fascinating?

The idea of "place" is a common thread throughout my work. I am really intrigued by the Situationist idea of "psychogeography" and how the physical spaces and social and economic conditions in which one lives impacts the sense of self, the choices one makes, and the life one lives.

When I first traveled to West Africa (Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso), to show "The Legend of Black Tom" at FESPACO 2007, I was overwhelmed with the sense of place and began to wonder what it might mean to set a classical genre story in a radically different milieu. Working with Yao Nunoo, Ghana became the obvious choice to pursue.

Filmmaker Deron Albright (center) with cinematographer Aaron T. Bowen
and actor/screenwriter Yao B. Nunoo on set

Once that decision was made, I poured myself into becoming as much a part of the place as I could. By the time shooting began, I had been there nearly seven months living in an apartment at the National Film and Television Institute (NAFTI) student hostel, had traveled around the country quite a bit, kept very in touch with the social and political happenings (including the razor-thin margin election of 2008 and government transition), and was moving daily throughout the city on a motorcycle. In short, I felt like I had a sense of place that would become very important in making the film.

It was another major collaborator on the project--producer and post-production supervisor Dede Maitre--who really helped push the edit of the film to express the sense of place for audiences who might never have been to Ghana or anyplace like it.

What were some of your favorite parts of being a Fulbright scholar in Ghana and what were some of the challenges?

There's nothing like immersing yourself completely in a place and culture so different from one's own, for better or worse! One of the surprising things to me, though, was how different my family lived relative to other foreigners. We were not "behind the walls" as most, but rather trying our best to make Ghana our home, if only for a year. This created some acute difficulties, but it is something of which I'm really proud. Living in the NAFTI Hostel Apartment left us in far less control of our domestic situation than we might have been otherwise. But, on balance, the trade-off was a good one, and when Lori and I returned a year later (for second unit and sound work) we were welcomed back by many as genuine friends. For all its differences, Ghana became as familiar a home as any other place I've lived.

Sandy Arkhurst (The Old Fisherman) with Nunoo
How did your creative relationship with Yao B. Nunoo begin? How do you collaborate?

In fall 2004, Yao answered a casting call for "The Legend of Black Tom." He was the first actor to respond, and really the only one I needed to meet! We both found ourselves very comfortable with each other on that film (which had a very successful festival run in 2006), and explicitly kept open the possibility of future projects. I think the best aspect of our relationship is the freedom we both feel to offer suggestions to the other at any step in the process, as well as the trust we have in the other's ability. Be it at the level of script or production or edit, we are willing to listen to each other and respect what the other has to say. That's not to say there aren't differences or disagreement along the way, but that's where the trust comes in. I think it really shows on the screen. On Destiny, the project from beginning to end, was so in flux, that without the belief in each other, we never would have made it.

In addition to being a filmmaker, you teach at St. Joseph’s University. What do you hope your students take away from your classes?

First and foremost, whether it is either film criticism or film making, I hope to engender a lasting appreciation for the medium. From an audience perspective, cinema's combination of storytelling and artistry (i.e., of content and form) requiring a complicated technical apparatus, all set within a specific cultural context, makes for an extraordinarily rich array of inquiry. From a filmmaking point of view, I hope that students begin to appreciate the power of the tools at their disposal, and can begin to explore how those tools can make original and meaningful work. And underlying both is the authenticity of emotion that allows filmmaker and audience the ability to connect in an important way for both.

Thanks for sharing such great insights into the film, Deron!

Do you have questions you want to ask Deron yourself? Come to the Q&A after BMFI's screening on Tuesday, March 27.

Nina Zipkin is a senior at Bryn Mawr College currently interning at BMFI.

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