Monday, April 2, 2012

THE DESTINY OF LESSER ANIMALS: A Life Changed, A Life Improved

If you missed filmmaker Deron Albright and actor/screenwriter Yao B. Nunoo's Q&A after last Tuesday's screening of The Destiny of Lesser Animals, BMFI guest blogger Diane Mina Weltman gives her take on the African crime drama and the Q&A that followed.

The Destiny of Lesser Animals: A Life Changed, A Life Improved
By Diane Mina Weltman, BMFI Guest Blogger

While it proves the premise that two wrongs don’t make a right, the film The Destiny of Lesser Animals offers layered dilemmas among its few characters and draws the audience into events where souls are won and lost by slim ethical decisions.

Set in Ghana, the film follows a police inspector, Boniface Koomsin (played by Yao B. Nunoo), who is desperate to retrieve his stolen passport but is equally uneasy about its counterfeit origins being discovered. (He saved money for ten years to purchase the passport so he could return to the US where he had previously lived.) He decides to report that his gun has been stolen so he can attach himself to an alternate investigation which can lead him to the passport thief.

Ghana’s gritty, dense urban areas and its winding rural towns give the film a colorful, yet dusty ambience in which Koomsin seeks justice and, as with most quests, unearths more about his true intentions in the process.

Director and producer Deron Albright—a St. Joseph’s University faculty member—calls the Philadelphia-area home. He lived in Ghana with his family while he researched and ultimately produced the film. He attended the recent screening at BMFI and fielded audience questions with the film’s star and screenwriter, Yao. The film is Deron’s feature directorial debut, but one of several collaborations with Yao, who recently experienced a very personal debut when he became a new father several days before BMFI's screening.

The Destiny of Lesser Animals filmmaker Deron Albright and actor/writer Yao B. Nunoo posed in the theater after the Q&A

Asked about the process of filmmaking in Ghana, where the friends first met, Deron commented that, “my visions of Africa began with conversations with Yao and it has been an evolution ever since.” Both men sought to create a film that told a universal story and happened to be set in Ghana.

Deron said that he saw The Destiny of Lesser Animals as offering a “refreshing change” from the enormous attention the Kony 2012 video has received. “This film is a preemptive response to the video,” he added thoughtfully. “People are comfortable with a certain narrative with a film about Africa,” Deron noted. “This film moves it in another direction because it is very issue-driven.” The film was “not designed to provide easy answers, but to engender questions.”

Because it was shot on location, each background conveys social messages about poverty and the role of one’s environment. The story also addresses what Deron referred to as Africa’s “brain drain”. As African citizens leave to live and work elsewhere, “it is almost assumed not if you’re going to leave, but when.” The character of Boniface, who had tasted life in the US and even found love there, is fixated on returning. His passion evolves, often painfully, into acceptance as his fierce urge to escape Ghana morphs into a desire to nurture his birth country.

Regarding the issue of national “brain drain,” Yao stated, “It is not something that people consciously talk about, but it’s something that happens.” He added, “When you tell a story you have an obligation to focus it exactly to a message, so we chose the topic and then make subtle mention of others.”

One of actor/writer Yao B. Nunoo's favorite scenes in the film features Xolasie Mawuenyega as a beggar girl.
Asked about their favorite parts in the film, Yao noted the scenes where Boniface and a beggar girl interact. “She is introduced (into the film) at a point that gives you (the audience) a nice breathing space.” Boniface and another officer uncover the violent, merciless path of the thief, and fall short in capturing him. When he faces the beggar girl’s haunting, innocent gaze, it gives him respite from the horror around him and forces him to consider how he can influence this child’s poverty-riddled life for the better.

Deron noted the scenes between Boniface and his uncle, an elderly fisherman (played by Sandy Arkhurst), as his favorite. “I really love his performance in those scenes.” Life’s purpose plays into the conversations between the two men, and one standout exchange ends with the uncle gently reminding Boniface about carefully choosing his direction saying, “As the sun rises and sets, we are meant to grow, not diminish.” These scenes with the uncle provide the film’s conscience as Boniface’s single-minded focus gradually widens. The seaside setting is a visual reminder of the world that lies beyond the Ghana coast, with the ocean’s ebb and flow moderating conversations between a patient uncle and a restless nephew.

Deron expressed his deep gratitude to those who worked on the film, stating, “One of the most heartwarming things is finding a team to work with, and many worked for no pay.” Many local family members and friends attended BMFI’s screening, providing stateside support in full.

Gratified by the consistent warm reception the film has received, Deron is especially pleased with its appeal to all ages in Ghana. “Thirteen and fourteen year olds came to see this film,” he said, “It is a universal story of the character (Yao) trying to do something.” Yao added the film appeals to an essential human yearning, citing, “In Ghana, so many people are hungry for a reflection of self.”

Diane Mina Weltman is a BMFI member who enjoys attending performing and visual arts events and writing about them. Check out her blog, A Subject for Consideration.

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