For many who are yet to chart a path to their destiny, the saying ‘he who climbs a good tree is helped’ would make absolute sense. But the few who have made giant strides in fulfilling their destiny know too well that it is not getting to the top that is the problem, but remaining there. Shirley Frimpong Manso loves film with a passion and this love for film has reflected in the successes she’s chalked over the years.
During an interview, I teasingly asked Shirley how challenging it was producing one movie after another. She beamed with that cool smile that said it all. “It’s anything but easy. Yesterday I was telling somebody that I’ve had to sacrifice almost everything to get to where I am. It’s a lot of hard work…it’s a lot of dedication…it’s a lot of sacrifices and we think that, even at this moment, we’re at the most crucial point of our business where we’re going to make that big step to the next level or we might just risk being here. And that’s not where we want to be, we want to take it to that next level”.
This desire to remain at the top and Shirley’s mention of next level got me curious to ask how far she had come. “Sparrow has been in existence for ten years. In November Sparrow Productions will be ten years, and we have done the movies…we have done the series, but we think that our business has to start growing wings where we’re able to train so we can expand. We’re not just looking at Sparrow; we want to be able to turn our focus on the industry so that Sparrow can benefit from training professionals, and whatever we do actually has a long term effect on an industry. We want to be able to get a lot more people involved in what we’re doing so it’s easier for us to do productions”, she said.
Some years ago, Ghanaian movie director Veronica Quarshie gave Ghanaian movies a touch of sparkle by her dominance in what many knew to be a male-dominated industry. Currently, Shirley Frimpong Manso appears to be the only female Ghanaian movie producer-director who has broken the mould of dominance by male filmmakers. This notwithstanding the AfricaMagic Viewers’ Choice Awards (AMVCAs) nominee says her gender hardly becomes a source of intimidation to her in the male-dominated business of filmmaking. “For me, first and foremost, I’m a filmmaker. I don’t look at myself as a female filmmaker because the problems are out there for all of us, and I don’t see that it gets more difficult or easier because I’m a female. I think once people begin to trust that you understand your craft and this is a business that you’re doing they begin to treat you as a business person”.
In an era where many feminist artists have used their craft to highlight issues relating to the rights of women and women empowerment, it is perhaps not surprising for feminist filmmakers to want to do same. On this, Shirley reveals “I’m passionate about female issues. Perhaps it comes easy to me because I’m female. But yes I make a conscious effort to treat some of the female issues in my productions…it’s very important to me. I hope that by doing that I’m able to pave the way for young females to understand that you do not need to rely on a particular person to be the woman that you want to be. For me that is really my agenda; to show the strong African female and also show the fact that even if it’s tough, it’s equally tough for the man so why should you be given any leverage. You work as hard, you get the same treatment and then you achieve the things that you want to”.
Digging into her reasons for swapping a career in radio for film, the director of award winning movie ‘Perfect Picture’ was clear in her mind that film had always been the thing for her. She intimated “I always wanted to be a filmmaker. The people who knew me when I was in secondary school will tell you that my entire being was engrossed in play writing, script and performance. I loved drama, English and literature when I was in school. They were my best subjects. For me, even in secondary school, I always saw them as my escape and I knew that it was going to end up like this. So everything else that I did before now was just a prelude to what was to come. Radio was an interim thing that I did, but it also impacted on my career as a filmmaker”.
Taking me back into time, Shirley expressed that her most memorable performance was a play she’d written entitled ‘Bachelor Boy’ while at Mfanteman Girls Secondary. “I performed as the Bachelor Boy. It’s a girl’s school so some of us had to take to acting boys. I directed the play and put up the performance at a house night and people absolutely loved it, and everybody was talking about it. I guess it was one of the reasons I knew that I probably have something that people would appreciate.”
Shirley, the only Ghanaian filmmaker to have received five nominations at the forthcoming AfricaMagic Viewers’ Choice Awards, says the process of producing her movies can be long, tedious and stressful. “The only way that you’re going to be able to come out with an excellent end product is by keeping at it; you don’t veer off. Once you think of a story, you need to obviously do a treatment which is an abridged version of your script which tells the story in a few pages. People can look at this and tell you whether it’s good or not. You then need to write your script, and once you do your script you need to break it down to a budget. Then once you got your budget you know what you’re dealing with.” According to her, the calibre of actors she settles on is a great determiner of the overall budget of her productions.
Funding movies is a hurdle many filmmakers are confronted with. In many cases, filmmakers with great ideas are unable to produce movies due to funding. Commenting on this issue, experienced Shirley Frimpong Manso says “funds can come from anywhere…it can come from your mother, it could come from your husband, it could also come from your own pocket…it could come from sponsors, it could come from a fund, but we don’t have that kind of fund in Ghana. Basically, if you’re looking for the money outside of yourself and outside of yourself will mean personal, then you need to even do more work because you need a platform within your story that the people you’re going for money from can align their products with your production”.
There is a mad rush these days among prospecting actors to get a break in the movie or entertainment industry. This situation has perhaps caused some critics to comment on the continuous featuring of certain actors in Shirley’s productions. Responding to this, the award-winning producer-director says “let me tell you the hard truth, we don’t have a lot of actors in Ghana. A lot of people say they want to act; I’ve auditioned a lot of people…people can’t act and that’s the truth. We don’t have a lot of trained actors. A lot of people have the notion that they can just get up and act, but acting demands some level of dedication, professionalism and work. So it’s a struggle for producers like us. The thing is that you want the best, and if you don’t get the best from auditioning new people, then you’ll have to go back and use the old people. Shirley believes any such allegation would be unfair as Sparrow Productions had provided an opportunity for many of the new crop of actors to shine.
Letting me into her greatest challenges as a filmmaker Shirley said “I think the greatest challenge of a filmmaker is funding, which is almost non-existent in these parts and when you’re doing a production you basically have to spend half of the time that you probably should have been spending to do creative work chasing money and it takes away from the creativity. The second big challenge is location. We do not have studios in this country so you have to go to people‘s homes and even offices. Sometimes it is not easy for these people to see all of twenty or thirty people in their personal space dragging and changing curtains. So most of the time, we probably go there once because they don’t want you to come back again. The third challenge is actors. We do not have a wide range of actors at all. The job we do begs for professional actors. For me personally, it’s one of my biggest challenge…people come on set they haven’t read their scripts…they haven’t analysed their characters or done research on them. A lot of people when you give them a role, they think that when I come on set I’ll manage it somehow. There is no such thing because it will show. The fourth thing is, we don’t have outlets for our products. You create a very beautiful production, and there is nowhere else to take it except for Silverbird and Opera Square…that’s it. There’s no other outlet”.
Like many other people who are driven by the passion for their jobs, Shirley reveals that she hardly has time to relax and that the only time she’s able to observe some rest is when she travels to see her mother and sister who’re based in London. “My mum will insist that I eat morning, afternoon and evening and even though I will fight it, I eventually realise that it begins to relax me. And my sister will probably take me shopping”.
Apart from these moments of relaxation, she says “when I’m here probably the obvious thing that relaxes me is when I see my son. It absolutely does wonders to me. When he comes and says mummy, I’m thinking he’s so forgiving. He probably doesn’t see me in a long while and he’s so happy to see me.” She continues that the fact that she has an understanding partner in Ken Attoh also make things easier. She says “I also have a partner that I’m able to talk to. He understands the language so it’s easy. It’s relaxing to take some few minutes in the day to have launch together and talk about issues”. Going forward Shirley hopes to spend more time with her family.