by The Minister of Information JR
Filmmaker Soumyaa Behrens tells the newly discovered story of Abina Mansah, who in 1874 brought a case of illegal enslavement against her African slavemaster before the British courts in the Gold Coast, in what is now Ghana. “Abina and the Important Men” is an animated graphic depiction of what happened in this historic case.
Come watch the story and discuss what you think about the controversial cartoon at the San Francisco Black Film Festival June 15-18. Check out sfbff.org for more info. Here is filmmaker Soumyaa Behrens in her own words.
M.O.I. JR: What inspired you to want to make a film about the life of Abina Mansah and her historic case of fighting slavery against an African in the Gold Coast, years after slavery was abolished?
Soumyaa Behrens: The film gave an opportunity to breathe life into this true story about a woman who felt she would never be heard but tried anyway. It also allowed us to connect this historical past with a modern audience in a way that challenged the traditions of the master narrative.
M.O.I. JR: Why was your film so soft on the British empire, colonialists, slave owners and imperialists? One of the characters talked about the price of civilization, while in another scene the writings of John Locke were acknowledged and in another scene the British were praised for being an early abolitionist state?
Soumyaa Behrens: The depictions of the British in the film and the novel are soft, yes, and problematic, to be sure. There is an acknowledgment of how power and politics functioned during that time. The British had the control and the case had to go through them.
It is also a comment on gatekeepers and how far their arms can reach, preventing Abina’s story from reaching the light for hundreds of years before historian Trevor Getz found her transcripts. Abina lost her case because of the British; they were unable to live up to their philosophical ideals and let politics get in the way of progress.
In showing her lose the case, that she was unable to win in these circumstances, we have an opportunity to critique the British and see them as less civilized than they saw themselves. I think the role of the magistrate is also played as a man with certain limitations; his prejudices show in the rendering of the role, something we discussed often in making the film.
I’d like to quote Trevor Getz’s response: “We see the film and book as primarily a critique of Western scholars, who have failed to tell the stories of young women like Abina, with the critique of historical actors like the British Empire as secondary. Of course, we do think this story raises questions about colonialism, but in order to present these questions appropriately, the interpretation had to also be accurate.
“To be accurate, the views of real, living individuals involved in the case – and representative views of groups at that time – had to be represented, whether we like them or not. There were communities living on the West Coast of Africa in the 1870s who spoke a language that saw the British as being more ‘civilized’ and more ‘Christian.’ For example, the leaders of the Fante Confederation, which advocated an independent state in this precise place five years before Abina’s case, nevertheless wrote that Britain ‘has attained the summit of civilization.’
“Now, they may have done so because that was just a way to perform to Europeans while really undercutting them, or because this small group of people actually believed that they should emulate a Western model. But that’s how they often spoke, especially to the British, and so that’s how we represented some characters of that class speaking at times.
“We also had these characters point out repeatedly that Britain had been the greatest of all slave-trading nations, so that there could be no doubt of that reality! In both cases, we were trying to be authentic – to create a story that would have been recognizable to people like them, living in that period. But these are just surface representations, in any case. Underneath, we see the film and novel as a critique of a colonialism that, although it spoke great abolitionist words, in the end failed to help a young woman who had been enslaved.
“Abina’s story proves that the much-vaunted ‘civilizing mission’ was, really, never delivered upon. And that moment was just the beginning of the ‘silencing’ of Abina. We wanted to also tell the story of how formal history and scholars had failed her over the years as well.”
M.O.I. JR: How was this film funded?
Soumyaa Behrens: Through grants, donations, and support from Trevor Getz and the SFSU College of Liberal and Creative Arts.
M.O.I. JR: What are your views on slavery today?
Soumyaa Behrens: I feel that we still have a slavery problem in our country and across the globe. Prisons are the modern form of American slavery. All over the world, people, especially young women, are held against their will and forced into horrible situations that compromise their freedom and dignity. It is a problem we have not yet cured as a civilization.
M.O.I. JR: Can you talk a little bit about what made your team animate a graphic novel? Are you happy with the outcome?
Soumyaa Behrens: Trevor approached us about making the book into short films for an educational app to be used in history classes. As we pursued the project, the film just came to life. I committed myself to casting and working with SFSU community members so that the film would have a decidedly urban and American feel.
This choice also opened up avenues for discussion on the issues presented as well as gave a chance for people to re-live, re-experience and try to walk in the shoes of the people who are represented in the story. This also gave another chance for critique of the story in the discussions that were involved in putting the characters together with the actors, who were all members of the community first and actors second.
M.O.I. JR: In terms of animation, what kinds of movies are you inspired by?
Soumyaa Behrens: I am very keen on exploring the power of animation in documentary. Some films I am inspired by are “Last Day of Freedom” by Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman and “Waltz With Bashir” by Ari Folman, which both seem to have a need to use the animated technique to illustrate a certain authenticity in their stories.
M.O.I. JR: Ultimately, what is the message that you want people to walk away with after watching “Abina and the Important Men”?
Soumyaa Behrens: People should feel for Abina. They should empathize with her story and be inspired by her determination to achieve justice. They should see this as a modern tale, one that continues to affect women all over the world today.
M.O.I. JR: What made you apply to the SF Black Film Fest this year with “Abina and the Important Men”?
Soumyaa Behrens: The festival has a great sense of priorities and fantastic programming. So honored to be included in their program, especially since everyone involved on this film is from here. A hometown premiere!
M.O.I. JR: How could people keep up with you online?
Soumyaa Behrens: At docfilm.sfsu.edu, docfilminstitute.org, Facebook @docfilminstitute or Twitter @doc_film.
The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey, journalist, author and filmmaker, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook. And tune in to BlockReportRadio.com. The 2017 San Francisco Black Film Festival runs June 15-18; learn more at SFBFF.org.