Kwaw Paintsil Ansah was born in 1941 in Agona Swedru, Ghana. His mother was a trader, and his father a photographer (as well as a painter, musician, and dramatist). After his initial schooling at an Anglican mission school, he studied for his O Levels in the capital city of Accra, while working as a textile designer at the United Africa Company. He then moved to London to study Theater Design at the London Polytechnic, and there he first became interested in film production. He spent two years in New York, studying Performing Arts at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts from 1963 to 1965. He participated in various African student groups in New York, and also was active in the theater world. He founded the Abibirma Players in 1964, and his play "The Adoption" was produced off-Broadway in 1964 at the Hermon Theater and at Columbia University's Macmillan Theater.
In 1965 he moved to Los Angeles to study at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, whose director, Philip Burton (Richard Burton's father), arranged a position for him at RKO Studios. There, he gained a good deal of practical experience, working on the TV series Hogan's Heroes and The Fugitive.
Upon his return to Ghana in 1965, Mr. Ansah was able to find commercial work in film and television. He worked for two years as a production assistant and set designer for the Ghana Film Industry Corporation, and also made commercials for Lintas Advertising in Accra. He went on to found his own advertising firm, Target Advertising Services, in 1973. He continues to do commercial advertising work (his company is now called Target Saatchi & Saatchi Ltd.), which, he says, "pays the bills." One of his television commercials won him a New York-based CLIO award in 1989.
Along with his commercial work, Ansah continued his engagement with the world of theater and the arts. Soon after his return to Ghana he became an executive member of the Ghana Drama Association and the Ghana Association of Writers, and an officer of the Film Guild of Ghana. His play Mother's Tears was performed at the Drama Studio in Accra in 1967, and was instantly successful. It would later be reprised at the Accra Arts Centre in 1973, and then in 1991, and at the National Theatre in 1995.
Kwaw Ansah's dream, however, was to make a feature film, one that was both commercially viable and focused on African themes and issues. To that end, he founded his film production company, Film Africa Limited, in 1977, and began work on the project that would become Love Brewed in the African Pot (1980). It was an immediate popular success throughout English-speaking Africa, handily beating all previous attendance records for a film by an African director, while at the same time earning critical acclaim and respect. The film earned awards world-wide, including the prestigious Omarou Ganda Prize, for "most remarkable direction and production in line with African realities" at the seventh Pan-African Film Festival (FESPACO)--the first to be awarded a film from an Anglophone country; the UNESCO Film Award in France, and the Jury's Special Silver Peacock Award, "For a Genuine and Talented Attempt to Find a National and Cultural Identity" at the 8th International Film Festival of India.
Despite all the awards and the success, it would be nearly ten years before Ansah could complete his next major film project, the ambitious Heritage Africa (1989). Ansah faced the enormous challenges that are the bane of filmmakers in Africa. Making the film was one long struggle to find the money and corral the necessary resources. As was the case with Love Brewed, he had his hand in nearly all aspects of the film's production--even writing the theme music for the two films, along with directing, writing, and producing. However, it was the logistical challenges that were most overwhelming. It was an exhausting, even debilitating process.
He emerged from the experience with his health seriously compromised, but with an impressive, widely-acclaimed film. Heritage Africa won the grand prize at FESPACO in 1989 (again, the first from an an Anglophone country), the Organization for African Unity's Best Film Award, Outstanding Film Award at the 1989 London Film Festival, and numerous others.
Since Heritage, Ansah has limited his film work to documentaries, with Crossroads of People; Crossroads of Trade (1994), funded by the Smithsonian Institute. He was also heavily involved in the 1996 continent-wide project, Hopes On the Horizon, serving as Co -Executive Producer. Unfortunately, this project fell apart over disagreements between the African directors and their African-American counterparts.
Much of his time these days is spent as a crusader for African filmmaking and dramatic art,, working ceaselessly for improved funding and distribution of African films within Africa. He has been chairman of FEPACI--the Federation of African Filmmakers--and a leader in the direction of FESPACO, the showcase festival for films from Africa and the African diaspora. He also, of course, appears at film festivals such as ours around the world, representing not only himself but African filmmakers in general, explaining the vicissitudes, as well as the many beauties, of filmmaking in Africa.
Kwaw Ansah is highly appreciated in his own country, where he is a mentor to many young artists, and has received a number of Ghanaian awards. In 1998 he was awarded the Acrag Prize, the Living Legend Award for Contribution to the Arts of Ghana.
It is an honor to welcome Mr. Ansah to Portland for the Tenth Festival.
--Notes by Michael Dembrow
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