When your debut film gets nominated for three awards at the Palermo Film Festival, you can be forgiven a sense of attainment. When you end up leaving the ceremony having been presented with two of them, however – one for best screenplay, the other for best foreign film – it’s something else altogether. For director Baff Akoto, London-born but Ghanaian by origin, the recognition was reward for a project that began in 2007 and focused squarely on an obsession both personal and universal: football.
The work in question, Football Fables – which has since made it into three more major festivals around the world – gives fresh perspective on the unquenchable enthusiasm for the sport in Ghana. By tracking the fortunes of upcoming local players, the documentary sets out to examine what it takes for youngsters to achieve the transition from the dusty pitches of West Africa to the fat salaries and gleaming stadia of Europe. Understandably, with the money and machinations involved in modern-day football, it’s not an easy leap to make. For every Michael Essien, there are untold hundreds of talented youngsters destined, through bad odds, bad handling and plain bad luck, never to make the grade.
“The film was very much a passion project,” says Akoto, who explains how time in Accra as a young man changed his notion on what it meant to encounter a genuine fervour for football. “I grew up in West London until I was 14 then went to finish secondary school in Ghana. Just before I arrived, the Ghanaian under-17s had won the World Cup and there was a public holiday. A public holiday for youth football! The whole concept of a country stopping still to watch kids was alien to me – I’d not come across that before. It was at the level where your mate’s mum could tell you who was in the youth squads. Our history teacher used to talk to us about Germany’s midfield. That permeation through all levels of society was something new.”
The names of some of those interviewed for the film – among them 90s star Abedi Pele and Inter Milan’s Sulley Muntari – will be familiar to fans of the world game. The chief protagonist, however, is 16-year-old Francis Boadi, already involved in the national youth set-up at time of filming and coveting a move to Europe. For Akoto, it was a chance to highlight subject matter that often gets overlooked. Needless to say, it’s not always feel-good viewing. “I wasn’t trying to make a morality tale in any way shape or form,” he says. “I know people will watch the film and have their own strong opinions on what they’ve seen but I’m not telling them what to think. I just felt it was very important to contextualise someone like Essien by showing people what your average Ghanaian kid with a dream needs to go through to get to Europe.”
“I didn’t want to dwell on the stuff that you see about Africa most of the time and make it about negative issues,” he continues. “I’m not saying what I’m showing is all positive, but what supersedes all of that is the fact that we talk about a regular kid with hopes and dreams just like the rest of us.”
For every Michael Essien, there are untold hundreds of talented youngsters destined, through bad odds, bad handling and plain bad luck, never to make the grade.
Away from the narrative itself, one of the film’s most striking aspects is its vivid visual aesthetic. Was it his intention to make such a colourful documentary? “It wasn’t a conscious decision per se, but I did want to go and show Ghana as I saw it – and that’s how I see it. It’s a very vibrant place, a wonderful place. When I went to live there, everything I felt I was leaving behind in London was more than compensated for by what I found out there. It’s very visceral, very exciting. Accra and the country as a whole is somewhere with a lot of energy.”
The filming process also became a journey of discovery for Akoto himself, who developed a greater understanding of just how the game became embedded in the national psyche. “We love the game as Ghanaians – the red, gold and green – but what I didn’t know until making this film was that the footballing madness we have is a direct result of the period when we as a nation came into being. Kwame Nkrumah put a lot of stock into maintaining the sense that Africans could do it for themselves, and he brought that to bear when he became president. When independence came, one of the outlets for that was football. He actively encouraged development of the game throughout the 50s and made a point of having a Ghanaian as coach of the national team. When Ghana won their first Cup of Nations in 1963, they were the only team with a black coach.”
“People don’t realise that it goes deep,” he explains. “We watch football, we love it, and it all goes back to what Nkrumah did in putting resources and prestige into the team. Look at the name The Black Stars – everyone else is called the Antelopes, the Gazelles, the Lions, all that Disney sort of shit – we’re called the Black Stars for a reason. I think you can trace the incubation of the game across Africa in the modern era back to Ghana’s position in the independence movement. I’m not saying Ghana’s the reason why everyone’s into football in Africa though.” He pauses, then laughs. “But maybe I am saying that!”