The burden of responsibility often placed on women whose children are born ‘imperfect’ in the eyes of society forced all of us watching Priscilla Anany’s film ‘ChildreN of the MountaiN’ to address some uncomfortable cultural truths still present in today’s modern world.
The Ghana-born filmmaker made boy-child Nuku (played by Jessica Dablo ….. yes a girl playing a boy) the star of a film that poignantly looks at how society blames women for things often out of her control.
Essuman, played by Nigerian-Ghanaian actress Rukiyat Masud, and Edjah, played by Ghana’s Adjetey Anang were ecstatic to learn they would soon be proud parents of a little boy. Edjah’s first child from another woman is a girl.
But all that changed when Nuku is born with Down’s syndrome, a cleft palate and cerebral palsy. Essuman’s status drops from being the ‘favourite wife’ to one accused of sleeping around and as having a ‘dirty’ womb. As a result, Nuku is denied the right to hold his father’s surname and we watch as Essuman struggles to come to terms with her son’s conditions, how she is viewed by society and her fight to ‘cure’ her beloved boy.
There was a ripple of applause from the audience at Brixton’s Ritzy cinema when Anany returned to the front of the auditorium as the closing film credits rolled. She’s an unassuming character – small, with a cutesy high-pitched voice but her production spoke volumes. In over 100 minutes, she managed to hold a mirror up to societies and the role that culture can play in shaping women’s lives.
From the Volta region of Ghana, Anany migrated to the US when she was 19 years old. She always wanted to make films about women and made a point of exploring the issues affecting this demographic in Ghana when she returned in 2011. There wasn’t adequate healthcare for women and made a film called hospitals.
“While I was over in Ghana, I came across kids with disabilities and challenges the mothers and families faced and how all the blame was put on the mother,” she said. “And in a lot of cultures all over the world, women are often blamed for almost everything – some of which they have no control over. I really wanted to tell the story that exonerated women from blame.”
We watched Essuman’s multiple stages of grief. Initially rejecting her new born, appealing in vain to Nuku’s father, Nuku’s grandmother played by Maame Dokonu (Grace Omaboe) and his family for help, the paranoia that made her turn on her friends and the desperation that drives her to danger as she seeks out cures from characters that in Ghanaian society that are often given unbridled respect and power that can be abused.
Disability versus childlessness
But Anany doesn’t end there. She invites us to decide whether having a ‘disabled’ child is better than having no child at all. The courageous character Asantewaa, played by Akofa Asiedu Ajeani, typified that all too keenly for me. Asantewaa is Essuman’s best friend and co-partner in their yam-selling business. She is also childless.
There is an exchange between the two in the film where Asantewaa basically urges Essuman to be thankful for what she has. In a later exchange, Essuman asks Asantewaa how she can consider giving birth when there is a risk of bringing forth an imperfect child, particularly when Asantewaa has the option of adopting a healthy baby found for her by village elders. I guess the question is how far are you prepared to go to be accepted in wider society?
ChildreN of the MountaiN is one of those films that successfully kept me on tenterhooks and appealed to my senses. I had recently returned from my Ghanaian homeland so hearing Twi and Ewe spoken and seeing familiar market scenes was comforting. Anany did well to showcase the pathos and courage of ordinary women with ordinary lives. So I loved the subtle or not so subtle celebration of women who look like me – red-toned with brown skin and natural curls.
Word from the wise
For me, the split between city life in Ghana to village life in the Volta region and the juxtaposition between the concrete jungle and the lush green mountains spoke volumes. We not only see the beauty of Ghana in a variety of settings but, we are introduced to another way of life, another school of thought, a route to self-acceptance.
‘A mother that chews too much kola nut will have a baby that is blind. They also say that a blind baby will look for a mother that chews too much kola nut,’ an elderly sage tells Essuman in the forest. So why stress when you weren’t to blame and why worry if maybe you were destined to assume this role – is what I took away from these words.
Platform for voiceless women
The real-life mother of the child who played new-born Nuku seems to believe these words and has not corrected her baby’s cleft palate, believing her daughter to be a princess. Jessica – the second child who played an older Nuku – recently had surgery to fix the cleft through the Graft Foundation. The Foundation is wholly run and funded by Ghanaian doctors living in the country and was instrumental in supporting the development of the film.
Whether you agree or not with the decisions of the women, what is pivotal is how ChildreN of the MountaiN can be a platform for other voiceless women to shrug off the indomitable burden of guilt.
Anany hopes that this film will be available for communities affected by these issues to view. But as the film has been mostly self-funded, getting the message to a wider audience will be her next challenge.
‘ChildreN of the MountaiN’ was screened as part of the Royal African Society’s annual Film Africa festival (28 October – 6 November 2016).
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