Telling the story of two orphaned brothers who find their strong bond under threat when one of them is selected for adoption by an American couple, Vagabonds from Ghanaian/American filmmaker Amartei Armar questions what it means to be cut adrift from your family in a culture which holds the notion of heritage in the highest regard. As part of our Vagabonds premiere today, Armar reveals how questions about the meaning of home and his own fraternal relationship inspired and informed this coming of age short, and why he felt compelled to attempt to reframe the audeinces’ emotional response to African narratives.
It started with two things, my name and my coming to terms of being a “third culture kid” after permanently moving back to Ghana in 2017. My parents never wanted to give me an “English” or “Christian” name so Amartei Armar is the only name I use. In Ghana, your name operates very similarly to a National ID card, except it can also reveal to someone your ethnic, familial clan, sibling birth order, and even ancestral background.
The name Vagabonds comes from the Cain and Abel story. It was written that when Cain killed Abel in jealousy he was punished by forever wandering the Earth as a Vagabond. I looked to that story as inspiration for the theme of this film. That being, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” With this film, I wanted to respond with a resounding, “yes, I am.”
I gravitated towards orphanages in Ghana due to my observations of how family is seen culturally in our society. Ghana is a country that culturally places the notion of family and heritage as one of its highest values in society. The family a person is born into and the name that comes with it is at the core of his or her identity.
Being a part of the African Diaspora, I also felt it was a deeply personal story of trying to remember your home and not allowing anyone, even your own people, to separate you from what ties you to your roots. As part of the Diaspora, it can feel at times that I’m simply wanderer of the world with no true home. Though it is not nearly comparable to being a true orphan, metaphorically or perhaps psychologically speaking, it has some similarities.
My older brother, Amartey is a huge inspiration for me in all of my work. We are just 19 months apart so growing up we were like inseparable twins. I can’t honestly recount any memories of my childhood that doesn’t include his presence and the deep impact he has on me in relation to how I see the world. We travelled quite a bit throughout our childhood so I never developed a direct sense of what home, in the physical and/or cultural sense, really meant. Home was not a building or a street, a town or language; not even a country. It quite simply was always just where my family, particularly my brother happened to be.
It was really important to me to foster a sort of impenetrable bond between the brothers from the start of the film so I fictionalized an event from our actual childhood where my brother helped me hide the fact I wet the bed during a sleepover! That became the first scene I wrote and the story virtually spilled out from there.
I was incredibly wary from the start about the potential victimization of Ghanaian orphans that could easily occur with a story like this. It was something I wanted to avoid because quite frankly I often feel when watching films about African people, it evokes emotions of pity/sympathy rather than empathy. Once the script was finished, before we even began casting, I wanted to put together a visual plan to get the audience as close to Owusu as possible, almost entrapping them in his world seeing things the way he would. Collaborating with my DOP, Idowu Okeniyi and his camera team we devised a strategy to try and create a very subjective cinematic point of view that narrowed itself only to Owusu’s interests. The aspect ratio of 1.375:1 also helped to create a portraiture boxed in frame for him, which slowly closed into a 1:1 aspect ratio after the sequence in Madame Gifty’s office.
I often feel when watching films about African people, it evokes emotions of pity/sympathy rather than empathy.
It was important to me to establish the orphanage as a densely packed community, existing within a once uniformed architectural design. Like it was once a smoothly run organization started by a visionary C.E.O. who suddenly died of a heart attack and the administration went array. For me, it reflected how Ghana appeared. A great nation with tremendous values that overtime became overrun from outside influences so much so it no longer adheres to the rich cultural foundation it once stood on and has run amuck. We settled on SAPS School Junior High, which gave us that solid structural presence and through our Art Director Andre Bourreau, we filled in all the spaces to create a claustrophobic environment that “walled” Owusu in even more. Creating organized chaos was our mantra.
Working with the children was just as rewarding as casting them. The casting process took 2 weeks where my Producer Yemoh Ike, and 1st AD Elorm Adjaho would travel to different schools and churches to look for children who could play the leads. The biggest challenge was finding two children who could not only be polar opposites to each other as was written in the script but also could generate enough chemistry together to believably be seen as brothers. The kids that came for Owusu were aged between 8-11 and for his younger brother Gyasi 4-7.
We found our Owusu on the last day of casting. Ten 10 years of age, Idrissu Tontie Jr. came in slowly becoming our most interesting prospect. For his age, he was incredibly mature, introverted yet strong-willed and his eyes had a focused intensity about them. He instantly got a callback, but when it was the day to do the second round, he didn’t show up! We were crestfallen, but as luck would have it he happens to live right across the street from Ike. Ike went over to his house to speak with his parents about rescheduling another callback just for him as we wanted to test his chemistry with the other Gyasi’s we had liked.
To be honest we had already cast him in our minds. We later found out he’s the second born of 5 kids and acts like a deputy father to his three younger siblings so it was clear he had the right mentality to step into the role. I would even give Tontie partial credit for making the final decision to cast the delightfully adorable Asher Fiif as his younger brother. After meeting all the potential Gyasi’s he instantly struck a bond with Asher and personally asked for him to be in the movie.
All of the children we got for the film had never acted before but for me, that was a plus since they didn’t have preconceived notions of what acting is. I rarely had them work with the script during rehearsals, instead relying on acting games, diary writing exercises, watching movies and fun outdoor activities (go-karting, arcade games, beach football) where we all could bond. We did this for about 6 days until it was clear that a strong trust was forged between all of us. The trick was to get them to link what they were learning/experiencing through the games and various exercises to what their characters were going through. The final two days before we started production they worked with the script, translating it from English to Twi and we loosely blocked each scene.
Working with over 35 kids was actually easier than I thought, directing-wise. What impressed me the most was how dedicated they were to play their parts, even coming up with new dialogue to better capture the essence of what was written. I thought me not being able to speak the language of Twi would be an issue, but everything worked out fine. I had a great team in my producer and 1st AD who helped me get everyone working together.
The real challenge was making sure we took ample breaks for the children to relax and rest for the night sequences. This was difficult because most of them when on break wanted to play games and keep active! Hence when they would return for the night shoots they were ready for bed. A lot of the kids in the first scene were actually sleeping. My leads, however, had to be forced to take a break, much to their dismay and they would try and sneak back onto set to play with the other kids. It was a lot of fun and a communal effort from all the crew to keep everyone on task.
I also learned so much from my actors in terms of what direction worked with them individually and what did not. We shot the film over the course of four days, however, we weren’t able to get everything so we added two extra pick up days one week after we wrapped the shoot. We had to use a different location for the raining sequence where they jumped the wall, and dress it up to make it look like the same location in SAPs School. That and keeping all the shots tight.
The ending we have was not the original ending in the script. We actually shaved off four pages of the end because we simply ran out of money. In the original ending they were supposed to jump the wall and even sneak into the cargo hold of a passing truck heading towards Accra. We couldn’t do it because the second fire truck team we had hired unexpectedly raised the cost of creating rain for us to use when they showed up. We couldn’t afford it and because of that, we had to shut down the set on the last pick up day. I was so sad, but my producer came up with the idea to use the footage we shot the previous day, where they were at the base of the tree during the thunderstorm, as the official ending.
We shot handheld on a RED Scarlet with Rokinon Cine Lenses and the biggest light we had was a 1.2 HMI. The rest were LEDs, silks/diffusers, bounces, and practical lighting (like the kerosene lamp that lit the bathing sequence). There isn’t a camera rental house in Ghana so all of our film equipment came from private owners. Nothing too fancy to be honest, but it did the trick. I didn’t use a Director’s monitor as I like to sit right next to the camera and watch the actors perform live so it wasn’t intimidating to the kids. On the extra pick up day, we used my Sony a7s II with Zeiss Batis lenses.
My first thought was that the film was terrible! Everything we shot, garbage!
I edited the film myself on my laptop using Adobe Premiere Pro CC after we were unable to find an editor. It was a difficult process, but I managed. I went through the process I feel all of us as artists often go through when creating new pieces of work. My first thought was that the film was terrible! Everything we shot, garbage! The rough cut made me sick and I was the one who put it together.
Then I recut and refined over the course of a few months in between working freelance jobs to get some money back. Slowly I started to feel that this was the best film I’ve ever done. I was a genius, this was destiny, every beat and moment started to click! By the time I reached the end, I came back down to Earth and was left with a feeling of satisfaction. I was happy how the film played out, especially with the first three scenes that had the important job of establishing the brothers’ bond along with the catalyst of seeing Maame come from beyond the wall.
I originally wanted the film to be in black and white to symbolize how cut and dry Owusu saw the world. That for him his brother belonged to him and he to his brother. No ifs, ands, or buts. However everyone from my producer to some of the senior actors, even my own brother begged me to keep it in color. It took them several attempts to finally convince me, but what eventually swayed me to have it in color was Scene 3 – the bathing sequence. The warmth of the tungsten glow really brought out the strength in the brothers’ bond even without their dialogue. It had an elevated dreamy feel to it that black and white couldn’t quite capture. The key crew celebrated that day I conceded to having it in color, but I made them promise me that our next film would be in black and white – no matter what! I have a deep affinity for black and white since I began my journey into film by first taking exclusively black and white photographs from the age of 12 – 18.
We are just in the midst of completing my next short film, I Like It Here. It’s about a Ghanaian-American third culture kid who takes the taxi ride of his life in an attempt to catch the last flight out of Accra leaving his country, ailing Grandfather, and deep rooted feelings of cultural displacement behind. It is my most “autobiogra-fictional” piece to date and it’s based off the last conversation I had with my paternal grandfather before he passed away back in 2011, which sowed the seed to my eventual permanent return to Ghana in 2017.
I’m also writing my first feature film, Ever Young, a coming of age drama set in Accra circa 1960 when the newly independent West African country declared itself the Republic of Ghana. Told through the multiple accounts of the present day “Elders” the film follows a group of recent Achimota “Motown” High school graduates desperate to have one last glorious night out in the city before they travel abroad for college and towards a future that holds so much promise and uncertainty. The film is my love letter to Ghana and the dreams our forefathers had for the nation before things, unfortunately, went south. It’s designing principle understands that while people may come and go, dreams are immortal. Currently, the script is in development, but I hope to complete it before the year is out.