Lettres du Voyant is a 40 minutes film made by Louis Henderson, a British filmmaker and artist. I met him during a dinner at Berlinale Talents last January, we had a fast chit-chat and after a couple of months I realise that he has done one of the most interesting film and document about Sakawa: a Ghanaian practice based on Internet scams and Akan religious rituals. As Louis mentions in the last part of the interview, Vice did a reportage on Sakawa titled “The Sakawa Boys.” If the Vice report’s reflects their gauche approach to field work, by contrast Henderson’s Lettres Du Voyant is a delicate journey through real and virtual contemporary Ghana. The film also leaves room for the viewer to imagine the Sakawa (un)reality. We touched many different topics throughout the interview besides Sakawa practice: Azonto, filmmaking techniques and post-internet animism.
First here’s the trailer:
How much was written and preprogrammed before you went to Ghana to shoot the film?
This is an interesting question that comes up often when talking about my work, because in fact I don’t write scripts or make storyboards; not in the classical sense anyway. For this film I was obliged to plan it beforehand in some respects, so I wrote a theoretical treatise (or intentional note perhaps) of the reasons behind the desire to make such a film, this was coupled with an outline of the locations I had imagined I could shoot in, and some images sourced from searches on the internet. I had been to Ghana once before as a child when I was 11 years old, but it has changed a lot since then and my memories of it are really foggy, so before going to shoot I was completely unaware of what the reality of Ghana might actually represent to me, but then this is how I make films; I go to a place with a series of ideas about something that are not necessarily fixed in my mind, and I allow the experience of being in the place change my approach to what I had imagined might be there, it is a process of research and discovery through first hand experience. My location scouting always begins on the internet, with google images and google maps, and then when I arrive in the actual place, I begin to shoot almost straight away, I shoot the processes of discovering a place for the first time in order to better reflect on my position to the story I am trying to tell, to configure my understanding of the world through the technology of the camera.
This for me is a method writing — writing with the camera, much Alexandre Astruc’s idea of the caméra-stylo, practiced by filmmakers such as Chris Marker or Pier Paolo Pasolini. I would say perhaps that at the foundation of my practice is the film Appunti per un’Orestiade Africana by Pasolini — a kind of self-reflexive approach to the possibilities of a literary camera, a cinema of poetry in the true Pasolinian sense. My process is this, to quote Jean-Marie Straub: “First, there is the idea, then there is the matter, and then the form… The same goes for the sculptor. He has his idea and gets a block of marble and he works the matter. He has to take into account the nervures in the marble, the cracks, all the geological layers in it.”
When I return home again, and get into the editing suite, and start to look back at the images I have filmed and listen to the sounds recorded – I begin to understand what I was trying to do with the camera and the sound recording device. It is then that I start to understand what I am able to do with the editing software, start to understand what parts of the fabric I will weave together to make this fictional tapestry that is based on a documentary reality of the world. And then I start to write the script, in post-production. Post-production is a very interesting term and a way of understanding my approach to filmmaking, that I make sense of the material world through the digital technologies of image manipulation (for a closer discussion of this I suggest the reader turns to Hito Steyerl’s essay Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead) In terms of literature in the case of Lettres Du Voyant, I was reading various texts at the time, particularly certain essays by Hito Steyerl and also a novel by Novalis called Heinrich Von Ofterdingen. This book actually worked its way into the voiceover quite considerably and I used large passages of Novalis, which seems fitting in terms of a certain romantic approach to filmmaking that I adhere to.
The soundtrack contains only one song: “Pum Pum” by Tic Tac (ft. Edem) – how did you choose it? Do you listen to a lot of hiplife or azonto from Ghana? If so, please tell me your favorites.
Whilst in Ghana we heard Azonto being played everywhere, everywhere! Before going to Ghana I was not hugely aware of Azonto, but I knew quite a bit of more old-fashioned hi-life, so for me it was a really amazing discovery, especially hearing azonto played out on a huge sound system as you get to understand the influence on it of certain techno and house rhythms. One evening at a really great ‘night spot’ in a village in the hills above Accra we were treated to some serious sound system battling as each bar would be playing their set within about 5 metres of each other, this resulted in an incredible medley of different tunes and quite a sonic experience as you walked up the road past each stack of speakers.
So the idea of using Azonto in the film came again through post-production. During the shoot we would hear Azonto being played on the radio all the time, luckily I was with my cousins who are Ghanaian and they could tell me what song was playing at any given time, particularly Boafo who is an expert! When we had finished the shoot I had some time off and went to Jamestown in Accra to buy some CDs, I just had a few names of various artists and went to ask at a CD shack what he had. I ended up buying a stack of ripped CDs with Azonto mixes on featuring a few hundred different tunes, and started to play them back at our house in Medina. Here I discovered 4 x 4, Keche and Sarkodie for example, the big names of Hip-life. However the tune by Tic-Tac I actually discovered back in France in my editing suite, I was watching through my rushes and there was a shot of a gold mine in Obuasi with this song playing in the background, caught off someone’s radio playing out of frame. I loved the song but didn’t know its name, and not having my cousin around I was kind of stuck. So I googled the lyrics that I could hear and luckily the song came up. The song begins with this kind of electronic beeping that sounds like mobile phones of technological gadgets and thus it seemed fitting for the film.
I can’t think of many Azonto recommendations right now, but two tunes that kept on going round my head whilst I was there were “Moko Ni” by 4 x 4
… and “Aluguntugui” by Keche.
Are you aware of the ‘scambaiting’ phenomenon (this is a good reference: ‘Scambaiting’, DISmagazine)? In your film, you take Sakawa as a form of anti-neocolonial resistance, so ‘scambaiting’ can be considered as a sort of neocolonial answer to Sakawa. Would you like to comment on this?
I was not aware of scambaiting as an actual phenomenon, although I had come across various forms of this through stories on the web etc. I had heard that people were trying to get back at scammers through these rather futile means and attempts at humiliation. I am not sure that scambaiting could be seen as a neo-colonial answer to sakawa, as its interests are not at all based in economic gain (which is the fundamental definition of neo-colonialism). Rather I would see scambaiting as an entirely racist, primitivist and in fact colonial way of thinking, completely stuck in the western tradition of ontological binary oppositions such as good/bad, honest/dishonest, modern/primitive, moral/immoral, for example. This mode of thinking in an oppositional logic is what partly led to colonial domination in the African continent (and beyond) and is something that needs to be re-addressed and un-thought consistently, it is a mode of thinking that has shaped Western attitudes to the rest of the world and thus needs to be de-colonised from Western thought. Sakawa, as a form of animism, could be argued to be part of a contemporary interest in the processes of this de-colonisation of thought, as it begs a rethinking of our understanding of these binary oppositions and our moralistic approaches to such social phenomena as cyber crime – on an individual level and, more pressingly, a global, hypercapitalist one.
Sakawa as a form of neo-colonial resistance is a problematic and easily refuted subject, as the questions could be asked; how and what are they in fact resisting? Through stealing money from people are they not just falling into the same capitalistic system of thinking that they are apparently rebelling against? On what concrete level does this resistance actually exist in the face of, say, illegal Chinese gold mining in Ghana today? I wouldn’t pretend to have the answers to these questions, but I would state again that Sakawa as a form of animistic practice, works on the micropolitical level of resistance against a colonial form of thought that represses certain potentialities of subjectivity and agency. (To develop these ideas further I would really suggest the reader to turn to the recent work on Animism by Anselm Franke, and the thoughts of Suely Rolnik and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, particularly in the film Assemblages by Angela Melitopoulos and Maurizio Lazzarato.) Perhaps Sakawa is more post-colonial revenge than neo-colonial resistance, but currently I am researching into the possibility for a post-internet animism that works as a form of resistance to the colonialization of the internet by large corporations, I have yet to find a strong hypothesis, but I am working on it!
To me, one of the most intense part of the film is after the religious rite, when the image fade into a colorful palette and the percussive sound of the ritual turns into a synthetic one. What’s the idea behind this choice?
From the first moment I thought about making this film I was interested in the question of what a trance-like vision could be. What does one see when one is in a trance and possessed by a spirit? And more particularly what could this vision be in the post-internet position of contemporary juju rituals used for email scams? What can a post-internet animist trance look like? I was particularly taken with the idea that Sakawa boys could travel through the internet by the means of juju-induced trances, so I asked myself what could someone see when travelling through fibre-optic cables or what would one see when spiritually entering a computer? In the end I realised that any attempt at a concrete representation, without having actually experienced said trance/state/travel, would render an impossible image; so I decided to move towards abstraction as a form of representation of the unknown. This becomes aestheticised firstly through the sound of the ritual gradually becoming less and less ‘real’ as such, and moving to a sonic, tonal representation of the recording — as might happen when experiencing a trance induced state; our perception of surrounding sounds would merge with subjective interpretations of the tonal space we are experiencing. Furthermore, the sound you hear actually travels around the room in a repetitive circular motion (this was made possible through post-produced 5.1 surround sound spatialisation) in the desire to produce a kind of trance like effect in the space of the cinema itself. This ties in with the narrative in that after the ritual I wanted to push the idea that the spectator had actually become possessed by these spirits working in the film, that the spirits we encountered when doing the ritual were actual able to come out of the space of the film into the space of the cinema (through digital technology) and put the viewer into a trance. When the viewer is in the cinematic trance they see only a slowly changing palette of colours (that could be said to represent a kind of computer screensaver!), these colours showing the flatness of the screen, the material reality of a projection of light and colour and the potential for depth and transference between spaces and different states of being – again made available through post-produced digital technologies. After this sequence we see the first 3D renditions of the post-colonial independence monuments, as if to work towards a potential outcome for an image of a post-internet animistic trance that has its aim a resurgence of interest in the revolutionary activity of Kwame Nkrumah. These 3D images were made through digital scanning technology that essentially transforms ‘real’ objects into 3D ones to be manipulated in computer animation software – again another form of techno-animistic representation.
Would you recommend any readings or films to deepen the Sakawa practice?
There is in fact not a lot of material on Sakawa, and it is a dying phenomenon in Ghana, so I wonder if any more will come or not. There is a brilliant book by Jenna Burrell — a researcher at University of California — called Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafés of Urban Ghana, which is available from the MIT press. She has a chapter on Sakawa. Otherwise I would recommend watching, if you can find it, a series of movies called Sakawa Boys produced in Ghana over the last few years by a Ghanaian director called Socrates Sarfo – he gives an interestingly fictionalised account of what is behind Sakawa, but tends to lean towards a moralistic depiction of the problems of leaving the Christian faith and turning to ancient traditional beliefs etc. Of course in his films the Sakawa boys end up in more trouble than they ever imagined and are essentially seen as corrupt and immoral. Another one to watch, with a huge dose of salt, is the vice documentary called “The Sakawa Boys” — the problem with the Vice video is that of course they fall into a very dubious, entirely primitivist and racist account of Sakawa, with a hugely patronising view on what is actually a very serious phenomenon and practice — so maybe give it a miss in fact.