Film: I Sing of a Well (2009)
Director: Leila Djansi
Genre: Historical Drama
The film opens with the following words, written by Ghanaian actor J.O.T Agyeman, who also stars in the film, and narrated by Jimmy Jean-Louis, the Haitian model turned actor, who is best known for his role as The Haitian in NBC’s Heroes.
In a time long ago, before Christopher Columbus, before the first ships made their way across the shores of Africa; before Asanteman and the Ashantehene, in the time of the Mali Empire and Mansa Musa, his influence and affluence. In the days when the dust of the ground rises with the crackling sound of the hoofs of horses and camels. When men flee the comfort of their homes for the deep of the forests. Torn from their holds and sent off into the sunset never to return. Running from the four corners of the earth, pursued by their own brothers. Their limbs severed from flesh to flesh in their bid to flee the hand of those who by-pass the will of the gods and make themselves gods. Through the darkness, their shadows encompass village after village creating widows and orphans. Emptying kingdoms of men and relieving kings of their stools and skins. In these times, the dry earth lived in fear. Everything, anyone, anything is an enemy. But in the kingdom of Kotengbi, a dwelling in the Ghana Empire, there are those whose spirit preserve in contentment and in soreness the instructions of reason about what he ought and ought not to fear. They are men of faith, men who still believe that will rule not in the space provided by the toil and suffering of their courage. Their fortitute exists not only in their resistance.
“I Sing of a Well” is the first installment of the trilogy Legion of Slaves. Written, directed and co-produced by Leila Djansi, the film aims to give the African perspective on the West African slave trade. This first film is set in the Kingdom of Kotengbi, in the Ghana Empire, in the time of the rise of Mansa Musa in the Mali Empire. The Kingdom has begun to be troubled by slave raiders and the elderly king is at a loss about what to do and so decides to allow his son, Prince Wenambe (J.O.T Agyeman) to become king in the hopes that he will be able to find a solution. Prince Wenambe decides to build a stone wall around the Kingdom and pledge allegiance to Mansa Musa in the hopes that he will protect the Kingdom from slave raiders.
Within the Kingdom of Kotengbi, Soraya (Akofa E. Asiedu) and Dume (Godwin Kotey) are in love but Dume is a poor hunter and cannot afford the Bride Price that Soraya’s uncle Yohannes demands. From the start of the film, we meet the seer, Alaka, who has predicted that Dume will be the father of kings and Soraya will bear princes.
After saving her from being wiped for raising a false alarm about slave raiders, Prince Wenambe falls in love with Soraya and desires to marry her. Prince Wenambe is jealous of Dume and has him killed. Soraya, already pregnant with Dume’s son, is forced to marry Prince Wenambe. Prince Wenambe is driven to depression by Soraya’s indifference to him and the fact that his plan to protect his village has backfired now that Mansa Musa is enslaving his people.
I really enjoyed watching a historical drama written by Africans for Africans. It offers insights into the dynamics of the slave trade and resistance to the slave trade in West Africa before the arrival of the Europeans. We often do not discuss this aspect of our history and so I commend Djansi for taking the risk of exploring this subject matter.
The film, shot on a mini 35mm camera, was technically at a higher standard than is usually seen in Ghanaian films, bringing it closer to the level of cinematography seen in Francophone West African Art House films. The acting was excellent, although I felt that well-known Ghanaian actress Akofa Asiedu, who also co-produced the film, was miscast as the character of Soraya really should have been younger to make it believable that the Crown Prince would desire her from among all the possible women who he could marry.
There were also some serious historical anachronisms that troubled me. The opening narration clearly sets the story in the time before Christopher Columbus, during the reign of Mansa Musa, however, in one scene, Soraya’s mother is making cassava to eat, and even talks about cassava with Dume. But cassava is indigenous to Brazil and was only introduced to Africa by Portuguese traders, obviously after 1492. I also wonder if Djansi has made the common mistake of thinking that the Ghana Empire had anything to do with the present-day country Ghana-it doesn’t. The Ghana Empire was located in what is present-day South-Eastern Mauritania and Western Mali. The Ghana Empire had also fallen before the rise of the Mali Empire which actually contained the remains of the Ghana Empire.
I Sing of a Well Website
I Sing of a Well Trailer available online
BBC The Story of Africa: West African Kingdoms: Ancient Ghana (article available online)
BBC The Story of Africa: West African Kingdoms: Mali (article available online)