After giving birth to a son with a cleft lip, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, the lead character of Children of the Mountain is faced with immeasurable cruelty from her community. Actress Rukiyat Masud plays Essuman, a yam trader who is rejected by her partner and others who believe in superstitions that suggest her son’s deformity is a result of the mother’s “dirty womb.” She sets out searching for support and acceptance, a journey as much for his healing as her own, in Priscilla Anany’s enthralling debut film, which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival on April 17.
It is the first time a Ghanaian film has debuted at the prestigious New York event. It is also the first time that Ewe dialect has been featured in a film, much to the delight of those who speak Anany’s native language.
“There are only a few African stories about Africans, told by Africans,” she told Women in the World. “I thought it was important to show my life story and where I am from by sharing it with the world.” The film festival applauded Anany’s storytelling last Thursday by presenting the filmmaker with its 2015 award for best new narrative director.
About the Author
Ghanaian writer-director Priscilla Anany was raised in Ghana and moved at age 19 to the United States, where she studied filmmaking in North Carolina until 2011 before obtaining her masters degree in New York. She then worked as a “fixer” for international producers to bridge the cultural divide when filming in Ghana and other West African nations, connecting them to resources and locations as the ultimate Ghanaian-American guide while dreaming up her own visions for the screen.
“When it comes to projects, I don’t need to go looking,” Anany said. “They just fall in my lap.”
Children of the Mountain took a year to write as Anany went back and forth, uncertain if she wanted to commit to making a realist film. The final product is a close examination of what the director called a “true part” of Ghana’s history: the marginalization and repression of disabled children and the shunning of mothers who birth them. (In the recent past, babies with cleft lip and other birth defects “would never come out of the hospital,” she explained.) Shown across village, city, and rural mountains to present the picturesque dynamics of each, Children of the Mountain is a visual masterpiece that casts light on all of Ghana’s beauty as Essuman travels, making sacrifices for her child while simultaneously attempting to retain her sense of self when no medicine men or leaders provide help.
Of her lead actress, Masud, Anany said, “I wanted somebody who had an interesting look, and I just knew she was the one.”
She consciously chose to cast child actors with a cleft lip, like 2-year-old Jessica Dablo, who plays a male character, and the baby cast to play a younger version of Essuman’s son. Many parents refused to participate because of the stigma.
“In the U.S., if a child is born with a cleft lip, it’s a quick fix that they do in the hospital right away before the child even comes home,” she said, explaining that healthcare in Africa is less reliable and patients aren’t seen right away. It’s a system that needs modernizing but Anany cited the influence of Ghanaian-funded organizations like the Graft Foundation, which works to help research and erase the stigma of cleft lip.
Anany said she relied on such organizations to help cast the film because it is “a big deal” for Ghanaians and West Africans to do it themselves, without help from western countries.