Jarreth Merz Interview
Jarreth Merz’s documentary, An African Election, follows Ghana’s 2008 electoral race to become their next president. For Merz, who spent his boyhood in the country, it was both a personal and a political journey. Soundbite Culture sat down with the director and actor to discuss his experience.
Soundbite Culture: You’ve said An African Election began because of questions you had about your own identity. What were they?
Jarreth Merz: One of them was “Why do I see myself as a cliché?” As an actor, I’d ask why am I cast as a terrorist or something exotic? Why am I not cast as something regular and normal? Is it because I am abnormal? What is it?
There’s a lot of doubt within who I am. We all go through that process. They say when you hit 40 you reach a mid life crisis, but for me I think it was more like an identity crisis. I just realised that I was in denial of my African heritage because of all the bad examples we hear about Africa. Or the clichés; everything is so colourful, you dance so well, you’re very chocolaty.
So this was something that motivated me to go back to where I grew up, which was Ghana. To have a closer look and see where I came from and where I grew up. Why was I happy then and oblivious to all this crap going on about colour or identity, and why had I become so wounded? I had to confront my demons and take a look at that. So I went back to Ghana and I was looking for a new reality.
SC: Did you find any answers?
JM: Let’s put it this way, I found enough to start a new journey. Because looking for answers never stops. It’s a part of life and I think it’s a beautiful part of life that you always question. I think it’s important for me at this stage of my life to be able to move on and to accept. In this case, with a very positive example through the film [I made].
SC: How did making An African Election help you in this respect?
JM: I realised that Africa is so full of hope, so full of positive examples. And it was my responsibility to document that, to talk about it, to bring one positive example – and in this case it’s just one – to a larger audience. To show that democracy in Africa can be done and does exist and it can actually be done better. Going through two reruns, and an unprecedented second rerun, where have you seen that before?
SC: It seems your documentary was borne from very personal motivations, but An African Election is also very objective and your presence unobtrusive. How did that change come about?
JM: It’s an interesting question because I think my ego disappeared at some point. It wasn’t about me anymore. I had been clinging to that. I wanted it to be about me, my story, and my journey. But then I just realised, “Let go, it’s not going to work. This is not about you, it’s about something bigger and the only thing you are doing is lending your eyes to the story”.
That’s why there is no voice over. I didn’t want to taint it with any manipulation, because there is already enough manipulation due to the fact you are looking through my lens, so to speak. I had to let the people speak for themselves, otherwise it would have been a disaster.
SC: How did you feel about what the Ghanaian people had to say?
JM: People wanted change. At the time, Obama was running for President and that was something that inspired African nations. There were pamphlets at the rallies saying “Obama, Obama, Obama!”
It was a time when there was hope that change could really happen, thanks to the example of big brother, America. Ghanaians had been living in the conditions of a third world country for so long and they were sick and tired of it. They want to move on. Ghana is very positive in the sense that it is not a bitter country. People are aware that they have the power in their hands.
SC: The people’s enthusiasm for the electoral process came through very strongly in the film, did it reinvigorate your own feelings about democracy?
JM: It confirmed that politics is about people. It’s not just about who represents you, but who the people are behind the representatives. It inspired me that, as a collective, in Ghana the people celebrate an election. It’s not that they go “Oh god, I have to go and vote. They’re all schmucks anyway, they’re lying and nothing’s going to change.”
That was very inspiring and reminded me that I take the style and comfort of my life for granted. I should know that it is a privilege for me to voice my opinions and vote because other people don’t have that chance.
SC: You seemed to have almost unfettered access to the highest politicians in the country, did anyone try to impose their will on how they were presented?
JM: Very early on, even to the presidential candidates, I said “You have no say in this film. I have final cut. You’re not going to see any material before it’s released. Are you fine with that, because otherwise I’m not going to film you.” If I hadn’t done that, it would not have been my film; An African Election would be a propaganda film.
And actually they agreed to that. I think I had to be very straightforward, not sneaky. There were people who didn’t want to be filmed and at times I felt threatened. People wanted to take the cameras away and the Ministry of Information wanted to see all the footage and have someone travel with us. I almost felt like I was in China.
But I said “Look, I can’t afford to take another person on board,” and at some point they said “Ok, just bring the material when you leave.” But we had 220 hours; how long would it take them to screen that? So in the end, we didn’t even bother with that.
SC: Why do you think people were so willing to be filmed?
JM: They want their stories to be heard. I think that’s the nature of us all in some way or another. All of us want to be heard through what we do, and I think people understood that the way we were working they would be heard. I think usually people don’t talk about their politics, because of some of the repercussions that it can come with.
I just think we gained their trust and I also believe that they knew this was a critical election. There had been so many bad examples of elections failing in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Guinea, and they just wanted to show that Ghana would be different. So they were willing to grant a certain level of transparency.
SC: Are there any examples of how that transparency lent An African Election its unique insight?
JM: If you look at the Strong Room, that’s the vault where all the votes come together, signed off and where everything eventually started to go wrong with inflated numbers, no camera team had ever been in that room.
And the Electoral Commission let us in there. It was unbelievable, people wanted outsiders to understand that there was no foul play.
SC: What was your experience of the filming process, did you go in with a strong idea of the story you were going to tell?
JM: It always felt like we were behind. Stuff was happening and we weren’t there. That was the constant stress I had for four months, “You’re always too late.” As it turns out, we were actually in the right places at the right times, miraculously. We managed to plug into something with the locals and had a lot of support; they would call us [when something was happening]. I don’t know how to say this without sounding pretentious but it just felt like we were plugged in, and everything was taken care of. We just had to be available 24/7, that was the only condition.
SC: How did you cope with all the turmoil, the reruns and recounts, the election went through?
JM: We thought it was going to be over at Christmas. But then it went into the second round, and then into the second rerun and I was wondering “Is this ever going to end?” It was very difficult because the system was being tested. Ghana had never gone into a second rerun before; how would the system and the people deal with it? It was very hairy at some points but they actually did a good job.
SC: Was it difficult remaining objective or concentrating on the technical aspects of filming through such a long and impassioned election?
JM: We just let things roll. We had a concept of how things should look visually, so when we were trying to get the right camera set up’s at rallies and do technical things like that, it wasn’t then a question of “What are they saying?” It was more like “What mood are we capturing?” rather than “What’s he promising today and is it the same as yesterday and the day before?”
I think that also kept us at a healthy distance from an ideological perspective, almost like a detachment. And yet we had a certain closeness to the audience, because we would film reactions or moments within this madness. We were in the crowd.
SC: What were your intentions with the look of An African Election?
JM: It’s interesting. When I see the film myself, I feel like it works on the big screen. We wanted to create a visual gem, so you would experience part of Africa differently. Usually if you watch documentaries about nature in Africa, it’s shot brilliantly and you think “Oh my God, I wanna be there.”
But then you watch documentaries about people in Africa and its shaky camera and quick reportage, and there’s nothing interesting or enticing. So one of the things that we tried to do was visually challenge ourselves, to raise the bar of how documentaries about Africa are being filmed.
SC: You use a dramatic and diverse soundtrack throughout the film, could you tell me a bit about that?
JM: A friend of mine [Patrick Kirst] is a great composer, and I said “Let’s treat this as if it was a feature. Let’s not treat it as a documentary, where we’re trying to educate people and only give information, let’s take the viewer on a journey and use some of the elements of a feature film.” Not try to manipulate the emotions, instead to try and guide them.
We also used music from [Kofi] Ghanaba; a great experimental musician from Ghana who passed away this year. I think he was almost 90. An undiscovered gem.
SC: How did you find him?
JM: He used to be known as Guy Warren and played drums for with Thelonious Monk, creating these beautiful compositions. My dad knew him so we got the rights to his music. It just gave the film a different feel. It was ethnic music, so to speak, but it wasn’t a cliché. It was a different kind of African music and that complemented the profile of where I was going conceptually with the film.
An African Election is out in cinemas now.