Interview: Anthony Nti's 'Da Yie' Has Become a Hit in Film Festival Circuits

Da Yie film still.

(CAVIAR FILMS/Pieter Jan Claessens)

Interview: Anthony Nti's 'Da Yie' Has Become a Hit in Film Festival Circuits

Da Yie, a short film directed by 28-year-old Ghanaian Anthony Ntihas emerged one of the most successful films of the extended awards season race.

Da Yie, a fast-paced twenty-minute dramatic thriller about children in peril, debuted at the Gent film festival in Belgium late 2019. Since then, the film has made the rounds, playing in the London Film Festival and the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival where it won the Grand Prix in the international competition last year. Da Yie was also shortlisted among nine other titles (including the latest by Pedro Almodovar and another starring Oscar Isaac) in the Live Action Short category at the Oscars. The film ended its Oscar run at this stage as it not make the final cut of five when nominations were announced earlier this month.

Nti who was born and raised in Ghana before moving to Belgium wrote and filmed Da Yie (Twi for Good night) as his graduate school project. Partly autobiographical, the film's building blocks arise from Nti's recollections of growing up in the economically disadvantaged town of Madina located along the Ghanaian coast.

Two unattended kids are playing football when an adult man pulls up and entices them to get in his car. Da Yie follows the three of them as the adult takes the kids on a tour of the scenic coastal scene, giving them an experience that could very well be described as the best day of their lives.

It isn't all sugar and spice though as danger lurks at the corner and Nti cleverly navigates the balance between the excitement of children and the darkness that adults carry with them. Embedded within the film's furious editing and frenetic action is a social drama about society's treatment of children, particularly those from underprivileged backgrounds.

OkayAfrica spoke with Anthony Nti via Zoom from his home in Belgium.

Da Yie film still.(CAVIAR FILMS/Pieter Jan Claessens)

DaYie has been quite the hit in the festival circuit, impressive for a film that started as a student project.

Indeed. Da Yie was my film school graduate project. I graduated in 2019 but got the idea back in 2015. It is semi-autobiographical. I was this energetic playful kid running around outside, playing football, doing back flips and I have the scars to prove. I was always hanging with older people and one day I got into a situation like you see in the film. One that could have gone wrong easily.

What was this situation specifically?

I was hanging out with some older guys and we went to this apartment and there were drugs around. I was rapping and entertaining them and after a while I needed to use the restroom and the guy I came with suddenly hustled me out of there for my own safety. He would later get locked up. I started to think about how the innocence of children can come into danger when it crosses with adulthood. It all starts with a recollection of me as a child minding my own business and my friends coming to get me so we could play football. They convinced me to join them even though I had chores to finish at my aunt's place. I came back at night and my aunt wanted to hit me, but I dodged the slap and if you know this situation, dodging that slap is even worse than going to play football. I had to run away from the house till she could calm down. I was telling this story to Chingiz Karibekov who is the co-writer and producer and he suggested we mix the two stories and from there we started to build our film. I wanted it to be a road trip through the Ghanaian West coast scenery from Accra to Madina where I grew up. I wanted to take the audience through this journey of my childhood.

"I started to think about how the innocence of children can come into danger when it crosses with adulthood."

Let us talk about the collaboration with Chingiz. How do you collaborate with someone from Kazakhstan on a story about Ghanaian childhood?

Even though Chingiz came from Kazakhstan, which is a world away, we connected. We both were not born in Belgium and had other lives before we arrived film school. We had a vision about film and the world that was very much the same. When I tell him a story, he can understand it immediately and bring his input into it. This goes vice versa. We started working together from the beginning of film school. He shot my film and I shot his. He went on to do screenwriting while I finished directing. We have a pattern where I write from top and he goes from bottom. We have been working together for about eight years. It is not easy sometimes, but we complement each other and we make it work.

Da Yie film still.(CAVIAR FILMS/Pieter Jan Claessens)

Ghana has a small but vibrant film industry. Did you tap into this community when you arrived to make Da Yie?

DaYie was actually the second time I had been to Ghana to make a film. My first short film, Kweku was made in Ghana. I shot that myself with my dad. He did the sound and I did the camera. With Da Yie it was more or less the same except I travelled with a cameraman that I had worked with and the sound guy. The rest of the crew constituted my family, my dad, aunt who did the catering and the art direction. It was a smooth shoot. I believe that you don't have to go to film school to produce a film.

You work with not one but two child actors in the lead roles. Did this constitute another layer of difficulty for you?

My cousin knew the headmistress of this school and that is how we went there to cast. For the leads we needed two types of personalities, an energetic one and a more reserved one who needed some pushing to come out of their shell. We opened the audition process to both boys and girls. On the first day, the first person that walked into the room was this girl, Matilda Enchil. We asked her if she could rap and when we offered to write some lyrics for her, she told us she had her own lyrics already. She blew us away. On top of that she could play football. She was to play me as a kid but she was even better. Prince (Agortey) came in and he was a match as well. I have worked with kids from my previous films so I had some experience there. I am a kid myself and I learn a lot when I work with kids. As a director, I am the better for it. With kids it is important that you communicate clearly. Lucky for me I had great kids to work with.

Interesting that Matilda's role was originally written as male.

Let me tell you, we didn't even have to change anything about it except her name. Sometimes we just need to be open minded and let things flow. Both actors understood that we were making a film and they understood the story and they were giving each other pointers to boost their performances. We didn't shoot chronologically because half of the film occurs during the day while the other half is at night. But Matilda and Prince were following every step of the way.

Da Yie film still.(CAVIAR FILMS/Pieter Jan Claessens)

Why do you think you keep returning to stories about childhood?

I think there is this purity in children that I like to play with while clashing it with a darker energy that adults usually bring. There is a thin line between the two.

There is a tension that permeates Da Yie and this is heightened as the events occur. How do you encode this into the film, is it at the writing, filming or editing stage?

That's a great question and we thought about this for a long while. Fifty percent of DaYie was always going to be a social drama and then the other half, a thriller but without showing any form of violence. My childhood experience was not marked by violence but as a kid I know that I saw something different than what an adult was seeing. When kids see Da Yie, they do not feel the threat until the end. While an adult feels the threat from the start, immediately the car pulls up. That was more interesting to me playing with this threat. I am just dropping you in it and taking you on this journey through the coast in a car ride. We didn't use a lot of establishment shots. I wanted to bring you in to make you see it the way I lived it as a local without being voyeuristic or touristic. Visually, we wanted the camera to be the third character but also as a kid so I could reenact every movement how I saw it. Sometimes the camera is right in your face, sometimes it pulls back. Because the camera is this curious kid, it is not scared of anything and this is what creates that sense of fear when the threat is introduced.

"...the camera is this curious kid, it is not scared of anything..."

The camera is indeed a third character. Prince holds one as he records the events of the day. Is there a commentary in there about your work as a filmmaker?

The camera was also me in the sense that I am observing. Also script wise it was supposed to be a catalyst, like having gold in your hand and you don't even know the value. Then the camera is also hard evidence as it has seen a lot of stuff so in a way it is a metaphor for the kids.

I see. How has the Covid pandemic affected your work?

I have been lucky enough to be working. I have been writing a lot. My feature film has been in the writing stage for about three years now and we hope to finish it this year. I did a commercial and I shot a television show. Before the lockdown I was already inside, writing for a long time so my life felt in some way like the lockdown even before the lockdown. But I recognize that a lot of people lost their jobs and things are not going well and I feel bad for them. But I have been blessed really. My film is doing great. The down side is I could have travelled to all these festivals that Da Yie was programmed in. But at least I was physically present at Clermont-Ferrand and it was amazing. We won the Grand Prix and watching it on a big screen with 1200 people was out of this world. Ditto meeting audiences and filmmakers. But I am here to make films for a long time so we shall have more opportunities.

Tell me about this feature film you are working on.

It is inspired by this book, On Black Sisters Street by Chike Unigwe, a Nigerian writer. The book is about Nigerian girls that come to Europe and are prostituted. It is a female run business run like a mafia. We follow a girl who loses her best friend along the way and she blames the madam who happens to be her aunt. When she gets to Belgium she meets the sister of her best friend and she decides that she will become a madam but a more compassionate type. We follow this girl before she becomes a madam actually and trace her rise. Hopefully, we can shoot next year.