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Kaleidoscopic Journeys: Interview with Sam Kessie (Writer/Producer of “Zoom Zoom – The Professor”)

The story of Ghanaian featherweight boxer Azumah Nelson is brought to life with play by play footage of both his most glorious and humbling fights in the documentary Zoom Zoom – The Professor.

The film’s producer Sam Kessie came upon the project by chance a few years ago. A fortuitous meeting with a mutual friend opened a door to a partnership between Sam and Azumah in documenting his important legacy.

The end result is a clear and concise film honoring the great boxer, and a wonderful visual message to young the men who have joined the Azumah Foundation in hopes of one day repeating the namesake’s success.

Sam Kessie was born in London and raised there until she was eight, her family returned to Ghana thereafter. On the track to study various disciplines of science and math, Sam left Ghana for the United States to attend college in Wisconsin, which she recalled with some humor. She initially held a major in computer science then switch to psychology, but eventually came to terms with her desire to pursue the arts.

Art wasn’t something that was really encouraged [back in Ghana]. So I went in a completely different path in the beginning. I was on the path of science—physics, chemistry, and math—and started college doing computer science, and then I started to realize that maybe this isn’t something that I really wanted to do. I could study, and pass, and that kind of stuff, but there was no interest in it, I wasn’t really into it. I finally woke up one day and realized that I’d been running away from something for so long.

Documenting a Legend

Sam has worked in a variety of areas in the film and video industry, covering everything from commercial to narrative features and shorts. And even though she has a background in narrative storytelling, to tell Azumah’s story she relied on the more straightforward approach of documentary, partly because that’s what Azumah himself wanted.

When I got a chance to go back [to Ghana] I met a friend of his and a family friend [of mine]. Then I met him, and after we started talking I found that he had actually been trying to get a documentary done. This is actually the third outcome of a documentary for Azumah and it was because he has this foundation he’s been working on. He has a book that he’s doing and he wanted to add a DVD that would add a timeline of his fights to help bring [funds] for this foundation. It kind of ended up being like contract work given to me.  This was my very first documentary. And I learned quite a lot from doing this documentary.

Because of the contract deal, and the fact that the film is meant to help fund a non-profit, Sam had to complete the documentary on deadline with about seven months to finish it. Drawing  mostly from stock footage, but also integrating lively sketches as recreations of events, Sam produced an energetic companion to the Azumah Foundation‘s overall promotional package. The task of finding footage wasn’t easy, and she ended up compiling footage from other filmmakers who have attempted an Azumah Nelson documentary, along with stock footage from fights. She also got some of her footage from an unusual source.

I didn’t get any of the actual fights from Ghana because the broadcasting company at that time had burned down so they lost a lot of the footage from most of his fights. So I got lucky trying to find the footage at a decent cost because I couldn’t afford to go through HBO and all these other places.  Luckily I found a guy on YouTube who happened to be a boxing fan and had many boxing matches on VHS tape. So I basically paid for some of his fights and managed to get that on DVD.

Discovering More Stories

The downside to doing a documentary in just seven months, and with under an hour to tell the story, became apparent when, after finishing the documentary, Sam kept digging and found more information about Azumah.  This ongoing discovery has sparked an interest in telling the story from a different angle.

When we were working on it we kept talking about how “wow, his story is so amazing we can tell a feature about it”, and then the following year The Fighter came out. So there’s still hope that we can tell other things for him, because his story has so many intricate details that we can take a small portion of it and tell a huger story out of it.

One of the stories that I’d love to tell about him could be either him being picked up two weeks before his fight with Salvador Sanchez, to me that alone could be told as one story. Or the story of him starting off as a child and then becoming a world champion, and the story could end there. Or I could tell a love story about him and his wife, and him unfortunately losing his wife when he was trying to get a three-time title which would have put him into elite company.

One of the stories I love about him, is that Azumah never went to school. But by having the opportunity to venture out and travel, he ended up getting a tutor. And now he can read and write and speak very decent English, and that’s really an inspiration to people in Ghana

The soundtrack to Zoom Zoom – The Professor is an impressive mix of the rhythmic music of Africa, from older afro-funk music to a newer trend in Ghanaian music called “hiplife”. Sam’s cousin Richmond Kessie helped her pick out the music and place them throughout the documentary.

Osibisa was a band that during the 70s were huge. If you were to think of George Clinton, they were on that level in Europe, just a huge band of Afro-funk. I also incorporated the newer musicians of today like M3NSA and Wanlov who are followers of what we call hiplife, which is a cross between the old-school highlife and the hip-hop that in the 80s and 90s trickled down into Africa. Children then grew up listening to all these hip-hop artists, and so it started to affect a lot of the music coming out of Africa today.

The Next Leg of the Journey

Sam has several projects in the works from a narrative feature, to a documentary, to charitable work in art education in Ghana. Sam is the founder of the TKA Foundation (“Tomorrow’s Kaleidoscope of Artists”), a charitable organization which, as it’s in its genesis, is currently working toward aiding more established charities in art education and eco-friendly lifestyle initiatives. This summer she’ll be assisting AKOSIA in teaching the fundamentals of filmmaking.

Sam would like to see Ghana’s film industry improve from its infrastructure, and she believes initiatives like the one she’s working on, giving children a head start, would help the industry there in the future.

Right now it’s kind of hard [to shoot a movie in Ghana]. The logistics are not really at its best, but it’s slowly changing. I’ve had a chance to assist two other people on their features in Ghana, and just kind of looked to see what the strongest part was for them, or what the weakest was part for them. And what I realized was that there are people who are hungry, but there aren’t a lot of the most current tools that they need, and some of them don’t have the proper training. And so if you do want to go and make a really good production sometimes you might end up having to bring some of your own equipment, or bringing some of your personnel, which brings the budget up a little more. That’s why I’m so exciting about this summer program that I’m doing, because there are people who are starting to get into the whole film vibe, and wanting to learn, and are trying to learn the right way.

Related closely to her charitable work, Sam is currently developing a documentary idea about the emergence of art movements and the growing interest in eco-friendly lifestyles in Africa.

I might do a documentary-style experiment trying to see what art education can do in places like Ghana or third-world countries, especially in places where they’ve found something like oil. And seeing how oil has affected some of our biggest countries like Libya and what’s going on and Libya, or what happened in Nigeria years ago. And seeing how the youth today are really more focused on art, technology, and a more eco-friendly lifestyle as opposed to the old minerals that we had that eventually depleted like oil and gold. So that’s something I’m toying around with, and I’m looking for a few grants to see if I can do that. If I can pull that off, that would be my next project.

Sankofa

In addition to the TKA foundation, Sam’s one woman production company Sankofa Pictures is working on producing a narrative feature that she’s been developing for a few years. Sankofa, a portmanteau of the Akan words SAN (return), KO (go) FA (look, see, take), is the driving force behind all of her work.

It basically means ‘there’s nothing wrong with learning from the past.’ And I chose it specifically because I started off wanting to become some form of artist, and being afraid and really not sure if that was acceptable. And after years and years of searching and not finding anything fulfilling, I came back and basically took back from the past. That name really resonated with me. And it’s what reminds me too—when I feel “oh this is so hard for me”—it keeps reminding me constantly that I’ve made the right choice, and this is what I really want to do.

Sankofa Pictures has produced a music video for Ghanaian musician M3NSA. And for a couple of years she’s also been developing a feature script Killing Harry (see the teaser here), a cross between a dark comedy, mystery, and fantasy.

It’s a dark comedy about a man who’s sent back from limbo to confront his murderer before he can go to heaven or hell. He’s sent back to a place where everyone who’s there could be the person who murdered him. The problem is that each one of them has a motive to kill him, and he has to figure out which one did it…I’m a big Coen brothers, Hitchcock, and horror fan.

Sam is ever busy working on her next big project, but in between work she likes reaching out to other artists. Drop by her blog to say “hello” and get a conversation started.

(Photo by Emmanuel A. Gamor)

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