Adogla writes: Joseph Otsiman; The Burial of Kojo actor on valuing craft and elevating Ghanaian film
It is no surprise Joseph Otsiman looks up to Britsh actor Daniel Day-Lewis. The Takoradi-born actor has proven to be just as picky as the three-time Oscar winner. He has also tried to walk the method acting path of the acclaimed British thespian.
Unlike most of his colleague actors, Otsiman has just three films under his belt and one theatre run; all met with warm to overwhelming acclaim. In the last three years, he has starred in ‘The Cursed Ones’, ‘Keteke’ and the most accomplished Ghanaian film in the last two decades, ‘The Burial of Kojo’.
I first met Otsiman at a symposium organized by the Black Star International Film Festival. He was among the scores of cinephiles venting about the film industry some Ghanaians pretend exists.
It takes superhuman restraint to talk about Ghanaian cinema without wallowing in its dreary prospects. When I sat down with Otsiman in a hotel lobby a couple of weeks after the symposium, I planned to allow for the catharsis that comes from deciding to venture into the dysfunctional world of Ghanaian cinema.
Bordering on passionate gloom, Otsiman’s disenchantment turned to the government. “I don’t know if it’s the fact that they don’t understand or are ignoring how powerful this [film] industry is in terms of change and development.”
The government is generally viewed as being all talk and no action when it comes to supporting the arts. It’s one of the many variables that makes it difficult for someone willing to dedicate a career to it like Otsiman appeared to be. And he is past the point of no return; prepared to endure the distresses along the path of an acting career.
He feels he is wired differently and doesn’t think a serious acting career in Ghana may be for everyone. “Honestly, it’s a dream that right now I find difficult to convince people to join,” he confessed. “It’s like the system is designed for you to fail.”
Perhaps to give oneself to acting, one needs some form of awakening that opens your eyes to certain truths. Perhaps, Otsiman’s awakening is conveyed in his desire to fully embody the humanism at the core of cinema; embracing the idea of cinema being a machine of empathy. “This is the only profession that celebrates what it means to be human,” he affirmed.
It is why he revels in the opportunity to play everyday men like the titular Kojo in Blitz Bazawule’s absorbing directorial debut, where he stars as a father wrestling with guilt from a past life but also a loving father with a distracted wife amidst the angst of a death foretold. Though not showy, it’s the most complex role the 29-year-old has tackled in his budding career and his effectiveness creeps up you. It was a performance, he said, that required he leech off the grit of ‘The Revenant’ and the tenderness of The Pursuit of Happiness’.
Otsiman’s passion for acting stemmed from doubt. In basic school at Takoradi, to think about what he wanted to be when he grew up, was to swim in a vortex of confusion. Then a simple idea rescued him. Why not become everything, he told himself at the time. Reminiscing on this epiphany that gave him purpose filled him with glee.
“Growing up, I really didn’t know exactly what I wanted to become until I realized that I could become all of them… This is the only profession that gives me the right to be poor, gives me the right to be rich, gives me the right to be gay, gives me the right to be anything – to be free.”
His first acting gig came in church, on the cusp of his teenage years, where he played one of the most painfully unaware men in the bible in a play based on the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. With this, Otsiman had basically taken his first steps into theatre.
The time soon came when he had to take a bigger leap and level up as an actor. “I knew acting was fun, but I was trying to see if it could make a change for me,” he recalled.
In 2006, a once in a lifetime theatre project came his way in high school – a production of Efua Sutherland’s ‘Marriage of Anansewaa’ where he played the Storyteller. This meant significant exposure for Otsiman given the production toured Ghana and also the UK; playing for a month at The Drum – Theatre Royal Plymouth.
It’s the only theatre production Otsiman’s been part of and I was curious to see if he longed for a return to the stage. The level of enthusiasm that met his answer in the affirmative surprised me. “Theater is the scariest thing in this life and that is why I want to go back to it.”
The idea of a live audience fills him with a rush that I imagine is hard to replicate when acting for the big screen. “It’s like boxing,” he said. “But this time you are not fighting with one person. You are fighting with thousands of people.”
Right now, one of his main fights is finding strong film roles. His respect for the craft means he has no intention of selling out. This is something he has stressed to his manager. “I made her understand my vision. So, we understand each other, we know what we want to do. So anytime there is a project, we do research, we look at it and ask, is this something that we want to be on? Is it something that is going to push the vision forward?”
‘The Burial of Kojo’ is undoubtedly Otsiman’s biggest role. But he acquitted himself well in his other projects. He lent a refreshing brand of deadpan humor to Keteke, a film that opened FEPASCO 2019. Described as the best ever Ghanaian film by Cinema Escapist, Otsiman also starred as a priest who served as a beacon of warmth in darker times in ‘The Cursed Ones’.
He even shot for but missed the audition for Cary Fukunaga’s ‘Beasts of No Nation‘. There was no role in the film on his radar at the time, Otsiman recalled. He went in blind with the desire to work with and learn from an acclaimed director.
Knowing very well that acting offers him little or no riches in the short term, he has a simple demand of filmmakers: “If you are not bringing us the money, at least promise us a good project. Bring something good so that in the future I can use it to get another job.”
In an industry dominated by limited b-movies and a lack of ambition, Otsiman holds on to his pride as a thespian and fights off compromise. “I don’t want anybody to look down on my projects,” he says.
“I have colleagues who are studying to become lawyers, engineers, doctors, teachers; big people in their industries. If they are going to be respected for their jobs and I am deciding to dedicate my life to this, then I have to be respected for it.”
He plans to chart the path of excellence with a rigorous approach to accepting and preparing for roles. In preparing for his role as a young pastor in ‘The Cursed Ones’, he looked within his life for a reference point to build his character on. He found one in his brother, who also happened to be pastor and teacher – the ideal subject to get him in tune with his character.
Valuing process is something that really isn’t taught. Indeed, Otsiman has had to pull himself up by his bootstraps as far as his career is concerned. He got his training “from everywhere” as he puts it. It was the time spent taming his shyness in acting troupes and performing daring acting stunts on the streets of Takoradi to the disbelief of many.
It was also the time spent watching and reading about the works of some of the great thespians in and before our time. Daniel Day-Lewis aside, Otsiman also cites Al Pacino and Leonardo Di Caprio as influences. But he has a strong fondness for Viola Davis, evident in the toothy grin that spread across his face. “Viola killed me with ‘Fences’… for real, I can’t wait to play her son or whatever,” he chuckled out.
Otsiman’s grin materialised to a look of gratitude as a more substantial influence came to the fore. He cannot overstate how important long-time Fred Amugi, who he shared scenes with in ‘The Cursed Ones’ and ‘Keteke’, has been to his career. “He makes me love the process. At his age, he still rehearses on his own. He works on the script as if it is his first project.”
He recalled how the now 70-year-old Amugi would drag him from hotel rooms to hone their craft with rehearsals and script discussions; worshipping at the altar of “the process” – very much the mantra that Otsiman hopes defines his acting career. “That is the process. It is not just about coming in front of the camera. It is what you do behind the camera.”
It is the work behind the camera in ‘The Burial of Kojo’ that bubbles to the surface in easily the best performance of his young career. Bazawule’s long but successful hustle for funding for the project meant there was more time for rehearsals and refining of the acting talent. Shooting for the film begun in August 2017, almost a year after Otsiman first auditioned.
To delve into how one prepares for a role like the one Kojo plays will be to enter spoiler territory. But Otsiman really pushes himself for the sections of the film that resemble survival cinema. Bazawule has spoken of the lengths Otsiman went to deliver an authentic performance; notably depriving himself of food for three days, coinciding with the most intense days of the shoot. His sleep suffered and so did his hygiene, in service of a scene that required him to spend a significant amount of time in an illegal mining pit.
“I didn’t tell the director or anybody that I was going to starve myself. It was my own dedication.”
Full method can be great, like when you learn about Robert De Niro driving a cab for a year to prepare for ‘Taxi Driver’ or Daniel Day-Lewis spending almost the entire shoot of ‘My Left Foot’ in a wheelchair. But then some actors cross the line like Jared Leto sent condoms, anal beads, and a dead rat to his fellow cast members on ‘Suicide Squad’.
There are enough disaster stories to have you wondering if Otsiman will ever cross the line marked reason. Per his account, it doesn’t sound like he got on the crew’s nerves. They were more concerned about how sickly he was beginning to look. But he wasn’t bothered. “I don’t really care. Really, I don’t. The only person I cared for was the director. He’s who I talk to really,” he said.
That said, Otsiman didn’t discuss eating one of the live cockroaches scampering around the pit with Bazawule. Provision was made for an adequate ruse to fool audiences but his method instincts took over in a gross way. “Before I realized I had actually eaten the poor cockroach.” And Otsiman doesn’t recall what was going through his head; just that he was hungry. “I think it was because I was locked up in the character,” he surmised.
Do you hope to work with Bazawule again, I asked him? “Are you serious, man?” was Otsiman’s pithy retort. He was in no doubt the time spent under Bazawule’s demanding but nurturing umbrella brought something extra out of him and his fellow cast members. “He’s a visionary. He’s a director that every actor should hope to work with. You don’t just work. You learn,” Otsiman stressed.
As the acclaim pours in for ‘The Burial of Kojo’, and it goes global on Netflix and Video-on-Demand, the successes chalked by the small army Bazawule rallied towards a seminal piece of visual storytelling about Africa have put Ghana on the map of cinephiles. The New Yorker has already called it one of the best films of 2019.
The takeaway for Otsiman is simple. “It reminds us that we are capable,” he said. “As Kwame Nkrumah said, we are capable of managing our own affairs.”
Moving forward, Otsiman will be in a German film called ‘Borga‘. He’s also in an autism awareness project called ‘Outlier‘. The Takoradi native remains hopeful of a bright career but aware he may be but the stepping stone that gives some weight to a career in acting in Ghana for others to come.
Nothing fancy came up when I broached the topic of his dream role. “People say I look like Marvin Gaye,” he quipped as I tried to form a mental picture of the iconic R&B singer.
But Otsiman remains down to earth and focused on conveying relatable stories and harnessing the machine of empathy to add value to black lives. “We have to concentrate on the black lives we have here… it’s about time that if you had the power to do films, write stories about these [ordinary] people. We have to keep telling our stories and learning to tell it right,” he charged.