By Darlene Donloe
It’s an interesting dichotomy when you love and hate a film at the same time. But, that’s exactly what happened while viewing the disturbing, yet intriguing independent film, Like Cotton Twines, elegantly directed by BAFTA Award-winner Leila Djansi.
The film, which had its world premiere during the LA Film Festival, is the first time a film from Ghana has screened at the festival.
It tells the story of an archaic and barbaric practice of religious sexual slavery. In the film, Jay Ellis (The Game) plays Micah Brown an American volunteer who takes a teaching job in a remote African village where he meets Tuigi, played with heart by Ghanaian actress Ophelia Dzidzornu. Tuigi is a 13-year old girl who is to become Trokosi, wife to the gods. Trokosi is a generations long practice of religious sexual slavery. A virgin is given to a god (local priest) as a way of atoning something her family has done. Accepting her fate, Tuigi’s only desire is to be able to write her Basic Education Certificate Exam. She is torn between the past and the present. Confronted with a battle between church and state, Micah is determined to give Tuigi a life outside tradition.
I recently spoke to Director Leila Djansi and Jay Ellis about the making of the film.
Director Leila Djansi
DD: How did your journey to Like Cotton Twines begin?
LD: When in was 10, I got to meet a Trokosi in a market when I was with my mom. My mother never shied away from telling us about life. She told us about the women and how they didn’t have a choice. When I graduated high school, I went to a funeral. I saw a busload of Trokosi. They said they were queens, not slaves. I saw this woman who had these dark, depressed eyes. I never forgot her.
DD: Did you speak to any Trokosi or any priests for the making of this film?
LD: For the movie I talked to four of the Trokosi. There is a lady in my church who was one. Some really do get liberated. The organization, International Needs (A worldwide partnership of Christian organization fulfilling the commission of Jesus Christ, supporting each other to see transformed lives, families and communities.), they go and buy the women and get them out of that situation and put them in finishing school. They teach them by sending them to life school. These women need something because when you have been one of the Trokosi, you are rejected by your family because they feel you are cursed.
DD: In your research, Leila, what just blew your mind?
LD: How young the girls are and how they are introduced to rape at that early age. How senseless these men are. How you can have sex with a child that is nine years old. It completely blew my mind.
DD: Jay, how did you come to be involved in this film and why did you want to be part of this film?
JE: My reps called me one day and said they had a script. They said they thought it could be something special. I read it over the course of two days. I wanted to do it. A lot of things about the script interested me. One was the opportunity to tell this story. It’s a story about women’s rights and young girls’ rights. It was appealing to me. That’s part of the power of the film. On top of that, it was the chance to shoot in Ghana.
DD: How did you like Ghana?
JE: It was amazing. One of the most spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. There were highs and lows, color, fabric, food, dirt, the people, the smells. I pray I’m that present in all of my life. I wanted to make sure I was as present as I could be.
DD: Were you aware of this Trokosi tradition?
JE: I knew about female circumcision. Didn’t know about Trokosi.
DD: Tell me your thoughts when you found out about this tradition.
JE: Initially, I first questioned if this is real. When I read the script there was no mention of this being real or not real. Is it still happening? Does this really happen? First of all, men suck. My first thought is that this is absolutely crazy. There is no humanity here. This doesn’t make sense.
DD: When you were in Ghana did you meet anyone who could tell you about the subject matter?
JE: Leila had known about this. A lot of the stories I heard in the beginning were through Leila and her experiences and stories. Then we found out that one of the makeup ladies on the show lived in a village where there are Trokosi women. That was interesting. Leila wants to make people uncomfortable, which is the way it should be. This is something the world should see.
DD: Tell me about your character, Micah Brown.
JE: I don’t know that I still know how to develop him or play him. I was about finding what’s different from yourself and the character. I wanted to find out who he is and what he’s like. What’s his education like? We talked about his background. He’s going on his own journey. He’s doing it because of his mother who passed away. He’s becoming closer to her by doing this.
This was my first time on the continent of Africa. I was having my own spiritual awakening as this was happening.
DD: Jay, have you played a guy like this before?
JE: No, I haven’t. I’m 6’4”, 200-something pounds. I usually get roles that call for me to be cocky, arrogant and an athlete. I’m the good-looking guy coming in to get the girl. I was a little bit afraid of taking this role. I realized I wanted to stretch.
DD: Leila, why was Jay the right person for this part?
LD: I saw Jay in My Favorite Five. I had written the script. I was doing a character development for the character of Micah. I like him he’s not light skinned and not dark skinned. He was on the periphery of what I wanted when you take a light skinned, good looking man to Ghana. The way they look at him is different. He will get favors. If they are dark skinned people - don’t respond to them well.
DD: Leila, what was the worst scene to shoot and why?
LD: I had to step away from the film for a week after we shot the rape scene. It was so hard. The rape scenes with Tuigi. I didn’t want anything to do with the guy who played the priest. I kept them separate on the set.
DD: Leila, has the film been shown in Ghana, or in other African nations? If so, the response?
LD: It’s going to be shown in Ghana. We teamed up with International Need to show it all over Ghana. I’ve already started getting backlash. That means I’m doing the right thing. I don’t romanticize the truth.
DD: What is your hope for the film?
LD: It’s time for those things to be brought to the forefront. I welcome the backlash. If I can get one person to watch this and say they will not let this happen again.
JE: It is our responsibility to help humans. I hope this film opens people’s eyes. Just because things aren’t a part of the American culture doesn’t mean we should ignore it. Just because it’s not going on outside of our front door doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care.
Like Cotton Twines, had its world premiere at the LA Film Festival, Thursday, June 2, at 7 p.m.
Like Cotton Twines, written and directed by Leila Djansi, stars Jay Ellis, Ophelia Dzidzornu, Miranda Bailey, Yvonne Okoro, Luckie Lawson and David Dontoh. It is produced by Akofa Djankui, Amanda Marshall, Whitney Valcin, Dave Harper and Leila Djansi
TRT: 95 minutes