You Hide Me

By James Leahy

Nii Kwate Owoo, Director of Information of FEPACI, the Pan-African Federation of Cineastes, and co-director of the feature Ama, distributed by Artificial Eye, talks to James Leahy about his first film

While I was at the London Film School I really started to connect to African history. The way it was taught at home was very bland. It was history made by other people, not by Africans. So, here I became a student of African history. Self-taught. Exploring in a much deeper way than I had ever done before.

During the course of my readings, I made a visit to the British Museum. I was under pressure to produce a film for the Film School. I felt a need to develop an idea that I was comfortable with, that I would be totally immersed in. And that’s how You Hide Me got to be made. After my visit to the British Museum, I realised that this really was a remarkable opportunity to record a very important segment of African history: the pillage and the plunder of African cultural artefacts by Europeans.

It was shot in a day. We started work at 9 o’clock in the morning and wrapped at about 5 in the evening. Those were the conditions under which we were allowed to shoot. We came across an enormous collection... thousands of important works of art that have never been exhibited. Deep underground, in the basement. We spent a lot of time examining the artefacts we came across. Half of the time was spent filming, and half just satisfying our curiosity.

Each country had a room, a vast vault with masses of things, so we took two countries on the west coast, Ghana and Nigeria, a country on the east coast, Sudan, and South Africa. We did it under a lot of pressure, moving from one corridor to the next, under the scrutiny of 15 security officers, placed at different strategic positions to make sure that we did not steal any of the artworks.

When it first came out, You Hide Me was a controversial film. People who knew about African art didn’t realise that the whole history of African art could be examined through what could be found in this country. The film ends with a demand that these works should be sent back to Africa. It was a plea. These works of art are totally in a vacuum here. There’s no understanding of the important function they had in African society. Many of the artefacts were religious items, with religious significance for the people they were taken from.

We had the première at the Africa Centre. I invited professors of African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies, and from Oxford and Cambridge. It was very successful. The room was packed. The curator of the British Museum sent his representatives. I was sitting at the back of the hall. In the middle of the film, the analysis and the passionate form of the presentation began to arouse sentiments. People were responding, gasping in the middle of the movie. The curator’s representatives got up, started tiptoeing round to where their coats were, and they very quietly sidled out of the room. When the lights came back on, there was an amazing discussion which lasted for about three hours.

Some people describe You Hide Me as an agitprop film. I think that it was an attempt to put the way in which African history, African art history, has been taught, and the way in which African art has been presented, or misrepresented, into a proper historical context. It was done by just using facts and figures that are available in books in this country. What I thought was interesting was the way in which the film aroused people to discuss the issue, to begin to question what they had taken for granted as historical data.

It was a turning point for me. I sold at least 50 prints of You Hide Me around the world. It was ordered by several libraries.

In those days the African community and the African-Caribbean community did not mix. It was shown in some of the community centres in the African-Caribbean community. Through that, I began to develop an understanding of the historical character of Africans who had been forcibly extracted from their cultural roots. I learned a lot about their history.

I took the film to Ghana in 1971. I tried to get it shown on Ghana TV. I ran into a lot of bureaucratic problems. Even before he saw the film, the director of Ghana TV had this long, tedious argument about whether it was up to the same quality standards as Top of the Pops and other programmes being imported into the country. About 90% of Ghana TV programmes were English imports. He didn’t think there was any space to slot You Hide Me in because the schedule was already saturated with foreign product.

What he did, very reluctantly, was to organise a group of representatives from GFIC (Ghana Film Industry Corporation), GBG (Ghana Broadcasting Corporation) and the press to view the material, and report back whether it was relevant, whether it could be used on Ghana TV. So we had a preview to which all the key figures were invited. Again, after the film was shown, there was a lot of controversial discussion. In fact, some of the film-makers who worked for the government at the time, openly, in front of their superiors, their senior officers, declared that they would like to resign, and join me in making films, because the films they had been making were so mundane, so dead in form and content.

They all thought You Hide Me should be shown on Ghana TV. The main national newspaper published a long editorial the following morning, saying that it should be shown. A week after the report was submitted to the broadcasting authorities, I was summoned to the director’s office, and told point-blank that he considered this film anti-British. It could not be shown on TV because it was politically unacceptable. I said: ‘Why don’t you put this into writing, so that I can have it on record?’

He wrote a long letter to me, indicating that because of the existing cordial relationship between Britain and Ghana, You Hide Me could not be shown on Ghana TV. When I came back here, there was an article in West Africa about this incident. As a result of that article I had letters from all over Africa and the world asking for prints. Eventually it was shown in Ghana, once it had become obvious that other stations elsewhere in Africa were interested in it.

Through You Hide Me, I brought together an African-American, Ife, and a Caribbean cultural activist called Mitch Holder, and this led to the creation of Ifriqiyah Films, the first black film collective in this country. We did a lot of very interesting documentaries on the experience of black people in this country. We have an archive of about 13 films which we were never able to marry print. We felt the existing news archives, like Visnews, were very much in the British Movietone tradition, and did not really give a correct representation of the sentiments of Africans and African-Caribbeans. We used to take a double-headed projector into the community, and show the edited version of the films. We established a direct link between making films and showing them in the community. For example, we spent a month living in Leicester during the Imperial Typewriters strike, living with the strikers, many of them Asians recently expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin. All the material is at home in Ghana now. When I went back I took it to the Institute of African Studies at Legon to store it. There’s a wealth of material there, visual documentation of a whole era of black British history.