A straightforward coming-of-age story with rather unique trappings.
Nakom is a straightforward coming-of-age story with rather unique trappings. Namely, it is set in rural northeastern Ghana and is the first film ever made primarily in the region’s Kusaal language. While the film benefits from its unusual setting with beautiful cinematography and an often-ethnographic sensibility afforded by the non-professional cast, Nakom ultimately proves a disappointing film with far too much plot and troubling politics as its foundation.
Iddrisu (Jacob Ayanaba) is a rising medical student in Kumasi, one of Ghana’s surging southern metropolises, who returns home in the wake of his father’s sudden death. He finds his rather elaborate household—his father’s multiple wives and his half-dozen siblings—in the midst of a fiscal crisis. They may lose their farm to Iddrisu’s uncle, to whom they owe a significant sum of money. Iddrisu makes the decision to defer his college studies for a year in order to ensure the family survives and keeps the farm.
As Nakom settles into this familiar storyline, there is a sharp division between what the film does well and what it does poorly. The standout elements include the vibrant photography, which captures both the earthy yellows of the pre-rainy-season landscape as well as the verdant greens that come in the wake of the annual downpours. The everyday nature of the costuming, which shows the Ghanaian farmers in endless combinations of cast-off European and North American t-shirts and traditional clothing items, further contributes to the gorgeous visuals.
The costumes are a crucial element in the second overwhelmingly positive component of Nakom: the ethnographic curiosity it so effortlessly evokes. Scenes of Iddrisu’s family sitting in their dirt courtyard after dark, eating meals cooked over an open wood fire, are the most captivating in the film. The interest here is not in the advancement of the plot, but in the body language and subtle interactions among the characters. Scenes showing the planting and harvesting of millet and other local crops are equally fascinating, as these are crops and processes unknown to North American viewers. The novelty of the film’s Kusaal language is a final crucial element in its anthropological delights; this is not a language heard beyond the farmlands of the northern Ghana-Togo borderlands.
As compelling as Nakom is in presenting a slice of life as lived in a far-flung rural area, it is a maddeningly underwhelming film taken as a whole. Each of Iddrisu’s family members have their own elaborate narrative lines, making the early scenes following his prodigal return feel like a TV pilot introducing all of the side-stories that will be treated during the ensuring season of episodes. But Nakom is a svelte 90 minutes, so most of these storylines are abandoned or exaggerated as plot devices. Exacerbating the overabundant story, the screenwriting is replete with the unrealistic contrivance of having characters narrate what they are doing or thinking, rather than trusting the audience to deduce their motivations from what is shown.
Furthermore, the central plot surrounding Iddrisu’s own decision between remaining as the patriarch of his farming family or continuing his medical school training is full of eye-roll-inducing nonsense. Farming millet in Ghana requires instinctive calculations about when the rain will come. Iddrisu beats this random system by using a cell phone to text a friend in a neighboring village where rain will come first. He also uses the magic wand of his mobile to determine where he can obtain the best prices for his prize onion harvest on any given day. Iddrisu is thereby established as the paragon of technological know-how overtaking tradition, but this is absurd. If cell phone service were available in his farming community, then everyone in that community would also have cell phones and would be using them similarly. What makes Iddrisu, and only him, so special and able to exploit the resources available to everyone in his community? Are viewers to believe his neighbors are dullards incapable of helping themselves, even though viewers see them persistently surviving their precarious material conditions?
This gets at the uncomfortable core of Nakom. This is a film written and directed by two U.S. citizens, one of whom worked in northeastern Ghana as a member of the Peace Corps. While respectful and certainly well-intentioned, the filmmakers’ ham-fisted efforts to tell an “African” story cannot escape their own Western perspective. Nakom’s ultimate message is that a superb, (U.S.-American-like) work ethic and technology can uplift the fortunes of rural Africans. The film’s hero, after all, is the only one in his village toting around English-language textbooks. While the filmmakers do well to ensure they check off several “progressive” boxes, as topics including girls’ education and Muslim-Christian relations are broached by various characters, Nakom remains inherently regressive in its implications. The climax features Iddrisu as the great messianic hope for his community, promising to integrate them into the modern world without sacrificing their lifeways; the perspicacious viewer cannot help but see him, liberator of “exotic, authentic Africa,” as the avatar for the grandest desires of the filmmakers themselves.