I walked out of the second premiere of a new Dagomba series over the weekend pleased, and super excited for the future of Ghanaian film. Here’s a review.
Pieli: The Rise of Montana is the first ever series in Dagbani, (the language of the Dagomba) with an entirely local cast and crew. Set in pre-colonial times, the pilot episode tells the story of an immortal and belligerent being whom, driven by revenge and an unquenchable blood-lust, returns to erase Chinto’s last descendant, the human who ended his reign of terror by vanquishing his brothers and burying him alive and stands in his way of a proper comeback.
The opening credits reminded me of the Lord of The Rings because of how they opened in a brown and rusty looking ring with glowing, golden clouds as a backdrop. The Gothic font was especially reminiscent of Pete Klassen’s Aniron font, credited to LOTR.
The film started off with a map of the land (whose name I can’t remember) that again, reminded me of LOTR. The general backstory was narrated in an endearing and sage like voice that flowed really well.
The episode was shot on location at Damongo, Mankpan, Salaam and on the Yendi roadand the setting easily evoked a sense of the countryside where several little huts sitting together marked a household, miles apart from the next. This validated the tales of inhuman endurance attributed to our ancestors where the first few minutes or rather, most of the film, involved some serious non-stop running from the protagonist, Katari’s home to his clansmen’s and on to the spirit realm. Abdulai Abdul Rahman deserves applause for all the running he did playing Katari; I can only imagine how much cardio he had to put in. While the episode kept true to the architecture of the time, I noticed a nail in one of the huts that looked very out of place and time. I however need to read up on nails to confirm this.
I loved the costumes to bits chale. The straw hats added a powerful, mysterious and esoteric allure to the two characters that donned them, the protagonist’s adopted father and a priest. Then there’s the batoro (wraps) that the warriors wore, as well as the krugu (pants) and gbanyo (warrior’s fugu) jeweled with several protective talismans that the priests wore. The weapons props were definitely real damula and piam (bow and arrow) and takobu (swords). Talk about realism!
The antagonist, Montana’s costume however puzzled me. He wore what I can only assume is a batoro accompanied by knee high Greek sandals. Then there’s the matter of the markings on his body which was painted white and accented by red spheres and lines. I immediately drew similarities to Kratos from the God of War video game franchise. Unlike Kratos however, Montana (as well as Katari) don’t have ripped bods which is really cool because as far as I can tell, bodies that conform to modern beauty standards are no guarantees of physical strength. Case in point, the hardworking fishermen at our coasts; pure strength, no vanity.
While there were few characters and who mostly lacked depth, they thankfully didn’t waste screen time and were purposeful.
Montana seemed like a well-rounded character considering his mysterious origin and connection with the spirit world, the markings on his body, his seeming muteness, and the possibility that he is descended from the very person that buried him. Katari was rather flat, easily accepting his fate and going with the flow without serious question. Katari’s father however seemed like an enigma. He was overflowing with confidence and was undeterred in the face of trouble. I especially enjoyed his bold, calculated strides, laid back demeanor and his large potbelly. I love his potbelly so much I thought he might use it as a shield.
Female representation while little (just two characters) was strategic, in a weird, patriarchal and submissive way. I especially hated how Katari’s mother spoke very little, was always agitated, seemed very gullible and IMO, was a hindrance. She did however end the pilot on a cliffhanger, revealing to Katari that Montana whom he had just trapped in a gourd was actually his real father.
The other female character was Azinma, a spirit from whom Katari receives instructions on how to find what he needs to end Montana. I found it troubling how she was portrayed to be an easy spirit to trick and scare. Besides that, she looked real badass how she wielded her staff and sat commanding on a rock with her lustrous dreads.
The film’s dialogue was very limited and relied heavily on non-verbal cues to tell the story, a task the actors were able to manage somehow. There were rigid expressions a few times that didn’t properly convey emotions but were easily forgotten because of the film’s rushed pacing. The acting thus, was considerably okay. The fight scenes were mostly believable, with the occasional phony sequences cropping up. I was disappointed with how magical incantations worked right off the bat. It robbed me of the fun and challenge, elements that would have endeared the characters to me more. 😦
The special effects chale, special effects! While not Hollywood dope nor Bollywood hilariously epic, it totally shits on Nollywood, Kumawood and Ugawood aka Kinauganda (Ugandan cinema). Nothing is over the top ridiculousness. Every single effect is functional, sweet and simple. From Montana’s telekinesis which, wait for the irony, at some point seemed unnecessary and flashy, to Katari’s dad’s invisible shield, the gateway into Azinma’s shrine, the light on top of Azinma’s staff, what I think was a CGI hill and my favorite, a potbellied spirit pulling a gourd out of a tree like t’was his personal closet, the effects were skillfully executed. The main drawbacks for me were the mediocre animation of a zooming arrow and the blood make up, boy did the latter especially suck.
The scores were entertaining with the occasional cheesy Nigerian horror-flick sounds. They would have been epic and more appropriate if they actually incorporated Dagomba or at least, Ghanaian sounds into it. That would have added serious points to the authenticity of the series. The quality of foley sounds far exceeded what I’ve heard in Nolly-, Ghally-, Kuma- and Uga- wood but could use some serious work.
The episode was professionally made, the video is nicely graded with lighting well accounted for. Massive thought and consideration went into the obviously scripted scenes, helping the series stay consistent leading up to the twist at the end. The acting at some points were rigid and forced but I imagine improvements are on the way. The English subtitles were amazing! They were well synced, grammatically correct and consistent with onscreen action. I would have been lost without them. The pacing while rushed, was generally okay and kept excitement flowing to the point where I’m impatient for the next episode.
Note that, this review is my raw take on the pilot without influence. I did speak to the assistant director Mr. Ahmed, who explained a few issues I raised such as female representation, assuring me there were more female characters down the line, and others I haven’t addressed here like the pronunciation of Montana (it’s a Dagomba name apparently, pronounced mon-tá-na) and his costume. Mr. Ahmed tells me there’s a legit explanation assuring me that, the preceding episodes would satisfy my curiosity. Not very convincing but it’ll have to do.
Going forward, I suggest the OBL Studios team and everyone involved seek out typographers like PureWaterBoy to help with their fonts and typography, producers (and musicians) like Kobby Spiky Nkrumah (especially), Worlasi, King Ayisoba and Sheriffa Gunu to spice things up with orgasmic African sounding scores and motion graphics firms like Pixil Motion Animation Studios for additional CGI and SFX support. They should also experiment more than they already have in previous projects like Biegni and Gonda Sheje.
The biggest lesson I gleaned from the pilot was the concept of the universe forbidding clansmen from hurting each other. If only that applied to the entire human race. Wouldn’t that be a blessing?
For the sake of numbers, I’ll rate Pieli: Rise of Montana 6.5/10.
Mr. Ahmed tells me Pieli will span 12 episodes and will be screened in Kumasi and Accra through the year. All I can say to that is, anticipate, Tallywood káana!
Images via Northern Ghana Culture.
Tallywood is what they’re calling the industry here in Tamale. I would’ve at least expected something original and not a portmanteau of Hollywood and Tamale but hey, the movie industry is obviously very, very, woody so I’ll bite.