Anas Aremeyaw Anas is one of the world’s most exciting investigative journalists. Operating mainly out of Ghana, Africa, Anas’ method of “naming, shaming and jailing” high level criminals puts him in constant peril, which is one of the reasons he must always conceal his face. Keeping his identity secret allows him to infiltrate these criminal circles himself to gain the insider knowledge necessary to bring them down. His success has brought him international attention and praise from people like Barack Obama, as well as several prestigious awards.
Several years ago, Montreal documentary filmmaker Ryan Mullins was looking for the subject of his next film when he read an article about Anas’ work. Unfazed by the exotic locale, risky business, or the fact that he couldn’t show his subject’s face on camera, Mullins pursued Anas and was able to document him periodically over the course of several years. The resulting documentary is Chameleon, a fun and fascinating story about a man who saw a need for something that didn’t exist and invented a noble position for himself.
Chameleon premiered at the 2015 Hot Docs festival in Toronto, where we had the privilege of speaking with Anas and Mullens. When in public, Anas usually wears a hat with strings hanging down to cover his face. He can see you (I assume), but you can’t really see him. It takes some getting used, but after a few minutes of talking with him, I found myself beginning to scratch the surface of this mysterious man who is surprisingly open about his work.
Dork Shelf: I imagine what you do isn’t really taught in schools, so who was your teacher?
Anas Aremeyaw Anas: The ground is a big teacher, that’s what we learn in school. It opens you up. What happens on the field is very different from what’s taught in school, so I guess incident after incident, you pick up and then you learn from it, and that becomes you.
DS: You have a small staff working with you now, are you much more organized these days?
AAA: Yeah it’s more organized than it used to be, because as you grow, you learn to do certain things right. You want to formalize everything, so it’s more organized than it used to be. I’m hoping that it will be even be more organized than it is today.
DS: Are you trying to pass on the knowledge you’ve gained to the next generation so they can continue this kind of work ?
AAA: Certainly, yes. As we do this, we also do speaking sessions with schools, different schools over a period of time. You can’t force it on anybody, you can only explain what you do and if the person understands and the style fits in the person’s society and the person wants to do it. I do try to impact, to teach the young ones to also follow suit, but the young ones who are interested and who understand it.
DS: Is there and endgame here for you? Is this something you could one day retire from?
AAA: Maybe one day if it’s not necessary. Because, like I said, my journalism is a product of my society. So if we have a better society and it’s not necessary, I will happily and won’t do it again.
DS: If not this, what else would you be doing?
AAA: It’s a difficult question. Maybe I would have been a scientist, investigating something.
DS: Have you ever needed to abandon a case because you felt people were becoming suspicious of you?
AAA: Abandoned a story and gone back to it. When I became a patient in a psychiatric hospital, within the first three days the kinds of injections that were given to me and all that, I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I had to take a day off. I came back for a day of detoxification and then I went back. What happened really was the fact that, while I was in the psychiatric hospital, they gave me normal medication which is sleep induced, so you want to sleep as soon as you take it. I also took in medicine that would ensure that I don’t sleep, it would correct that effect, then I can film. But within the first three or four days of my being there, I came into contact with this cocaine syndicate within the hospital, people were selling cocaine in the psychiatric hospital. Because I took some of the cocaine, I had many things running in me. I had the normal drugs, I had the caffeine oriented drugs, and I also had the cocaine, it was just too much for the system, so I had to check out to do this detoxification and then get back.
DS: Did the hospital staff know you were there under your own will?
AAA: It’s apparently allowed. Parole is a normal thing that is done in the hospital, you must give good reasons why you think you have to go home. A psychiatric hospital is rehabilitation centre, so if they think that that is going to allow you some happiness and freedom, they let that happen.
DS: Do you ever find yourself partway through and investigation only to find out you’ve been investigating the wrong people?
AAA: Yes, that happens a lot of the time. Even after you have your prima facie evidence. You see what we do is not stage managed, it’s not stage manufactured, it’s real time. Sometimes it can even be mistaken identity.
DS: Is it a relief when that happens, or is it more frustrating?
AAA: It’s a relief but it’s also frustrating at the same time. Frustrating in the sense that you have committed funds to do it, it’s a relief also that you have not done it in a rush to put that person in jail or to embarrass that person when the person is actually not guilty.
DS: I need to ask, what’s the story behind the rock costume? (seen in the trailer above)
AAA: We have a place in the north, it looks like a dessert. Some people were smuggling, so the idea was to be in the rock-like thing, to see what they smuggled. That’s the whole story.
DS: Did it work?
AAA: It did. Frustrating also because it’s very hot, and you never know when they are coming, so you have to keep people watching. When they see them then you enter into the rock, it’s quite difficult.
Ryan Mullins: The rock costume in the film, that’s not the same one you used, is it? It seems a bit evident that it’s an actual costume. It looked like bag.
AAA: Yeah, it’s a cloth but when you put it on, there are certain things you took inside, before you went in there so you just enter through the back. So those things hold it and looks like a real stone.
RM: Maybe in the environment it looked better…
AAA: In the environment it stays, you put some trees around it
RM: Yeah, in your office it looked a bit…
AAA: Behind the trees, blended, it’s not easy to detect.
DS: Ryan, how did you meet Anas?
RM: A mutual friend of ours actually. I had spent some time working and living in Ghana in 2008. I made my first short there, it was about a derelict cinema that had been converted into a missionary school. So I’d spent about 6 or 7 months is Ghana and came back to Montreal, spent a few years working with Eye Steel film and was always kind of looking for another project that would take me back. She sent me this article about Anas from the Atlantic called ‘Smuggler, Forger, Writer, Spy’, immediately it grabbed me and I knew that had to be my next story. The question was how do I get to him? How do I make contact? Luckily she was able to broker that first contact.
RM: That was my initial concern, but it was actually quite amazing. We spoke on the phone literally 20, maybe 25 minutes tops. He was like, listen, I can’t talk much on the phone, I can’t tell you everything, you just need to come out here and see for yourself. I turned to my producer Bob Moore, and because I could actually go out and shoot and do the sound myself, he was open to me just buying a ticket, flying out and meeting Anas for the first time. I was actually quite amazed at how receptive he was. He had worked with big news organizations before like Al Jazeera, so he was already comfortable with the camera but the idea of more in depth documentary was maybe something he wasn’t necessarily used to.
DS: How did you document without interfering?
RM: We set ground rules in the beginning. The biggest thing was Anas wanted his face covered so he doesn’t show his identity, so finding new ways to shoot the documentary so that we’re not showing that, but at the same time I didn’t want to blur him out all the time. So I was always jockeying for a position to get behind him, to shoot from the back, or to shoot from the lower half of his face. You think you’re going to get in the way but a lot of it was actually the behind the scenes, the strategizing of this team behind closed doors, then we left the action pieces to Anas, where he would wear secret cameras, he would go in on his own. So in that way I wasn’t stepping on too many toes, I was just kind of in the background with his team as they developed cases.
DS: Did you ever have much of a crew with you?
RM: Mainly it was just me. I had a great second unit camera guy there who was able to capture things when I wasn’t able to be in Ghana. Anas always has something on the go, several irons in the fire at any given moment. Something would crop up and he would call me and say okay listen, Anas is doing this today and I would go shoot it. I relied on him quite a bit as my eyes and ears on the ground when I wasn’t there. For the most part it was just myself, that was the arrangement that Anas and I came to because he felt comfortable with that.
DS: How long did you shoot for?
RM: We shot over a period of two and half years. I’d travel to Ghana for about a month, month and a half at a time. A lot the time I’d travel and wouldn’t necessarily know what was going to happen. We would talk briefly about the different kinds of cases he had going on, but some would not come to fruition, others would crop up while I was there, so it was always just kind of waiting around for something to happen. A lot of waiting.
DS: Was it difficult to keep the film focussed with all that was going on? It seems like there would be enough material for a entire series on Anas.
RM: Yeah, there actually is a series that documents the bigger cases that Anas tackles across the continent of Africa, it’s called Africa Investigates and it plays on Al Jazeera, it’s with him and another journalist, Sorious Samura from Sierra Leone. For me what was interesting was the person, not necessarily the issues or the cases he was going for, really just the process that he goes through and how that process in different in Africa.