Heart of Gold


Author: Erik Knudsen
Format: Documentary
Duration: 39 mins

Research Statement

Aims & Objectives

  • To examine alternatives to the empirical and factually based classic documentary narrative’s approach to story telling and how such alternatives can reveal different aspects of human experience; in particular, the relationship between fact and mysticism.
  • To identify practical ingredients which could form the basis for cinematic practitioners to further evolve non-empirical approaches to making documentaries.
  • To create practice based work – a documentary film – which reveals, illustrates and exemplifies the findings.
  • To explore African modes of story-telling, in particular those which blend reality and mysticism.

Research Questions
First research question: How can one employ a practical approach to cinematic documentary narrative which goes beyond the dominant paradigm exemplified by elements such as cause and effect, conflict and resolution, and psychologically explicable situations, character motivations and narrative motivations, to reveal qualities of spirituality and transcendence?

Second research question: How far can visual imagery, colours, shapes, objects, camera angles and sound be used to bring to life the essence of predominantly oral African story-telling traditions to reveal non-materialistic perspectives on life and living?

Third research question: By focusing on the changing relationship between people and gold in the Akim Abuakwa region of Ghana, how can one create a documentary incorporating such elements as fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, the material and the spiritual, hope and despair and bring to life a living metaphor, without reducing the form to social realism?

Research Context
What defines the documentary genre is also at the root of its limitations; an epistemology which ties it to the factual or empirical experience of life. While in early British documentary, there were some attempts to discover the transcendental qualities and poetry of documentary, much of contemporary documentary is confined to a perspective on life in which the factual is primarily what can empirically be observed, supported by the psychologically explicable. There are a very small number of, usually, non-UK examples of documentary which have attempted to break away from this paradigm 1.

There were three stages to this project: first, research into existing stories, myths, legends and artifacts in the Akim Abuakwa region of Ghana which revolve around gold, people’s relationship to gold, the cultural relationship to gold, and the economic and political relationship to gold, documented on camera and, most importantly, told by ordinary Ghanaians; second, an analysis and interpretation of these stories, by the filmmaker, and the subsequent creation of a documentary story building on the outcomes of this analysis; and third, a number of screenings of the finished documentary, accompanied by seminars, reflections of which will be the basis for a refereed article on the research outcomes.

The primary outcome, as mentioned, is the film Heart of Gold. These are some of the key themes that emerged:

Divinity, and divine purpose, are at the heart of every story and experience conveyed.
Everything has a spirit directly connected to the divine; matter, plant and sentient beings alike. The spirit that lives in gold is as important as that which lives in a human.
The relationship with nature is one of respect, caution and humility. The actions of nature and the actions of the divine are one and the same, consequently nothing is coincidence and the interaction between the human and all aspects of nature are aspects of spiritual interaction. What for us in the developed world may be called superstition, is for the Akan an intricate connection of interacting forces.
While some stories one could describe as legend or myth, other stories relate to direct personal experience. In both cases, no distinction is made between what we may consider fact and fiction. Listeners consider everything to be fact.

Stories were usually wrapped in the context of a moral and a blessing. This, I discovered, is important; for a story is not merely told to entertain, but to educate, enlighten, forewarn, encourage or to reflect philosophically. Every story has a clear purpose and that purpose is connected to the divine.
Usually stories involve many elements of nature and are not just confined to human interactions. It is tempting to look at this as a representational issue of metaphors, but for the Akan, everything has a spirit and a will

Fact and Fiction
In Heart of Gold I have sought to dissolve the notion of fact and fiction. Everyone in the film is themselves and know each other in real life. I have seamlessly interwoven footage that I have constructed with footage that I have observed; footage of interviews have been incorporated into sequences I have partially constructed; improvised sequences where participants interact around stories they told me; recreations of impressions and stories constructed; and natural phenomena have been assimilated with actuality and constructed sequences2.

Character and Motivation
A key feature of Kwasi Akufo’s performance was that I wanted to strip the character and his motivations of all psychologically explicable motivations, in order to, in a sense, allow other forces to act on him. The classical narratives of both documentary and fictional genres requires psychological motivations, but when dealing with realities in which divine motivation, or so called coincidences, are in themselves forces for action, it seemed important to take steps to try to eliminate elements that could reduce the narrative’s motivational forces to the cause and effect of psychology.

Narrative Purpose
I have tried to incorporate a sense of moral purpose into the film, as this seems to be a feature of almost every story I was told about gold. The boy’s story, with its ambiguous ending, does not of itself reveal a moral purpose. It is the story-teller – the filmmaker – whose morality shapes the moral of the story. I wanted to try and create a moral stance which was felt, but not articulated.

The core of the film – the story of Kwasi Akufo and his lump of gold – is in monochrome. Whether factual or not, it is a story that is being told and the shifting from the non-diegetic colour to the diegetic monochrome helps remind us of that; also I was interested in simplifying as many elements as possible in order to facilitate the transcendence of the surface reality to a deeper reality in which the mystical and the material elements coexist, indistinguishable from each other.

The research project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The film will be made available on DVD, the full version of which will include interview extracts of participants in the film. It is currently being submitted to festivals worldwide and had its world premier screening at the Sao Paulo International Film Festival in October 2006. The film will receive its broadcast premiere on Ghana Broadcasting Corporation during Ghana’s 50th independence anniversary celebrations in 2007. Additionally, written reflections are available on the film’s web site 3 and a refereed research report is due in the Journal of Media Practice. A conference presentation took place at the JMP/Salford Peer Review and Dissemination of Practice Research Symposium in June 2006.

The heart of the process of making a film, for me, is intuitive. An inner necessity, which I cannot explain, drives me to make films. Nevertheless, the intellect can play its part in the process of creation and this research has taught me a number of things and has also opened up new questions and avenues. Some of these questions might include:

  • How can one further evolve a new form in narrative filmmaking, which completely transcends (as opposed to blends) the distinctions between fact and fiction?
  • How can one incorporate notions of so called coincidence more fully into cinematic narratives?
  • How can one abstract reality – or the representation of reality – in order to reach the inner reality of people beyond the cause and effect of psychology.
  • How can one deal with these themes without having to travel to visit traditional cultures? In other words, how, within our own culture which seems completely dominated by the empirical, can documentary find the cracks through which hidden realities can become palpable?
  • What opportunities do developments in production and dissemination technologies offer?


  1. A prime example would be the work of Sergei Dvortsevoy.
  2. I was, for example, fortuitously able to take advantage of a total solar eclipse during shooting. And, thinking as an Akan, I considered this not to be a mere coincidence, but providence to be incorporated into the reality of the film.
  3. www.onedayfilms.com/films/heartofgold

For a more comprehensive statement, and further supporting materials, please visit the film project’s website.

Additionally, an extended article on the project was published in the June 2007 issue of the Journal of Media Practice (8:1).

Peer Reviews

All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows

Review 1: Accept both film and statement

Erik Knudsen’s Heart of Gold is a meditative short that reflects on the meaning of gold to a community of people from the Akim Abuakwa region in Ghana. It does so through accompanying a young boy on a journey after he discovers a sizeable gold nugget in the river while bending to drink. As a spectator, one either watches him interact with a series of characters along his way, or observes aspects of life with him, through his eyes. Ultimately he returns the gold to the river from whence it came.

From the start, the film interacts with differing genres of film, straddling experimental, fictional and documentary modes. It begins with an extended shot of an outstretched hand, which reveals the nugget to the camera, our eye. At the same time, a relatively traditional narration locates the community for us, and explains the significance of gold to the region. The boy’s journey then begins and the moment of empiricism is lost to return only once more, this time embedded in a scene when he returns to what is presumably his home. An African intellectual, framed on an old television, outlines how the wealth of the region has been exploited, leaving the region’s people with an exhausted, polluted environment and little income. It is a familiar and depressing narrative but no-one within the film is listening to him. His observations are confirmed elsewhere in the film through long shots of polluted marshland, backdrops to the boy’s journey.

Other documentary elements of more observational and less didactic nature occur. The boy is watchful and through his eyes we observe something of the day-to-day rituals of his community: a man expounds to a group of acquaintances, a woman drinks liquor from the cap of a bottle. These characters appear not to notice him and he fails to interrupt them. We are left with a sense and texture of place.

The moments of “drama” occur when the young boy, who is something of a Candide character, interacts with others on his journey. He appears to be seeking an answer of what he should do about his discovery and indeed, when he reveals the nugget to others – workers digging some kind of trench, an old man listening to a religious broadcast on a radio – they offer him various wisdoms that would appear to tap into belief systems about the significance of gold. These utterances remain relatively inexplicable to this Western ear at least but appear to make sense to him. The slight narrative does generate some traditional responses: apprehension, hope, curiosity. Will the boy have the nugget stolen? Or will he benefit from his find? Will he fritter away his newfound wealth? How will he take the “advice” he is given? None of these questions is answered and the spectator is left dangling, confounded but pleased when the boy returns the gold to its home in the river. One realizes then one’s responses are in fact shaped by genre expectation, unanswerable through a film that emphasizes more spiritual transcendent explanations. No Blood Diamond or Brad Pitt here.

Review 2: Accept

This is a highly accomplished piece of film as research that attempts to set up an African style of story telling in narrative form. The pacing of the film is very striking, it is very controlled and contained creating a dreamlike quality. This supports the research intentions of the film described in the statement. The performances are marked by a lack of affect or pyschological realism and the mix of myth, spirituality and cultural history is effective in the main. The device of using the radio soundtrack and the TV interview was less successful, the introduction of didactic content through these means felt like a failure to successfully integrate these elements into a convincing whole. The film is very good example of practice-based screen research – without its supporting statement the film is rather hard to read, for a European audience perhaps. Nevertheless it is intriguing and poetically satisfying. However with the statement the status of the work is made very clear – especially in the work’s cultural mission to establish a different kind of film format that is based in the epistemologies of West Africa rather than Europe. One question raised by this piece is the status of the term ‘documentary ‘ – this doesn’t ‘feel’ like a documentary at all, unless perhaps we considerably extend some Rouchian notion of the form.

To address the specific research questions pointed out by the director:

Do the research questions posed present an opportunity to add to our knowledge and understanding in the area being studied? 
The first and second research questions seem very similar – in terms of looking for non empirical ways of story telling about our shared world. The second question as regards the aesthetics of the film and their relation to oral traditions is harder to ‘verify’. However broadly yes these research questions clearly give s a chance to add to knowledge about culturally specific forms of story telling.

Is there evidence in the film that the research questions have been addressed?
 Certainly – the encounter between the boy and the miners. The story told about the encounter on the road by the man in the middle of the film. The magical eclipse sequence – these all seem to me address the problems of representing a different way of knowing.

Is there evidence of success in answering research questions?
 See above!

Are there failures in answering research questions and if so do they add to our understanding of the research project?
Perhaps the introduction of ‘documentary’ discourse through the radio & TV sections points to the difficulty of melding the western and non-western traditions in play, here. So the question of how to work political history into the film’s aesthetic is a little unresolved.

Does the supporting material encourage a better understanding of the research outcomes?
Undoubtedly – see comments above on the importance of the statement explaining the context. However the statement also makes the process as research clear too. Especially the comments on being driven intuitively to make certain kinds of choice that the research context and process clarifies and perhaps makes available to other artists/ film makers.

Does the methodological approach to the research seem rigorous?
By and large the process of trying to understand the production process and vision through research context is certainly committed. Methodologically speaking found the absence of analysis of who might have been making these considerations before a bit odd – this isn’t the first film to try to develop African based forms.

Does the overall research package encourage further research?
 Certainly – both contextually (who else is out there trying to answer these questions?) and pragmatically (how can these techniques be further refined?).

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