The purpose of the African Women in Cinema Blog is to provide a space to discuss diverse topics relating to African women in cinema--filmmakers, actors, producers, and all film professionals. The blog is a public forum of the Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema.

Le Blog sur les femmes africaines dans le cinéma est un espace pour l'échange d'informations concernant les réalisatrices, comédiennes, productrices, critiques et toutes professionnelles dans ce domaine. Ceci sert de forum public du Centre pour l'étude et la recherche des femmes africaines dans le cinémas.

23 April 2009

Gendered Sensibilities and Female Representation in African Cinema


Gendered Sensibilities and Female Representation in African Cinema by Beti Ellerson

While African women filmmakers are eager to come together under the grouping of "women filmmakers," there is some resistance toward stating categorically that a woman's sensibility exists in filmmaking. Aminata Ouedraogo (Burkina Faso) perceives the category "women's films" as a vehicle for making people aware that women exist in the area of cinematic creativity, that they make films--not necessarily women's films but rather films made by women. Anne-Laure Folly Reimann (Togo) considers a woman's aesthetic as having a certain understanding, perception, and awareness of practices beyond the accepted standards, the familiar views and references. However, she does not consider these aspects unique to women, as some men share them as well. Franceline Oubda (Burkina Faso) finds that a woman is in a better position to deal with the question of women, because she has lived these experiences or perhaps her sister, mother, or aunt lives this situation. Similarly, Aïssatou Adamou (Niger) considers women directors to be in a better position than men to speak about the problems of women as they have the better advantage to go in the direction of their sisters.

Salem Mekuria (Ethiopia) tends to include more women than men in her films; since in her view, women's perspectives are often neglected. Moreover, she feels that women open up more easily to women, because of a sense of shared experiences. Najwa Tlili (Tunisia) makes a clear distinction between male and female sensibility; even among the most enlightened, sensitive, engaged male filmmakers. The notion of a woman's sensibility in filmmaking often translates to the filmmaker's identification with her subjects as women even in cases where she may not necessarily have the same experience. She finds the vision and questioning different; that women and men problematize the situation differently.

Nonetheless, many women are cautious about delineating a male and female sensibility. While she thinks there is a definite woman's sensibility, Comorian Ouméma Mamadali observed that working with her male colleague, Kabire Fidaali allowed the subject to be treated from two different perspectives which brought an added richness to their fiction film Baco (1995). Film school director Masepeke Sekhukhuni (South Africa) sees a certain danger in essentializing, since there are also "very sensitive" men, though it is an attribute that is often associated with women. On the other hand, she sees a definite difference in the way that women and men see things and solve problems. Therefore, while many women perceive a "female sensibility", pinpointing, localizing and defining it becomes more difficult. Their pause in naming it as such comes from the fact that they view male filmmakers capable of a sensibility that rejects masculinist depictions of women, as well as men. Thus, Burkinabé Fanta Nacro reminds us that there remains simply, the human being.

From this perspective I will look at two films by a man and a woman: the most recent works by Senegalese filmmakers Safi Faye, and Ousmane Sembene, of beloved memory. Both filmmakers are pioneers in African cinema, and the films, Mossane by Safi Faye and Moolaadé by Ousmane Sembene reflect this notion of a human sensibility.

A brief synopsis of the two films: Mossane: Woven into the story of the eponymous Mossane, a fourteen-year-old girl and the myriad experiences that she faces at that age, is a fictional Serer myth that every two hundred years, a girl is condemned by her beauty to a tragic destiny. Mossane is so stunning that her beauty haunts even the Pangool, ancestral spirits of the Serer. After fourteen rainy seasons, she is returned to them, through the arms of Mamangueth, the seashore where the ancestors live, the only place where she may be protected. Mossane defies the custom of arranged marriage, pursuing instead the desires of her heart. She refuses to marry the unknown suitor, Ngioye as she is in love with the university student, Fara. Safi Faye emphasizes that while arranged marriage is a practice that exists in some parts of Senegal, it is not her experience. The film is in particular, a metaphor of beauty; that she wanted to relay as a song to women.

Moolaadé, an ancient Pulaar word, means protection, the right to asylum. It demands that one be accorded protection when seeking it. If one encounters a perceived danger and flees from it, the person has the right to asylum.  The film’s point of departure is the confrontation with the tradition of Moolaadé and the tradition of Salindé, a Malinké word for ritual ceremony of purification, which entails female excision. Four girls flee the Salindé to seek Moolaadé under the protechtion of Collé Ardo, a woman known to have refused to have her daughter undergo this practice. Sembene states, “It is not about whether one is for or against the eradication of excision. It is that women in the village do refuse. And this refusal is an act of courage. To stand against a group is sheer madness. But to mobilize the others, that is courage. Daily struggles, one step, then another, then another. This is what brings about the evolution of attitudes.”

French film critic Olivier Barlet notes that in many African films there is often allusions to how the community controls and manages the body, or references to an individual’s choice of managing one’s pleasure or desire, or that women must suffer in their bodies in order to not be excluded. These instances will be explored in Mossane and Moolaadé.

It is through the tradition of Salindé, female purification, that a girl passes to womanhood.  To remain a bilakoro, to not be purified—excised, obliges her to a life without a husband or children—the traditional definition of womanhood—and thus, she is excluded from the rewards and benefits of the community. Collé has resisted this tradition and four young girls come to her for protection. Mossane, determined to choose her own husband and be with the one she loves, betrays the fixed identity that tradition and the community have defined for her, she refuses the arranged marriage. In both Mossane and Moolaadé the girl child finds refuge in flight.

Thus, in the two films resistance or confrontation with tradition is the fulcrum around which the stories pivot. The village is the location in which African traditions, values, and mythologies are born and nurtured. The village is often presented in African films as the counterpoint to city life in African capitals or the westernized experiences of the European metropoles. Sembene uses the village setting to show that deep changes in attitudes that will have the most impact will evolve from the village. Through the unwavering refusal of Collé, her co-wives ultimately give their support, which gradually spreads to the other women of the village. In Ousmane Sembene’s view the men will ask themselves: how can the mothers and daughters who have never left the village have these rebellious thoughts?

Among these more spectacular acts of rebellion one finds more subtle systems of support that indicate the basis of this solidarity.  While in his other films Ousmane Sembene gives vivid indications of his opposition to polygamy, such as the classic film Xala. Moolaadé reveals a more intimate look at a household that promotes harmony among the co-wives. Even as Hadjatou wields her power as first wife, she quietly champions her second co-wife Collé Ardo’s choice to give protection.

Safi Faye’s portrait of women in Mossane reveals a rare cinematic intimacy between women in African films, much like her experiences when growing up. This intimacy generates both solidarity and deception.  Mossane is very close to her cousin Dibor, who is both a mentor and confidante. It is Dibor who provides the support and courage that will sustain Mossane. She has a loving relationship with her mother as well; they share stories and chores. Mossane washes her mother’s back, they cuddle and tell secrets. But her mother’s eventual betrayal confuses her, while Mossane’s rebellious spirit takes her mother off guard.

Ironically, it is Ousmane Sembene who pushes the men to come to terms with their complicity in the perpetuation of women’s oppression. His story is much more driven towards a message for consciousness-raising for the eradication of genital cutting and the shared responsibility of men to understand the role they play in its perpetuation. By contrast, Safi Faye’s film is poetic, with beautiful images of the waters of the Mamangueth, the fascinating rituals, the remarkable ancestral spirits. The women’s bodies are sensual and soft. I am of course, contrasting films that tell their stories in very different ways, one of beauty and myth, the other of pain and confrontation. But yet, Safi Faye weaves within this story, the emotionally and psychologically agonizing consequences of a tradition that refuses one’s right to manage one’s own desires. Though, unlike Ousmane Sembene, she does not press the men or women to change.

While one may ask if women filmmakers’ response to the forces of tradition is sufficiently militant, an essential characteristic of the representation of African women in cinema is the opposing sides of women’s experiences. Safi Faye describes this polarity in reference to the women of the film Selbé: “at the heart of misery they triumph. To achieve one’s independence, one must realize one’s dependence.” Similarly, caught within opposing sides, Mossane, lives in a space “between rebellion and effacement.” African women filmmakers avoid the “super-heroine” syndrome, which does not mean that the female characters must be nondescript and commonplace. Rather, in what Ousmane Sembene calls the heroism in daily life, women can make a difference bit by bit, one step, then another. Looking at the film Mossane on a continuum of female representation, as a discourse on the evolution of womanhood/womanness, one finds the opposing forces of women’s experiences as Safi Faye suggests.

Safi Faye looks for the African specificities regarding women and their experiences, rather than creating a female character for the sake of a “feminist agenda.” She finds that African societies do much for the emancipation of women and the subject is often explored in African films. One must look inside the film narrative and look at women’s experience within the context of the society. While there are stereotypical attitudes about women in the countryside versus their urban counterparts, Safi Faye finds the women in the villages to have much more agency, for instance, than the women of the city. Comparatively speaking women in the city are much more financially dependent on their husbands. Ousmane Sembene identifies the village as a symbolic location, it is the cultural foundation of Africa. In his view, the strength and energy of the rural woman, the vital force of Africa, must be mobilized for the development of the continent.

French film critic Olivier Barlet, notes that African women are often used to question the virility of society. Modernity undermines patriarchy and films especially set in the village highlight this vulnerability, as often these features of modernity are foreign, western elements. The village is the signifier of the culture’s language, it is a metaphor, a symbol.

Exploring this concept in the context of the two films, Ousmane Sembene incorporates three foreign elements into the film, Moolaade: the travelling merchant, an ex-soldier who has served in peacekeeping efforts around the world; the village chief’s son, wealthy by African standards, who returns from Europe to attend his wedding; and the radio, an important means of communication for the village women. In Mossane, the introduction of the unseen outsider Ngioye upsets the already fragile harmony of the village, destabilized by the stunning beauty of Mossane. Ngioye, who also lives in Europe and is equally wealthy by African standards, arranges his marriage to Mossane by proxy. Thus, Ngioye’s wealth has power, and this invisible foreign element is able to entice a mother to “sell” her own daughter, the precise thoughts of many people in the village.

The fortune of the two sons performs as surrogate masculinity to a vulnerable patriarchy, allowed to exist by those who continue to sustain it, through habit, tradition, and fear, and in the case of the women, against their interest. And yet some women oppose these archaic conventions and step outside of the circle of traditional rules (Barlet). And thus in fighting for their own interest, women break down the “social consensus” that determines the conditions that are used to oppress them. Their disloyalty towards tradition causes a breach in the order of established interests, which in turn, rallies to suppress this rebellious force.

Thus, in Moolaadé, we see the elder brother Amath force Ciré to return to the circle of traditional rules of the patriarchy by questioning his ability to control his wives and daughter. Ciré submits by publicly beating his wife Collé, in an attempt to make her submit.  She resists. In a twist of events, Mercenaire, the traveling merchant, disrupts the patriarchal structure, and stops the beating. This scene is a quintessential Sembenian moment: the peace-keeper has found himself able to enforce peace. This is a decisive blow to the increasingly fragile patriarchy. But there is more to come that will further weaken its power. A series of events progressively strengthen the solidarity among women beginning with the courage of the formidable Collé as she is beaten, and culminating in the tremendous momentum of resistance as the women rebel en masse. The Dougoutigi, the village chief, and his entourage, are at their usual meeting place, at the village center. Patriarchy’s waning power is put to the test as Collé confronts them. The dying patriarchy crumbles when Amath again orders his younger brother to control his wife Collé. The younger brother Ciré responds by saying, “it takes more than two balls to make a man”, then abruptly leaves the male order. In turn, the village chief repeats his command to his son, that he will not marry a bilakoro (a non-excised woman). The son, Ibrahima stands and responses, “Father, I will marry who I want.” The Dougoutigi strikes his son, to which he retorts, “the time of the little tyrants has passed.” Amsatou, his fiancé, who is a bilakoro, steps into the frame of the dwindling male power announcing: “I am and will remain a bilakoro.” Both Ibrahima and Amsatou turn and leave together.

Is patriarchy dead then? Safi Faye’s Mossane has no heroine that defeats the male order, no epiphanic moments that reveal a female awareness of oppression; though rebellion and resistance are deeply rooted in the story. In fact, it is Mingue who loses the most, her daughter—who she sacrifices for financial comfort, and the dowry—since Mossane will not be "delivered". Safi Faye implies that the consciousness raising begins after the death of Mossane—when the story has ended. It is then that Mingue realizes her complicity and understands the consequences. If she had only listened more closely to her aunt, if she had not been deaf to the words of her daughter who demanded to make her own choices.

Relevant links:

16 April 2009

Negotiating Racialized Identities in African Women’s Films

While the filmic exploration of female subjectivity and agency is a recent trend, identity has been a theme since the earliest period of African women’s cinema. Pioneer Safi Faye’s first film La Passante made in 1972, relates the experience of a young Senegalese woman living between two cultures. Faye acts as the main character, using Paris as the setting. In a very personal way, the film echoes her own experience as a woman "divided between two cultures—French and Senegalese”, to use her own words to describe the context at the time—just a decade after independence.

Now, more than a generation after African independences, an Afro-European presence is emerging among filmmakers who continue to negotiate racialized identities by exploring the tensions, ambivalence and ambiguities in the political, social and emotional fabric of their environment; as they attempt to relate their desire to know and understand their own multiple layers and that of their history. "Afro-European" in the context of this discussion includes Africans who have migrated to Europe and now make it their home; Africans who were born and/or raised in Europe; those who have both European and African parents.

In Isabelle Boni-Claverie's film Pour la nuit (For the Night, 2004), set in France, race is an apparent signifier. But yet, Boni-Claverie states that the film was to originally take place in her native country, Côte d’Ivoire and that the male character was to be cast as an Ivoirian; thus, the film scenario was adapted to the change in film location. For her the site and casting change makes no difference to her story--a young woman buries her mother, a young man buries his life as a bachelor; however, for the viewer the change relates the film in a very different way. Similarly, British-Nigerian Ngozi Onwurah views her film The Body Beautiful (1991), set in Europe, as having a particular African film language while her film, Monday’s Girls (1993) set in Africa with distinct African signifiers, as a specifically European film in terms of its narrative. Moreover, there is a clear refusal to contextualize their films within a racialized lens or a Europe-Africa binarism.

Then there is the film, Sous la clarté de la lune (Under the Moonlight, 2004) by Apolline Traoré from Burkina Faso—if one looks at the film in a racialized context, one falls into the box from which Onwurah and Boni-Claverie try to escape. And yet the narrative is driven by the underlying question of culture in the context of race. The young Martine has become someone very different, having being raised in Europe by her European father, rather than in Africa by her African mother.  The question of African values becomes the crux of the film. A subtext of the two films, Sous la clarté de la lune and Pour la nuit, is death and separation from the African mother. A bi-racial girl/woman raised in Europe, the African-European girl/woman connected to her European father. Muriel, raised by her African mother in France, is ashamed of her mother’s African-ness, her mother’s speech, her voice. Both father and daughter reveal to each other for the first time, at the site of the African woman’s reposed body, the tensions that surrounded their relationship to her African-ness. The father accuses the daughter of being ashamed of her mother because she was African; the daughter accuses the father of not really being interested in understanding his wife, knowing her deeply, knowing who she was. Though this beginning is only a brief part of the story, it provides the context for the emotional drama that ensues. The remainder of the film traces the emotional journey of Muriel and a young white man who she encounters along the way.

Thus the two contemporary films situate in oppositional relationship the origins of the parents of the bi-racial characters—Africa-Europe—and while this tension is not the main thrust of Pour la nuit, it is for Sous la clarté de la lune. In the latter film, the uprooted Martine, upon her brief return to Africa, discovers her African roots through her mother, though she does not realize the woman’s relationship to her, as she was taken away by her father, while still a baby. The mother suffered a double loss, her daughter and her voice, as the trauma of the kidnapping rendered her mute. The mother rediscovers her daughter only to lose her again to death.

The documentary film, Les enfants du blanc, points towards a trend of reinscribing race at the intersection of postcolonial discourse and the ongoing tension of colonizer/colonized positionality.  French-Burkinabé, Sarah Bouyain, uses her own mixed-race identity to explore the lives of her grandmother and great-grandmother. The latter, forced into concubinage with a French colonial during the first decades of the 20th century, gives birth to Sarah Bouyain's grandmother, a mixed-race woman who grew up in Burkina Faso. While the film traces this colonial practice and its aftermath—the treatment of mixed-race offspring of French colonials—it also indicates a trend among a contemporary generation of Afro-Europeans to deal with the subject of Afro-European metissage as identity.

As early as 1988, Nigerian-British Ngozi Onwurah explores her experiences growing up as a “coffee-coloured” child in all-white Newcastle, England. She continues this exploration in The Body Beautiful, casting her mother, Madge, a white woman, in a multilayered story at the intersection of race, normative standards of beauty dictated by the dominant culture, and breast cancer—of which her mother is a survivor. Nigerian-Welsh Branwen Okpako’s films, Searching for Taid (1997) Dirt for Dinner (Dreckfresser, 2000) and Valley of the Innocent (Tal der Ahnungslosen, 2003) also explore racialized identities. The first two films are investigative documentary dramas. Searching for Taid traces the experiences of her brother, Edore Okpako in search of his Welsh identity. Dirt for Dinner is a thriller of sorts about Afro-German Sam Ngankouo Meffire, a model citizen, police-of-color turned bad—which in part has to do with the torment he experienced after he learned about his African father’s fate. The fiction film Valley of the Innocent, also set in Germany, explores mixed-raced police officer Eva Meyer, who grew up as an orphan, in search of her parents’ identities. Her investigative work leads her to her mother.

As African women use cinema as a vehicle to express their experiences and show their vision of the world, geographies are transcended, boundaries blurred, nationality and country extended, identity becomes multiple but also fragmented, their cinematic gaze reaches within and beyond. They examine their social, political and cultural location, contextualized within the larger framework of postcoloniality—encompassing a Duboisian, “double consciousness”, a Fanonian, “black skin white mask”. 

13 April 2009

Fêting Easter Monday

It is the tradition in French Guiana to eat a dish called Awara Soup on Easter Monday. It is said that when one eats it, one will never leave Guiana.  One becomes Guianese, one becomes Créole. This is the legend recounted by French-Malgasy producer Marie-Clémence Paes.  With her Brazilian filmmaker husband, Cesar, they are a filmmaking couple whose purpose is to produce films about the riches of the Southern Hemisphere, as countries in these regions are often stereotyped, focusing only on their problems and difficulties.


They made the film Bouillon d'Awara/Awara Soup with this in mind. Marie-Clémence sees the film as a metaphor for the many diverse cultures that live together in relative harmony in this small region of the world. She has this to say about the film:

We decided to make a film about a place in the world, a kind of little laboratory in the world, where people from very different cultures and races live in one location.  It is a tiny place, a microscopic area, which is why we like to say laboratory.  We went to shoot a film in a little village in Guiana where there are 1,500 inhabitants, and among these 1,500 people there are thirteen languages spoken.  Over the last twenty years, sixty percent of the population of this city is made up of recent immigrants.  They come from the Antilles, Brazil, China, Laos, France—from where there has been a presence for a long time—and, of course, there were Amerindians from the beginning, and there are also Lebanese.  Actually, there are people from all of the continents who are in this little place together, and who intermix.  We wanted to show that, despite the increase of nationalism everywhere, in the world there exists a glimmer of hope.  In this little place the people are able to live together despite all the different languages, cultures, colors, and customs.


The history of the metissage and cultural mélange in Bouillon is actually told through the preparation of a dish called Awara Soup.  It is a metaphor because it is a dish whose ingredients normally are not cooked together.  Pork is not cooked with shrimp nor are cucumbers mixed with eggplant; these are not what normally blend together in a dish.


There was another story that was not in the film that I found very interesting.  When invited to eat Awara Soup, the mistress of the house never obliges anyone to eat everything. She comes to ask you what you want to eat.  The person who wants to eat only shrimp may do so; the person who wants to eat only fish may do so.  The person who wants to eat everything may do so. But she never says, "Here taste this." No, it really is about fishing about in the soup to find the consistency, or the color, or the odor that appeals to you.

Relevant Links:

Interview with Marie-Clémence Paes 

Laterit Productions

Bouillon d'Awara Recipes

Le Bouillon d'Awara/Awara Soup - trailer

10 April 2009

African Women on the US Film Festival Circuit


As the film festival season comes into full swing, African women are featured at several venues in the United States with an impressive number of films being screened at the African Film Festival of New York and at the recently completed Cascade Festival of African Films  in Portland, Oregon. The 19th Annual Cascade Festival began in February in honor of Black History Month and ended in March with the Women Filmmakers Week in commemoration of Women’s History Month. This year there were four films by women: Cuba: An African Odyssey (2007) by Egyptian Jihan El Tahir; Cameroonian Osvalde Lewat-Hallade’s film, A Love During The War (2005); the film, Enough! / Barakat! (2006) by Algerian Djamila Sahraoui, and Katy Léna N'Diaye of Senegal with Awaiting for Men (2007).

The African Film Festival of New York, which has just opened on 8 April, celebrates its 16th year with the theme: Africa in Transition. Eight African women are featured in the festival: Egyptian Jihan El-Tahri’s Behind The Rainbow (2009) which is the centerpiece of the festival; Yandé Codou, la griotte de Senghor (2008) by Senegalese Angèle Diabang-Brener; three women from Kenya: Wanuri Kahiu’s From a Whisper (2008), two films by Judy Kibinge, Killer Necklace (2009) and Coming of Age (2008), and Lupita Nyong’o’s In My Genes (2009). Cameroonian Josephine Ndagnou’s film Paris or Nothing/Paris à tout prix (2008) is among these exciting listings as well as British-Nigerian Ngozi Onwurah’s Shoot the Messenger (2006). Katy Léna N'Diaye’s  Awaiting for Men,which was also featured in the Cascade Festival, is also among the film selections. Below are short synopses of the films along with relevant links.

Angèle Diabang-Brener (Senegal) Yandé Codou, la griotte de Senghor. Yandé Codou Sène, 80-something, is one of the last great singers of polyphonic Serer poetry. This film is an intimate look at a diva who has lived through Senegalese history at the side of one of its greatest near-mythical figures, President-poet Léopold Sédar Senghor.

Jihan El-Tahri (Egypt) Behind the Rainbow. The film explores the transition of the ANC-The African National Congress--from a liberation organization into South Africa's ruling party, through the evolution of the relationship between two of its most prominent cadres, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. Exiled under Apartheid they were brothers in arms, under Mandela they loyally labored to build a non-racial state, now they are bitter rivals. Their duel threatens to tear apart the ANC and the country, as the poor desperately seek hope in change and the elite fight for the spoils of victory.

Jihan El Tahri (Egypt) Cuba: An African Odyssey. The previously untold story of Cuba's support for a variety of revolutionary and independence movements on the African continent from the mid-1960s through the early 1990s. These include Che Guevara's military campaign in the Congo to avenge the execution of the country's first democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba; Cuba's support of Amilcar Cabral's uprising in Guinea-Bissau; and the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola, which led to the independence of Namibia and the fall of apartheid in South Africa. 
Wanuri Kahiu (Kenya) From a WhisperThe film commemorates the 10th anniversary of the August 1998 terrorist bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, in which over 250 people died and more than 5,000 were injured. The film tells the story of an artist and an intelligence officer, and how they find unique ways to move on from the tragedy that shattered their lives.

Judy Kibinge (Kenya) Killer NecklaceBoo is a handsome young banker with a bright future; Wai is a sultry young girl from a privileged background. Boo would do anything for Wai, but Wai has her eye on a different prize: the most beautiful golden necklace in the world. This  twisted tale of desire and deceit asks, is anybody what they appear to be?
Judy Kibinge (Kenya) Coming of Age. This coming of age story depicts the three ages and stages of democracy as seen through the eyes of a girl growing up. The Kenyatta era, a time of great optimism and post-independence euphoria is reflected in the innocence and naivety of the young girl. As Kenya enters its next era, of dictatorship under Daniel arap Moi, the gloom of oppression and confusion is reflected by teenage turmoil and finally, all grown up, we find ourselves in Kenya’s third stage of democracy under Mwai Kibaki and wondering if democracy, with all its free speech and openness can ever really come of age.
Osvalde Lewat-Hallade (Cameroon) A Love During The War. The documentary focuses on journalist Aziza and her husband who were separated when war broke out in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in 1996. Six years later, they reunite in Kinshasa, the capital of Congo. However, Aziza is haunted by memories of the horrors suffered by the women in eastern DRC during the war. She returns to visit these women who have started denouncing the abuses they suffered during the war.

Josephine Ndagnou (Cameroon) Paris or Nothing/Paris à tout prix. Suzy will do anything to go to Paris, but finds that it is not the paradise that she had dreamed.

Katy Léna N'Diaye (Senegal) Awaiting for Men. Three women in Oualata, Mauritania, on the edge of the Sahara desert, practice traditional painting by decorating the walls of the city. They express themselves openly about the relationship between men and women.

Lupita Nyong’o (Kenya) In My Genes. The documentary explores what is it like to be “white” in a “black” society. Agnes, a woman with albinism, overcomes the difficulties of being born with no pigment in a society that discriminates against people with the condition. The film explores the experiences of a member of one of the most hyper-visible and at the same time invisible groups of people in a predominantly black society.
Ngozi Onwurah (Nigeria/UK) Shoot the Messenger. Jose, a teacher, is determined to save the black youngsters at his school from a life of gangs, crime and underachievement. When a seemingly minor incident escalates out of control, Joe loses his job, and as a result, experiences a mental breakdown which leads him to turn against his community.
Djamila Sahraoui (Algeria) Enough!/Barakat! Amel, an emergency physician, joins forces with Khadija, a nurse who once fought for Algerian independence against the French, to search for her husband, a journalist whose writings led to his disappearance. Despite the extreme danger and difficulties of their quest, the two women forge a bond of mutual affection and respect that leads to a deeper understanding of how their lives were shaped by their country's history.

01 April 2009

In front of the camera: the role of African women actors


Tracing the history of actresses in African cinema, the two pioneers, Thérèse M’Bissine Diop of Senegal and Zalika Souley of Niger come to mind, both with debut performances in two African film classics released in 1966: La Noire de… by Ousmane Sembene and Le Retour d’un aventurier by Mustapha Alassane, respectively.

Their careers and life paths have similarities but also stark differences. Thérèse M’Bissine Diop has appeared in one other African film since her debut in La Noire de…, Emitai, a film also by Sembene, made in 1971. Nonetheless, her standing as a pioneer continues to be immortalized, as La Noire de…, this classic Sembenian work, is the subject of endless studies. While Zalika Souley, the “bad girl” of early cinema of Niger starring in numerous films, is all but forgotten. During a conversation with her in 2005, I discovered that she lives very modestly in the United States. In contrast, my interview with Thérèse M’Bissine Diop in Paris in 1998, revealed a comfortable living where she pursues her passion, tapestry-making. In spite of her descent into anonymity, Souley was elected as the president of L’Association des Actrices Africaines/The Association of African Actresses, created in 1989, in recognition of the role she played in asserting the value of women in the world of African cinema. More recently in 2004, Rahmatou Keita also from Niger paid homage to Zalika Souley in her debut film documentary Al’lèèssi, an African Actress.

In Al’lèèssi... Rahmatou Keita reveals the challenges that Zalika Souley had to confront in the 1960s; at a time when her controversial roles were viewed as contrary to the principles of a good Muslim woman. Al’lèèssi... juxtaposes the acts of a dutiful Muslim woman who shows abiding faith in God, to film excerpts of her diverse roles. However, at the time, both in her screen character and private life, Zalika Souley went against the societal conventions of womanhood. She walked about Niamey, the capital, wearing jeans, which still today is provocation for insults. In Oumarou Ganda’s 1970 film, Wazzou polygame, her character in a jealous rage, commits murder. In the 1973 film, Saitane also by Ganda, she is a woman gone astray. In the conservative environment of Niger, where people associated her screen character with reality, she was severely ostracized. Thérèse M’Bissine Diop notes a similar public hostility towards her in the 1960s. After the release of the film La Noire de…, she was shunned, even by her own mother. As public contempt for her became increasingly unbearable, Diop eventually left Senegal and has lived in Paris since the 1970s.

Despite the early negative public reception of African actresses, women continued to choose acting and have become increasing accepted in their societies. While acting is rarely a viable career in Africa, women have nonetheless expressed satisfaction in contributing to the growth and visibility of African cinema. Several women, especially in West Africa, have become prominent, such as Naky Sy Savane of Cote d’Ivoire. Her roles include Nuit de la verité/The Night of Truth by Fanta Nacro and Moolaade by Ousmane Sembene, both released in 2004. In Moolaade, she had a supporting role as the griot, Sanata. In Nuit de la verité her character Edna is omnipresent as the wife of the president of the country and a grieving mother who becomes increasingly mad as she seeks revenge for the murder of her young son.

Veteran actor Maïmouna Hélène Diarra from Mali who made her debut in theatre with the renowned Koteba, the National Theatre of Mali, had a prominent role in Moolaade, as Hadjatou Traoré, the first wife, alongside Collé, the formidable heroine, interpreted by ­­­Fatoumata Coulibaly. In addition to her role as actor, Coulibaly is also a producer for the national television of Mali as well as the director of two documentaries. This practice of playing multiple roles is prevalent among African cinema professionals. Burkinabé Georgette Paré, who recently starred in Nuit de la verité, as Soumari, the wife of the Commander of the opposition forces, is also the founder and president of Casting Sud, an organization whose objective is to be a network for actors. Naky Sy Savane also wears several hats. In 2005, she created the Afriki Djigui Theatri to promote African culture in Côte d’Ivoire. Actor Hanny Tchelley, also from Côte d’Ivoire, founded the International Festival of Short Films of Abdijan, which is celebrating its 10th year. In addition, she is producer of the 2002 series, Vies de Femmes--six, 26-minute films by six African women--about prominent women in West Africa.

African actors have been also visible in Western films. In fact, pioneer filmmaker Saye Faye of Senegal, was an actor in the 1968 film Petit à Petit (Little by Little) by the late French ethnologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch. Cameroonian Lydia Ewandé, veteran stage actor, has worked with French filmmaker Sacha Guitry. French-based actors Felicité Wouassi, also from Cameroon and Mariam Kaba from Guinea have starred in a variety of European films. In the United States, Ghanaian, Akosua Busia debuted in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film, The Color Purple; two years later in 1987, US-based Wabei Siyolwe of Zambia was part of the cast of Cry Freedom by Richard Attenborough. Siyolwe, also a stage actor, has since become a filmmaker, producer and communications specialist. Two young women who have enjoyed a great deal of popularity on both French and African screens are Senegalo-Malian Aïssa Maïga and Senegalese Fatou N’Diaye, both based in France. They portray the young modern Euro-African or Afro-European woman who navigates in both worlds; and as Europe becomes increasing multi-cultural it is eager to reflect this image on the screen.

Link of interest on the African Women in Cinema Blog:

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