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.

10 September 2014

Jessie Chisi talks about "Between Rings: The Esther Phiri Story" and her hopes for Zambian cinema

Jessie Chisi, who lives and works between Zambia and Finland, and is founder and director of the Zambia Short Film Festival, has recently completed the feature documentary, Between Rings: The Esther Phiri Story. She relates about her evolution and experiences in cinema.

Jessie what were your experiences with cinema while growing up in Zambia?

When I was growing up, cinema was like a luxury or fantasy, going there because it was a holiday or a special event in the family or as a reward for passing your exams.  Most of my childhood cinema memories were going to outdoor screenings that were set either in halls or under a plastic stall. I would often use money to pay for the entrance fee rather than for lunch. The films were always projected from a small screen but for me it was phenomenal, that excited me. I watched films such as Lion King, Chaplin and Good Fellas. One of the films that really left an impact on me was the South African apartheid story, Sarafina and stories like Shaka Zulu. I could relate to the pains and agonies of the people. Those stories were always with me. 


You are an emerging filmmaker, what inspired you to want to make films and what has been your learning process, training?

I started writing stories when I was twelve years old. In school I always did well in literature and storytelling, those subjects were my comfort zone; I would shine with them. But what inspired me to be a filmmaker was the fact that no one believed me and I wanted to prove them wrong. Everyone thought that I was a dreamer--filmmaking was a very lonely path for me. Who talks about being a film director at the age of sixteen, and breaths and thinks cinema in a country where at that time the industry was non-existence, barely starting? 

However I began the quest. I met the necessary people who inspired me. People like Cathrine Kaseketi who trained me for a long period; and also Sakafunya Chinyinka who was my mentor; he made me believe in myself. Filmmaking has been a process of inquiring, discovering, experiencing, developing and having fun. I started out as a continuity supervisor, which allowed me to grow, and it opened my eyes since I was constantly working close to the director on any given project. I worked on Karl Francis’ Hope Eternal as continuity supervisor, Cathrine Kaseketi’s Suwi, and Zambian Kitchen Party. As I was looking within to discover myself, I served under people who inspired and challenged me. To think ten years ago that I would have a film that is screened in a festival—it was a far-fetched dream.

You attended the Durban Talent Campus in 2009, what was that experience like?

This was an awesome experience. Actually it was from Durban that I really started believing in myself. I pitched a film for the first time and I made a very good impression. Though it was a project that I never got to make, in Durban I was able to meet talented people and well-established filmmakers, which was a breath of fresh air. I was very motivated, and from Durban I never looked back. I was very young then, outgoing and extremely ambitious, never believing in failure. Then in 2010 I was accepted at the Berlinale Talent Campus.

What did the Berlinale Talent Campus entail and what did you get from the experience?

It is a very competitive campus and I was selected with my project, Woman on Hold. It was among the 12 selected projects from over a thousand applicants.  At the Berlinale my project got the best pitch review and for the most promising film. I was more than humbled and I knew from then on that my journey to real professional filmmaking had begun. Being young, African and a woman, this industry is tough. I had to brace myself for challenges because I knew it would not get any easier; but I remained persistent, focused and consistent. Art is about consistency and managing your inner desires. In addition, while there I learned how the international markets work, and the question I always ask is “where is Africa in this? Can African cinema fit in? Can women filmmakers fit in? And my answer was yes. The world is slowly changing and it is embracing diversity: I strive to take my stories across the globe. So the experience for me in the campus was all about acquiring knowledge, networking and making lasting experiences. 

Your film Between Rings co-directed with Salla Sorri is about your cousin who is a champion female boxer. Did you decide to focus on her in order to follow her training and progress leading up to the 2012 Olympics?

Time flies, and the film has changed a lot. Originally called Woman on hold, the film is now titled Between Rings: The Esther Phiri Story. It is a story about my cousin Esther Phiri, the first-ever Zambian female boxer who was torn between marriage and career because she could not have both worlds as one conflicted with the other. Again those kinds of situations disturb me, first as a human being and second as a woman. I was intrigued and started asking questions like "why shouldn’t she be able to if she loves it?"

Esther’s story is one of a woman who always puts her life on hold to achieve the other thing and always remains empty within herself. She gives up her love for boxing and gives up boxing for her independence. 

You are now living in Finland, working there in film and visual media. What have been your experiences? 

I actually have lived for the past 5 years 50% of the time in Zambia and 50% in Finland. My experience of having a torn life in two different countries has made me more aware of who I am as an artist. I went to Finland to train in filmmaking on a scholarship organized for local Zambian filmmakers. During my training there I made a 22-minute short called Every woman knows. Oh, please don’t ask me, “why another woman story”. I am always around women who protest that women should tell their own stories. This movie was more of my discovery stage. The following year I directed Goodbye, about a woman dying of cancer and her son is waiting to say goodbye and she wants lip gross because her lips are dry, however, the son misses the moment to say good bye but he puts the gloss on her lips anyway. Unborn is a story about a woman who has to make a very critical decision in her life. Between keeping her newly-promoted career or her unborn child. I am actually releasing a second version of a similar situation but this time to be set in Zambia. I am always fascinated about women and their decision-making; how we always have to give up one thing in order to have something else.

What has been the reactions of the Finnish public to your work?

Most of the Finnish who see my short films say that I have a melancholic Finnish way of storytelling. I suppose it is because I now know the culture there. I have studied the people. I have connected with Euphoria Boralise, a Finnish film association with whom I have been doing projects. To me, Finland is a good place to write and to be inside oneself as an artist. The film industry is small, but it is big compared to Zambia.

You are founder and director of the Zambia Short Fest, which is a visible part of the Zambian cinemascape.

The project was born from the fact that Zambia has no film school, yet there is a lot of talent. The Zambia Short Fest wants to encourage rising talents and filmmakers to use short films as their school. We showcase shorts of 15 minutes or less. 2014 is our second edition and we are going to screen 60 films, sixty percent of which are Zambian films and 40% international. There is a three-week intensive film-training workshop prior to the film festival where 24 young Zambians are enrolled. The training is in co-operation with Euphoria Borealis and is funded by the Finnish film foreign ministry.

A Zambian cinema culture is emerging as a result of talented filmmakers like yourself. You have already created the Zambia Short Fest, how else would you like to contribute to its growth and success?

I love Zambia. Zambia has untapped stories and talents and I want to explore that. I have just finished making my first feature-length documentary and I am excited especially to see and hear what Zambian thinks about it. I want to see where this boxer’s story leads me. I am working with an amazing woman, Victoria Thomas who has been a great pillar. She is in charge of African and world distribution of the film. 

Interview with Jessie Chisi by Beti Ellerson, September 2014.

Links of interest:

Wanjiku wa Ngugi talks about the Helsinki African Film Festival

09 September 2014

Naomi Beukes-Meyer (Germany-Namibia) launches crowdfunding for the 2nd Episode of THE CENTRE Web Series


Naomi Beukes-Meyer, still from promo
Berlin-based Namibian writer and director Naomi Beukes-Meyer, created "The Centre" webisode series in order to relate the experiences of African women who are trying to deal with the day-to-day life in Berlin. The first episode, “I’m still down here”, was received with much enthusiasm by online viewers. She has launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign for the second episode “What to do with the Silence.”

Indiegogo crowdfunding description:
The series is written by Naomi-Beukes-Meyer, herself an African woman who has been living in the German capital for nearly 20 years.  
Though there is a large African community in Europe, Naomi has always felt that there is a distinct lack of film and television dramas highlighting first and second generation African female and, in particular, lesbian experience in her adopted country and it was this that spurred her on to write the first episode of The Centre two years ago.

Read also on the African Women in Cinema Blog: Naomi Beukes-Meyer: a Namibian woman telling stories from Berlin 

06 September 2014

Teaching African Women in Cinema, Art and Culture – Parts 1-9: reflections by Beti Ellerson

Teaching African Women in Cinema, Art and Culture – Parts 1-9:  reflections by Beti Ellerson

During the spring 2014 semester I taught the course African Women in Art and Cinema at Denison University. During the past two weeks of Blog posts, I shared my experiences in teaching the course: my desire for creating the course, its objectives, methodology, the course readings, the course exercises, and selected student reflections, which were published with their permission. In addition to the readings and visual materials, the wide range of exercises offered a dynamic, interactive exchange between the students and me, and among the students themselves—notably the panel forum that entailed the preparation and discussion of an assigned group topic. The final exercise encompassed a simulated event/environment showcasing African women cultural producers based on an assigned theme—an exciting culmination of the semester!

What I learned above all from the experiences of teaching this course was the incontestable fact that with available, accessible and organised materials and resources, a course such as this, perhaps seemingly obscure to some, may be taught, not just as a session or two within a course, or as a week-long seminar, but as a semester course. What still remains an obstacle, nonetheless, is the availability of films, which is the case in African cinema studies in general due to the restraints of distribution. And perhaps the most frustrating, the fact that resources—for various reasons— are not always accessible directly from the continent. Nonetheless, as I have attempted to frame the course using a non-deficit approach in order to show the empowering and positive visual representations, voices and discourse, I remain within than spiritBeti Ellerson

Contents: 


In the Part 1 Blog post, I present the course description. Part 2 elaborates the course structure, outline and themes. Part 3 focuses on introductory sources that frame theoretical and critical practices of interpretation and contextualise women artists’ multiple experiences. Part 4 investigates the themes “women’s voices” and “women’s stories” and the ways in which they are contextualised and problematized. Part 5 explores the plurality of women’s experiences based on assigned artists/filmmakers for which students did research and prepared a visual oral presentation. Part 6 examines issues around voice and representation drawing from the story of Saartjie Baartman—the woman, and the Venus Hottentot—the name given to her as spectacle. Part 7 focuses on the theme: interrogating identities, bodies, sexualities, femininities. Part 8 examines themes around intergenerational, transnational, global diaspora: Under the theme, intergenerational perspectives, the class follows the evolution, tendencies and trends, from the pioneering women to the present generation. The themes globality, transnational, diaspora are problematized around the question of the positionality of the gaze. Part 9 is framed around the question “is there a gendered sensibility? If so, what does a woman’s sensibility look like?”


05 September 2014

Teaching African Women in Cinema, Art and Culture – Pt 9 – Gendered sensibilities?: Safi Faye’s "Mossane" and Ousmane Sembene’s "Moolaade"


Teaching African Women in Cinema, Art and Culture – Part 9 is framed around the question “is there a gendered sensibility? If so, what does a woman’s sensibility look like?”


During the spring 2014 semester I taught a course that I created called, African Women in Art and Cinema. In the Part 1 Blog post, I present the course description. Part 2 elaborates the course structure, outline and themes. Part 3 focuses on introductory sources that frame theoretical and critical practices of interpretation and contextualise women artists’ multiple experiences. Part 4 investigates the themes “women’s voices” and “women’s stories” and the ways in which they are contextualised and problematized. Part 5 explores the plurality of women’s experiences based on assigned artists/filmmakers for which students did research and prepared a visual oral presentation. Part 6 examines issues around voice and representation drawing from the story of Saartjie Baartman—the woman, and the Venus Hottentot—the name given to her as spectacle. Part 7 focuses on the class theme: interrogating identities, bodies, sexualities, femininities. Part 8 examines themes around intergenerational, transnational, global diaspora: Under the theme, intergenerational perspectives, the class follows the evolution, tendencies and trends, from the pioneering women to the present generation. The themes globality, transnational, diaspora are problematized around the question of the positionality of the gaze.—Beti Ellerson

The last theme of the semester was framed around the question “is there a gendered sensibility? If so, what does a woman’s sensibility look like?” This question was the centre of a discussion I had already explored in the film Sisters of the Screen, African Women in the Cinema during a sequence where several women reflected on my question. Drawing from this film segment, which was screened in class, the discussion focused on two films, one by a woman, Mossane (1996) by Safi Faye and the other a man, Moolaade (2004) by Ousmane Sembene, both from Senegal. This was the first time that a film by a man was a focus of discussion. Though the theme, "critical perspectives of African women actors" examined the visual representation of women on screen, which included films by African men, women's experiences were the point of departure. The readings for the session included: “Gendered Sensibilities and Female Representation in African Cinema” an analysis of Safi Faye’s Mossane and Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade; an interview with Ousmane Sembene on the subject of Moolaadé by Samba Gadjigo; and the revisiting of the article, "Africa through a Woman's Eyes: Safi Faye's Cinema" by Beti Ellerson, in Focus on African Films by Françoise Pfaff.
The class discussion centred on the notion of “feminist” filmmaking, of whether women have a specific sensibility when dealing with issues related to women. Another point for discussion compared and contrasted the filmmakers’ approach to the dominant theme of both films: traditional practices regarding the girl child/woman’s body, her right to define her future, and the role of the village as agents of change.

The student reflections reproduced here are indicative of the passionate and enlightening dialogue that emerged:

Burkinabé Fanta Nacro theorises that in our actions as human beings, whether male or female and whether driven by the causes of others or our own motivations, in the end there remains only the human being. When contemplating male and female sensibilities, it often becomes easy to differentiate, claiming that only a woman could connect with and accurately portray the questions and experiences of women. Yet film school director Masepeke Sekhukhuni identifies the danger in pinpointing and essentializing “female sensibilities,” as there exist men whose sensitivity may be likened to the sensitivity of women (Jenna Breslin '16, Denison University).

Though experiences are often gendered, the forces that drive us are mostly universally human. We all want a sense of belonging in our society, we want what is best for the ones we love, and we want security. Myth and ritual are tools through which we are able to measure and understand our place in society and maintaining tradition thus becomes a way for us to maintain a sense of security in our understanding of the world. When tradition is threatened we risk massive dislocation and disorientation in our sense of self. It is for this reason that even the most harmful traditions are often so difficult to change. Alone on an island we would not risk our daughter’s life by having her excised. We would, however, if it was the only way we could give her a chance at being valued in the community. Tradition can be empowering as easily as it can be oppressive. The tradition of Moolaade was the vehicle through which Collé was able to effect such change. Tradition can institutionalise and protect cultural values. Myth, such as that of Mossane, can teach values from generation to generation and inspire consciousness-raising. It is this struggle to redefine tradition and build a better society that is at the heart of both of these stories and the struggles chronicled in the two films express a human sensibility as the characters deal with the difficult implications of their decisions (Tommy Carlson '14, Denison University).

The concept of a “woman’s sensibility” stems from three ideas: one, that women’s perspectives are often neglected in films, two, that women are better suited to portraying a woman’s perspective, and three, that women are more likely to open up to other women. While I agree with these points, I also contend that a film directed by a man, such as Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade, can also hold relevance not only to women’s daily life, but also to the wider issues of women’s rights as they conflict with tradition and history (Caroline Clutterbuck '16, Denison University).

In both the films Mossane, directed by Safi Faye, and Moolaade, directed by Ousmane Sembene, we see girls abandoned to tradition. Mossane portrays a girl trapped by her society’s expectations for her life, while in Moolaade, the young girls’ rebellion becomes a village’s revolution. Moolaade has a more overt display of feminism, while Mossane is more of a subtle examination of a young girl’s rebellion. This subtlety can be attributed to Safi Faye’s inclusion of myth and ancestral legend, which intrinsically ground the film to a more stasis plot development (Caroline Clutterbuck '16, Denison University).

After finishing Mossane, I initially considered the film a tragedy, but the more appropriate word is a film of “destiny.” The role of myth and ancestral beliefs ties into this concept of destiny and Mossane’s ultimately necessary death. In following through with the story of the myth (rather than changing Mossane’s story into a successful act of rebellion), Safi Faye exhibits a base respect for African traditions and culture. Although the film is a story of a rebellious young woman, there are still representations of mythology and ancestry that are treated with the utmost respect, as an unchangeable destiny. While Mossane’s death seems unfair, her return to nature (to the river) and to the spirits follows the metaphor of the film. Mossane is “a metaphor of beauty, a song to women.” Mossane does not have to change her village to make an impact with her audience or her people. The film is a metaphor, like poetry, to illustrate the life of a girl who, by others, is defined by her beauty. Her society sees her beauty as her value, but Mossane, the mythology, and her audience, come to understand her complexity and desire to be free. And in the end, in death, she is freed from the world that tried to contain her (Caroline Clutterbuck '16, Denison University).

In my view, the largest comparison between the two films is in how these rebellious acts are dealt with in the end. Moolaade “pushes the men to come to terms with their complicity in the perpetuation of women’s oppression.” I enjoyed Moolaade in particular because of this male involvement in change. As said by Kelley Temple, an officer of the National Union of Students UK Women, “Men who want to be feminists do not need to be given a space in feminism. They need to take the space they have in society and make it feminist.” In Moolaade, the character Mercenary helps to disrupt the patriarchal structure – he stops Collé’s husband from beating her. He states, “I cannot stand violence.” He does not protect Collé because he views her as a weak woman (quite the opposite – Collé is a woman of incredibly strong conviction), but he saves her because he hates to see the violence of humanity. Collé is not just a woman, she is a person. This relates to the concept not of a “woman’s sensibility,” but a human sensibility (Caroline Clutterbuck '16, Denison University).

Had Moolaade ended more similarly to Mossane – without any perceived change in the societal norm, with the girls excised anyway, and no collective protest against tradition - I suspect the male director Sembene would have received more critique by the feminist sphere. That is to say, perhaps because Ousmane Sembene is a male director, his film about women’s issues had to end with a positive note to be considered an open-minded, feminist film. I do not mind his overt approach to advocacy of women’s rights. We discussed briefly in class how Collé is a character very much made for her role. She is made strong and steadfast in her beliefs, and her character is portrayed to serve a purpose: to disrupt the patriarchy of oppressive traditions. However, I do not view Collé as a two-dimensional archetype. She is a hero, and a character created to be a role model for young women (and perhaps even for societies as a whole). Collé’s struggle to stand for her beliefs is not fictional – her story is relatable and relevant to a wide range of audiences (Caroline Clutterbuck  '16, Denison University).

There is a connection between thought and voice within the two films. While the younger generation is the most directly affected by the practices and rituals, the elders (older generation) have the loudest and most stern voice throughout the film. Mossane’s parents are accused of sacrificing their daughter’s happiness in order to become wealthy. Mothers buckled under the pressure of resisting the excision of their young girls for fear of what would happen if the tradition were defied. It would be easy to look at this as an injustice to women and a defiance of their freedom to exist on this earth, but we also must realize that changing an institution or a culture based on tradition and the attitudes from the elders toward that change is not an easy thing to do. [A classmate] made an intriguing statement in class [suggesting] that the change takes place within the community, not from the outside world. When looking at these experiences as it pertains to today’s generation, it is hard to classify the experiences of men and women, because they affect each other in many ways. As a society where both genders exist together, they both play a significant role in perpetuating/defying a ritual or tradition within that society. Therefore, the idea of human sensibilities is the lens in which I viewed both of these of films as they seemingly find ways to tell a collective story of both men and women’s lived experiences (Rian Matthews '16, Denison University).

Although the films Moolaade by Ousmane Sembene, and Mossane by Safi Faye are quite different in content, they are both prime examples of Fanta Nacro’s concept of “human sensibility”. Both films are seen to take a humanistic approach to the problems presented, advocating for women’s rights, bodily integrity, empowerment and freedom of choice.  Both films explore these themes through the resistance to tradition, thus demonstrating the evolution of the human character, as well as the natural human drive for independence. This may be seen when Faye’s title character Mossane defies her arranged marriage to follow love, or when Sembene’s Collé defies the tradition of female excision.  It is interesting that such characteristically feminist themes originate from both a male and female filmmaker, especially because Faye has on numerous occasions declared that her films are not specifically feminist. However this emphasizes the humanism of the two films: both adopt a sense of human empowerment that is surely embodied, but not limited to feminism (Abbie Thill, '16 Denison University).

By Beti Ellerson, September 2014



04 September 2014

Teaching African Women in Cinema, Art and Culture – Pt 8 Perspectives: intergenerational, transnational, global diaspora


Teaching African Women in Cinema, Art and Culture – Part 8 examines the themes: intergenerational, transnational, global diaspora. Under the theme, intergenerational perspectives, the class follows the evolution, tendencies and trends, from pioneering women to the present generation. The themes globality, transnational, diaspora are problematized around the question of the positionality of the gaze.


During the spring 2014 semester I taught a course that I created called, African Women in Art and Cinema. In the Part 1 Blog post, I present the course description. Part 2 elaborates the course structure, outline and themes. Part 3 focuses on introductory sources that frame theoretical and critical practices of interpretation and contextualise women artists’ multiple experiences. Part 4 investigates the themes “women’s voices” and “women’s stories” and the ways in which they are contextualised and problematized. Part 5 explores the plurality of women’s experiences based on assigned artists/filmmakers for which students did research and prepared a visual oral presentation. Part 6 examines issues around voice and representation drawing from the story of Saartjie Baartman—the woman, and the Venus Hottentot—the name given to her as spectacle. Part 7 focuses on the class theme: interrogating identities, bodies, sexualities, femininities—Beti Ellerson
African women have been involved in the myriad areas of cinema since Africans became active participants in this arena in the 1950-60s. Under the theme, intergenerational perspectives, the class followed the evolution, tendencies and trends from the pioneering women to the present generation.

One of the objectives of the Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema is to follow the evolution of African women in all spheres of cinematic practice, trace the diverse activities and assess trends and tendencies. The African Women in Cinema Blog has been an important outlet in this regard.

While earlier blog posts cover current information of the time, I have continued to update the posts to reflect current activities and tendencies of the moment.

For this theme, the class drew from a collection of articles published on the Blog in order to trace a timeline of African women in cinema:


The selection of articles that focus on women in cinema in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal reveals by the updated information on the blog post, that there is a whirlwind of activity on the continent and the African Diaspora.

And this indicates as well, that I have much to do to include articles about the many other countries where there is an increasingly visible presence of women: Congo-Kinshasa, Gabon, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, to name a few; and the most glaring absence is in North Africa, where there has always been an important tradition of women in cinema.

Having said this, I will also note that these points were incorporated in the class discusion, for the aforementioned reason as well as to emphasise the important role that research and written sources have in the dissemination of information, and the production of knowledge and ideas. And thus, everyone has a role to play—filmmakers, organisers, scholars/critics, and the many other stakeholders. For instance in the article on the evolution of Senegalese women in cinema we learn about the pioneer feminist journalist Annette Mbaye d’Erneville who has dedicated her life to the promotion of women, culture and cinema. The women of the first generation of filmmakers in Burkinabe cinema were students at the historic film school INAFEC. Similarly, women were at the forefront of the two emblematic Burkina-based film organisations of the continent: FESPACO and FEPACI. In Kenya, women were among the first generation of filmmakers and were pioneers of Kenyan cinema.

I underscored, as well, the significance of a historiography of African women in cinema. And thus to talk about pioneer filmmaker Safi Faye of Senegal is to also continue on the timeline to the present generation of Senegalese women: Fatou Kandé Senghor, Angèle Diabang, Dyana Gaye, Marie Ka, Rama Thiaw and the list goes on

When looking at trends and tendencies one observes how the evolution in technology—especially the digital—has in many ways been a game changer; and perhaps even more significant in terms of critical mass, the phenomenal shift in communication as a result of the Internet—social media, video sharing, streaming. These myriad strategies allow a visibility that was unimaginable even a decade ago.

While most films by African women are not readily available or accessible to the general public, the possibility of viewing excerpts has offered an invaluable tool in the art/film/visual culture classroom. For instance, the Vlog, a component of the Centre, is a compilation of listings of film excerpts and even entire films, and in the case of YouTube, categorized by theme:


Some of the questions probed in class: how do themes of the 1970s compare to those of the 1990s, of today in the 2010s? Is there a shift? Have the questions changed? Are issues problematized differently?

I was invited to give a talk in May 2014 during which I discussed the emergence of a “girlfriend” genre in African women’s cinematic practice, a “Sex and the City” à l’africaine of sorts (a topic which I plan to explore on the African Women in Cinema Blog soon). I showed a clip of the film Playing Warriors (2011) by Rumbi Katedza as an example. During the Q&A afterwards I was asked whether I observed a tendency in filmmakers of this generation to stray from the more politically-committed filmmaking of the earlier generation. To which I stated in the case of Rumbi Katedza, that she could not be typecast, she has made critically engaging films such as Asylum (2007) and The Axe and the Tree (2011) made before and after the aforementioned film. 

Could one attribute differences or changes to the emergence of the "global village", where women like Rumbi Katedza are influenced by the westernization/globalization that has overtaken the world? Where women like Lupita Nyong’o of Kenyan parents, born in Mexico and studied in the United States was recently awarded a coveted Oscar?

I argue that these movements and peregrinations have always existed as it relates to professional African women. Thèrése Sita Bella of Cameroon, who is on record as the first African woman to make a film in 1963, studied and lived in Paris. As did Annette Mbaye d’Erneville as early as 1947, followed later by Safi Faye in the late 1960s—where she still keeps residence today. Therefore, the notion of the transnational African filmmaker is not a contemporary phenomenon; the problematization of a hybrid identity is not a recent practice nor is the search for identity in the interstices of the western/African dichotomy. These are important questions to probe and they warrant in depth research.

The above theme was explored further in a later session under the title: Global Diaspora, Transnational, with a focus on Senegalese Katy Lena Ndiaye (Awaiting for men, which featured the women mural painters of Oualata), Kenyan Wanuri Kahiu’s Pumzi, and the environment-focused work of performance artist Julie Djikey Kim from Congo-Kinshasa. In preparation for the presentation of the works of Katy Lena Ndiaye, Wanuri Kahiu and Julie Djikey Kim, the readings included: "Ozonisation", performance art by Julie Djikey, Katy Lena Ndiaye's walls of women, women's words: Interview by Hassouna Mansouri and analysis by Mohamadou Mahmoun Faye, and Wanuri Kahiu: Afrofuturism and the African as well as the 15 minute TEDX talk: Wanuri Kahiu TEDx Forum On Afrofuturism In Popular Culture 

In this session, the themes globality, transnational, and diaspora were also problematized by probing the positionality of the gaze, and returning to a discussion of an earlier post, of voice, of whose story is being told.

Senegalese-born Katy Lena Ndiaye who grew up in France and currently lives in Belgium, focuses her camera on women from Mauritania. Frustrated with the recurrent visual representation, albeit beautiful, that she had seen of these women and their walls, (see Margaret Courtney-Clarke, African Canvas), Katy had a desire to give them voice. During the class session we reflected on the notion of an external visual gaze, asking the question, how is Katy Lena Ndiaye’s gaze different from Margaret Courtney-Clarke’s?

Wanuri Kahiu, who was born in Kenya and resides there, studied at UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) film school. The English-language film Pumzi, which means breathe in Kiswahili, appeals to a Western audience entrenched in science fiction, new technologies and all things futuristic. Where is Wanuri Kahiu’s gaze situated? To whom is she speaking? In the United States, Pumzi has been framed within the discourse of Afrofuturism. However, Wanuri Kahiu states that it was only after making the film, which has become popular because of this categorization, did she become familiar with the concept. To what extent has this label appropriated Wanuri Kahiu’s original intent, which was to reflect on the environment, about sacrifice, about African storytelling, about local histories and inspirations? Whose story is Pumzi relaying?

Julie Djikey uses new technologies to disseminate her ideas, stories that talk about Kinshasa, a city that is deeply connected to the vagaries of globalization. The popularization of her Ozonization performance was in large part due to the photographic work of Pascal Maitre for National Geographic. Julie Djikey, nonetheless, has localized the practice of Performance art and has brought environmental issues to the Kinshasa public. Where is Julie Djikey’s gaze situated?

Two student reflections:

Examining the origins and development of African women in cinema in various African countries is the best demonstration of the fact that African women in cinema is not a monolith. The motives and experiences of women filmmakers and cultural producers have varied through space and time…As the material and social foundations for a cinema culture develop across Africa, local and continental filmmakers are using the medium to stake out unique cultural identities and transform communities (Tommy Carlson '14, Denison University).

So, where are these gazes situated? I would argue, globally. However, the question is complicated, because while some works may seek to reach other audiences, they are firmly rooted in an African setting or heritage. Yet somehow, these women are not limited to or limited by their ties to Africa. Their transnational experience allows them as cultural producers to embrace a wide range of stories and genres. Their goal is the same: to work toward a global view, a global impact, yet never forgetting their African roots and the importance of their heritage (Caroline Clutterbuck '16, Denison University).

By Beti Ellerson, September 2014


03 September 2014

Teaching African Women in Cinema, Art and Culture – Pt 7 – Intersecting identities


Teaching African Women in Cinema, Art and Culture – Part 7 focuses on the themes: interrogating identities, bodies, sexualities, femininities


During the spring 2014 semester I taught a course that I created called, African Women in Art and Cinema. In the Part I Blog post, I present the course description. Part II elaborates the course structure, outline and themes. Part III focuses on introductory sources that frame theoretical and critical practices of interpretation and contextualise women artists’ multiple experiences. Part IV investigates the themes “women’s voices” and “women’s stories” and the ways in which they are contextualised and problematized. Part V explores the plurality of women’s experiences based on assigned artists/filmmakers for which students did research and prepared a visual oral presentation. Part VI examines issues around voice and representation drawing from the story of Saartjie Baartman—the woman, and the Venus Hottentot—the name given to her as spectacle–Beti Ellerson
How to explore the myriad issues that touch the lives of African women in one course, during one semester? How to probe the intersectionality of experiences? Under the theme “intersecting identities”, the complexities of issues regarding race, ethnicity, sexuality and nationality unfold rather organically. This process attests to the interdisciplinary practices of African women artists who work at the intersection of a plurality of experiences.
The readings and visual materials for the theme “evolving racialized identities” encompassed:
Reading: Negotiating Racialized Identities in African Women’s Films , Claude Haffner: "Black Here, White There" | "Footprints of My Other", Eliachi Kimaro: A Lot Like You, Interview with Ngozi Onwurah in Sisters of the Screen: Women of Africa in Film, Video, Television by Beti Ellerson. Visuals: The Body Beautiful by Ngozi Onwurah, excerpts from Children of the White man and The Place in between by Sarah Bouyain and excerpts from Footprints of My Other by Claude Haffner.

In the works of the selected filmmakers one may find intersecting themes on nationality, racialized identity, especially as it relates to the search for self in the interstices of “in-betweenness”, as well as personal stories of womanhood and femininity, of national identity and transnational hybridity. And the experiences of three of the women, the very private space of mother: Ngozi Onwurah weaves in her intimate story of her white mother, themes of desire, femininity, ageism, breast cancer. Having grown up in France in the region of her late French father, Claude Haffner returns to Congo, her birthplace and the country of her mother, with intentions to cover certain politico-economic issues. It, however, becomes her story, of her return and her experiences with her Congolese family. Sarah Bouyain, also of mixed-race, reveals an unsettling part of colonial history. Through the story of her grandmother also of mixed race one learns of the practice of forced concubinage during a period when colonial officials took African women as live-in partners (oftentimes forcibly). Bouyain’s fiction film, The Place in between relates the return of Amy to Burkina Faso in search of her mother after the death of her French father one year before.

U.S.-born Eliachi Kimaro, of Tanzanian and Korean parents, went in search of her roots in Tanzania, the birthplace of her father. And like Claude Haffner and Sarah Bouyain, she discovered a family history both fascinating and disturbing. 

The readings and visual materials for the theme “evolving sexual identities” included:
Reading: For an endogenous critique of representations of African lesbian identity in visual culture and literature--interview with Frieda Ekotto, "Homosexuality is not unafrican; what is unafrican is homophobia": Interview by Olivier Barlet with Wanuri Kahiu about her film “Jambula Tree”, and Marie Kâ : L’Autre Femme | The Other Woman. The film Difficult Love co-directed by Zanele Muholi and featuring her work was viewed outside of class in preparation for discussion.

My interview with Frieda Ekotto provided an important context to the theme on same-sex relationships among women in Africa—especially as an area of research; in the same way, Zanele Muholi’s visual works document the lives and experiences of black South African lesbians.

By employing the concept of intersectionalism, the complexity of African women’s identities came to the forefront. It was very exciting to see how the students connected the diverse texts, films, visuals and themes.

Some student reflections:

Instead of allowing her identity to be constructed as a single story, photographer Zanele Muholi did not simply want to be a face within a story created about her, she wanted rights and ownership to her own, multilayered story. Her identity, as she states, is so much more than a single word: lesbian. She is a woman, she is African, she is part of a family and she is an artist (Jenna Breslin '16, Denison University).

Women are their bodies, and then mothers are their motherhood. Filmmaker Marie Kâ approaches this subject in her Senegalese film “L’Autre Femme”. In an interview with Olivier Barlet, Kâ expressed her desire to challenge "the Senegalese view that women are no longer interesting once they’ve given birth and gone through physical changes due to aging.” I would argue that this view is a largely global concept, and manifests itself in the desexualization of older women. The mother in “The Body Beautiful” is seen as a person without desires, and her whole sexual identity (even memories of her younger life with her husband) are erased by society (Caroline Clutterbuck '16, Denison University).

Zanele Muholi’s photography and film address the underlying human inclination to love another human and they depict the humanity of the subjects. They offer a view of the other as something so recognizable to the viewer. The straight viewer can relate to the feelings of love and intimacy, even if it takes a form different than their own. I was also very impressed with the role of community and, in particular, family as a source of empowerment. Zanele Muholi’s sister spoke of the way that once her mother condoned Zanele’s sexuality, she extended protection to her that her brothers and others in the community could not transgress. In that way, her love for her daughter marked the starting point of a changing norm that created a space for Zanele to be herself and empowered her in her life (Tommy Carlson '14, Denison University). 

Another connection that I draw between many of the women discussed in class this week is that they use their platform to bridge the gap between the cultures that make up their identity. When looking at filmmaker, Eliachi Kimaro, I was in awe of her ability to seek information about her father’s ethnic group through documentary and embrace the women of her culture and their stories in relation to her own existence. Not only was this a revealing process for her but she was embraced by her aunts and able to connect herself to multiple generations of Tanzanian history (Rian Matthews '16, Denison University).
Filmmaker Claude Haffner, in her film “Black Here, White There,” also examines the contrasting identities that influenced her early life, in that her identity was bridged between her African mother and her European father. The formation of her identity as a woman therefore constantly hovered between the different interpretations of class, gender and custom between Africa and Europe. Thus when exploring her mother’s experiences as an African woman, she identified her feelings of “never belonging.” Communicating with her African cousins, she felt identified as a sort of “white outsider,” with European and “light skin” privilege. Thus she states that she views her life as an extraordinary journey, exploring and bridging the gaps between Africa and Europe, black identity and white identity, and how such exploration and discovery factors into her identity as a global woman. (Jenna Breslin '16, Denison University).

By Beti Ellerson, September 2014



02 September 2014

Teaching African Women in Cinema, Art and Culture – Pt 6 – Saartjie Baartman and the Venus Hottentot: A Story of Representation


Teaching African Women in Cinema, Art and Culture – Part 6 - The class theme examines issues around voice and representation drawing from the story of Saartjie Baartmanthe woman, and the Venus Hottentotthe name given to her as spectacle.


During the spring 2014 semester I taught a course that I created called, African Women in Art and Cinema. In the Part I Blog post, I present the course description. Part II elaborates the course structure, outline and themes. Part III focuses on introductory sources that frame theoretical and critical practices of interpretation and contextualise women artists’ multiple experiences. Part IV investigates the themes “women’s voices” and “women’s stories” and the ways in which they are contextualised and problematized. Part V explores the plurality of women’s experiences based on assigned artists/filmmakers for which students did research and prepared a visual oral presentation—Beti Ellerson, September 2014

As part of the course activities, students attended a talk that I gave the evening before the class session entitled: “The black woman in the French imaginary.” During the presentation they were introduced to Sara Baartman's story, the history and evolution of the ethnographic and colonial gaze, and the notion of the image as a construct. I intentionally structured the course to introduce these elements after already presenting African women with agency, voice and having their own gaze. The talk framed these components as well, though its main focus was black female representation in France, which included women from the Caribbean as well as African American women.

The materials to read in preparation for the film viewings of The Life and Times of Sara Baartman and The Return of Sara Baartman both by Zola Maseko included Zine Magubane’s “Which Bodies Matter? Feminism, Poststructuralism, Race, and the Curious Theoretical Odyssey of the ‘Hottentot Venus”’ (Gender and Society 15, 2001), “Displaying Sara Baartman” by Sadiah Qureshi. History of Science (2004), Letter from the President: Thabo Mbeki, Saartjie's return restores our common dignity, the iconic poem “I’ve come to take you home” by Diana Ferrus and references to Vénus Noire : Une histoire de violences (with my translation from French).

The problem posed for critical reflection and discussion encompassed several themes: the notion of the image as a construct: when Sara Baartman’s identity becomes a construct by others; the question of voice: who tells Sara Baartman’s story?: Sara Baartman’s story spans more than 200 years, as she continues to be of interest in the academy and in cultural productions—among artists and filmmakers—and more relevant to the issues that I wanted to explore in class, as a site of memory for South Africans.
And thus some points for debate: How may one analyze, discuss, compare these disparate representations and periods in time? How does one know, understand, tell Sara Baartman’s story?
I proposed six components of this complex story-representation-identity to explore:
1) European travelers/settlers and the constructed ideal of the “Bushman”; 2) Scientific racism--constructions of race – hierarchy of the races – categorization of all things; 3) Human spectacles, freak shows, human zoos—anything considered different may be exhibited; 4) Sara Baartman and the Venus Hottentot as a theoretical construct /object: othering, alterity, deviant sexuality, abnormal anatomy, social construction of black femininity; 5) Artists and representations: reclaiming or re-appropriating Sara Baartman/the Venus Hottentot?; 6) The celebration of the return of Sara Baartman by South Africa, the Khoisan people and the emergence of a national icon.
What struck me most about this class session was the students’ shock, dismay, even sadness. Many weeks into the semester after the empowering, positive, affirming representations and stories of and by African women, here is a 200-year old story of a racist, sexist, debasing experience that a young woman of Southern Africa endured! The discussion turned to my methodology: wanting to begin with a non-deficit approach, rather than to start with a chronicle of colonial, ethnographic, Eurocentric representations, and then explore how the gaze was/is returned.
Some student reflections:

Sara Baartman is the first woman we have studied this semester whose story has been predominantly told by others. Coming into the semester, I likely would have welcomed the chance to critique the portrayal of an African woman through historical contexts. Having already taken part of the course, however, changed my perspective and this week has been more of a challenge for me. I believe the thing that has changed over the past couple months is that I have become more aware of the relationship between power and storytelling. What I am left with is this heavy sadness over Baartman’s story and internal conflict over whether or not I believe it is right to continue giving her attention as an object of historical or physical curiosity or if we must forget her to let her rest in peace (Tommy Carlson '14, Denison University).

I believe that the European perspective has had tremendous influence on how this story is told. Even Diane Ferrus, one of the women who played an integral part in bringing the remains of Sara Baartman back to South Africa said that she, a Khoi Khoi woman herself, did not learn about Baartman until taking a class in Holland. That information was unsettling, but not surprising in the least bit. Therefore, I return to the originally posed question. Who has the power to tell this story? I believe that no matter how many collected and archived pictures, drawings, and literature we have access to in this day and age Sara Baartman’s full story remains untold. I say this given the discrepancy dealing with Sara Baartman’s real name and identity. We simply do not know. The better question might ponder the power of interpretation of this story and the ways in which we frame all African women because of it (Rian Matthews '16, Denison University).

Does the present sexualization of black women continue the Baartman spectacle? I would argue that the Baartman-related sexualization and exploitation of the black female form is still an ongoing issue in today’s media and social culture. In further reference to Baartman and the injustices of her captivity and oversexualization, she becomes again an overdetermined specimen. Even through modern representation, Baartman appears as a case study, and a cultural allegory. She does not hold relevance for her person, but rather for her tragedy (Caroline Clutterbuck '16, Denison University).

The power of the true story of Sarah Baartman must be reconceptualized to historicize it, not to politicize it. We must consider the importance of social and political climate and preconceptions to establish Sarah Baartman as a woman and not an ideology (Jenna Breslin '16, Denis University)

Baartman’s story is important in that her experience, in life and long after she had passed away, teaches us something troubling about ourselves. She exemplifies the way that an individual can be used to make generalizations about a group of people. Her story also demonstrates the ways that even those with the best intentions can dehumanize and objectify others. Her return to South Africa to be acknowledged, respected as a human being, and buried so she can rest in peace is ultimately the best thing that could have happened for her. Letting her go from the public imagination and losing her body to the Earth is the first major acknowledgement that she is ultimately just a human being that is no more worthy of anatomical study than I am or any other randomly chosen person on the planet. I believe that it is time that we let her go, but that we carry with us the lesson of how easy it is it strip someone of their humanity based on perceived difference and that we must learn, through openness to diverse stories, to acknowledge shared humanity over that tendency to focus on that which makes us different (Tommy Carlson '14, Denison University).

By Beti Ellerson, September 2014