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.