African Women Leading the Way in Cinema: Sharing, Mentoring, Role-Modeling and Working Together by Beti Ellerson
During the spring 2009 academic semester, I taught the undergraduate course Women and Leadership, using the occasion to talk about African women in cinema as examples of role models, mentors and advocates for positive images of women. This was the first time that I had focused on African women in cinema in that way.
The course inspired me to further probe the issue of African women in cinema and leadership, which is the subject of this post. I have outlined several strategies that I adapted from women and leadership discourse, many of which have already been incorporated into mission statements, women caucus objectives and general organizational goals in African women in cinema settings:
- Empowerment of women using a variety of approaches
- Organizing around issues that are relevant to African women’s needs
- Networking through continent-wide links and with other relevant partners
- Outreach by developing activities or programs to access more women potentially interested in cinema
- Mentorship as a tool for women’s development
- Role Modeling by using the visibility of successful women in cinema and representations of strong, successful or inspiring women through the moving image
- Sharing information, ideas, tips, via workshopping, volunteering, blogging,
- Informing: spreading information through various outlets
- Information-gathering and dissemination through research, databases, the Internet
- Providing access to informational networks through resource venues,
- Archiving: Storing information for research and consultation
- Showcasing women’s accomplishment and experiences through film festivals, cine-clubs and innovative film screenings followed by discussion
- Consciousness-raising through cinema
- Nurturing: developing, encouraging, cultivating, promoting skills
- Orientation into cinema through purposeful recruitment
- Sponsorship through fundraising and grant-writing
- Career development: fostering the careers of women in cinema through master classes, advance workshops and motivational speakers
- Research: Film studies in film history, criticism and analysis
- Training: Professional training in all aspects of cinema
- Advocacy and activism using cinema as a tool for social change
That African female professionals of the moving image support each other in an empowering manner is important to their overall ability to succeed in cinema. The use of support mechanisms such as professional organizations, meeting caucuses, ongoing contacts and mentoring relationships are essential, as they are the foundation to the acquisition of resources, funding and professional development. There is also a role in film criticism for the cultivation of mentorship, support systems and leadership awareness--for the images that project these characteristics go a long way in building awareness and raising consciousness. For instance, by highlighting films that portray women as leaders, that depict strong characters and women supporting each other, the public is aware that these situations exist. At the same time, forums that confront the portrayal of women in negative and stereotypical ways, such as in film criticism discourse and ciné-club debates, also play a role in raising consciousness. Thus, cultivating a critical eye among the spectatorship is a role that leaders in cinema must play.
This sentiment is echoed in a 1978 study by African women researchers and published by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1981: “Women have an especially important role to play in the development of Africa. By its portrayal of women, the mass media can either impede or foster women's integration in the development process. If women are portrayed only in traditional roles in the media, society's attitudes and women's expectations for themselves will necessarily be confined to these roles. On the other hand, if the media's image of women reflects the full range of contributions women are capable of making to society, societal attitudes towards women will be correspondingly broadened.” (1)
African women in cinema continue to affirm their commitment to these objectives. Burkinabé Valerie Kaboré puts it this way: “In general, the development of Africa depends on what we will do for women of our generation and those of the future. In the context of cinema, we, with a woman's sensibility, can bring a great deal to this continent. While the number of women who go to school is not very high, the number in the area of the media and cinema is even less. Though we are only a few in this field, if each of us would aim her camera towards the area of awareness-building—or even in commercial filmmaking—she may contribute in her own way to the development of the continent…I think that encouraging women to become producers or directors in the cinema is to open another style of expression to this half of Africa, which has a great deal to give and much to say.”
Another strategy towards the empowerment of women in cinema is to draw attention to female role models, both as spokeswomen and through documentary films that feature successful women. Pioneers Safi Faye and Sarah Maldoror are often invited to film events to talk about their experiences in cinema. At the African Film Summit held in 2006 in South Africa, both women were featured speakers among the veteran African filmmakers. Filmmakers Flora Mmbugu- Schelling (Tanzania), Lucy Gebre-Egziabher (Ethiopia), Ingrid Sinclair (Britain/Zimbabwe) and Anne-Laure Folly Reimann (Togo) among the many others, name Faye and Maldoror as sources for their inspiration.
As documentary films are a dominant genre among African women in cinema, films that underscore women role models and successful women are naturally prevalent in their works. Burkinabé Franceline Oubda for example, focuses her television programming towards this objective: “I make films about women, their accomplishments, their perspectives, and their experiences. It is a way for me to present examples of women who can be used as role models, as well as give a new perspective on certain preconceived ideas that people have.” Similarly, Aïssatou Adamou has embraced this function: “one of the roles that I have to take on is to transmit my knowledge to my sisters who perhaps have not had the chance to go to school.” Salem Mekuria describes her self-imposed duty to include women in her films: “I feel like I have to focus on stories about women because there aren't that many films being made about stories about women, by women.”
African women in cinema have initiated mechanisms for fostering effective leadership as directors, producers, organizers, actors, critics and other filmmaking professionals. These initiatives aim to create an African women’s cinema culture that encourages and empowers women who seek to work in cinema. The historic African women in cinema meeting at FESPACO (The Pan-African Film Festival of Ouagadougou) in 1991, was organized for just that reason. The genesis of an organized movement of African women in the image industry may be traced to that meeting, the events of which set in motion the groundwork for what would become the visual media network called L'Association des femmes africaines professionnelles du cinéma, de la télévision et de la vidéo/The Association of Professional African Women in Cinema, Television and Video.
More recent initiatives from Africa demonstrate the potentially important role of the Internet and a genuine effort to globalize the experiences of African women in cinema. Women of the Sun is a pioneer in this regard as it uses its website to disseminate information about its activities and also serves as a research tool. Launched in 2000, it is a resource exchange network of African women filmmakers. “It is a project-driven organization, which facilitates African women filmmakers to share their visions, skills and experiences and to commercially exploit filmmaking opportunities. It continually seeks to develop and partner with regional and international programmes as channels to advocate for the promotion, skills development, the showcasing of films and skills with a specific focus on women in the film and television industry in Southern Africa and the rest of Africa.” Another African initiative, Mama Africa, was created, organized and implemented by the Zimbabwe-based Zimmedia in 1996, the final report described the project as follows: “The project enhanced the experience of the six African women directors and their colleagues, created employment during the filmmaking and promoted a more accurate image of African women’s role and capacities. In addition, the project has contributed to growth and recognition of African cinema.”
These structures have provided an environment within which women may support each other’s endeavors by extending that community to other partners, film critics, festival organizers, filmmaking professionals and by finding ways to collaborate with other institutions. This broader outreach is important, as African filmmakers do not always get the needed support and backing from their respective countries. Western countries and international organizations have played a significant role in funding film projects as well as providing other financial support so that women may come together. In 1989 the Montreal-based film festival Vues d'Afrique organized a special section devoted to African women in the visual media. Included was a colloquium on the role of African women in the audiovisual media. Femmes d'images de l'Afrique francophone, compiled by Najwa Tlili (Tunisia), was one of the direct results of this 1989 meeting. The index brings together the biography and filmography of women in the cinema from francophone regions of Africa, as well as a listing of other relevant contacts. In 1998, the Festival international de film de femmes/International Women's Film Festival at Créteil in France, organized an impressive platform devoted to women of Africa. The London-based Images of Black Women (IBW), launched in 2005, is an international film festival that celebrates and promotes women of African Descent in cinema. More recently, the 2008 Cannes Festival sponsored an event devoted to women filmmakers of the South. Some twenty-three women, including sixteen from Africa, assembled to discuss their films and to exchange experiences in cinema. The above are a sample of the many initiatives whose goal is to promote the visibility of African women in cinema.
Women have also expressed their interest in filmmaking to lead the way to creating a more realistic portrayal of women. Wanjiru Kinyanjui describes her objectives thus: “The reality of the strong African woman still needs more emphasis, especially in today's world—where she's fighting a battle of liberation from both traditional and "Victorian" laws which keep her down. Strong images would give her more confidence to stop believing that she needs to be like this or like that, depending on societal beliefs and notions. I like her image when she is shown to be of an independent mind, when she is not a passive being who is too busy following false tracks laid down for her by others who are more interested in "keeping her in her place." One should give her the opportunity to define where her place is! And cinema, because it allows us to travel in a projected world of the possible, not necessarily the present reality, is a great opportunity.”
While Masepeke Sekhukhuni is director of the Newtown Film School in South Africa and mentor to all of her students, she emphasizes the importance of reaching out to the women students. As filmmaking is a medium where the principles of making films are formulated within a male frame of reference, she is concerned about how women are able to understand how to express themselves freely as a woman. Already coming to the medium with certain inhibitions, how are they touched by it? To what extent do they know what the camera is saying? How do they know when to edit? The demystification process of filmmaking begins at the recruitment stage, a daunting task as very few women inquire directly about enrolling in the program. "I always say that women are the best storytellers in Africa," declares Masepeke Sekhukhuni. Therefore, this is where she starts. When recruiting young women to the film school she tells them: "It does not matter whether you call those stories gossip or chit chat or whatever; women have these stories." In addition to showing the benefits of storytelling, she shows that women are also producers and directors in their daily lives. They control the budget at home as well as direct the household, skills they may transfer into film production.
She often looks for ways to empower women who may be intimidated by the heavy film equipment. She reminds them that the heavy buckets that they carry on their heads is a no less difficult task, thus reinforcing the fact that they have the strength to carry heavy cameras and other equipment and the power to do whatever else they set out to do. Masepeke Sekhukhuni understands the importance of starting with perceptions of women on the screen even before talking about the filmmaking process. She expresses some disappointment to see that so many of the women she meets who express interest in cinema only want to be in front of the camera rather than behind, to be presented on the screens rather than work behind the scenes as image-makers--which is not to diminish the importance of actresses but to emphasize the preconceived notions that they have regarding cinema. Her main challenge is finding the best way to show women the value of film school and the role that they can play as filmmakers.
As filmmakers, pioneers Safe Faye and Sarah Maldoror have lead the way for women in cinema who have come after them. Sarah Maldoror, who may be honorably called the "grande dame" of African cinema, is Guadeloupian of African descent with a long presence in filmmaking in Africa. Though modest in her acknowledgment of her role as pioneer Safi Faye recognizes that other women respect her accomplishments. When asked about her role as a woman filmmaker, she emphasizes the similar problems that African men and women encounter as filmmakers, though she does note that it has been especially difficult to attract women to filmmaking. Speaking in the documentary film Ouaga: African Cinema Now, (Kwate Nee Owoo and Kweisi Owusu, 1989) she states: “I think it is important that there are women filmmakers and it is a pity that film work is so hard and that many African women don’t get involved in it. Women should have an important role to play in African cinema.” Sarah Maldoror also emphasizes the importance of increasing women’s visibility in cinema: “African women must be everywhere. They must be in the images, behind the camera, in the editing room and involved in every stage of the making of a film. They must be the ones to talk about their problems.” (2)
Valerie Kaboré also agrees that women should play a more active role in all areas of cinema, while underscoring the prohibitive cost of training, which means that to enter filmmaking as a profession is not necessarily a priority. Kaboré notes that beyond the cost of training, perhaps, it is women themselves who do not venture into cinema, emphasizing that the perception of cinema as a profession is that it is not serious and people spend a lot of time away from home. As long as this attitude persists, women will continue to reject the possibility to go into this area. That is why it is necessary to emphasize during the recruitment of women in cinema studies, that they may play a role as catalysts for development and change in Africa. The Africa Women Filmmakers Trust is an example of this type of initiative. Created in 1992, its objective is to improve rural women’s access to information and to encourage the use of participatory methods in development communication in Zimbabwe. Thus filmmaking may be transformative, used to educate the larger public about the issues relating to women.
Anne-Laure Folly Reimann also makes an observation, which is key to forming and sustaining a support network of African women in the moving image: “In order to organize as a group there must be something in common to uphold. In order to have an organizing spirit, there must be a culture that develops this, which we do not have. There must be a means to support ourselves, and we have very little means to do so. When we do come together, it is from a demand to do a documentary made by women. Because we as filmmakers are not the ones who initiate projects; it is the television network or distributor. In addition, the distance inter-continentally makes it difficult, we are too far from each other. We do not have the means to come together. We are not always interconnected, and perhaps we do not have a sufficiently elevated political consciousness to do so.”
Folly Reimann’s assertion brings to mind a conversation that I had with Sarah Maldoror when I told her the proposed title of my book and film on African women in cinema, Sisters of the Screen. She responds, "But we are not sisters, really, we are each in our own isolation making films." In essence, Sarah Maldoror was stating that there was not a sisterhood in African cinema, at least not yet, perhaps echoing Anne-Laure’s sentiments that there needs to be an infrastructure in place to carry out the complexity of processes that informs such an enterprise. Nonetheless, "sisters of the screen," to me, elicits a kindred spirit among women where the screen is their ultimate point of convergence. It is there, where their images are read, whether it is on a movie screen, television screen, or video screen, computer screen, LCD screen. Whether they are directors, producers, film festival organizers, actors, critics, or teachers—those who construct these images, play the characters in these images, interpret these images, find money so these images can be made, organize so that these images may be projected, mentor women so that these images may be created—their efforts converge on that space, the screen, which is the ultimate site on which the moving image is viewed, interpreted, understood. I find this concept more than an intellectualization of a potential filmmaking structure for African women, but rather a sister circle of women in cinema formed as a web that spreads across many environments.
Beyond a structured body, however, African women have shown an "organizing spirit", to borrow from Anne-Laure Folly Reimann, even before the 1991 organizational meeting. They have revealed an interest in working together, in providing a level of mentorship and support for each other. Mesepeke Sekhunkhuni remarks that women at the film school search and inquire about how to connect asking questions such as, "How do we start to network, we have heard there are other women, how do we get in touch with them?" Women often approach her wanting to know how they can link with other women to share each other's experiences.
Ghanaian filmmaker Gyasiwa Ansah insists that women must work collaboratively in order to achieve the objectives that they have set forth. She notes the importance of FESPACO as a forum in which she may exchange ideas with women filmmakers, find out what is going on in the filmmaking arena, and make contacts so that they can continue to communicate with each other. She met with Kenyan filmmaker Anne Mungai in 1997 and was invited to work on the set during the shooting of her next film. Anne Mungai encourages other women to work in "non-traditional" positions in the cinema which stems from her own experiences during film shoots when her all-male crew exhibited sexist attitudes toward her as the director. She realized that because of attitudes within African male-dominated cultures in general and the culture of cinema in particular, film crews are generally made up of men. Observing this same phenomenon, Fanta Nacro wanted to prove that women are as capable of working in any position in a film production. She was able to see this become a reality during the shooting of Un certain matin (A Certain Morning, 1991), a short fiction film that serves to demystify cinema in Africa. Five women, three of whom were African, held the important posts on the crew. She has this to say: “Often in film schools, there is a tendency to steer women only in the areas of make-up artist, scriptwriter, editor, etc. Yet, women are just as competent with the camera and sound equipment. It is for this reason that women were in key positions during my film production.”
This practice of support and solidarity affirms Gyasiwa Ansah's plea to African women to be more helpful and share with each other in order to succeed in the cinema. Kenyans Catherine Muigai and Anne Mungai work together as producer and filmmaker respectively, and are in partnership with other Kenyans both women and men in the company, Sambaza Productions. A continental collaboration among women is increasingly visible in women’s films. The late Alexandra Duah of Ghana acted in Anne Mungai’s Saikati the Enkabaani (1999) while Ivoirian Naky Sy Savane played a leading role in The Night of Truth (2004) by Burkinabé Fanta Nacro.
Like African filmmakers in general, Flora Mmbugu-Schelling's approach to African cinema is multiple, where she takes on not only filmmaking, but also the advocacy role that is an essential part of the process. In 1986, she created the now-defunct, Shoga Women Films, whose aim was to develop an awareness of African cinema, its aesthetics, as well as the representation of African images and culture in film, especially as it relates to women. The objectives of Shoga Women Films as stated in its brochure are: to produce and distribute African films and films made by women or about women from all over the world; to show for the purpose of entertainment or education African films or films by women or about women; to operate a literary and film club with the intention of conducting discourse on films and pertinent matters concerning African cinema.
African women trailblazers in cinema make up an impressive list. In addition to pioneer filmmakers such as Safi Faye and Sarah Maldoror, women in other areas of cinema hold important positions, and thus serve as role models. Senegalese Annette Mbaye d’Erneville is a veteran communication and media specialist, Burkinabé Alminata Salambéré, the Secretary General of FESPACO from 1982 to 1984, continues to be visible in the area of culture. Mahen Bonetti of Sierra Leone is founder and president of the African Film Festival New York, an institution that promotes African cinema in the United States. South African Seipati Bulane-Hopi, a founding member of Women of the Sun, was Secretary General of FEPACI (The Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers) from 2006-2013. The presence of these women on the timeline of African cinema, attests to the legacy of women as role models, mentors and advocates, leading the way for other women.
NOTE: Portions of the above text appear in the article: Visualizing Herstories: An Introduction to African Women Cinema Studies by Beti Ellerson
Updated on 31 December 2017
1. Women and the Mass Media in Africa: Cases Studies of Sierra Leone, the Niger and Egypt by Elma Lititia Anani, Alkaly Miriama Keita, Awatef Abdel Rahman. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, Addis Ababa, 1981.
2. Ecrans d'Afrique/African Screens, No. 12 1995.