Monique Mbeka Phoba, filmmaker, poet, novelist, journalist, film critic and project manager, is from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A lot of things have evolved in terms of technology since our conversation in 1997…
There has been much evolution in terms of technology and this has had quite an influence on how we work. For example, during my last film project that I co-produced with a team of young theatre students in Kinshasa, I must say that we greatly benefited from the virtual environment that is so much part of our world today. I met these youth who wanted to make films, and yet a film school does not exist in DRC. I offered to be part of the production of a film whose subject was proposed by one of them. Thus at the same time that they learned how to make a film they dealt with all the aspects of the production. Guy Kabeya Muya, who did the training, co-produced the film with me. We worked with small digital cameras, and communicated via Internet and SMS, so that I could follow the day-by-day production and give my input as needed.
This kind of virtual interactivity led to a film about the first Black African soccer team in the 1974 World Cup. Guy Kabeya and I put a preview trailer on the Internet and received responses from all sorts of people interested in such a film, especially at the eve of the World Cup to be hosted in South Africa. This demonstrates the important role that the Internet may play in the production and promotion of films, which was not the case some years ago. It was the result of showing the trailer through video sharing that people were aware of the existence of the film—a very effective promotional tool.
Could you talk about African women and the moving image? In your conversations with other African women in cinema, do you perceive an African woman’s “imaginaire”, an experience through African women’s eyes?
Women are increasingly visible in cinema and I think we are intent on supporting each other and keeping each other abreast of any difficulties. For example, I initiated the first meeting between Angèle Brenner Diabang and Osvalde Lewat-Hallade, facilitating their invitation by INPUT in Taiwan, which for them was a powerful experience. And these are the two names most prominent among the new generation of women in African cinema. Osvalde contributed to the soccer film project when I had big financial problems, as this project had not been funded. In terms of the representation of women on screen, three emblematic films were made in the last ten years: Al'leessi an African Actress (2005) by Rahmatou Keita of Niger, my film, Anna l’Enchantée (2000) and Yandé Codou Sène, la griotte de Senghor (2009) by Angele Brenner of Senegal.
To these three movies, I may add one by a man, because I believe that the film Mère-Bi – Mother by William Mbaye, shows a feminine sensibility of a man who from his early childhood lived side by side with the exceptional personality of his mother, Annette Mbaye d'Erneville, the first radio journalist of West Africa—a film that he carried with him for years. There are films by women about women, such as L’Art d'une prêtresse about Werewere Liking by Sandra Boukhani, but also women in political contexts, such as Jihan El Tarhi: L'Afrique en morceaux, about the conflicts in the Great Lakes region , Cuba, une odyssée africaine, about Che in Congo, Behind the Rainbow (Le Pouvoir détruit-il le rêve ?), about the historic rivalry between Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma at the center of the ANC; Osvalde Lewat: Un amour pendant la guerre and Une affaire de nègres; Anne-Laure Folly Reimann: Les Oubliees, Femmes aux yeux ouverts and Femmes de Niger; Nadia el Fani: Ouled Lenine, which means “the children of Lenin”, a film that evokes the political engagement of her father who was a communist. Or my own films with political subject matter: Revue en vrac, about the new freedom of expression in Congo after the end of the one-party system in ex-Zaire at the beginning of the 1990s. And my film, Deux petits tours et puis s'en vont…, which addresses the 1996 presidential election in Benin where the former dictator Kerekou, who had been expelled in 1991, democratically returns to power. These films show that women have invested considerably in the political sphere and they are well respected. But we must recognize this specifically female gaze on political issues. Perspectives that traverse the family, the intimacy of suffering, and show self-reflection. Do African women filmmakers talk to each other? In my opinion, not enough. This movement must recover from years of being in a vegetative state, and in this domain, women are no exception. However, I have noticed that between women, it is easier to critique our respective films.
Some reflections on African cinema in terms of language and communication...
There are two realities that force us to be more receptive to having to speak English; the rise of the powerful Nollywood of Nigeria and the audiovisual industry in South Africa. Many Congolese enter filmmaking via South Africa, where there is a large Congolese community. There are already two directors who have settled in South Africa Makela Pululu and Sandra Boukhany. And while they are Francophone, English is their everyday language. Claude Haffner, of Congolese origin, works as assistant in film productions. Another Congolese Petna Ndaliko lives in eastern Congo and is in constant relationship with Uganda. As cinema and audiovisual industries in Africa professionalize, the use of English is becoming increasingly necessary.
Your evolution into cinema from you debut to the present...
I have made nine documentaries, four in Benin, four in Congo and one in France. I have dealt especially with political and social subjects. I think the films for which I am known best are: Anna l’Echantée, about a young singer living in a polygamous family. Sorcière la vie !, on the mixture of beliefs in Congo-Kinshasa, and the latest film, Entre la coupe et l’élection, about the first black African team to be in the World Cup, in 1974. Most recently, I returned to school, where I completed a Master’s in Scriptwriting and am in the midst of writing two fiction projects—for short and feature film. Besides these projects, I published a book of poems called “Yémadja” and I am preparing a collection of short stories. I'm sure I'll write more and more over time—why not novels and essays as well? And, I would love to become a professor of cinema.
I thoroughly enjoyed your film Anna from Benin, could you talk about the conceptualization of the film and its production.
I met Anna in a jazz club in Cotonou and I was very impressed by her voice. Shortly after, I was contacted by a French producer who was looking for a director in Benin for a series called "Girls Around the World" whose objective was to focus on seventeen-year-old girls from the four corners of the world, and each film would be directed in the respective country. One of the criteria was that the directors have experience in international co-production. Since I lived in Benin, I was chosen. I was asked to think about a seventeen-year-old girl who could symbolize the psychological and emotional context of an African girl on the eve of the year 2000. I recalled the young singer Anna, quite pleased to have the means to make a film about her. But, I shifted my scenario. If I had not been part of the "Girls Around the World” series, I would have made a film specifically about her as a singer.
But the specificities of the project were to show the environment in which she lived. I was completely unaware that Anna lived in a polygamous family. This film gave me the opportunity to enter rather intimately into this family, both traditional and modern, and a very good representative of all the contradictions of contemporary Africa. I knew immediately that the father had to be an ally. This gentleman felt respected by me. I am also from a polygamous family, though all the wives did not live together. We are thirteen children from four wives and all of my life I have had to manage these aspects of our family. I have tried to love my brothers and support them no matter who is their mother. I think my father has made sure that it has gone well between us. It must have helped that I felt really comfortable in this family and they felt comfortable with me.
French to English translation by Beti Ellerson