Senegal’s illustrious list of Africans in cinema offers a background to a discussion about the rich history of Senegalese women in cinema. To highlight a few on this impressive list: Ousmane Sembene (1923-2007), the father of African cinema, Paulin Soumanou Vieyra (1925-1987), the father of African film history and criticism, Djibril Diop Mambety (1945-1998), avant-garde filmmaker, Annette Mbaye d’Erneville, veteran journalist, communications specialist, critic and writer, Safi Faye, pioneer filmmaker and anthropologist, and Thérèse Mbissine Diop, pioneer actress and tapestry-maker, among the many others. Also on the list of the cultural producers of Senegal is acclaimed writer, Mariama Bâ (1929-1981), best known for her masterpiece Une si longue lettre (So Long a Letter). These brilliant pioneers have all been nurtured in a country whose first president was also an artist. Poet-president Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906-2001), host of the First World Festival of Black Arts in 1966, made his own tribute to African women in the classic poem, Femme noire (Black Woman).
Annette Mbaye d’Erneville, the matriarch of Senegalese media culture, carries with aplomb the name that her son, Ousmane William Mbaye attributes to her in Mere-bi, a documentary that he made about her life. The “Mother of All”, born in 1926, studied in Paris in the late 1940s becoming the first Senegalese to earn a degree in journalism. Staunch feminist, fiercely proud of her culture, she is closely associated with the Maison de la Femme Henriette Bathily (The Women’s House) created in 1994 and located on Gorée Island, Senegal. Having initiated RECIDAK, Rencontres cinématographiques de Dakar, an annual film festival in 1990, she was the director for many years. The 1996 edition of RECIDAK paid homage to African women under the name, Femmes et Cinema (Women and Cinema). Her present preoccupation is the regular publication of the film journal Ciné Culture Afrique. Reflecting on the role of women as cultural producers, she declares: "The aim is simply to allow women to express themselves, women who bear witness for their time and reflect a specific image of Africa in their own lives."(1)
Initiated into the world of international culture as an official guide during the First World Festival of Black Arts in Dakar in 1966, filmmaking pioneer Safi Faye connected with people and places that led her onto her career path. She also became aware of the importance of the preservation of African history and culture, a theme that was omnipresent at the festival and became a leitmotif in her work. She describes that event as an expression of national energy and recalls her desire to meet the intellectuals and researchers who had gathered there.(2) Her encounter with French ethnologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch (1917-2004) at the festival was important, since it allowed her to travel to France a year later as an actor in his 1968 film Petit à Petit (Little by Little). She began studying ethnology and then filmmaking in the early 1970s in Paris, thus launching her dual career as anthropologist and filmmaker.(3) She has this to say about her debut into filmmaking: “I did not come to the cinema by chance. I studied ethnology at the Sorbonne. We were able to have cinematography equipment once a week, and to learn how to used it. I realized that in order to be more efficient I should go to film school…I learned like everyone else--I was the only African woman--how to handle a camera and I became familiar with how to use the cinematography equipment. At the end of the first year, I dared to make a little film [La Passante]…That is how I came to learn filmmaking, it was very easy during those years. I made the film in 1972. Right away, everybody began to talk; "there is an African woman who is making films. It was easy for everybody to know about me because I was the first to appear on the scene.”
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Safi Faye was the lone woman filmmaker in Senegal. New faces were visible in the 1990s with the emergence of Adrienne Diop, Rokhaya Diop, Mariam Kane Selly, Fatou Kandé Senghor, Aissatou Laba Touré and Kady Sylla; all producing documentaries about aspects of Senegalese life and culture. Safi Faye’s strikingly beautiful Mossane is among the works produced during this dynamic and energetic decade.
The first decade of the second millennium proves to be equally prolific for Senegalese women in cinema. Amina N’Diaye Leclerc made her debut in 2000 with the documentary (directed with Éric Cloué), Valdiodio N'Diaye et l'indépendance du Sénégal focusing on her father during a particularly intense period of Senegalese history. Ndéye Thiam-Daquo’s first film is part of the series Vie de Femmes produced by Ivoirian Hanny Tchelley. It is a portrait of Nicole Claire Ndoko, the president of the Federation of African Lawyers and the first Cameroonian woman with a doctorate in law. In 2003, Katy Lena N’Diaye directs her camera at women muralists of Burkina Faso in Traces, Empreintes de femmes (Traces, Impressions of Women). Amy Collé Diop explores the troubled state of Senegalese cinema in her debut film Silence…on ne tourne plus! (2004). Actor Maïmouna Gueye, went behind the camera to direct the documentary, Des Larmes aux souvenirs (2004), a film about the rape of a young boy by an adult man, and how the boy’s family struggles for justice. Employing the epistolary form, Sokhna Amar’s first film, Pourquoi? also focuses on rape. A young woman receives a letter from her best friend telling her about the rape that she endured ten years before. Angèle Diabang Brenner's short documentary, Mon beau sourire (My Beautiful Smile, 2005) recalls the feature film Kodou (1975) by her compatriot Ababacar Samb Makharam (1934-1987) some thirty years before. Both highlight the painful practice of lip tattooing. Like Maïmouna Gueye, Senegalese-Malian Aïssa Maïga, a popular actor on French and African screens, ventured into filmmaking with her short fiction drama, Il faut quitter Bamako (2008). French-Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop, though based in Paris, has a strong need to return to her African roots; thus, 1000 Soleils (1000 Suns, 2008), a film about her famous uncle, the late Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambety.
African filmmakers are often described as cinematic griots, transforming the oral tradition of the African griot into visual storytelling. Angèle Diabang Brenner blurs the boundaries of the two in Yandé Codou, the Griotte of Senghor (2008), recounting the life of this mythical figure, “the only one who could interrupt Leopold Sedar Senghor’s speech with a song of praise”. Yandé Codou Sène, born in 1932, is the haunting voice in many Senegalese films. Mossane by Safi Faye is perhaps one of the most stunning. Yandé Codou Sène's incantations introduce the beautiful Mossane as she baths in the mythical Mamangueth, and at the end, at the site of her tragic fate, she sings her praises. Carrying on the tradition of the griot, the voices of Senegalese women continue to be heard and seen.
Mère-bi by Ousmane William Mbaye
1. Annette Mbaye d’Erneville: Une femme de comunication/Annette Mbaye d’Erneville: A Lady with a talent for communication by Rokhaya Oumar Diagne and Souleymane Bachir Diagne. Presence Africaine 153 (1996): 93.
2. Cissé, Alassane, and Madior Fall. 1996. "Un film en Afrique, c'est la galère." Sud Week-end [Dakar, Senegal], 12 October, 6-7.
3. Portions of the text on Safi Faye appear in the article, Safi Faye’s Gaze: The Evolution of An African Woman’s Cinema by Beti Ellerson