How is African cinema visualized, described, experienced, theorized, and interpreted by the women who circulate, navigate, and negotiate in the diverse areas of this world? Is there a woman's sensibility, a female imaginary, a woman's visual text, a female gaze? Who are their models, their references? What are the specificities of their experiences in cinema? What are their struggles, accomplishments, goals, and objectives? What are African representations of female subjectivity? These were the questions that I sought to answer.
"African women in the cinema" is not a monolith; the disparate technologies, locations, and conditions in which African women work attest to this. Nonetheless, women from every region of Africa use the diverse mediums of the moving image to produce feature, short, documentary, animation and télé films, that are shown in movie houses, at film festivals, cultural centers, on television and the Internet. While they come to cinema along different paths, for different reasons, and at different moments, they share a common goal: to bring images to the screen. The Sisters of the Screen Project covered a continuum of experiences: from the pioneer women to women film students who were making their debut in the film arena. Producers, film critics, and organizers are an integral part of the filmmaking process and their perspectives added an important dialogue to the conversation. Actors, the visible subjects on the screen, voiced their thoughts about African cinema and their role in the larger context of visual representation, culture, and society.
The conversations reflect the wide spectrum of voices that shape the cinema of African women. Some shared stories of their journey along the path to cinema, others shared personal feelings around identity and its influence on their work. Some focused on the themes of their work, spanning the personal to the political. Their films probed intimate and personal issues around sexuality, women's responses to male infidelity, conjugal violence, and arranged marriages. The films also examined societal laws and statutes that deny women's personal, legal, and human rights. They probed broader political concerns of democracy and free elections, and the consequences of civil war and its devastating effect on women and children. Some women talked about their direct involvement in national liberation struggles and the importance of raising consciousness around AIDS and other health issues, as well as women's literacy and education. Still others contemplated their role as communicator and catalyst for change, stressing the need for women to organize among themselves and come together as a collective body to realize their objectives. As their diverse experiences converged under their common interest in cinema, the thread that wove their voices together was their commitment to visualizing their stories.
Fast forward: if one were to judge from the flurry of initiatives focusing on African women in cinema since the late 1980s it would seem that they have finally secured a visible position in the 7th art. And yet, film production, distribution and exhibition of films by African women remain a challenge; meetings and published documentation continue to be sporadic. If the life span of the FEPACI-sponsored Ecrans d’Afrique is an indication of the possibility of a Pan-African critique of cinema, a closer look must be made. The future? I offer prospects since the decade of new technologies. While the organizing efforts of African women in the cinema remain modest, due to the vast resources needed to sustain such a project, the die has been cast. The Internet has become an important tool: websites and blogs, social networking, video sharing, language translation tools and infinite other possibilities. Moreover, the fledgling African Women Cinema Movement is taking shape. Film distributors are expressing increasing interest in acquiring films by African women. Festivals and conferences devote categories for African women's films. University course syllabi include films by and articles about African women in the cinema, and in more and more cases entire courses or seminars are being created. University theses and extensive research projects on African women in the cinema are increasingly visible. All are collectively contributing to an African Women Cinema Studies.
At the time, the title “sisters of the screen" provoked a kindred spirit among women where the screen was their ultimate point of convergence. On the screen is where their images are read—a movie screen, television screen, video screen or computer screen. Whether as director, producer, film festival organizer, actor, or critic—that space, the screen, is the ultimate site from which the moving image is viewed, interpreted, understood. The notion of cinema as the feature film projected on a big screen viewed by large audiences in cinema houses is no longer the reality in the age of new media, video on demand, video streaming. And thus, African women have positioned themselves to take full advantage of the global screen culture that has emerged during the first decade of the 21st century, and with it the technological, social and cultural transformation and evolution that this will bring.
Parts of the text are drawn from the Preface of Sisters of the Screen: Women of Africa on Film, Video and Television.
Sisters of the Screen by Beti Ellerson (distributed by Women Make Movies)