The purpose of the African Women in Cinema Blog is to provide a space to discuss diverse topics relating to African women in cinema--filmmakers, actors, producers, and all film professionals. The blog is a public forum of the Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema.

Le Blog sur les femmes africaines dans le cinéma est un espace pour l'échange d'informations concernant les réalisatrices, comédiennes, productrices, critiques et toutes professionnelles dans ce domaine. Ceci sert de forum public du Centre pour l'étude et la recherche des femmes africaines dans le cinémas.

30 July 2011

Leila Djansi: A Portrait

©Leila Djansi
US-based Ghanaian filmmaker Leila Djansi talks about her films, her production company and the future of cinema in Ghana.

Leila, please talk a bit about yourself?

Well, I am a filmmaker. I'm from Ghana. I make movies that dwell on social issues.

You are among a growing number of African women who have studied filmmaking in the United States. You began your career in Ghana before traversing the Atlantic. What was your experience with cinema growing up in Ghana?

It wasn't an elaborate experience really because not much was going on then. But, what was ongoing was fun. From where I am now it seems very amateurish but its how I got here. I learned the basics and got myself fortified for where I am now.

What are some of the differences and similarities in working in Ghana and the United States? Do you bring both an US aesthetic and Ghanaian perspective to your work? 

Apart from the US working environment being more conducive, really not that much difference. I do try to bring both aesthetics to bear. If you are going to make an appealing film, you must make it within an acceptable standard.

Among your film credits are, I Sing of a Well, Sinking Sands and the soon to be released Ties That Bind. What have been some highlights during the production of the films? How have they been received?

Highlights, they were all fun to make. Tears and Laughter. Money and No money. I Sing of a Well was not well received. Ghana is a very tricky and delicate place. The people’s minds get conditioned and it takes time to add more to what they already know. So from the get with I Sing of a Well, we made mistakes. Casting, budgets and logistics wise, we made grave mistakes. But all that was a learning process which made Sinking Sands a success and more acceptable.

Your production company, the Los Angeles-based Turning Point Pictures, produces films with a focus on social issues, what inspired you to create the company and what are some of the films produced?

To be a voice really. When my father died, because my sisters and I are all girls, we were asked not to talk. The male members of the family were making plans and bringing us bills. Finally I resisted. The outcome was not pleasant. If only an avenue of communication were there, things might turned out better. A lot of times we are scared to say things because we are afraid to lose love, lose respect and other things but in the end, it does hurt us anyways. I think we have to start communicating. There should be non-judgmental platforms where people can express themselves. People come to me after watching Sinking Sands and say “you told my story” and I am very, very happy I can be a voice to the voiceless. That is the main purpose of the company. To be that voice. To thread where normally people are scared to because of what they'll lose.

Are there co-productions between the United States and Ghana?

All my films have been co-productions because I have a daughter company in Ghana and the mother company is in the US. So though it’s the same company per-se, we operate it legally as co-productions. I am very nervous when it comes to other co productions with companies that are not well established and reputable because I have been burned before.

There is a fast-growing cinema culture in Ghana, what do you see in the future of Ghanaian cinema?

Well. It’s growing. I’m not sure what direction it’s growing in but it’s growing. Right now for most of the players it’s about making more money, more money and more money to live the flashy lifestyles so art forms are non-existent. I am happy people like Kwaw Ansah who are storytellers are back working. I have to mention King Ampaw’s No Time to Die, as well. Two people are not enough for such a relatively large industry but what I think will happen is that the young ones, due to globalization will be more passionate about the art.  

Interview by Beti Ellerson, July 2011

28 July 2011

Tsitsi Dangarembga: Filmmaker, Writer, Cultural Activist

©Tsitsi Dangarembga
It has now been over 20 years since Tsitsi Dangarembga was catapulted into international renown with her first novel Nervous Conditions. Shortly after its publication she combined filmmaking as a mode of communication. She has become a cultural ambassador for Africa and Zimbabwe in addition to other capacities in the area of cultural production and scholarship. Here she discusses her role and experiences as writer, filmmaker, scholar, producer, film organizer, and cultural professional.

Tsitsi, you have had a parallel trajectory as writer and filmmaker, how did these interests take shape?

Initially my idea was to develop another skill, besides prose writing, that would enable me to earn a living. At that time, in the mid 1980’s, I could already see that skills in moving images narration were essential to the national agenda.  Our then Minister of Finance, Bernard Chidzero also saw a role for motion picture in development. That was good in that he incorporated film as an important medium for sending out development oriented messages (such as Neria – women’s rights, and many HIV films such as More Time, Everyone’s Child and Yellow Card.  The down side of this was that film became identified with social messaging in the minds of the local public. We had a strange dichotomy: film was either frivolous, meaningless entertainment, or it was disseminated of didactic developmental. The study of film theory and the way the medium speaks to the individual and shapes the individual consciousness, was still a specialist area.  But I had a premonition about these matters, so I decided to study film as an adjunct to making my living. I was aware I could read up the theory on my own, but needed guidance in practical matters. So I researched schools in filmmaking.  It was one of the great blessings of my life that I was accepted at the German Film and Television Academy, Berlin, where I received excellent tuition.

©Tsitsi Dangarembga on the set of Kare Kare Zvako


What do you find to be similarities and differences? What relationship do you see between literature and cinema?

At first I could not see any parallels in prose narrative and film narrative. I was surprised at how my approach to creating narrative simply did not work for film. I think the biggest difference for me was to understand the difference between who and why (prose) and what and why (film), i.e. character against action. It came to the point where I found that writing prose interfered with my learning the techniques of film narrative. But I was determined to conquer it. So I stopped writing prose.  With practice and good teachers, slowly and agonisingly, I became proficient in creating for film. Now that I am able to write both fiction and screen, I am more aware of the similarities than the differences.  The similarity is in what – character, plot, setting, and so forth – the traditional aspects of narrative. The difference is in how one manifests these to suit the medium.        

Your role as film activist is apparent in your various initiatives in the area of cinema. In 1992 you created Nyeria Films, a film production company in Harare, what is its mission and what are some of the projects that it has undertaken?

The mission of Nyerai Films is to produce and distribute compelling international standard moving images product on issues that our societies have difficulty in engaging with. Zimbabwean society is a very secretive society. People seem to thrive on intrigue and subterfuge. This means the real problems are rarely discussed in the open with the idea of finding solutions.  Our idea is to bring these issues to the public attention through film. For example, one film that Nyerai Films co-produced concerns child sexual abuse. In the story in question was the abuse of a primary schoolchild by her headmaster, with the tacit consent of parents and other adults. This went on until one teacher started to question the situation. The woman who played the questioning teacher said she wanted the role because the kind of script we had showed that anything could be talked about, even if our societies thought the issues were ‘unspeakable’ as Toni Morrison so often describes in her writing.

So Nyerai Films mission is to make the unspeakable speakable. This is done by presenting difficult topics in the form of a compelling narrative, with all the visual and narrative spectacle that makes film engaging. This is one of the key issues, I find: what is to be the source of spectacle? Because spectacle in film is what is engaging visually. No one will watch a film for long if it hasn’t got any kind of visual spectacle. Sometimes the spectacle is only suggested, as in the short film about the abused girl, called Peretera Maneta (Spell My Name). Of course, a child having intercourse with her headmaster is a spectacle. We don’t show it. We only suggest it, but everyone fills in the act for themselves. It took me some time to distinguish between overt and covert spectacle.

©Tsitsi Dangarembga on the set of Kare Kare Zvako
You are a member of Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe, (WFOZ) what are its goals and how do your activities and interests as a film professional coalesce with the organization?

When Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe was formed in 1996, its general objective was to increase the participation of women in the film industry in the country.  I joined the organisation in 1998, at the personal request of the then Chair, the late Petronilla Munongoro, who was a Production Manager. That will always remain one of my highlights of my time with the organization—the fact that a competent woman called on another competent woman to work together in the medium. However, I quickly saw that the organisation’s goal could not be fulfilled without some sort of training or capacity building element to the programme, and most of the women who wanted to depict the things important to them in motion picture had no or little training. 

Realising this, I racked my brains for a platform from which to spring activities that gave women a chance in the industry, and sought to redress the kinds of images and messaging that women were not comfortable with. This idea took the form of a festival, which offers sponsors a platform, while at the same time enables them to contribute to worthwhile projects. The festival was the woman-centred International Images Film Festival for Women, whose first edition was in 2002. The festival features films with a female protagonist in line with a festival theme that is decided on each year. As I had hoped, we were able to stage other events in addition to the main festival. These other events include outreach programmes to communities that cannot reach the festival; training seminars, which produced the above-mentioned film on child sexual abuse Peretera Maneta (Spell My Name). WFOZ membership is increasing, especially amongst young women, who realise that moving images in this day of the Internet offer a career path. The enthusiasm that has stemmed from young women, and international filmmakers who have heard about the orgnisation as well as some who have attended the festival and met the women of WFOZ, has led to some remarkable developments.

One of these is the quarterly newsletter, WILD TRACK. We came up with the name to incorporate the idea that women are still not in the mainstream with respect to the medium, no matter how institutions speak about the woman question. The situation of women with respect to film sounds 19th century, and from the point of view of a woman filmmaker it is. Few countries have significant percentages of women in the industry. Fewer countries still have quotas of money spent in the industry going to women according to their equivalence in the population. Wild Track talks about all the activities of Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe. It talks about films members make, such as the recently released documentary by Porcia Mudavanhu, Ungochani (Homosexuality). Wild Track presents the far-reaching successes of Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe. There are so many of these successes, besides the festival and productions like Ungochani (Homosexuality) and Peretera Maneta (Spell My Name).

We have interns from various institutions each year vying for places in the office. Sometimes the departments of these institutions ask us to contribute to their planning. Then WFOZ members interact with the communities through our outreach screenings and subsequent discussions. Our films are invited to festivals, or members are invited to conferences. The important feedback from these events is included in the newsletter. Finally, we strive to continue our training programmes. Any news on training, whether our own seminar, or seminars by other organisations that our members or interns attend, are also included in Wild Track. Naturally, we also feature our current productions. Wild Track is a kind of barometer on the local film industry, as few events of note take place without a WOFZ member, or a person who is connected to WOFZ, being involved in some way. I always say it is hard to find, at the present moment, a film in Zimbabwe that is being shot without someone who has learnt something from periods spent at either WFOZ, or its sister organisation, Nyerai films.  I do not think this is an exaggeration. It would be great for us if someone could do the research and verify. 

International Images Film Festival for Women in Harare (IIFF) created in 2002, of which you are founder and director, is significant in its scope and vision. One important interest of the Festival is to mine visual representation, in particular, of African women. It is exciting to see this critical engagement with the critique of the image. How was IIFF conceptualize and what are some of its goals and objectives? 

IIFF was founded in 2002, a year which saw a proliferation of beauty contests in Zimbabwe and in the southern African region. We resolved to question society’s reduction of women to the object of the gaze, where the gaze is male and leads to male gratification. This time-honoured theoretical maxim is a starting point, which needed to be taken further in the Zimbabwean context, where many other possibilities of oppression beyond the male gaze existed. These ideas of the male gaze and making a narrative in film that does not rely on the male gaze are very foreign to just about the whole world. This is why it was particularly exciting when I was invited to take part in a meeting of African Women Filmmakers last year (2010), organised by the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg. As I understood it, the purpose of the meeting was to come up with some concrete and specific programmes that would contribute to the voice of women filmmakers on the African continent. This has also been the aim of Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe, although WFOZ confined itself initially to Zimbabwe and then to the region and only thereafter to the continent. 

In any case, the meeting organised by the Goethe Institute was immensely stimulating to the continental and Diaspora filmmakers and film theorists who attended. The gathering formulated a manifesto that requested proper gender desks at all media outlets as well as 50% of funding for any media related exercise to be directed towards female players. This request was made to be in line with SADC quotas on women’s representation in decision making, since the filmmakers were aware of how often the role of the media is ignored in decision making issues. The meeting to ratify the manifesto was duly held at IIFF 2010, with delegates from Africa and European countries. We have so far received a small grant from the Urgent Action Fund. We have put in proposals for more funds for our advocacy in this regard, amongst our other activities.

Your doctoral studies in African Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin, I am intrigued by the proposed title of your thesis, "The exotic has always already been known: changing the content of the black signifier as a means of improving reception of African films." Please talk about the research, your findings and the contributions you would like it to make to African cinema studies.

I have not completed my doctoral thesis, but I am hoping to find the means to do so. The idea for this research was inspired by the work on gender as a signifier in film, particularly the work of Laura Mulvey. My reading of Mulvey was that biological differences correspond to systematic differences with respect to how individuals are portrayed in film stories. According to Mulvey, the man is portrayed as the dominant character, while the female has no significance in herself in film narrative, but is only represented as an object of male gratification. This immediately said to me that the female is only represented as a figment of the male imagination. I thought one could expand the categories of difference beyond sexual difference, or even gender difference, to incorporate other aspects of difference. For me, these other categories of difference mean also race. However, I think Mulvey’s analysis can be extended to any other category of social difference such as class, or sexual difference, or indeed religious faith. What strikes me about Mulvey’s theory is that it gives us mechanisms for analysing outcomes of certain interactions based on the degree of difference or similarity of the players.  If that is unintelligible, that is precisely what I want to articulate in my research.

Thirty-one years after independence, twenty-three years after your novel Nervous Conditions, a quintessential discourse on post-colonial identity, how would you assess Zimbabwean culture today and what are your hopes for its future, especially as it relates to cinema culture.

In my opinion, the average Zimbabwean has become more desperate in the years since independence in 1980. Desperation is never a good state to be in because then one lets oneself open to all sorts of attacks which one would not otherwise give in to. Zimbabwe has indeed opened itself wide to attacks from the international community that would never have been launched against us thirty one years ago. Zimbabweans are accused of wholesale corruption from the bottom to the top. We are accused of poor fiscal management at government level. This poor fiscal management translates into either ignorance or wholesale corruption. Zimbabwe is accused of human rights abuse. We are accused of sabotaging our own economy and of defying international protocol. The list is endless. All the accusations can be traced to a single problem. This problem is called lack of morality in global parlance.  It is a lack of ‘unhu’ in the languages understood in Zimbabwe, or a lack of ‘ubuntu’ in the wider languages of our region. 

So I think, yes, we in Zimbabwe have lost the knowledge in the intervening thirty years of what it means to be human, to be ‘munhu’, and have humanity, ‘unhu’. We have listened too much to propaganda that tells us about our own inhuman destructiveness. We have read too many books and seen too many films that depict us as losers in the battle of knowledge. In my opinion, Zimbabwean culture today is a culture of intimidation, fear, malice and ill won gains. I do not know of a single sector, my sector included, where rewards are given in accordance to merits, whether these rewards are given by the government or international organisations. I can only hope that the people who control Zimbabwe’s narratives and artistic output understand soon the destruction they are doing to the nation by their current practices.

Interview by Beti Ellerson, July 2011



25 July 2011

The "regard croisé” of Françoise Pfaff: Pioneer of African Cinema Studies in the United States

Françoise Pfaff, a pioneer of African Cinema Studies in the United States, has a foot in three continents—France, the Americas and Africa. Fourteen years after our conversation in 1997, which was published in Sisters of the Screen: Women of Africa on Film Video and Television (2000) we reconvene to talk about her work since then, as well as return to some of the topics discussed.

Françoise, you have multiple identities and ties to three continents! Please talk about how this all began.

I was born in France of Guadeloupean and Alsatian parentage. I was destined to cross continents and countries because of my origins. My father, who was from Guadeloupe, enrolled in the military—which enabled him to go up the social ladder—and retired at the rank of lieutenant. This was pretty good for a colonized person, since at the time Guadeloupe was a colony and not a département. My mother, who was born in Alsace, was a beautician and owned a hair salon in Paris. Alsace is at the eastern border of France between France and Germany, so it is interesting how my father came from Guadeloupe, from the west and my mother from east to west and they met in Paris.

What was very interesting about my mother’s hair salon was that, though originally it had a white clientele, eventually it catered to black people. Located next to a dance hall called Madinina, several black people came to the shop and asked my mother to do their hair. Since she was already familiar with the hot iron and knew how to wave and curl, they showed her how to use it on their hair. Little by little this clientele grew and her white clientele diminished. Not necessarily for racial reasons. She had a hair salon that catered to men and women and the barbershop had a mixture of black and white men. Because she did not have state-of-the-art equipment to do permanents and other styles in fashion she specialized in black hair and enjoyed it. She had many friends among her clientele and spoke highly of them. I don’t think that she had any prejudice. She came from the province, she was not from Paris.

I am talking about the hair salon because there were important people who frequented it. My mother often talked about Stellio who blew in his clarinet. I learned later he was one of the bassist of Martinican and Guadeloupean music in Paris, who created his own style. And in her belongings, I found a picture of Stellio that he dedicate to her. She also had as a client, Madame Eboué, the wife of Félix Eboué, as well as Susanne Césaire, the first wife of Aimé Césaire, and who was herself a writer and journalist. Still another client was the daughter of the Eboué’s who would become the first wife of Leopold Senghor. She spoke highly of the Nardal sisters—one a musician and the other a journalist—referring to them with a lot of respect. And I say that because to my mother, who was white, the idea of race was not important. This was crucial in my upbringing. I knew that if I were black and different, I was as intelligent as everybody else. It was not an impediment. Because her customers were also part of the black intelligentsia and were successful.

When I came to the shop as a child I would see all these people from the Caribbean and West Africa which I think had an influence on me in seeking my roots later on—visiting Guadeloupe and writing a book about Maryse Condé and then seeking knowledge about Africa via film. Though I did not know it at the time, my mother exposed me to a multi-cultural, multi-lingual environment and showed me the respect for black culture and the pride in being black. So I think her background is very important for me to talk about. 

You studied literature and cinema at Université de Paris VII, what were some of the highlights.

Well I wanted to be a doctor but did not do well in chemistry. I also thought that I was destined to be a hairdresser so I went to beauty school and got certified but did not like it.  Back at the university I attended film classes with critic Michel Ciment who used American cinema to explore American society. That was very exciting to me, perhaps even more than exploring it through literature, though I did that too. And this had an influence on what I would do later at Howard University, teach Africa through film, in the same way that he taught America through film.

What was the focus of your doctoral dissertation?

My dissertation was on the portrayal of Black Americans in film, especially during the “blaxploitation” era. And every time I got a chance I would do research on Black culture. I remember writing about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and other topics regarding Africa and African American culture.

So your experiences with “le regard croisé”(cross-cultural perspectives) in relationship to African-American culture started early?

Well among the black intelligentsia who went to my mother’s beauty shop was [the Black American painter] Lois Mailou Jones.  They met before the Second World War when Lois was studying at l’Academie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris through a scholarship. While in a taxi she asked the driver, while showing him her hair, if he knew of a place where she could get her hair done. He told her he knew just the place. As my mother was known as the hairdresser who did black people’s hair in the 30’s in Paris, he took her there. And that was the beginning of a long friendship between my mother and Lois Mailou Jones. And during the war of course she did not return. She came back when she was able to and visited my mother. They remained friends until Lois’s death.

What brought you to the United States to teach?

I first came to the United States to teach French at Bates College in Maine as a teaching assistant for a year. Afterwards, Lois, who was a professor at Howard University at the time looked into a possibility for me to teach there. The next year I was hired as a sabbatical replacement in the French Department. I enjoyed the experience, amazed to see an institution [HBCU-Historically Black College and University] run by black people because I never saw that before. I went back to France and taught on the high school level and realized this was not what I wanted to do. Then I applied both in Africa and at Howard University. I was accepted to work in Côte d’Ivoire but got cold feet, and since I was also accepted back at Howard I went there to teach, and the rest in history as here I am in the United States some thirty years later, where I feel that I have more freedom in my teaching. We can return again to my mother’s beauty shop where I met Lois, which brought me to Howard University.

How did you develop an interest in African cinema?

It happened when I met Ousmane Sembene at Howard University around 1976 where he was invited to speak. I saw his film Black Girl which was screened on campus, and that was my first exposure to African film. I was very impressed and wanted to know more, to see more of his films. I received a grant to do research in Senegal where I interviewed Sembene, resulting in my first book, The Cinema of Ousmane Sembene: A Pioneer of African Cinema, published in 1984. Afterwards, people coined me as the specialist of Sembene. Then I researched other filmmakers, which gave birth to my second book, Twenty-five Black African Filmmakers. That was the beginning the virus of my interest in African cinema and I incorporated this new knowledge in my teaching.  My colleagues were rather skeptical, not aware of the power of film as a pedagogical tool to teach culture, literature, politics, economics, etc. In 1978, I started my first classes in African cinema, at the graduate level in French, and at the undergraduate level in English, having decided that I would teach the class in English to get a larger audience. And in all modesty the classes are full, to the extent that a second person was hired to teach among other courses, a second section of the class. People are very visual these days, they are into video, the Internet and they appreciate the course. African Americans strangely enough, are rather limited in their knowledge of Africa and they discover all sorts of things through the course.  And very humbly speaking, I think that my main contribution at Howard University has been teaching African culture through film. And I think that has been something very important in terms of my relationship to Africa. 

You are a pioneer in African Cinema Studies in the United States.

It is true I wrote the first book about an African filmmaker in English. I have talked at many conferences and film forums in the United States and get many request to speak and to do articles on African cinema. I suppose I am a daughter of the oral tradition, people say that I know how to lecture, I don’t know if that is true, but I have done a lot of that, in addition to teaching a lot of French. I define myself as someone versed in African Studies and African Film Studies. 

How would you compare African Cinema Studies in the United States, Africa and Europe.

France has a tremendous library of African cinema and has been at the forefront of African cinema for a very long time. They systematically keep a copy of the films that they have helped finance. There is also a very good collection of books on African film there. Though I don’t believe African film studies is incorporated in university studies in France as it is in the United States, where a lot of French Departments incorporate Francophone films in their programs. Africa is the “parent pauvre” (poor parent) in this regard and when I went to do research recently in Senegal, I was amazed to see how little the African youth know about African cinema. You are familiar with the problems of distribution of African films. Well these young people grew up on Indian, American and French films but not African films. Perhaps they have seen Mandabi, Xala, a few films by Sembene, but they don’t know African cinema as a whole. And it was interesting when I interviewed young African filmmakers, the new generation, how they deplored that lack of an African cinema culture.  So they have to create their own base and feel that if they knew more about what their predecessors had done, that it would help them produce new styles and perhaps save them some time. I visited the school, IESS-Institut supérieur de l'image et du son/studio école in Ouagadougou when I was at FESPACO [2011] and I see that there is an effort to establish film schools. And now President Wade in Senegal is trying to establish a pan-African Cinema Center in the outskirts of Dakar. Obviously Africa is still very poor in African film studies. Now of course there is the South African film library initiative, which I hope will help African film studies in Africa.

And among Francophone and Anglophone regions?

Some people make a dichotomy between Francophone and Anglophone African cinema. I don’t think the dichotomy is as rigid as some people want to believe. People say that Francophone cinema is more art cinema and Anglophone cinema is more commercial, with of course, Nollywood. People say that the Nigerians have found the key to successful commercial film within Nollywood. Well if I look at the history of Francophone African cinema I can see people like Momar Thiam, Tidiane Aw, with their films Le bracelet de bronze, or Bacs, those were very successful films, they were really exploring a commercial vein of action film. Well, for me to say that Nollywood has invented those action films, those commercially viable films is not quite true. I would compare them now today to films made for DVD produced in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania. What is a bit annoying is they use the same recipe over and over and over again. Nollywood film themes are based on money, the supernatural, basically some femme fatale, which causes the destruction of the male protagonist. It is a kind of assembly line. They found a formula and repeat it ad vitam aeternam and maybe out of this repetition one day you will have here and there a good film. Maybe it is making money for the producers but I don’t think it is making a tremendous contribution to African cinema. Maybe one day when there is more sophistication in the production, in the storytelling, in the scriptwriting, you will end up with a good film. You may say that I am biased but I thing that Francophone films up to now are of better quality. 

You have written or edited several books on African cinema, what have been your experiences?

The first book on Sembene, at the time it was extremely difficult to find a publisher because no one had heard about African cinema [in the United States]. I think now looking back, it is the one that I am the proudest of because it was groundbreaking. And people consider it as a classic in African Cinema Studies. During my research, Sembene gave me a lot of his time. Sometimes he challenged my questions. Not only did I ask questions, but he asked me questions as well. And you had better be prepared! He was kind of unforgiving when he found that you had not done your preparation. But when he realized that you were serious, then he responded adequately to your request for an interview.

For Twenty-five Black African Filmmakers I decided to pick the 25 filmmakers that I liked and the films that I liked. I know that it is a very biased way to select movies to make a book but that is what I did.  I tried to have various people throughout the continent in order to be representative. Though the bulk were Francophone, there were representatives from East and South Africa and Anglophone regions. It was commissioned by the same publisher as my first book, Greenwood Press.

The next book, Focus on African Films (2004), I asked colleagues to contribute to the collection. You were one of them with your article on Safi Faye.  I thought it would be a breeze, though perhaps it was more difficult than those that I wrote myself. So I decided for future works I would do it on my own (laughter). I am using it as a textbook for my African Cinema class. And while it is again heavily Francophone, I tried to give a bird’s eye view of African cinema. Since I did not know about all of the regions in Africa, I also asked colleagues who were knowledgeable about different regions to contribute.

The last book, L’ecoute du cinema senegalais/In Tune with African Cinema (2010) emerged from my research as a Fulbright Scholar in Senegal. You notice Aicha Thiam, a woman, on the cover of the book. Recently there has been the coming of more women in Senegal, where as before there was only Safi Faye. There is a new wave of women in African cinema that will bring their own contribution, their own topics, their own worldview, in an otherwise all male field.

I think my books have provided an archive. They will remain and continue to be read after I am gone. So that is my contribution to the exposure of African culture through the study of African film. I have always felt that the image of Africa has been betrayed by western cinema and this is what has pushed me to do this work.

A conversation with Françoise Pfaff and Beti Ellerson, July 2011

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07 July 2011

Wanjiru Kairu: A Portrait

Wanjiru Kairu
Wanjiru Kairu speaks about what inspired her to be a filmmaker, the Kenyan film industry, and her latest work Weakness.

Wanjiru, could talk a bit about yourself?
I’m a lover of art. From an early age, I always found myself drawn to a wide range of artistic expression for the reason that it informs, investigates and challenges our beliefs. Art simply put, inspires us to find solutions or create the alternative. I paint on occasion, write a lot, and about 5 years ago, I eventually combined these talents into making films.

How did you come to filmmaking? What were your experiences with cinema growing up in Kenya?
Before I made films I loved watching them. I didn’t really think about the process concerning how they got made, that is, until my sister started working in the Kenyan film industry.

Post college I happily found myself writing copy. However, a couple of months of “the client wants us to tone it down”, I got out of the AD world and went right into making films. The transition was quite simple. I would write screenplays instead of copy and sell my product which had now taken the shape of a film and not spare car parts.

Locally, Wanjiru Kinyanjui, Judy Kibinge and Willie Owusu are some of the filmmakers that inspired me to tell our own stories, remember our histories, and be bold enough to create our future.

A scene from Weakness by Wanjiru Kairu
Your latest film Weakness has travelled internationally at film festivals and has been well received. What inspired the topic of the film and what were some of the highlights during the film production?
Weakness came together when I met writer/executive producer Abdu Simba on an MNET commissioned series that producer Ekwa Msangi-Omari had created.

Abdu had originally crafted Weakness for the stage after a quick adaptation, asked me whether I was interested in working on a short he wanted to produce. It was beautifully written, with rich and dynamic characters. The script had me in at “Fade In”.

Making the film was a wonderful experience. The film’s actor Maqbul Mohammed  was nominated for a 2010 Kalasha Award for Best Supporting Actor, and it was nominated for a 2011 African Movie Academy Award as Best Short Film.

What have been the reactions of the audiences regarding the film?
I feel honoured that the film has reached many audiences. The reception that Weakness has received has been overwhelmingly good. I’ve had people ask for a sequel. 

Your production company, One Boy Productions, what is its mission and objectives?
One Boy Productions is a Nairobi-based audio-visual production house that offers full support services for both international and local clients. Our competence areas are in the production of television shows, commercials, PSA’S, documentaries, corporate videos, among others.
Oneboy’s key objective is to empower Africans in developing their skills in front of and behind the camera.
Kenyan Cinema is increasingly visible in Africa and internationally, what role would you like to play to ensure an even larger place in world cinema?
My goal is to keep doing what I do only doing it better. The films I make have got to be compelling, original and successful in promoting dialogue on social issues.

Future projects?
Plenty. I’m currently developing my first feature screenplay and collaborating with others in their film and television projects.

Interview by Beti Ellerson, July 2011

Synopsis

Nicky, an alcoholic on the road to recovery has a problem. Severely in debt to his belligerent older brother Robbie, Nicky needs yet another loan to tide him over, on this occasion to pay the fees for his teenage daughter, Lola, to attend college. But when the sibling rivalry boils over, the brothers get more than they bargained for.

Links
Weakness on Riverflix