Bronwen Pugsley recently completed her doctoral studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK. In a interview with Beti Ellerson she talks about her thesis “The Practice of Documentary: Filmmaking by Women in Sub-Saharan Africa” elaborating on the choice of theme, methodology, theoretical framework and her findings.
Bronwen, how did your interest evolved into your current research in African women in cinema?
I first became interested in African screen media when I was a Master’s student, researching African women’s writing. This was already the subject of much scholarly work and constituted a discipline in its own right, but I observed that the same could not be said for African women’s cinematic work, in particular their documentaries. I was intrigued by this discrepancy and watched a selection of their films, which I found to be both extremely engaging and skilful. My doctoral thesis was therefore born of the contrast between the wide range of African women’s documentaries and the limited critical attention they had received.
The scope and limitation of the study was Francophone African women filmmakers. Why this choice?
I decided to write about the documentary work of African women because scholarship and criticism had focused disproportionately on the fiction films of their male counterparts. This gender and genre bias wrongly suggests that these women’s documentary films are somehow less interesting or challenging. This was very different from my own observations and so it became important to reclaim these disregarded films for academic interest. I chose to focus on Francophone sub-Saharan African countries because of what they have in common in terms of the origins and current conditions of filmmaking. I wanted to explore the range of documentary practices that had developed within this specific postcolonial space.
You chose fifteen films by Francophone sub-Saharan African women filmmakers, ranging from 1975 to 2009, what were the factors in your choice of films?
One of my objectives was to shed light on some of the major trends and evolutions within documentary filmmaking by women from Francophone Africa. I therefore included in the corpus films from the 1970s by the pioneer Safi Faye; films from the 1990s by Anne Laure Folly; and others, made around the turn of the twenty-first century, by Angèle Diabang, Katy Léna Ndiaye, Khady Sylla, and Rama Thiaw for example. These more recent films dominated my corpus because I felt it was essential to discuss documentaries that had received little or no academic attention. Sadly, availability was also a determinant factor, since not all documentaries by African women are released in cinemas, broadcast on television, or distributed commercially.
What were your research question and premise?
The overall aim of my doctoral project was to uncover the diversity of documentary voices by African women and demonstrate that their films are formally innovative, radical, and politically challenging. These filmmakers reclaim the responsibility of representing African narratives and experiences, and seek to challenge Westerners’ preconceptions of Africa and Africans, as well as the texts that have shaped these expectations. Their films challenge our knowledge of African social issues and cultural phenomena, as well as our expectations of documentary itself. They invite questions about how information can be conveyed to the viewer, how audiences can be engaged, and also draw attention to the elusiveness of the boundary between fiction and fact.
What was your methodology?
I chose to carry out close textual readings of the films to bring into focus questions of form. Many studies of African women’s documentary work engage primarily with questions of content, which is undeniably useful but also overlooks the films’ aesthetic properties in favour of what they convey about African cultures and societies. Because the films in my corpus are documentaries, that is to say films that appear to offer their audiences a direct access to the real, this is a problem that affects them more than other types of screen media. I wanted to shift the focus towards questions of documentary form, to show that the filmmakers engage and experiment with style and aesthetics, and that, in so doing, they reinvent the conventions of documentary filmmaking.
Your theoretical framework?
The films were analysed using the framework of documentary theory, which is currently experiencing a revival of interest. Although the field has expanded and evolved since the 1990s, it is still predominantly concerned with Western documentary, at the expense of African documentary. Exploring notions such as documentary modes, questions of ethics, and viewing experiences, I wanted to identify what might be specific about African women’s documentary practices. It was also important to avoid the indiscriminate imposition of Western paradigms. So, part of the project was to test whether and how the models developed for the study of Western documentary were fully adequate or, instead, were challenged by this new context of application
The documentary has been the dominant genre of African women since their emergence in cinema. What were your findings in terms of trends and tendencies during the four decades?
Documentary continues to be a favourite medium of cinematic expression for Francophone sub-Saharan women. This can be partly explained by the fact that documentary is more affordable than fiction, and therefore more accessible in a context where funding opportunities are limited. Documentary is also a powerful tool for addressing social or political issues, and was mainly used as such up until the late 1990s. Around the turn of the century, we witnessed a partial shift from social to cultural phenomena, as African women filmmakers started making ethnographic films of a new kind: their approach to anthropology is often formally and politically reflexive rather than scientific, and they use cultural phenomena to construct a discourse. Around the same time, there was a clear rise of the personal, as filmmakers appeared increasingly in the voice-over and on screen, and shaped films that reflected their subjective perspectives. This has led to the emergence of an autobiographical genre, with films by Alice Diop, Monique Phoba Mbeka, and Khady Sylla, for example. This evolution towards the personal is particularly interesting to compare with the work of women writers from Francophone sub-Saharan Africa, who began by publishing literary autobiographies in the 1970s and subsequently moved away from personal narratives to produce more outwardly focused literary works.
Within the documentary genre have you discerned specificities in theme, approach, attitude?
There are many striking commonalities between the documentary films of Francophone sub-Saharan Africa women. Many of them consciously write against the grain of a Western gaze and strive to offer engaging analyses of complex personal and collective issues. Their films are often highly personal and draw attention to the subjective nature of representation. It is clear that they turn to documentary as a result of a personal interest, and sometimes even out of necessity: there is a therapeutic dimension to some of these documentaries. Many of their films are socially, culturally, and/or politically committed, but instead of focusing on anonymous and helpless victims of extreme hardship, as Western films about Africa often do, these filmmakers innovate by bringing to the screen everyday experiences. They also prefer to focus on individuals rather than the group and, in so doing, bring the viewer closer to the lived experience. They are nevertheless careful to avoid intrusion and it is apparent that they seek to make films with, and sometimes for, their subjects, rather than simply about them. Finally, there is an effort to depart from the didactic, since they privilege open and sometimes abstract textual strategies, which empower the viewers and invite them to do the interpretive work.
African women filmmakers come to cinema from various disciplines and backgrounds; do you find these varying experiences to have influenced their theme, approach, cinematic sensibility? How would you frame this interdisciplinarity?
The filmmakers’ respective professional backgrounds are clearly influential in shaping their documentary practices. For example, those with experience in journalism, such as Oswalde Lewat-Hallade and Katy Léna Ndiaye, view cinema as an extension of, rather than a break with, reporting. Their documentary practices are characterised by an investigative impulse, which encourages them to travel into social and cultural spaces that are foreign to them. On the other hand, Safi Faye, whose background is in anthropology, makes films that are strongly inflected with her interest in ethnology. Her early films broke with the codes and conventions of traditional ethnography by initiating a form of indigenous ethnofiction that remains inspirational to this day. Another notable approach to film is that of the writer Khady Sylla, whose documentaries, like her published novel Le Jeu de la mer (1992), privilege formal creativity. In Une Fenêtre ouverte, for example, she uses cinematic imperfections, such as overexposed footage, to convey her experience as a sufferer of mental illness.
Safi Faye has insisted on the non-distinction between documentary and fiction in her work. Did you find similar attitudes during your research? How widespread is this notion?
Interestingly, although Safi Faye dismisses the notion of distinct strands of filmmaking separated by inflexible boundaries, she doesn’t refute the actual existence of documentary or fiction as genres. Rather, she seems to interrogate how they are best defined and suggests that there may be points of interaction between them. This attitude is relatively widespread and other high-profile filmmakers, such as Valérie Kaboré, Fanta Régina Nacro, and Khady Sylla, have produced films that exploit both documentary and fiction, and play on their points of departure and synergy. Their docufictions sustain the notion that documentary and fiction operate on a continuum, and deconstruct the reductive dichotomy that opposes these media on the basis of their respective claims on the real, production methods and techniques, and the viewing experiences they provide. It is much more useful to consider, as these filmmakers do, that each individual text constructs relationships with both factual and fictional discourses.
There is a blurring of boundaries as women tackle issues beyond their home countries and as African women in the Diaspora deal with concerns relevant to the country in which they reside and or are citizens. Some reflections on these tendencies and themes?
It is interesting that the first film made by a woman filmmaker from Francophone sub-Saharan Africa, Thérèse Sita-Bella’s Un Tam-tam à Paris (1963), was the product of an encounter, since it chronicled Cameroon’s National Dance Company’s Paris tour. Since then, African women have used their films to traverse cultural, linguistic, or gender barriers. These films often position their directors as insiders and outsiders to the spaces into which they travel. For example, in Les Sénégalaises et la Sénégauloise (2007), Alice Diop is both a family member and a cultural outsider to her relatives living in Dakar. Likewise, in En attendant les hommes (2008), Katy Léna Ndiaye emphasises her cultural otherness but also manages to establish with her subjects a close contact based on gender. These examples, I believe, suggest that many African women documentary filmmakers seek shared experiences that could transcend otherness.
Overall reflections on the future of African women and the documentary?
Although the cinematic work of African women remains on the margins of global filmmaking, it is gaining in visibility and popularity, as is evidenced, for example, by the recent ‘Women and Film in Africa’ conference (University of Westminster, London, 19–20 November 2011). This trend will hopefully crystallise as digital technologies become widely available. These have already been credited with energising global documentary making, as they enable filmmakers to experiment with new styles, subject matters, and notions of authorship. In particular, recent technological evolutions provide filmmakers with the means to shoot, edit, distribute, exhibit, and advertise films at much lower costs; this foreshadows new possibilities for the future of African women’s filmmaking.
Interview with Bronwen Pugsley by Beti Ellerson, June 2012.
Sommaire en français: http://africanwomenincinema.blogspot.com/2012/06/bronwen-pugsley-la-recherche-sur-les.html