The Cinema of Women from Francophone Africa by Stéphanie Dongmo. Published 7 December 2012 on Le Blog de Stéphanie Dongmo. Translation from French by Beti Ellerson.
They were present in front of the camera at the beginning of African film productions and since the 1970s they were present behind it as well, though they remain relatively unknown. In order to highlight the work of these women in the profession, an international colloquium on 40 years of francophone African women filmmakers was held in Paris the 23-24 November 2012 at the Quai Branly Museum and the National Library of France. An occasion to review the history of the cinemas of African women and their challenges.
Historically the first film by an African francophone woman is Tam-tam à Paris, a short film by Cameroonian Thérèse Sita Bella (1933-2006), made in 1963. The cinema of African francophone women is, therefore, 49 years old. However, the colloquium focused on the pioneer Sarah Maldoror of Guadeloupe for her film Sambizanga, which focused on Angola and was released in 1972. Brigitte Rollet, organiser of the colloquium explained that the film by Sarah Maldoror was renown and available to the public, unlike the film by Sita Bella, which is virtually unknown.
Feminist struggles across the globe
Beti Ellerson, the Director of the Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema, presented an historical account of African women in cinema: "going beyond all the reasons that they were not successful, were discouraged or did not even dare to dream, passionate about their work, they continued, and said yes" [translator's edited version]. In 1963, Thérèse Sita Bella directed "a film that is often talked about but has never been seen". After playing a role in the film Petit à petit by Jean Rouch released in 1971, the Senegalese Safi Faye directed the short film La passante in 1972, and the feature documentary Peasant Letter in 1975.
Before this period, Sarah Maldoror, African by adoption, directed the short film Monagambee in Algiers in 1969. Released in 1972, her feature film Sambizanga focuses on the death by torture of Domingos Xavier, a militant of the Angola liberation movement, and especially his wife’s struggle to find him. According to Beti Ellerson, Sarah Maldoror contributed to the liberation cinema in Africa and is a reference for numerous African women filmmakers. At the end of the 1970s and in the 1980s women of the Maghreb emerged, such as Algerian Assia Djebar with her film La Nouba des Femmes du Mont-Chenoua in 1977 and Moroccan Farida Benlyazid with Une porte sur le ciel in 1988.
In 1991 the PanAfrican Union of Women Professionals of the Image was created at Fespaco with the objective to promote realistic visual representation of women and parity in all areas of film production.
As Beti Ellerson noted the emergence of cinema in Africa coincided with the independence movements of the 1960, when Africans re-appropriated the camera to counter the colonial gaze. During the 1980s women focused on the development and empowerment of women. During the 1990s, taking distance from western feminism, non-western women and women of colour focused their attention on issues more pertinent to their realities.
Presently, many African women who live and work outside the continent embrace a cinema without borders, which in some cases focus on non-African related themes. In the case of the Ivorian Isabelle Boni-Claverie, she has not yet directed a film in Africa. Moreover, Cameroonian Oswalde Lewat has made films outside of Africa about the Amerindians of Canada and students in film schools in Israel.
Many yet invisible
Jean-Marie Barbe, director of training at Africadoc, noted that there are as many women as men who enter into documentary filmmaking in Africa: "it is specific to this genre perhaps because men dominate fiction and the documentary is more open with more user-friendly tools." Even though there are many women who enter documentary filmmaking, they are not very visible. Jackie Buet, director of the International Women's Film Festival of Créteil notes the lack of openness to women at festivals. In 2012, for example, there was not one film by a woman at Cannes. Moreover, a petition was launched in May 2012 to protest against this absence in the official competition. And it is worth noting that since its creation in 1969 no woman has ever won the Yennenga Stallion, the grand prize of Fespaco.
According to Jackie Buet the fault lies in a critique that remains stagnant and in a global society that transmits demeaning images of women. Brigitte Rollet agrees, adding that "even though there are more and more women filmmakers, it is still the idea that cinema is a male activity...women filmmakers have been marginalised in the history books of cinema...there is the fact that women have not been integrated into African cinema…Cinema is a costly art, and producers are even more hesitant to finance a high-budget film directed by a woman. This is a situation that African women filmmakers share with numerous women filmmakers in the West."
A women's cinema?
Regarding the question of the existence of a women’s cinema the debates were lively during the colloquium. Tunisian Nadia El Fani claims that there is: “one most not close one’s eyes to the fact, it is not true that there is no difference between a film by a woman and a film by a man. Especially with a documentary,men that I film do not react on camera in the same manner when filmed by a man. As a woman filmmaker the difficulty comes from the fact that we live in an unequal patriarchal society as it relates to gender. We cannot hide this fact, we are still fighting at the present for women’s rights around the world.” Rahmatou Keita from Niger admits to having a woman’s perspective, which comes from a certain proximity with her subject if it is a woman. Senegalese Rama Thiaw, while rejecting having a woman’s imaginary is more balanced even though she acknowledges that “as a woman, and even more so as an African woman, it is very complicated to make a film as it relates to our culture, to our role as a woman, and what is expected of us. We must fight twice as hard.” For Oswalde Lewat, for a woman making a film, people are not neutral: “while there is not a woman’s cinema, but men are considered more legitimate as filmmakers.”
Sarah Maldoror transcends this debate asserting that problems of women filmmakers are those of African cinema in general, that of training, funding and distribution: “We must stop begging for funding and finance our own films. When there is an African film in the cinema houses, we should be the first ones there, to learn about our culture. If we don’t do so we are at fault. For Isabelle Boni-Claverie, films with black actors and by black filmmakers should have access to general distribution, and if this were the case, there would no longer be a question of a man’s cinema or a woman’s cinema.