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.

22 May 2014

Monique Mbeka Phoba: "Sister Oyo", the importance of social media, and the Kisskissbankbank crowdfunding campaign

Monique Mbeka Phoba, scriptwriter, director and producer of the film Sœur Oyo | Sister Oyo talks about her passionate experiences during the film production, the importance of social media, and her crowdfunding campaign. Interview and translation from French by Beti Ellerson.

Monique, I have followed this film since the creation of the Short Film Soeur Oyo Facebook Page in July 2013—the casting, the filming, the rehearsals, the photos of the making of…Would you talk about the evolution of the film—what inspired you to make it?

The title of the film, "Sister Oyo," which means in Lingala, in a slightly pejorative manner: "That sister there." So there is a kind of subtext, which would be: "This sister there, is she really what she appears to be?".

I probably got the idea for the film "Sister Oyo," the first time I realized that my mother could have been one of those little black girls seen in the famous film, The Nun’s Story (1959) by Fred Zinnemann, starring Audrey Hepburn. In fact, she lived for some time at a boarding school, in contact with Belgian nuns... And, furthermore Audrey Hepburn also played the role of a Belgian nun.

During the colonial period, the boarding school of the Sacred Heart of Mbanza-Mboma, in the province of Bas-Congo, created in 1947, had long been the only institution where Congolese schoolgirls could take their studies in French and not in a Congolese language. Unlike other African colonies under the British or French administration, where learning the language of the settlers was a sine qua non of education, the majority of Congolese children studied in their original language. Therefore, to receive instruction in French and learn to speak it fluently was considered a must. As the only institution of its kind, the boarding school of Mbanza-Mboma therefore received schoolgirls from across the country, and to be able to have their offspring admitted there was evidence of the social mobility coveted by the évolués. 

But who were these évolués? This category of Congolese made a lot of hullabaloo at the end of the Second World War, telling the Belgian colonial authorities who then ruled the country, that they would lose a lot for not treating them differently from the masses of other Congolese who were considered "uncivilized", to use the demeaning language that was current at the time...

In spite of this, my mother, a child and woman among the évolués, has hardly spoken to me about it. She attended the boarding school of Mbanza-Mboma a few years before her marriage and told me anecdotes, like the story of the snake that got into their dormitory... And so I said to myself as I was watching these “exotic” Hollywood films, without thinking much beyond that pleasure of enjoying a good story: "This is my mother, by the way, who is being filmed in this manner..." And hence this change of perspective was stunning for me!

I began to question these inter-perspectives: mine regarding this schoolgirl that was my mother, this colonial era during which she lived and which continues to be present within her and the Congo, these imposing white nuns, with their amazing headdress, the perspectives of the Belgian nuns toward their students, but also on the male and Congolese bodies which surrounded them.

God, the Devil, the Virgin Mary, angels, the colonial order and the hymns in the background, all in the heart of darkness of a rainforest...

I thought there was something on the order of a Devil's cauldron in the process of boiling, reducing to smoke the pretense and false appearances. And that from there, all the essentials could then appear: these human beings, without the stamp of their label, who were they, who are they now? So if on one beautiful day God and the Devil came face to face in the forest, taking hostage the body of a nun who discovers she is also a woman, in this microcosm imbued in incommunicability and racial hierarchy, what would be called into question?

In short, seeking the unofficial history and corpses in the closet, weaving together the stories of forbidden couples with anecdotes of my mother, I formed a story that I adapted into a short film.

I recall you often talking about the film production team, the crew and their significance throughout the

entire project.
Yvonne, Monique and Sister Mado

Yes, I would like to talk about my team, which has played a very important role in this film. Since 1995, my mother's sister, Yvonne Mabiala has supported me a great deal in my research. She is nine years older than me and we are very close. This is my third films for which she has made exceptional contributions. It was she who introduced me to this circle of boarding school nuns and was able to get a lot of leads, for example for housing accommodations for the crew! And above all, it was she who created the necessary conditions for the representatives of the establishment to trust in me, and who arranged access to the archives and historical anecdotes, all a forgotten history...She became a pro of the film shoots and sometimes, I have the impression that she could make a film herself: she has gone with me from documentary to fiction. Having mingled with the crew, she informed me of their state of mind. My aunt is central to a whole part of my career, this search for origins that is permanent in my life.

In addition, I benefited greatly from having as production manager the young Belgian David Ragonig, who was completed involved. He has an amazing energy and dedication. The financial records for the film were a nameless mess, and on top of it I had to direct the film. Without him, it was impossible! The respect he has shown me, while expressing his doubts and disagreements sometimes, really cemented our successful working relationship. Financially, this movie should have been a disaster, but our complementary expertise in administrative matters (he worked in wealth management and banking before deciding to embark in cinema, and I have a Masters in Business Management and a past in festival organizing) fortunately kept us out of trouble!

In terms of the young actresses, Clarisse Muvuba, the script manager, advised me to get in touch with Starlette Mathata, a well-known theatre actress in Kinshasa. For over four years she has taught theatre to children in her neighborhood on a volunteer basis. Three of her students in the film, notably the lead actress Rosie Mayungi were trained by her since the past four years and hence at 10 years old, have had a very successful professional experience. They have often played in public and were not at all awestruck by the European film crew. It was obviously an asset, simply phenomenal. Surrounded by actors from Belgium and sometimes very recognized in the profession, it was the young girls who seemed the most natural!

In terms of the cinematography team, I built it around Herman Bertiau, who is a professional photographer who I have known for over 20 years! Everyone felt that I was taking a big risk, but I love how he composes his shots, and I asked Ella Van den Hove, the director of photography, to let him choose the images, but to assist him in lighting them. While this is uncommon in the hierarchy of cinema, Ella was generous enough to accept it. And in the end, this gives the film a very unique character. Everyone talks about the beauty of the images and the photographic point of view. It was my idea that I imposed. And I'm very proud of it!

A final word about my "adult" actresses, Laura Verlinden, Sidonie Madoki and Catherine Salée were a great help, very loyal and passionate about the film, often remarkable in their performance. The only male actor, Nganji was both stills photographer and director of the making of the film; and in addition, first assistant, because he himself is a filmmaker. He got completely into it!

As far as the Congolese recruited at the country level, I have a long relationship with Clarisse Muvuba, who is emerging as one of the future filmmakers from the country. Thanks to her and her knowledge in the field, I could find very quickly the young actresses I wanted. Yannick Wawa took care of the scenery in a very satisfactory manner, he was recommended to me by Djo Munga, director of Viva Riva!. In record time my cousin Jacqueline Matoko provided all the costumes worn by the young pupils: she is also a wonderful professional.

And above all this, there is Sister Mado Diluaka, director of the boarding school of Mbanza-Mboma, who was the school monitor when my mother and my aunt Yvonne were students. The entire crew, Belgian and Congolese, loved her. As if by a miracle, she smoothed all difficulties. She is a holy woman. And here I speak not only of religion! Her openness, her human curiosity, are exceptional, and it is she who ultimately embodies the spirit of this boarding school of Mbanza-Mboma. Symbolically, she is the best endorsement that this film could have!

It was a real joint effort: the call for help to find the images of the families of the “evolués who sent their
daughters to the boarding school of Mbanza-Mboma; the call for dubbing the voice of Godelive; the call for

the promotion and dissemination of the film... Some thoughts regarding these efforts?

I made a lot of calls for help. I chose a historical film as my first fiction, and I must have been a bit delirious to take such a risk. Moreover, at some point, I was forced to take charge of the production. So in addition to the difficulty of a first fiction, the fact that it was a historical film presented a lot of constraints to the production, and to make it in the Congo, in a country where I do not habitually live and all the problems that arise from coming from Europe, and to face the full brunt of the representations of life in Europe by those who live in Africa.

Completely overwhelmed by these challenges, I was actually helped by people on Facebook: The film was practically co-produced on Facebook. At times I really expressed all my distress... And there are the people who turn their backs, refusing to help when you talk to them face to face. But who do so when they read about it on Facebook. I could not go on any longer: a doctor diagnosed that I had a deficiency in calcium, magnesium, and was concerned about my iron reserve! There were times when I felt dizzy...There was so much to manage at one time! And I knew I did not have enough money. So I raced right ahead to finish the film before the lack of money blocked me, or until I collapsed from exhaustion. I shot in August and the film was practically finished in December. But it dragged because of the little finishes. I was scared that all these efforts would not see the end and that it would drag on for years, as I often see happen with colleagues. When you have young girls in your film, you cannot say to them that the film will take years to finish. That there are important gatherings for calibration, mixing etc; this is a foreign language to them. They want to see the film; they want to show it to their family and friends. They have given me everything and I owe them the film. And not 10 years later! That's it! And so I made it happen!

Yes, I got some great photos of the families of the “evolués on Facebook. It was there also that I discovered the young girl who was dub singer of the lead actress—who sang a bit off key... I've had friends who encouraged me throughout this long journey: during the scriptwriting of the film that ran from 2011 to 2012, the research for funding, which continued even while the film was in post-production... in addition to moral and psychological support, some have taken concrete actions: Aude Hitier, a French woman who I met on FB, is the designer of this gorgeous poster, which is based on the images from the film; Georgine Dibua served as an intermediary, facilitating the meeting of former students of Mbanza-Mboma—who provided me with the stories for the script, and at present assist me in leading the after-screening discussions... and with Facebook, too, I had a flying start with my crowdfunding campaign: 41% of the goal I set in less than two weeks of the launching, it's amazing. But word-of-mouth from the preview is very positive and this has clearly helped.

What was the reception of the 3 May film preview at the Jacques Franck Cultural Centre in Brussels?

Since it was a short film, I had to search far and deep to come up with a program that would be long enough to present to the audience, at least longer than 24 minutes. So I had the idea to invite the Congolese Sacred Heart Alumnae Association in Belgium, the elderly moms between the ages of 65 and 90, who could in fact represent the young girls in the film, who are today our mothers’ and grandmothers’ age. They watched the film, examined the setting in which they had been taught, relived their emotions during that time, and were able to talk to the public. There was a certain vibration that day, which prevented the usual shrug-of-the-shoulder response to the verbosity of old ladies. The people were all ears, fixated by their words. The women had so many emotions and joy to share with such a large audience who accompanied them on the journey into their childhood... There were 247 people and we had to turn others away!

With regard to what the public thought of the film, I prefer to show you a few testimonies that I have received:

Martine Bourgeois Dantas Pereira : Congratulations to Monique, the whole crew and all the others who have been involved one way or another in this long and difficult journey...the outcome is beautiful! Two Belgian friends came out of curiosity following my posts on FB and liked the film, and the whole evening in general: presentation, discussions, and performance... Like us all longing for a feature film... there was so much in this short film: the boarding school environment, the life of the young girls far away from home and their relationship with the nuns /religion (the good and the bad!) and, at the same time, traces of their culture, education, colors and sounds (I believed it, I missed it so much) of the forest, day or night, children's games, the presence of the church and its influence during this time in the Congo, ... A part of history, period ! BUT THE FUTURE IS IN ALL OF OUR HANDS! As Monique clearly explained, the directors, filmmakers must have the means, whether it is Monique (who contributed her rock to assist others even going into her private funds, and whether she continues or not in this area there is a great admiration for one of the pioneers of the cinema of the Congo) or of those who want / wish to tell about the Congo of yesterday or today, we need your support to make our contribution and for those who have decision-making powers in Belgium and in the Congo to plan budgets, make things easier for these cultural entrepreneurs, because it is so important. Monique thank you for allowing through crowfunding to have your work supported, even modestly and here with "Sister Oyo", which has seduced us...

Achaïso Ambali: I thoroughly enjoyed the little adorable girls full of sincerity and realism, the colonial atmosphere of the missionary sisters (Naphtalene outright, we believed it)... the temptation of the flesh for the Belgian nuns (an often hidden reality: some have also given birth to bi-racial children!!!)... and the warmth of the country... the mystical side too ... I can only say to you thank you!

Magloire Mpembi Nkosi: Yesterday, on Saturday, May 3, 2014, I attended the world premiere of the short film by Monique Mbeka Phoba in Brussels. Like a high priestess of ceremony, the director identified the environment in which this project was conceived. The images of the film shot in the Mbanza Mboma high school are splendid! The story unfolds with humorous moments, punctuated by good laughs from the audience, other moments are poetic even spellbinding... I imagine that everyone present in the room understood that in the 50s at Mbanza-Mboma, the snake was not necessarily where one thought. Monique Mbeka Phoba has apparently found the joy to continue to do her job, a joy that she had lost. I'm glad she listened to those who (like me) pleaded with her, on the condition that: Africans participate in the construction of a new imaging in order to get out of the sordid prison in which the mainstream cinema traps us. A first step would be to contribute here: I wish this film a successful career.

The next step?

It's complicated to say, when I'm still involved with all the problems of financial accounts and exhausted by it all. I was so burnt out I wanted to stop making films. But, in fact, to see the delight of the audience at the preview, I obviously changed my mind. And I really have had only good reviews of the film, which really makes me feel a lot better! But I would like to find a producer for my next production. Especially if it's another fiction. Producing and directing documentaries, no problems. But do both for a fiction, no more!

Interview with Monique Mbeka Phoba, screenwriter, director, producer and translation from French by Beti Ellerson, May 2014.

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