Teaching African Women in Cinema, Art and Culture – Part 9 is framed around the question “is there a gendered sensibility? If so, what does a woman’s sensibility look like?”
During the spring 2014 semester I taught a course that I created called, African Women in Art and Cinema. In the Part 1 Blog post, I present the course description. Part 2 elaborates the course structure, outline and themes. Part 3 focuses on introductory sources that frame theoretical and critical practices of interpretation and contextualise women artists’ multiple experiences. Part 4 investigates the themes “women’s voices” and “women’s stories” and the ways in which they are contextualised and problematized. Part 5 explores the plurality of women’s experiences based on assigned artists/filmmakers for which students did research and prepared a visual oral presentation. Part 6 examines issues around voice and representation drawing from the story of Saartjie Baartman—the woman, and the Venus Hottentot—the name given to her as spectacle. Part 7 focuses on the class theme: interrogating identities, bodies, sexualities, femininities. Part 8 examines themes around intergenerational, transnational, global diaspora: Under the theme, intergenerational perspectives, the class follows the evolution, tendencies and trends, from the pioneering women to the present generation. The themes globality, transnational, diaspora are problematized around the question of the positionality of the gaze.—Beti Ellerson
The last theme of the semester was framed around the question “is there a gendered sensibility? If so, what does a woman’s sensibility look like?” This question was the centre of a discussion I had already explored in the film Sisters of the Screen, African Women in the Cinema during a sequence where several women reflected on my question. Drawing from this film segment, which was screened in class, the discussion focused on two films, one by a woman, Mossane (1996) by Safi Faye and the other a man, Moolaade (2004) by Ousmane Sembene, both from Senegal. This was the first time that a film by a man was a focus of discussion. Though the theme, "critical perspectives of African women actors" examined the visual representation of women on screen, which included films by African men, women's experiences were the point of departure. The readings for the session included: “Gendered Sensibilities and Female Representation in African Cinema” an analysis of Safi Faye’s Mossane and Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade; an interview with Ousmane Sembene on the subject of Moolaadé by Samba Gadjigo; and the revisiting of the article, "Africa through a Woman's Eyes: Safi Faye's Cinema" by Beti Ellerson, in Focus on African Films by Françoise Pfaff.
The class discussion centred on the notion of “feminist” filmmaking, of whether women have a specific sensibility when dealing with issues related to women. Another point for discussion compared and contrasted the filmmakers’ approach to the dominant theme of both films: traditional practices regarding the girl child/woman’s body, her right to define her future, and the role of the village as agents of change.
The student reflections reproduced here are indicative of the passionate and enlightening dialogue that emerged:
Burkinabé Fanta Nacro theorises that in our actions as human beings, whether male or female and whether driven by the causes of others or our own motivations, in the end there remains only the human being. When contemplating male and female sensibilities, it often becomes easy to differentiate, claiming that only a woman could connect with and accurately portray the questions and experiences of women. Yet film school director Masepeke Sekhukhuni identifies the danger in pinpointing and essentializing “female sensibilities,” as there exist men whose sensitivity may be likened to the sensitivity of women (Jenna Breslin '16, Denison University).
Though experiences are often gendered, the forces that drive us are mostly universally human. We all want a sense of belonging in our society, we want what is best for the ones we love, and we want security. Myth and ritual are tools through which we are able to measure and understand our place in society and maintaining tradition thus becomes a way for us to maintain a sense of security in our understanding of the world. When tradition is threatened we risk massive dislocation and disorientation in our sense of self. It is for this reason that even the most harmful traditions are often so difficult to change. Alone on an island we would not risk our daughter’s life by having her excised. We would, however, if it was the only way we could give her a chance at being valued in the community. Tradition can be empowering as easily as it can be oppressive. The tradition of Moolaade was the vehicle through which Collé was able to effect such change. Tradition can institutionalise and protect cultural values. Myth, such as that of Mossane, can teach values from generation to generation and inspire consciousness-raising. It is this struggle to redefine tradition and build a better society that is at the heart of both of these stories and the struggles chronicled in the two films express a human sensibility as the characters deal with the difficult implications of their decisions (Tommy Carlson '14, Denison University).
The concept of a “woman’s sensibility” stems from three ideas: one, that women’s perspectives are often neglected in films, two, that women are better suited to portraying a woman’s perspective, and three, that women are more likely to open up to other women. While I agree with these points, I also contend that a film directed by a man, such as Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade, can also hold relevance not only to women’s daily life, but also to the wider issues of women’s rights as they conflict with tradition and history (Caroline Clutterbuck '16, Denison University).
In both the films Mossane, directed by Safi Faye, and Moolaade, directed by Ousmane Sembene, we see girls abandoned to tradition. Mossane portrays a girl trapped by her society’s expectations for her life, while in Moolaade, the young girls’ rebellion becomes a village’s revolution. Moolaade has a more overt display of feminism, while Mossane is more of a subtle examination of a young girl’s rebellion. This subtlety can be attributed to Safi Faye’s inclusion of myth and ancestral legend, which intrinsically ground the film to a more stasis plot development (Caroline Clutterbuck '16, Denison University).
After finishing Mossane, I initially considered the film a tragedy, but the more appropriate word is a film of “destiny.” The role of myth and ancestral beliefs ties into this concept of destiny and Mossane’s ultimately necessary death. In following through with the story of the myth (rather than changing Mossane’s story into a successful act of rebellion), Safi Faye exhibits a base respect for African traditions and culture. Although the film is a story of a rebellious young woman, there are still representations of mythology and ancestry that are treated with the utmost respect, as an unchangeable destiny. While Mossane’s death seems unfair, her return to nature (to the river) and to the spirits follows the metaphor of the film. Mossane is “a metaphor of beauty, a song to women.” Mossane does not have to change her village to make an impact with her audience or her people. The film is a metaphor, like poetry, to illustrate the life of a girl who, by others, is defined by her beauty. Her society sees her beauty as her value, but Mossane, the mythology, and her audience, come to understand her complexity and desire to be free. And in the end, in death, she is freed from the world that tried to contain her (Caroline Clutterbuck '16, Denison University).
In my view, the largest comparison between the two films is in how these rebellious acts are dealt with in the end. Moolaade “pushes the men to come to terms with their complicity in the perpetuation of women’s oppression.” I enjoyed Moolaade in particular because of this male involvement in change. As said by Kelley Temple, an officer of the National Union of Students UK Women, “Men who want to be feminists do not need to be given a space in feminism. They need to take the space they have in society and make it feminist.” In Moolaade, the character Mercenary helps to disrupt the patriarchal structure – he stops Collé’s husband from beating her. He states, “I cannot stand violence.” He does not protect Collé because he views her as a weak woman (quite the opposite – Collé is a woman of incredibly strong conviction), but he saves her because he hates to see the violence of humanity. Collé is not just a woman, she is a person. This relates to the concept not of a “woman’s sensibility,” but a human sensibility (Caroline Clutterbuck '16, Denison University).
Had Moolaade ended more similarly to Mossane – without any perceived change in the societal norm, with the girls excised anyway, and no collective protest against tradition - I suspect the male director Sembene would have received more critique by the feminist sphere. That is to say, perhaps because Ousmane Sembene is a male director, his film about women’s issues had to end with a positive note to be considered an open-minded, feminist film. I do not mind his overt approach to advocacy of women’s rights. We discussed briefly in class how Collé is a character very much made for her role. She is made strong and steadfast in her beliefs, and her character is portrayed to serve a purpose: to disrupt the patriarchy of oppressive traditions. However, I do not view Collé as a two-dimensional archetype. She is a hero, and a character created to be a role model for young women (and perhaps even for societies as a whole). Collé’s struggle to stand for her beliefs is not fictional – her story is relatable and relevant to a wide range of audiences (Caroline Clutterbuck '16, Denison University).
There is a connection between thought and voice within the two films. While the younger generation is the most directly affected by the practices and rituals, the elders (older generation) have the loudest and most stern voice throughout the film. Mossane’s parents are accused of sacrificing their daughter’s happiness in order to become wealthy. Mothers buckled under the pressure of resisting the excision of their young girls for fear of what would happen if the tradition were defied. It would be easy to look at this as an injustice to women and a defiance of their freedom to exist on this earth, but we also must realize that changing an institution or a culture based on tradition and the attitudes from the elders toward that change is not an easy thing to do. [A classmate] made an intriguing statement in class [suggesting] that the change takes place within the community, not from the outside world. When looking at these experiences as it pertains to today’s generation, it is hard to classify the experiences of men and women, because they affect each other in many ways. As a society where both genders exist together, they both play a significant role in perpetuating/defying a ritual or tradition within that society. Therefore, the idea of human sensibilities is the lens in which I viewed both of these of films as they seemingly find ways to tell a collective story of both men and women’s lived experiences (Rian Matthews '16, Denison University).
Although the films Moolaade by Ousmane Sembene, and Mossane by Safi Faye are quite different in content, they are both prime examples of Fanta Nacro’s concept of “human sensibility”. Both films are seen to take a humanistic approach to the problems presented, advocating for women’s rights, bodily integrity, empowerment and freedom of choice. Both films explore these themes through the resistance to tradition, thus demonstrating the evolution of the human character, as well as the natural human drive for independence. This may be seen when Faye’s title character Mossane defies her arranged marriage to follow love, or when Sembene’s Collé defies the tradition of female excision. It is interesting that such characteristically feminist themes originate from both a male and female filmmaker, especially because Faye has on numerous occasions declared that her films are not specifically feminist. However this emphasizes the humanism of the two films: both adopt a sense of human empowerment that is surely embodied, but not limited to feminism (Abbie Thill, '16 Denison University).
By Beti Ellerson, September 2014