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.

04 April 2016

Claire & Angèle, Nadia, Pocas, Rama, in/en conversation: To be a woman filmmaker in Africa | Être réalisatrice en Afrique

©FIFF/Yoann Corthésy
Claire & Angèle, Nadia, Pocas, Rama, in/en conversation: To be a woman filmmaker in Africa | Être réalisatrice en Afrique

Source: FIFF2016 YouTube. En Français | In French https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0j1AAtfJqE. 1h24mn. Photos ©FIFF/Yoann Corthésy

Excerpted from/extrait du FIFF Festival International du Film de Fribourg 2016 – Roundtable/Table ronde: Etre réalisatrice en Afrique | To be a woman filmmaker in Africa - 13 03 2016. Translation from French by Beti Ellerson


Conversation in French |en Français:


Franco-Burkinabe Claire Diao, moderator of the roundtable (10:30)

My objective as a journalist who focuses on African cinema is to de-compartmentalise all of the linguistic spaces, to talk about Africa from Morocco to Comoros, eliminating the frontiers between Arabophone, Francophone, Anglophone and Lusophone… 

Claire Diao: Introduction of the four filmmakers (11:30)

Claire Diao ©FIFF/Yoann Corthésy
Nadia El Fani, Angèle Diabang, Pocas Pascoal, Rama Thiaw, have directed documentary, fiction, long and short films. Nadia was born in Paris and raised in Tunisia, Angèle was born and raised in Dakar in Senegal, Rama Thiaw was born in Nouakchott in Mauritania and raised in Senegal, Pocas Pascoal was born and raised in Luanda in Angola.

Claire Diao (12:32)
The question may appear a bit silly, but I like to pose it nonetheless - At what point in your life did you realise that you were a woman? 

Pocas Pascoal (12:47)
When we begin to experience how other people see us, when you do not have the same rights as a girl as a boy does, that there were games that boys played and that girls played. There are societal rules that indicate that you are a woman… that experience lasted a long time. Very young, one realises that girls have certain roles that are assigned to them, I realised this rather young.

Rama Thiaw (14:30)
It came to me rather late. Coming from Mauritania I was called dirty Arab when I arrived in Senegal at five years old. Arriving in France two years later I was called a dirty black. I only realised when in France that I was black…

I was always dressed as a boy, in clothes that were handed down from my brother with only a year difference in age. Hence we were treated mainly the same, I did not have this difference in terms of gender in our family.

I realised really as an adult this notion of woman, an example, when I presented the film Boul Fallé (2009) at Créteil, people responded that I am a woman but there are only men in my film. But I film what I am interested in. I thought, “we are still at this point?” It was there that I realised things from another angle…

Angèle Diabang (16:48)
That is not an easy question, I would say, as Rama while growing up I did not have this notion of gender. I grew up among a lot of women; I was a person. What I realised very young was that I was an orphan, that was really my feeling of difference between others and myself, that is what I lacked, and not between boy and girl. And when playing in the neighbourhood where boys and girls intermingled, there was not a distinction made. I went to a boarding school and there were girls of all ages and I never posed the question of gender.

Angèle Diabang ©FIFF/Yoann Corthésy
This notion developed in my mind when I entered in the realm of art, when I began to do films, since I did films that focused on women, and was asked, “oh it was because you are a woman, because you are a feminist. But that was not my motivation for doing films about women, for a feminist cause, but rather because they are topics that interest me. But that question was always repeated to me “but you are a feminist.” I am feminist, but why must I wear this hat when I do this film. I can do films about women without it being for a cause.

Nadia El Fani (18:34)
As a little girl I was called a tomboy…it was then that I realised that I was a girl. My French grandfather worked as a mechanic for the railroad and would say to me “you will be an engineer”. But more particularly my difference was being a mixed-race child of a French mother and Tunisian father. But above all to have a communist father. The party was banned, hence operated clandestinely. My family being a bit on the fringes of society, even very engaged within it. I always claimed my feminism.

But not to be against something, but for women’s rights, as long as they have not been won it is to continue to fight. I always felt myself a woman, I have always wanted to be a woman, even if others felt there was a masculine aspect. It is more enjoyable, less difficult to be a woman because, oddly there are less things to prove within society, to be a man one must become virile, whereas, for us, femininity is a state of being, so it is easier. That comes from my provocative side.

Audience (21:31)
What touches or hurts you the most, negative attitudes/comments about race or gender?

Rama Thiaw (22:25)
I am a human being first and foremost. Before gender, sexuality or origin, I am a human being. I fight for my specificity. The day when we see ourselves as specific human beings we will have won. That is when humanity will have won. Capitalism divides us in different struggles—gender, sexual orientation, race—rather than to reason on the human level, globally…There is no hierarchy in racial and gender insults, they both hurt. Universal feminism can also hurt me. The notion of femininity is cultural. You will note that Angèle and I come from Senegal, we have a very different notion of feminism in Senegal... A forceful woman must fight, which in the west this violence is attributed to men. In Senegal women are the strong sex. They do the hard work; they are the ones who manage things. Men are afraid of women within the household. However, we must conquer the public space. Women handle the money; there is no problem of equality in parliament. On the other hand, we must fight to have access to abortion, because of cultural attitudes based on religion.

Claire Diao (25:10)
How did you come to cinema?
Nadia el Fani ©FIFF/Yoann Corthésy

Nadia El Fani (25:25)
You may find this funny but westerns influenced me to make films…There was nothing interesting in the Tunisian programming on television. So we watched these westerns and others. I was passionate about them, about Charlie Chapin and black and white films, even Buster Keaton…My parents were film enthusiasts, they were intellectuals and we lived above a movie house. And as children we were somewhat rascals and slipped inside to watch the films. I always wanted to make films. My parents did not have the means to send me to film school in Paris and there were none in Tunisia. They wanted me to study law, I did that, as well as history and even nursing, never really completing them, and then I had the opportunity to work with an American film production and started that way…I decided to realise my dream, I created a production company and made films.

Angèle Diabang (27:44)
Growing up with a lot of restrictions, in a closed environment, in terms of television watching, we were obliged to choose, rather than to watch what we wanted, it was very difficult for me…Since this was something to which I did not have access, I developed a vivid imagination and quickly guessed the plot and I understood rapidly the process of story development…

Claire Diao (31:31)
To note Pocas was the first camerawoman in Angola!

Pocas Pascoal (31:35)
Pocas Pascoal ©FIFF/Yoann Corthésy
That is true, which is how I started. Television began late in Angola, there was cinema but it was not accessible to all, but rather to the Portuguese colonialists, and to a certain elite, my family did not have access to it, we listened to the radio. I grew up with the telenovellas of the radio. It was in 1977-78 that television emerged in Angola. There was televised news, and gradually films were broadcast. The first cinema was Russian and Cuban propaganda films; as Angola was Marxist for a long time. And the cinema of Sarah Maldoror, who was the first woman to do a film. The first film about Angola was made by a woman, there was no cinema before this. It was against colonialism, it was a very political cinema. It was a cinema that was found in the working-class districts.

Claire Diao (34:05)
So in retrospect, to see a pioneering woman who was also a role model.

Pocas Pascoal (34:08) 
Definitely! She was a role model and continues to be. Her name is mentioned on every street corner. And in addition she was the spouse of the revolutionary leader who created the MPLA party. She was the reference, it was a revolution! To respond to the question, how I came to cinema. I liked photography, I then worked at the television station, as a very young woman, I became the first woman camera operator. I had a desire to work with the image, which was impossible as there was a very long war. And hence there was no cinema until 2002. After Sarah Maldoror it was a long interim.

Rama Thiaw (35:26)

Rama Thiaw ©FIFF/Yoann Corthésy
I watched films from with my grandmother. And in Senegal it is quite amusing, in the movie theatres it is a spectacle in itself, as it is very animated with people responding to what they are viewing. We went to see the Kung Fu films with friends and siblings, we looked at horror films... On the other hand with my mother who was very interested in culture, we did not have the right to watch television, we watched films in black and white such as Charlie Chaplin, which I hated. My mother wanted to explain to us about World War II...She had us read Mein Kamp because she wanted us to understand the mind of the people, how they could be swept into Nazism… Also we learned about the Korean War and the Vietnam War. And we watched Apocalyse Now. I was shocked by it. But I did not know what it was called; I knew I wanted to do something like that. I did not know that was cinema. I wanted to be a poet…I was able to draw. Later I studied economics, since at the time I had utopian ideas wanting to change the world. I then realised that it would not be by economics but perhaps by the image…

Claire Diao (39:55)
Do you see solidarity among women filmmakers—internationally, regionally, locally?

Nadia, you endured a great deal of attacks because of the film that you made, did you feel support, solidarity as a filmmaker?

Nadia El Fani (40:24)
It’s a bit difficult to talk about the attacks that we endure. I had chosen to return to work in Tunisia…I wanted to work in the heart of my society, for a long time I felt that I was Tunisian and nothing else and I want to do my films there. Right away I was involved in Tunisian associations, that is part of how I was raised, and for things to advance they must be supported. The Tunisian filmmakers association was very strong at the time, there was a boycott again Carthage in 1980 initiated by the association; hence there was a political engagement. We created the African filmmakers guild in Paris though I did not agree as I thought initiatives should come from the continent—however my attitudes have evolved since then… Solidarity, I don’t know….

Angele Diabang (42:50)
I think it is difficult to say there is not solidarity when we are in a field where it is difficult to work alone. Trying to find funding, to find a group of men who are willing to work with us and to respect our artistic vision is already difficult to deal with, to find one’s place as a woman, who is not married, who must travel, be away for several weeks of filming, who cannot participate in the social events of the family because she must focus on her work, that is all difficult to deal with. How then are we able to support other African women filmmakers, and the issues that this status engenders? There are associations that exist in order to encourage and support these kinds of initiatives. Yes I attempt to do this on an individual level. Am I bad for not taking the time and effort to support others with their individual problems? I no longer have the strength and I have no one to lift me up when I fall. Do I have the strength to deal with all the problems of African cinema?

Rama Thiaw (46:00)
I am somewhere between both of you. No I do not think there is solidarity, between women, between African women, and between Africans, in general. It is a complicated question… There is a competition, that does not allow it, since there is a place for only one. I don’t believe in this, I position myself on the left of left. I try to be one who brings things together. I initiated a letter to the president of the Francophonie, Michaëlle Jean, because she was a woman, in the name of African women, but very few women signed on. I contacted Fepaci, no response. Though it is an association that is suppose to represent the filmmakers from the continent. A combat is like a marathon, one must reserve some energy or there will be none left. We have difficulty as women that is not talked about, that women must put their careers on hold to support their husband’s ,but they do not do the same for women. We struggle alone. What also exists is the mentality, each woman for herself, that each must succeed instead of the other. The struggles accumulate. The hope is to have the strength to do one’s own work and have some left to contribute to the development of our society. I don’t know if we succeed but we will try. We will create a production association in Senegal, right Angèle!

Angèle Diabang (48:10)
…I imagine that rather than think I want to make it instead of the other, there is the attitude that I just want to make it. In countries like here, where there is more means, one feels less of a competition, because the cake is bigger and there is a piece for everybody where with us, there is perhaps not even a cake but a piece. And we say I want that piece. That is why I say it is not the individualism, but that one wants to just do one’s film. Wanting to do my film does not mean that it is in place of Nadia doing hers, or Rama doing hers, or Pocas doing hers. No, I just want to be able to make my film. And that is the difference in being in an environment where there is almost nothing, and to do something with this almost nothing, and being in an environment where one may choose. Hence, it is not one against another, but that each wants to do something. And as Rama said, since there is the system that pits one against the other, I just want to do my film to have a piece.

Pocas Pascoal (49:48)
I have been in a lot of situations where women support other women, on all levels and internationally. In 2013 I met Nadia, three women were in competition at Fespaco, my film was not on 35 mm but digital and was withdrawn from competition… I was rather timid but Nadia, who I did not know at the time, supported me and said “we will go to the press with your story”. And in fact it became the film to see and won an important prize: the European Union special prize. I think there are those who are very much in solidarity. It is true that we are forced to think about ourselves, rather than for the cause, or to challenge things—since our cinema is very political, or give support to others. There is solidarity, and a great deal among women.

Nadia El Fani (53:05)
I am glad that you brought this up. Not to pat myself on the back but to talk about the men’s reaction. Those that were in competition, those with whom I fought in solidarity for many years, friends, colleagues. I was also insulted by some of them, it was violent. And on top of it, I also had a film in competition, so it is not about having the time. But when I am in solidarity with Pocas, it benefits me as well. When one struggles in the combat of others, it is for one’s own benefit as well. We cannot advance with the attitude that I have to be the one, it is a struggle for all. When we lead the struggle for all, we carry our own as well. Individuality is not the same as individualism. We are all irreplaceable; it is not about megalomania. It is true that in the struggle there is egoism… In filmmaking there is a team effort, and of course when one directs a team, there is a leader, but the leader should be fair. And to defend the cause of others is fundamental. There was a real injustice. The president of the jury was a woman cineaste. I went to talk to everybody, they all knew me. The reaction of the men was shocking, to imagine that for them to think that if their film in competition could have a better chance if the film was removed, the violence; that was frightening!

Pocas Pascoal (55:45)
The number of men who signed the petition was minimal. They refused. But it was for everyone, not just for me, but for everyone, for the cause. Thanks to this struggle, they announced that this would be the last year that this rule would apply. The called to make sure I was present because they would make the announcement. When in Cannes it has been done for some time.

Nadia El Fani (56:33)
I want to note as well that when my film was refused by Carthage [Film Festival], I wrote an open letter to them. Well I recall that there was a time when filmmakers were capable of boycotting festivals, stating that they will not attend because of a refusal to show a film. This solidarity does not cost much, though it has a great impact, but I did not get that support. 

Angele Diabang (57:18)
I want to clarify that I did not say that I am against being supportive. However, one cannot reproach someone because they do not become involved in a cause. It is not because we are African filmmakers we must support others. I am not talking about myself, because whoever is familiar with my work knows that I am very active in Senegal, even putting my career on the line. I am president of the Société sénégalaise du droit d'auteur (Senegalese copyright association), which I do without remuneration…I am saying that one should not be criticised for not automatically being engaged in the cause of others, since she may be dealing with the myriad situations regarding her own life and work…

Audience (59:35)
Professional recognition, what has been an important moment for you? 

Nadia El Fani (59:58)
Interesting, as we are moving away from the discussion about being a woman filmmaker, that’s okay! I have always done what one would call polemical films, or in fact, films that did not initially find an audience in Tunisia or in the Arab world. My films were directed at my society, and by extension the Arab and African world. I would say I have a home at Fespaco, where my films have always been selected, but to the contrary, not in Tunisia.

When Neither Allah, nor Master! was finally recognised! What is recognition? To be recognised by the press, the media? Yes, it was interesting to finally receive an award, I don’t have many, perhaps special mentions, but never as far as obtaining an award. It’s amusing because, I am usually criticised because of my commitment, and here I am awarded for it!...

Claire Diao (1:01:37)
And Rama whose film was awarded the Critics Prize, category forum the Berlinale 2016.

Rama Thiaw (1:01:50)
No, not really!!!...

Claire Diao (1:02:06)
It could be recognition from a family member on social media!

Rama Thiaw (1:01:37)
…I would say that among us I am the one who has made the fewest films. Even though I began around the time as Angèle some 10 years ago. I have only made two films; I can’t really talk about recognition. I can only say that I am happy to have completed this film, which took six years. So when my father posted his congratulations on Facebook, after pouting for ten years that I did not pursue economics and become a banker, I felt I did accomplish something. One cannot say that because I made two films…no…I have a lot of work to do.

Nadia el Fani (1:03:04)
Do not be too modest, be happy about these accomplishments!

Claire Diao (1:03:10)
But one must know how to savour these moments of recognition!

Pocas Poscoal (1:03:21)
Yes, a lot. I have made other documentary films, but not with awards, but with this one [Alda & Maria]. There is a pride, it talks about Angola, and with it there is an Angolan woman in the world that is now talked about. At a festival in Los Angeles it received an award and the response to the film was very powerful. And of course in Angola. I also began directing later. As I stated I was editor. It has only been 10 years, so I do not have a lot of work behind me, but it will come.

Claire Diao (1:08:26)
We have talked about being a woman filmmaker, about solidarity, and now I would like to discuss the part about being a woman filmmaker in Africa. Some of you may have watched in the category New Territories, the film Mère-bi (The Mother of all) by Ousmane William Mbaye about his mother Annette Mbaye d’Erneville, the first professional journalist in Senegal, who was married to a professional man and raised four children. One moment she recounts that she travelled a great deal, produced many stories and her husband demanded that she return to work as a teacher, in other words that she “return to her place.” There was a blow up, and then a divorce. There is a particularity about your work in Africa, even though you may work between France and your respective country, in that there is the expectation that the woman takes care of the household and raise the children. You are also mothers, so the question that I would like to pose: Is family life compatible with a filmmaking career?

Nadia El Fani (1:09:49)
It is totally incompatible, that is clear. We have much more difficulty finding the time than men to do our work. It is much more difficult to leave one’s children to go to work, especially when they are small. I have only one child, a daughter who is now 25 years old. I saw the men who travelled to festivals, conferences, to whatever event. I was able to only do so only once a month. It was very difficult for me and for the men they had no problem to go here and there. My male counterparts had their wives to take care of the children. I definitely know what it is like as I have lived it. My particularity, especially as it relates to Tunisia, is that I am homosexual and the father of my child as well. We have never lived together. And I raised her basically alone. And it is not because he is homosexual that he acts better than other men regarding his child. He was macho, misogynous, he did not cared for her when I was not there. My mother, who is French, came to Tunisia when she retired and helped me a great deal, as well as my entourage of friends— women’s solidarity worked well in that regard, my friends took care of my daughter when needed. I think it is also difficult for the children, but at the same time there is a certain pride to have a mother who works in this field which is rather unique. For a long time my daughter refused to come to watch my films, now it is better. For her these films were the reason that separated her from her mother… And even at home I was cloistered in my office for long periods working on a project. It is a reason for living, not a profession. We are ready to make sacrifices, as are men, and we do it.

Pocas Poscoal (1:13:08)
It is very difficult. I was an editor for a long time, and there are also long working hours. Several times I brought my children to the editing room. There are a lot of guilty feelings also. Even when there was a chance to take a vacation, there is the question of taking the children and finishing the film, when working independently. My husband had a salaried position, hence working everyday. It is very difficult. There are no set hours. When I started working as a filmmaker, my children were a bit older, sixteen, fifteen years old. I could leave them alone and they could take care of themselves, and I could also travel for a few days. When my children were younger it was very difficult to travel. My children are very proud of me. There is no reproach about why I was absent. There is more for me a sense of guilt of not being able to give the maximum time to your children.

Rama Thiaw (1:14:48)
It is a sacrifice. It is not a profession, between quotes, “for a woman”. I think this is a reason why there is less coalescing among women because there is not the time to go to smoke a cigar in the club and talk about the next film. [Laughter in the audience]. Perhaps I was lucky. When I separated from my son’s father when he was two years old, I was still a student. I was used to keeping a charged scheduled, working on the weekend, attending classes, and caring for my son. I was a brave mother! I became disenchanted navigating between Senegal and France, on location and elsewhere, it became difficult to hold it all together. What is not discussed is the precariousness of this work as a woman, with parents from a modest background, without a man, without support. It is more difficult than poverty; between instability and poverty, a choice must be made. An anecdote: a young French woman asked me, “what do you do to live?” and my response, “I don’t really.” She replied, “well my dear you should do as I do, find a man to take care of you!” And I said, “no thank you.”

I was between Paris and Dakar and I made the decision to settle in Dakar to create my production company. I said to my son who was eleven years old—I am very close to my son since I was the one who raised him. I told him that I must leave to work as a filmmaker and that he would go to live with his father, it would be a more stable environment for him. He said it was okay but on the condition that for my next film I would dedicate to him in big letters “to my son Kaiya”. 

Angèle Diabang (1:17:23)
I agree with everyone. It is a thankless job. Rama talked about precariousness, people think that because we travel around the world that we have money. And the men with whom we are in relationships do not necessarily help as they think that because you are in the media, in the press, you have everything you need, that we do not need assistance from them. But no, we had the child together and should give them an education. What is also difficult, I don’t know if you have also had this experience, but the further that we advance in our art, the more we succeed in our work, the more we lose in our relationships with our men. It is as if, I take up too much space in the house. I am not just the woman, I am the one who is seen on television, who is invited to Cannes. And I pay for that. With my ex-husband I was able, nonetheless, to have space in the house, where I could say, “here, this is my environment”…. When entering, knock first, when I want to have dinner with the others I will, if not I will do so alone. If I want to work until six in the morning I will. I need this environment, I need it in order to be me, it is important…I need a space to work, to go to for inspiration. Where I am me, as my person and not that of another.

It is difficult to find the balance of artist/creator, a family life, social life, to go to a wedding and other events during which women socialise together. I am not saying it is not enjoyable but I don’t have the time. I do not have the four hours to attend these events. I am then called a person who is not rooted in her culture. No that is not true. I am very much rooted in my culture it is just that I need solitude, quietness to work, to create, to be with myself, to be inspired, and often our society criticises us for expressing this need for solitude to create. But my 4-year-old son gives me the strength to work. I explain it to him and he understands. He says that when he is older he will go on the plane with me. And so all of the airplanes in the sky are those of his mom. Speaking of solidarity between women, as Nadia says, when I travel he has an entourage of women who takes care of him. And in fact he is able to do more than when I am there closed up in my office or in front of the computer. The house has more women when I am not there, when it is just the two of us. When I am gone, there is the grandmother, the friends, the cousins.

Claire Diao: Thank you to all and to the organisers.

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