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.

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Director/Directrice, Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema | Centre pour l'étude et la recherche des femmes africaines dans le cinéma

10 May 2020

African women, screen culture and practices of Motherwork

African women, screen culture and practices of Motherwork

"[Women and motherwork are]…in the center of what are typically seen as disjunctures, the places between human and nature, between private and public, between oppression and liberation." Hence, Patricia Hill Collins's term "motherwork" blurs the dichotomies in theorizations of motherhood and mothering that make distinctions between "private and public, family and work, the individual and the collective, identity as individual autonomy and identity growing from the collective self-determination of one’s group…." Furthermore, she locates the practice of "mothering the mind" in the myriad relationships between community othermothers. (Patricia Hill Collins, Shifting the Center: Race Class and Feminist Theorizing about Motherhood)

Similarly, as a theoretical framework, Catherine Obianuju Acholonu's notion of motherism involves the "dynamics of ordering, reordering, creating structures, building and rebuilding in cooperation with mother nature at all levels of human endeavor." (Wikipedia). Closely related to the concept of motherism is Wanuri Kahiu's idea of mothering nature: “my metaphor about Pumzi (2009) is life and sacrifice and that we ourselves have to mother mother nature. That we have to make sacrifices in order to live in this world. And that we have to know that our own behaviour will affect generations to come.” (Wanuri Kahiu, TEDx Forum On Afrofuturism In Popular Culture)

A selection of voices and stories of African women in screen culture and practices of motherwork, mothering and notions of motherhood:

Of Annette Mbaye d’Erneville, Mère-bi: the mother of all--a title which she carries with great aplomb--Patricia Hill Collins's theory of “motherwork” and “othermothering” aptly applies. She has mentored scores of Senegalese and African feminists and nurtured a generation of Senegalese film spectators who have taken on the role of cultural producer in the forging of a Senegalese cinema culture.

Sarah Maldoror: "I am one of those modern women who try to combine work and family life, and just like it is for all the others, it's a problem for me. Children need a home and a mother. That's why I try to prepare and edit my films in Paris during the long summer vacation when the children are free and can come along." (Interview with Elin Clason, cited in Women and Film No 5-6 1974).

African women filmmakers highlight the solidarity among the entourage of women who offer childcare when they need to take time alone to work or to travel. Within their circle of women, these practices of othermothering encompass the grandmother, friends, cousins… Similarly, Ethiopian filmmaker Lucy Gebre-Egziabher emphasizes the experiences of many women as they take on the role of filmmaker in tandem with raising children, she recalls seeing a photograph: [While] behind the camera, she had her baby behind her on her back and she was directing. That was a most powerful image; it has stayed with me. To me that is an African woman filmmaker. She doesn't have the luxury to disengage her role as a wife or a mother and then become a filmmaker; she has to incorporate everything. (Sisters of the Screen: African Women and the Cinema)

Kenyan filmmaker Anne Mungai, who recalls the scene described by Lucy Gebre-Egziabher, realized that the most effective way to get her film completed was to incorporate her baby and her duties as a mother in her filmmaking activities: I had to go with my sixth-month-old baby on location. The village people had never seen a woman with a camera. I was holding my baby, carrying film tapes, they are really wondering how I am going to do it. I figure that the best thing to do was to breastfeed the baby, put it to sleep and then continue directing. The baby kept interfering, each time that I started to direct right in the middle it started to cry. I didn't know what to do, it clicked in my mind that the baby needed attention since I was no longer feeding it. So what I did was take the baby, give it to one of the people in the crowd, and make it part of the cast. (Harry Cahill, producer. Africa World Film. World of Film Foundation. 1993)

Similarly, while optimistic about women's capacity to juggle a filmmaking career and motherwork, Zimbabwean Porcia Mudavhanhu recalls a heartbreaking experience that tested her resolve: the greatest challenge in my career was when my youngest daughter refused to breast feed at six months because I was away for five days on a shoot. It was painful for me to come to terms with it, as I felt I had let my daughter down. (Wild track Newsletter, Zimbabwe)

The motherwork of African women in the instances where their daughters have influenced their work is multiple. Safi Faye coordinated her experiences as mother, homemaker and filmmaker as her film Mossane was evolving in her head, doing her daily chores and assisting her daughter with her schoolwork. Her endearing love for her daughter played an important part in the choice of theme and many of the decisions regarding the film: I don't know how Mossane (1996) was born. All that I know is that I have a daughter, my only daughter, who I cherish. And perhaps through these feelings I wanted to cherish Mossane, and to make her the most beautiful, the purest, and most virtuous. Safi Faye also had a desire to mirror her daughter in terms of her age-related experiences; her daughter and the protagonist were both fourteen years old, an age that she describes as a magical and elusive period of childhood. After a long and frustrating search, it was Safi Faye's daughter who suggested that her friend Magou Seck audition for the role. The affection and genuine love that she developed for the daughter/character was reflected off screen. As she was an orphan, Safi Faye took her into her family. (Sisters of the Screen: African Women and the Cinema, 2003)

Similarly, South African Zulfah Otto Sallies was fascinated by her daughter Muneera's evolution which is how the documentary Through the Eyes of My Daughter (2004) came about. “I don’t understand who that 15 year old who sleeps in my house is!” She uses her camera as the means to find out. In the film she focuses the lenses on her family, zooming into their world in the Bo-Kaap community of South Africa for an entire year. The cross-generational response to contemporary society is the thread running through the film, sometimes showing differing perspectives regarding the realities that the current generation confronts. The evolving story contrasts the apartheid-generation of Zulfah with teen-ager Muneera’s experiences in a democratic South Africa. In full view of the camera, one has a glimpse of the strong bond of the mother-daughter relationship. Zulfah Otto-Sallies invites the viewer into their world with all of the unpredictability that comes as a result. 

In Salem Mekuria's desire to chronicle the experiences of her brother and her best friend, fighting on opposite sides during the Ethiopian revolution and civil war that ensued, the documentary film Ye Wonz Maibel (Deluge, 1995) unfolds. The story was inspired by Salem Mekuria's daughter, born and raised in the United States, who longed to know about the fate of her uncle. Hence, she was able to actively participate in the making of the film.

In the semi-autobiographical fiction film The Body Beautiful (1991), Nigerian-British Ngozi Onwurah casts her real-life mother, Madge, a white woman, in a multilayered story at the intersection of race--focusing on her bi-raciality, and the notion of beauty and the body--using her mother's experience with the crippling effects of arthritis, and her bout with breast cancer and the subsequent mastectomy. She hauntingly illustrates the societal privileging of the youthful, "perfect" body. It is especially moving to observe Ngozi Onwurah's mother, Madge, as the survivor of breast cancer, willingly present her body as text for the story, as her daughter explores this complex and remarkable phenomenon.

While narrating in voice-off in Les Enfants du Blanc (2000), Sarah Bouyain recalls her childhood summer vacations in Burkina Faso, with her paternal grandmother, Jeanne Bouyain. She also remembers her great grandmother Diouldé Boly who refused to speak in French because it brought back painful memories. These remembrances form the basis of her family-history meetings with her grandmother, visualized in the documentary. Her recollections are framed in a sequence of questions to which her grandmother responds in detail, sometimes elaborated by elements of Sarah’s research, which the latter narrates in voice-off. The internal journeys with her grandmother also entail voyages through the family photo albums, chats together during daily chores. Her grandmother’s remembrances uncover a little known phenomenon of French history of which Jeanne’s mother was directly concerned: the abduction and forced concubinage by French colonials of African women. The other thread to the story is the forced placement of the mixed-race children of these unions, often against the will of their families, into orphanages; Sarah Bouyain’s grandmother, who later was able to rejoin her mother, recalls this sad period in her life as her granddaughter looks on mournfully. Sarah, filmmaker, researcher, family historian, is also witness, inscribed into this aching multi-layered history of her family. Though Sarah Bouyain attempted to distance herself from any similarities to the protagonist’s story in the fiction film, Notre étrangère | The Place in Between (2010)--in real life Sarah Bouyain's mother is white European and her father is African, and her search is of a very different nature--there are subtle aspects that give hints of an autobiographical consciousness: the recurrent themes of belonging, language and place. Elements of departure and return, the leitmotif of the film, are structured in parallel stories. Amy, who has not had contact with her mother since she was an infant, leaves France for Burkina Faso to find her. As the story unfolds, it is revealed that she had left home years before en route to France, in search of her daughter. The separation of mother/othermother(s) and daughter/otherdaughter(s) is another powerful thread that runs through the film.

Claude Haffner focuses most of the story in Noire ici, Blanche là-bas Footprints of My Other (2012) on her second return voyage to the land of her birth. During her initial visit she was accompanied by her mother. She describes this visit as experiencing the reality of the Congo as she hid behind her mother. The second journey, which was planned around the shooting of the documentary, was made alone; having been “liberated”, she was searching for her own place among her Congolese family. In the film she talks about reconciling with her mother having better understood where she comes from, beginning to respect her experiences, becoming closer to her. Reconciliation of course implies that there were issues that had to be resolved. She explains what prevented reconciliation before the experience with making the film: I felt secondary to my mother’s concerns about her family in the Congo. I thought she spent too much time dealing with them and not enough on us. I suffered from her "absence." With age, one finally understands the complexity of life, and if one follows the path of wisdom, one is able to forgive. Moreover, she realized that in order to tell the complexities of this story she would have to enter into it. Hence, her autobiographical consciousness unveiled during the filmmaking process. She explains: “The film should redefine itself as the shooting unfolds in the same way that the filmmaker redefines herself in relation to her initial idea and to her subject. This is evident in the fact that in 2004 I could not foresee that I would be expecting a child after having filmed in the Congo, and that I would actually include myself, while pregnant, during the scenes in Alsace. Somehow, the film helped me to define my identity and my place between Europe and Africa and to become aware of the richness that I possess to have come from a double culture or perhaps I should say, multiple.” (African Women in Cinema Blog)

A subtext of the two fiction films, Sous la clarté de la lune and Pour la nuit, is death and separation from the African mother. At the beginning of Isabelle Boni-Claverie's film Pour la nuit (For the Night, 2004), the young woman Muriel, raised by her European father and African mother in France, buries her mother; it is at the funeral that her shame of her mother’s African-ness, her mother’s speech, her voice, surfaces. Both father and daughter reveal to each other for the first time, at the site of the African woman’s reposed body, the tensions that surrounded their relationship to her African-ness. The father accuses the daughter of being ashamed of her mother because she was African; the daughter accuses the father of not really being interested in understanding his wife, knowing her deeply, knowing who she was. Though this beginning is only a brief part of the story in this fiction short, it provides the context for the emotional drama that ensues as Muriel seeks to free herself. In Sous la clarté de la lune (Under the Moonlight, 2004) by Apolline Traoré from Burkina Faso, young Martine has become someone very different, having being raised in Europe by her European father, rather than in Africa by her African mother. The uprooted Martine, returns to Africa, discovering her African roots through her mother. And yet, she does not realize the woman’s relationship to her, as she was kidnapped by her father while still a baby, a trauma of which her mother suffered a double loss, her daughter and her voice, as she was rendered mute. Upon Martine's brief return the mother recovers her voice and rediscovers her daughter, only to lose her again to death.

In Orphanage of Mygoma (2008), commissioned by Aljazeera, Taghreed Elsanhouri sets out to Sudan to make a film about the children brought to the Mygoma Orphanage in Karthoum after being abandoned by their unwed mothers. She encounters baby Abdelsamih, blind, having lost his eyes to cancer as a baby, and incorporates the emotional journey of growing close to him while making the film. From this experience she evolved from exploring filmmaker to ultimately, an engaging mother, he becomes her son.

Aïcha Elhadj Macky was only five years old when her mother died after childbirth. It is this trauma that Aïcha, who is married, still without children, reconstructs in L'arbre sans fruit | The Fruitless Tree (2016) about infertility and its disorder. She starts with childbirth: the calm, the esteemed advice of the midwife, the fatigue of the mother, the arrival of the child. Then a spoken letter that refers back to it: "Dear Mother, behind the camera, I tremble throughout my body"; and before concluding: "In my sleepless nights, your spirit guides my steps." (Africulture)

In Children of the Mountain (2016) by Priscilla Yawa Anany a woman who gives birth to a deformed and sickly child. Because she’s criticized and blamed for her child’s conditions, she becomes determined to do everything in her power to find a cure for him. When all fails and she becomes hopeless, she’s pushed to getting rid of her child. (From film description) 

Françoise Ellong's W.A.K.A - « pour son fils elle est prête à tout… » | “for her son she is ready for anything” (2013) reveals the unraveling world of Mathilde/Maryline, a single mother desperate to care for her child. Françoise has this to say about the film: "The theme of the film was the result of a casual conversation that I had when dining with friends. During the discussion, I hear: "... in any case she is not a good mother." Is there a manual somewhere that follows to the letter what automatically makes one a good mother or not? Or does it depend on each person’s experience? The idea of the film resulted from this. Prostitution is a pretext in the film to talk about the journey and struggle of a woman—both as a woman and as a mother." (African Women in Cinema Blog)

Moroccan Maryam Touzani's Adam (2019) centers on the inner experiences of Abla and Samia whose interior journeys bring them together as they confront the myriad experiences of motherhood. Abla, a widow with little means, caring for her young daughter, brings into her household Samia, pregnant and unmarried, in a society that condemns the situation in which she finds herself.

The eponymous character of the film Sofia (2018) by Meryem Benm'Barek, is also pregnant in a Moroccan society that criminalizes motherhood outside of marriage. She is encircled in a world of women: mother, aunt, cousin, who work together to protect her and also the honour of women.

Cecile Mulombe Mbombe—cinematographer, and Pauline Mulombe—filmmaker, two sisters, talk about their lives, their experiences, and the film, Tout le monde a des raisons d'en vouloir à sa mère (Everyone has Reasons to be Angry with her Mother) 2010, which they made together. Pauline has this to say about the film: The protagonists, the daughters...respect their cultural heritage but they want to live their lives as they see fit. The film is located principally within the context of tolerance, indeed acceptance, by their mother, of their multi-culturalism and their reality. The youngest wants to enjoy herself and grow and develop by making the most of European social and cultural life. The middle daughter wants to utilize all of the possibilities available to resolve her problems, even if it means doing things that are unthinkable in her culture of origin, such as taking the birth control pill when still an adolescent. The oldest, even if she does not openly show her homosexuality, knows that she is 100% gay. (African Women in Cinema Blog)

Véronique Doumbé teamed with her daughter Malika Franklin to produce the film, Woman to Women (2013)Véronique describes the film in this way: The idea of Woman to Woman grew out of discussions with mothers of teenagers about issues relating to being a woman or becoming one. Producing Woman to Woman is exciting because it touches two areas that matter most in my life, being a mother and making films. Malika recalls her experiences with the film: I joined the film after my mother had already begun because I felt it was important to have a teenager's perspective. The film's intention is for mothers and daughters to better understand each other and to have open conversations. This could not be done if the conversation was told only through a mother's eyes. (From the Woman to Women Press Kit)

Lilya, 16, remembers her mother Dalila Ennadre, who died on 14 May 2020 after a long battle with cancer: While traveling, she called me several times a day and when she came back from a film shoot, she immediately resumed her role as mom and was happy to find the rhythm of the house, in particular to return to family meals together at the table: we discussed a lot, I told her about my day, she listened to me, advised me, and afterwards, she told me about her work and we also talked about it. It is also true that she was completed engrossed in her work, like many filmmakers, in her daily life, her meal breaks and her conversations with her loved ones. (Source: leseco.ma)

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