“African women must be everywhere. They must be in the images, behind the camera, in the editing room and involved in every stage of the making of a film. They must be the ones to talk about their problems.” (2)
Sarah Maldoror’s words inspired me to do just that, discover the voices and experiences of African women in the myriad sectors of screen culture: directors, producers, actors, DPs, screenwriters, editors, and the numerous technical crew members, and also, to extend that idea to encompass those in front of the screen as cultural readers, scholars, critics and theorists of African women in cinema studies; as they too have a vital function in the study and analysis of cultural production as it relates to women’s role in creating, shaping and determining the course of their cinematic history, the intellectual and cultural capital that it produces, and the intangible cultural heritage to which it contributes.
Hence, I took on this call, initiating the African Women in Cinema Project in 1996 as a postdoctoral study, which includes the book (Sisters of the Screen, Women of Africa on Film, Video and Television), published in 2000, and the film (Sisters of the Screen, African Women in the Cinema) completed in 2002. Sisters of the Screen, a title that envisioned a veritable screen culture in which the moving image visualized on myriad screen environments from white cloth to movie screen, television set, computer monitor, inflatable movie screen, mobile phone, tablet and diverse transmedia platforms that continue to emerge, all of which become the meeting point for African women in cinema to tell their stories. Moreover, the title contemplated an imaginary community where African women’s experiences of cinema may be shared, analyzed, documented, historicized, and archived.
Following the release of the book and film, the Project developed into the Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema whose organizing principle is based on two key elements: the work of the pan-African organization of women professionals of the moving image created in 1991 and the experiences of these individual women recounted in interviews, speeches, artists intentions, mission statements, and in their films. Drawing from the objectives of the organization: to provide a forum for women to share and exchange their experiences and to formulate mechanisms for continued dialogue and exchange, I have worked to develop a historiography in an attempt to chronicle and bring together the disparate parts.
What drew me to “African Women in Cinema” as a study and research focus was its extremely broad range of discourse and practice. Women on, in front, behind the screen—as storytellers, makers, producers, scriptwriters, actresses, role models, consciousness raisers, practitioners, technicians, organizers, fundraisers, social media community managers, bloggers, agents of change, activists, advocates, audience builders, cultural producers, cultural readers, film critics, scholars and researchers—all contribute to the idea of “African Women in Cinema” as a conceptual framework.
In have built on this organizing principle throughout the past two decades in my teaching, presentations, research and writing on African women in cinema. Based on the initial research I have developed materials to be adapted for courses, seminars and presentations in women’s studies, African studies, film studies, communications, modern language and culture, art history and visual culture, to a global public: students, specialists, stakeholders and interested cultural readers.
While the book has only been published in English, though the women included also gave interviews in French, I was able to broaden the conversation linguistically in the film version with both French and English subtitles, and in 2017, a German version was available to viewers based in Germany and to other German speakers. Through the African Women in Cinema Blog and the numerous social media platforms that have emerged since the publication of the book and release of the film, I have been able to present a variety of resources, as I have not been bound by the limitations of accessing materials and to linguistic restrictions. Thus drawing from a range of languages, information and technologies.
Moreover, I have attempted to frame the tone of my work within a spirit of affirmation in order to show the empowering and positive visual representations, voices and discourse, from the pioneers and trailblazers to the students and newcomers—all have their story to tell and their place on the continuum of the ever-expanding timeline of African women in cinema history.
What I learned above all from the experiences of teaching and developing materials on this sub-discipline was the irrefutable fact that when African women’s historiography is mined, structured and archived, their rich experiences are available and accessible for all to draw from.
My work throughout these two decades have centered on nine broad themes in order to highlight the breadth and scope of women’s experiences:
1. Towards an African Women Cinema Studies: Theory and practice
2. Women voices
3. Women's stories, experiences and realities
4. Visual representations of African women
5. Interrogating identities, bodies, sexualities, femininities
6. Intergenerational perspectives
7. Social media, new technologies
8. Global and transnational diaspora
9. Gendered sensibilities
10. Women researching, mentoring, organizing
Hence, I have been able to bring together women across disciplines. One of the regrettable downsides to this endeavor, and even with the ubiquity of the Internet, is that those whose work are accessible, whose presence is visible, who are studied, focused on, talked about, written about, promoted, are often the ones who are most likely to be included in courses, studies, chapters, on websites and pages as well as social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram… Hence, I consciously avoid any “starification” encouraged by gatekeepers and self-promoters. And thus, my objective is to give visibility to as many as possible, no matter how tiny their (online, researched, written, English-language) presence, by a variety of methods, and above all, by my own acknowledgement and recognition of their work.
The Sisters of the Screen project has been the point of departure for my work going forward, as a means to highlight women speaking for themselves, about their experiences with cinema.
Women Filmmakers' Voices: In the initial project, diverse women filmmakers spanning the continent talk about diverse themes, from how they came to cinema, the specificities of being women directors, to the hazards of the profession. In recent interviews and discussions with women of the current generation, one finds similarities with many of the women interviewed in the mid- 1990s, in terms of themes, approaches and the reasons that brought them to cinema and the roles they want to play. This is not to say that there have not been changes and mutations in the past two decades. In fact there have been an incredible dynamism and phenomenal progress. Nonetheless, the commentary by women reflecting their desire to tell stories about the conflicts in their societies are echoed in the contemporary works of their compatriots, about the courageous women who are continuing to fight for their society. The women who spoke of their desire to makes films about women, their accomplishments, perspectives and experiences as a way to highlight women as role models, is in tune with current perspectives on women’s desire to tell stories to highlight the dearth of women as role models for their daughters.
Women Visualizing Their Stories: Several African women discuss their work or provide critical perspectives that are linked to specific excerpts from their films. Film topics include: Experiences of women in the countryside, whose men go to the urban sectors for work; women refugees, the practice of female excision, and also more uplifting positive stories of an adolescent’s dream of becoming a singer. Contemporary films continue to probe the question of migration with a focus on current issues, such as the outflow of young girls from the village who go to the city to be employed as domestic workers, which have similar consequences as other forms of external migration. Moreover, current films reveal that the practice of female excision continues with the same consequences for women and girls.
Actors' Experiences In Cinema includes a continuum of the role of actresses from veteran to beginner, as they talk about their experiences in various internationally acclaimed African films. While African women as actors were not always embraced by their societies, especially during the nascent period of African cinema in the mid-1960s, they have been dedicated artists, playing an important role in the evolution of African cinema. The historic general assembly of African actresses which took place from 12-16 November 2019 at the FESTILAG Festival international du film des lacs et des lagunes (International Lakes and Lagoons Film Festival) in Côte d'Ivoire, highlighted the well-deserved recognition of African women on the screen.
Critical Perspectives of African Women and Visual Representation:
Women from diverse areas of the cinema (director, actor, producer, critic) give critical perspectives on the visual representation of African women in cinema as well as the public reception of the African female image on screen. It is from my experience in bringing together the voices of these women that my deeper exploration of African women as cultural readers developed, sketching in broad strokes, African women's engagement with the moving image as stakeholders and participants in both on-screen visual representation of women, and off-screen and behind-the-scene roles throughout and beyond the film production process. The first—on the screen—recalls the initial visual engagement with the film leaving the viewer to contemplate the actor’s role and the filmmaker’s intent. The second—behind the screen—conjures a team of film industry practitioners: screenwriter, director, cinematographer, crew, producer, editor, distributor, festival organizer and other professionals, and the third—in front of the screen— as cultural reader, evoking a discerning audience and the film critic. While African women cultural critics of the moving image have existed as long as African cinema practice, a cadre of African women researchers, scholars and professors is taking shape on the continent and the diaspora.
Identities: The myriad identities of African women are explored in this theme--bi-raciality, immigration, exile, dislocation, transnationality. In the works of some filmmakers during the last two and a half decades, one may find intersecting themes on nationality, racialized identity, especially as it relates to the search for self in the interstices of “in-betweenness”, as well as personal stories of womanhood and femininity, of national identity and transnational hybridity.
Women Coming Together: In the initial project on Sisters of the Screen, a complexity of issues around women organizing and working together is intertwined with a discussion of the place of women of the African Diaspora as especially from the United States. Twenty-five years later, as the U.S. African Diaspora incorporates immigrant and first-generation Africans, the discourse on visualizing diaspora expands and deepens. Moreover, with the coming of age of western-born African women or those who are settled in the west, issues of identity are negotiated in their films. The identity politics brought out through these voices are an important prelude to the discussion on the emergence of a cohort of first-generation Diaspora filmmakers of African parentage. Where is their positionality located? Contemporary women filmmakers who live “in between” cultures, races and ethnicities, problematize and explore this vexed space.
Is There an African Woman Sensibility?: The varying responses to this question reveal the fact that the concept "African women in the cinema" is not a monolith. That there are diverse cinemas and women experience them in different and varying ways. Some agree that there is a sensibility specific to women; others observe a complimentary between women and men; while still others conclude that there is ultimately only a human sensibility. Gauging from the number of women’s festivals and literature that has emerged in the last two decades, there is an implicit “yes” to the question and that the follow up question, “if so, what does a woman’s sensibility look like?” continues to be relevant.
While the women’s testimonies in the film and book date to 1997-1999, ongoing interviews that I have conducted and published on the African Women in Cinema Blog, as well as those by others—in particular, the impressive collection of interviews in Sierra Leoneon Mahen Bonetti's New York African Film Festival series—provide a continuum of experiences and a measure in which to evaluate the trends, tendencies and evolution of themes attitudes and technologies, and transformations in the world based on myriad phenomena: migration, economic, and intracontinental and global developments.
1. Excerpted from “Teaching African Women in Cinema, Part One”, Black Camera: An International Film Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Fall 2015), pp. 251-261.
2. Sarah Maldoror : "Il faut prendre d'assaut la télévision / "We have to take television by storm by Jadot Sezirahiga. Ecrans d’Afrique | African Screens, no. 12, 1995.
Report by Beti Ellerson