In Front of the Camera
Thérèse M’Bissine Diop and Zalika Souley
Tracing the history of actresses in African cinema, the two pioneers, Thérèse M’Bissine Diop of Senegal and Zalika Souley of Niger come to mind, both with debut performances in two African film classics released in 1966: La Noire de… by Ousmane Sembene and Le Retour d’un aventurier by Mustapha Alassane, respectively.
Their careers and life paths have similarities but also stark differences. Thérèse M’Bissine Diop has appeared in one other African film since her debut in La Noire de…, Emitai, a film also by Sembene, made in 1971. Nonetheless, her standing as a pioneer continues to be immortalized, as La Noire de…, this classic Sembenian work, is the subject of endless studies. While Zalika Souley, the “bad girl” of early cinema of Niger starring in numerous films, is all but forgotten. During a conversation with her in 2004, I discovered that at the time she was living very modestly in the United States. In contrast, my interview with Thérèse M’Bissine Diop in Paris in 1998, revealed a comfortable living where she pursues her passion, tapestry-making. In spite of her descent into anonymity, Souley was elected as the president of L’Association des Actrices Africaines/The Association of African Actresses, created in 1989, in recognition of the role she played in asserting the value of women in the world of African cinema. More recently in 2004, Rahmatou Keita also from Niger paid homage to Zalika Souley in her debut film documentary Al’lèèssi, an African Actress.
In Al’lèèssi... Rahmatou Keita reveals the challenges that Zalika Souley had to confront in the 1960s; at a time when her controversial roles were viewed as contrary to the principles of a good Muslim woman. Al’lèèssi... juxtaposes the acts of a dutiful Muslim woman who shows abiding faith in God, to film excerpts of her diverse roles. However, at the time, both in her screen character and private life, Zalika Souley went against the societal conventions of womanhood. She walked about Niamey, the capital, wearing jeans, which still today is provocation for insults. In Oumarou Ganda’s 1970 film, Wazzou polygame, her character in a jealous rage, commits murder. In the 1973 film, Saitane also by Ganda, she is a woman gone astray. In the conservative environment of Niger, where people associated her screen character with reality, she was severely ostracized. Thérèse M’Bissine Diop notes a similar public hostility towards her in the 1960s. After the release of the film La Noire de…, she was shunned, even by her own mother. Diop eventually left Senegal and has lived in Paris since the 1970s.
Despite the early negative public reception of African actresses, women continued to choose acting and have become increasingly accepted in their societies. While acting is rarely a viable career in Africa, women have nonetheless expressed satisfaction in contributing to the growth and visibility of African cinema.