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21 June 2009

The Evolution of Senegalese Women in Cinema, Visual Media and Screen Culture

Updated on March 2019. Report by Beti Ellerson, published 21 June 2009.

Senegal’s illustrious list of Africans in cinema offers a background to a discussion about the rich history of Senegalese women in cinema. To highlight a few on this impressive list: Ousmane Sembene (1923-2007), the father of African cinema, Paulin Soumanou Vieyra (1925-1987), the father of African film history and criticism, Djibril Diop Mambety (1945-1998), avant-garde filmmaker, Annette Mbaye d’Erneville, veteran journalist, communications specialist, critic and writer, Safi Faye, pioneer filmmaker and anthropologist, and Thérèse Mbissine Diop, pioneer actress and tapestry-maker, among the many others. Also on the list of the cultural producers of Senegal is acclaimed writer, Mariama Bâ (1929-1981), best known for her masterpiece Une si longue lettre (So Long a Letter). These brilliant pioneers have all been nurtured in a country whose first president was also an artist. Poet-president Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906-2001), host of the First World Festival of Black Arts in 1966, made his own tribute to African women in the classic poem, Femme noire (Black Woman).

Annette Mbaye d’Erneville, the matriarch of Senegalese media culture, carries with aplomb the name that her son, Ousmane William Mbaye attributes to her in Mere-bi, a documentary that he made about her life. The “Mother of All”, born in 1926, studied in Paris in the late 1940s becoming the first Senegalese to earn a degree in journalism. Staunch feminist, fiercely proud of her culture, she is closely associated with the Maison de la Femme Henriette Bathily (The Women’s House) created in 1994 and located on Gorée Island, Senegal. Having initiated RECIDAK, Rencontres cinématographiques de Dakar, an annual film festival in 1990, she was the director for many years. The 1996 edition of RECIDAK paid homage to African women under the name, Femmes et Cinema (Women and Cinema). Her present preoccupation is the regular publication of the film journal Ciné Culture Afrique. Reflecting on the role of women as cultural producers, she declares: "It is simply a matter of giving voice to women, witnesses of their epoch, who, while expressing themselves, and, through their own lives, reflect a specific image of Africa."(1)

Initiated into the world of international culture as an official guide during the First World Festival of Black Arts in Dakar in 1966, filmmaking pioneer Safi Faye connected with people and places that led her onto her career path. She also became aware of the importance of the preservation of African history and culture, a theme that was omnipresent at the festival and became a leitmotif in her work. She describes that event as an expression of national energy and recalls her desire to meet the intellectuals and researchers who had gathered there.(2) Her encounter with French ethnologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch (1917-2004) at the festival was important, since it allowed her to travel to France a year later as an actor in his 1968 film Petit à Petit (Little by Little). She began studying ethnology and then filmmaking in the early 1970s in Paris, thus launching her dual career as anthropologist and filmmaker. (3) She has this to say about her debut into filmmaking: “I did not come to the cinema by chance. I studied ethnology at the Sorbonne. We were able to have cinematography equipment once a week, and to learn how to used it. I realized that in order to be more efficient I should go to film school…I learned like everyone else--I was the only African woman--how to handle a camera and I became familiar with how to use the cinematography equipment. At the end of the first year, I dared to make a little film [La Passante]…That is how I came to learn filmmaking, it was very easy during those years. I made the film in 1972. Right away, everybody began to talk; "there is an African woman who is making films. It was easy for everybody to know about me because I was the first to appear on the scene.”

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Safi Faye was the lone woman filmmaker in Senegal. New faces were visible in the 1990s with the emergence of Khady Sylla, Adrienne Diop, Rokhaya Diop, Mariam Kane Selly, Fatou Kandé Senghor, Aissatou Laba Touré; all producing documentaries about aspects of Senegalese life and culture. Safi Faye’s strikingly beautiful Mossane is among the works produced during this dynamic and energetic decade.

The first and second decades of the second millennium prove to be equally prolific for Senegalese women in cinema. Amina N’Diaye Leclerc made her debut in 2000 with the documentary (directed with Éric Cloué), Valdiodio N'Diaye et l'indépendance du Sénégal focusing on her father during a particularly intense period of Senegalese history. Ndéye Thiam-Daquo’s first film is part of the series Vie de Femmes produced by Ivoirian Hanny Tchelley. It is a portrait of Nicole Claire Ndoko, the president of the Federation of African Lawyers and the first Cameroonian woman with a doctorate in law. In 2003, Katy Lena N’Diaye directs her camera at women muralists of Burkina Faso in Traces, Empreintes de femmes (Traces, Impressions of Women). Amy Collé Diop explores the troubled state of Senegalese cinema in her debut film Silence…on ne tourne plus! (2004). Actor Maïmouna Gueye, went behind the camera to direct the documentary, Des Larmes aux souvenirs (2004), a film about the rape of a young boy by an adult man, and how the boy’s family struggles for justice. Employing the epistolary form, Sokhna Amar’s first film, Pourquoi? also focuses on rape. A young woman receives a letter from her best friend telling her about the rape that she endured ten years before. Angèle Diabang's short documentary, Mon beau sourire (My Beautiful Smile, 2005) recalls the feature film Kodou (1975) by her compatriot Ababacar Samb Makharam (1934-1987) some thirty years before. Both highlight the painful practice of lip tattooing. Like Maïmouna Gueye, Senegalese-Malian Aïssa Maïga, a popular actor on French and African screens, ventured into filmmaking with her short fiction drama, Il faut quitter Bamako (2008). French-Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop, though based in Paris, has a strong need to return to her African roots; thus, 1000 Soleils (1000 Suns, 2008), a film about her famous uncle, the late Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambety.

African filmmakers are often described as cinematic griots, transforming the oral tradition of the African griot into visual storytelling. Angèle Diabang blurs the boundaries of the two in Yandé Codou, the Griotte of Senghor (2008), recounting the life of this mythical figure, “the only one who could interrupt Leopold Sedar Senghor’s speech with a song of praise”. Yandé Codou Sène, born in 1932, is the haunting voice in many Senegalese films. Mossane by Safi Faye is perhaps one of the most stunning. Yandé Codou Sène's incantations introduce the beautiful Mossane as she baths in the mythical Mamangueth, and at the end, at the site of her tragic fate, she sings her praises. Carrying on the tradition of the griot, the voices of Senegalese women continue to be heard and seen.

The second decade of the millennium in 2010, the FIFF made a special tribute to Safi Faye, described as La Grande Référence, a role model. The tribute to Safi Faye at the 32nd Festival International de Films de Femmes (2-11 April 2010) demonstrates once again the important place she holds as pioneer in the history of women in cinema. Invited internationally to share her experiences in cinema, Safi Faye often reflects on the environment during that time, nearly forty years ago, in the early 1970s. She recalls the curiosity of her European colleagues in the midst of the “first African woman to dare to make a film." Another tribute to Safi Faye in 2015 was in the form of the Prix Safi Faye/The Safi Faye Award for the 26th edition of the JCC. Initiated by the CREDIF Centre de Recherches, d'Etudes, de Documentation et d'Information sur la Femme (Centre for the Research, Study, Documentation and Information on Women) and supported by UNESCO (United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture). It aims to reward a woman filmmaker whose film—be it a feature or a long documentary—has been selected in the official competition.

The award bears symbolically, the name of Safi Faye; as the first African woman filmmaker: "This pioneering artist has shown the way to a possible woman-inspired and African cinematographic creation."

Regarding Senegalese cinema scholarship and research, Hadja Maï Niang, specialist of image studies as well as filmmaker, focused her doctoral studies on the works of Ousmane Sembene: "Literature and cinema in the creative works of Ousmane Sembène: the source of the adaptations", as well as her Master’s thesis: "Xala d'Ousmane Sembène: analyse narratologique du "dit" et du "vu". She is founder and director of Daaray Sembène - la Maison de la pédagogie de l’image | the centre for image studies and teaches at University of Thies in Senegal.

Safi Faye, pioneer, left us on 22 February 2023. A link to the tribute:
Safi Faye : La Grande Référence - 1943-2023 - A Tribute, "I dared to make a film!"

Follow links to posts on Senegalese women in cinema on the African Women in Cinema Blog

Sabbar Artistiques : Première édition des Ateliers Reflexives Féminins de Dakar | Women’s Reflexive Workshops of Dakar - 19-24 03 2019

Rama Thiaw's Revolution: The Camera as a Weapon. A survey of Rama Thiaw's evolution as a socially committed filmmaker. See:

Iman Djionne’s La Boxeuse | Boxing Girl in the Official Selection at the Luxor African Film Festival 2017. See:

To be a woman filmmaker in Africa | Être réalisatrice en Afrique, at the Festival International de Films de Fribourg (Switzerland) moderated by Claire Diao, features Angele Diabang and Rama Thiaw among the four  panelists. See:

An African woman on the Seine | Une Africaine sur Seine by Ndèye Marame Guèye – 60 years after l’Afrique sur Seine by Paul Soumanou Vieyra. For her Femis film project Une Africane sur Seine, Ndèye Marame Guèye returns to the iconic 1955 film Afrique sur Seine directed by Paulin Soumanou Vieyra (1925-1987) with his African colleagues, all studying cinema in Paris at l'IDHEC, l'Institut des hautes études cinématographiques, presently called FEMIS. See

A look at women in Senegalese hip. Analysis by Fatou Sall. See

Prix Safi Faye de la meilleure réalisatrice - Safi Faye Award for the best woman filmmaker - JCC - Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage. See

Dr Hadja Maï Niang and/et Daaray Sembène - la Maison de la pédagogie de l’image | the centre for image studies. Talking directly to the press, Dr. Hadja Maï Niang, specialist of image studies, presented an uncompromising account of the "programmes that pollute Senegalese radio and television." Addressing the CNRA delegation, the director of the Daaray Sembene outlined the survey results of audio-visual programmes, demonstrating that certain productions "affront the essence of Senegalese society."See :

A review by Fatou Kiné Sene of Sur la Rive (On the Shore) by Mariama Sy and Derrière les rails (Behind the tracks) by Khady Diedhiou. See:

Khady Sylla & Mariama Sylla Faye : Une Simple Parole | A Single Word. Official Selection at the Luxor African Film Festival 2015. See:

Dyana Gaye wins the Ecowas Best Woman Director Award at Fespaco 2015 for Des étoiles | Under the Starry Sky (2013). See:

“Congo, A Doctor to Save Women” by Angèle Diabang: The resilience of women, an analysis of the film by Olivier Barlet. See:

Angèle Diabang adapts "So Long a Letter" to film - Interview by Agnès Chitou -
Filmmaker Angèle Diabang tackles for her first step in fiction So Long a Letter*, a classic of the African literary tradition. Her project is one of ten selected by La Fabrique des cinémas du monde at the French Institute, and presented in May 2014 during the Cannes Film Festival. See:

Marie Kâ : L’Autre Femme | The Other Woman Kâ: I want to challenge the Senegalese view that women are no longer interesting once they've given birth and gone through physical changes due to aging. I have a fascination for anything related to women. Sexuality is one of them. See:

Le décès de la cinéaste Khady Sylla | Cineaste Khady Sylla has passed away. See:

Mille soleils (A Thousand Suns) by Franco-Senegalese Mati Diop, the heritage of Touki Bouki an analysis by Olivier Barlet. See:

Rama Thiaw talks about the "making of" her film "The revolution won’tbe televised". Rama Thiaw talks about the "making of" her film "The revolution won’t be televised". See

This Colour that Disturbs Me | Cette couleur qui me dérange : Khady Pouye sounds the alarm on the practice of xessal (skin bleaching) by Mame Woury Thioubou. See:

Marie-Louise Sarr, a cineaste at the heart of the Master 2 Réalisation Documentaire de Création. Filmmaker Marie-Louise Sarr, who manages the Master 2 Réalisation Documentaire de Création (RDC) at Gaston Berger University (UGB) in Saint Louis, Senegal, talks about how she came to cinema, and the specificities of the programme. See:

Face to Face, Women and Beauty in St. Louis focuses on the work of Mame Woury Thiobou:Beyond the simple matter of aesthetics that traverse the film, I want to investigate the societal practices as it relates to beauty. Why do women have to resort to artifices to feel beautiful? And in so doing, to what need are they submitting?” See:

Rama Thiaw, A Young Filmmaker in the Struggle. The Senegalese filmmaker became known with her documentary Boul Fallé, The Wrestling Way, a politically committed film which uses sport to show how the youth of Pikine—a disadvantaged neighborhood in Dakar—overcome their plight. See:

Dyana Gaye: Un transport en commun/St. Louis Blues, in the Official Selection at Fespaco 2011. See:

Fatou Kandé Senghor: My Work, My Passion | Mon Travail, Ma Passion. An reflection piece written by Fatou and translated by Beti Ellerson from French and published on the African Women in Cinema Blog, she talks about her work and her feminism. See:

Interview with Franco-Senegalese filmmaker Alice Diop by Olivier Barlet about her film La Mort de Danton (Danton's Death)* in Africultures. Translated from French by Beti Ellerson. See:

Showcasing Marie Ka at Cannes 2009. Invited by the Cinémas du Monde Pavillon/Pavilion of World Cinemas, Marie Ka is showcased by TV5 on the Croisette at the 2009 Cannes Festival. In five short episodes, she talks about her film, which is being screened at the Film Market, and her hopes of finding a producer. See:

In Memory of Yandé Codou Sène (1932-2010). African filmmakers are often described as cinematic griots, continuing the oral tradition of the African griot via visual storytelling. Angèle Diabang blurs the boundaries of the two in Yandé Codou, the Griotte of Senghor (2008), recounting the life of this mythical figure, “the only one who could interrupt Leopold Sedar Senghor’s speech with a song of praise”. In her film, Yandé Codou Sène, diva séeréer, Laurence Gavron, naturalized Senegalese, originally from France, returns to the roots of the Serer Diva. See:

Safi Faye: Role Model | La Grande Référence. See:

Thérèse M’Bissine Diop: A Pioneer in African Cinema

In front of the camera: the role of African women actors

Relevant Links:
Mère-bi by Ousmane William Mbaye

1. Annette Mbaye d’Erneville: Une femme de comunication/Annette Mbaye d’Erneville: A Lady with a talent for communication by Rokhaya Oumar Diagne and Souleymane Bachir Diagne. Presence Africaine 153 (1996): 93.
2. Cissé, Alassane, and Madior Fall. 1996. "Un film en Afrique, c'est la galère." Sud Week-end [Dakar, Senegal], 12 October, 6-7.
3. The information on Safi Faye is drawn from my article, “Africa Through a Woman’s Eyes: Safi Faye’s Cinema”. Focus on African Films. Françoise Pfaff, ed. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2004. 

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