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.

05 October 2009

Evolving Identities of African Women in Cinema

Here I expand on the 16 April 2009 post “Negotiating Racialized Identities in African Women’s Films” to explore how African women tease out their evolving identities in their work or develop the characters in their films as conduits for this process.


Drawing from theories and approaches of Postcoloniality and Identity Studies I consider the multiple identities that women have as filmmakers and how these identities inform their work. Postcoloniality as a theoretical framework examines the social, political, cultural and economic context of former colonial subjects, locations, and structures. In so doing it disrupts and decenters the colonial-as-center paradigm. The Gaze of the “colonized” becomes the center of focus at the revisited site of colonialism. Identity is intricately linked to this project as deculturation and assimilation were important strategies of colonization. But perhaps the geo-politics of identities within a post-colonial and also post-modern context is what is most compelling as it is an intricate part of African women’s cinemas. Traveling, sojourning and relocating across the globe have required shifting or ultimately expanding their identity and thus, their cinema.

Tunisian Najwa Tlili based in Quebec, approaches her filmmaking from the context of immigration, linking the identity of her cinema with her own identity, which she describes as "both one and multiple, and sometimes fragmented." Her hope is that her daughter, born in Canada, will not experience a similar fragmentation. At the same time being Arab from the African continent, she sees her identity within a broader psycho-geographical context: African is an integral part of who she is as well.

Rwandan Chantal Bagilishya,* a Paris-based producer, has lived a large part of her life outside of Africa. Because she does not currently live on the continent, doing African-related film projects provides her with a connection to Africa.

U.S.-based Salem Mekuria has lived outside of Ethiopia for more than half of her life yet she finds it difficult to identify herself in exile. As she has always imagined returning to Ethiopia. To name categorically her status as "exile" would mean a certain permanency, and Ethiopia continues to be an important part of her identity and the focus of her work. Having lived in the United States for an extended period, Egyptian-Ethiopian, Lucy Gebre-Egziabher, focused on issues related to Ethiopian identity in her first three short fiction films, highlighting the difficult task of integrating into the host country in what she describes as "voluntary exile", with maintaining her national identity. Because she has not lived in Ethiopia for such a long time, filming current Ethiopian realities would be problematic. Similarly, Salem Mekuria questions to what extent she could actually tell the "official story" in her film
Deluge (1997), set in Ethiopia when, in fact, she was not there when the events occurred. This ambivalence lead her to tell a family story about the events through the experiences of her brother, best friend and other family members who lived them.

While Najwa Tlili as a Montreal-based Tunisian filmmaker examines her positioning outside of her native context, Paris-based filmmaker Fanta Nacro is rooted in her
Burkinabé culture when choosing themes for her films. "When I look for an idea for a film, I base it on Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, or my village. My reference has not yet gone beyond the limits of my country's borders."

After living for extended periods of her life in Europe, Congolese Monique Phoba has returned to Africa and now lives in Benin, though she still experiences issues regarding identity. Loyal to her country and intensely interested in the events that take place there, she nonetheless adapts herself to her host country focusing on issues she finds relevant.

Cilia Sawadogo of Burkinabé and German parentage, identifies very much with the culture of Quebec, where she now resides, and tends to go in and out of cultural identities depending on the context. The animation film
L'arret d'autobus (The Bus Stop, 1995) was inspired by her personal experiences vis- à- vis prejudice and intolerance towards people like her who are racially different from the Quebeçois majority.

Zambian Wabei Siyolwe, who has Namibian roots, was raised in New York City. Because there are many places that are very much part of her identity she does not experience home in only one location and refuses to recognize designated geographical borders. Her feature film script, "Exiles" reflects this blurring of boundaries. It is an emotional journey about Dawn, a Namibian refugee brought to the United States after the Cassinga Massacre, who returns to Namibia to vote upon the country's independence. Because of her own African and African diasporan roots, Siyolwe is interested in seeing the cross-Diaspora situation play out powerfully in the film.

French-Malagasy producer Marie-Clemence Paes expresses the desire to go beyond a Negritude that risks racial essentialism:

"I am more interested in an identity that creates, an identity in movement. I am very afraid of identities that block this movement, that refuse the other, that reject all the contributions of others."

Using the lens as a vehicle to show their vision of the world, many African women transcend geographies, their imaginaire informed by the evolving identities that go beyond these boundaries as well. And thus, these identities frame their cinematic narratives as they embrace evolving locations and experiences.

Relevant Links:

Interview with Chantal Bagilishya

Interview with Lucy Gebre-Egziabher
Interview with Salem Mekuria
Interview with Fanta Nacro
Interview with Marie-Cl
émence Paes
Interview with Monique Mbeka Phoba
Interview with Cilia Sawadogo
Interview with Wabei Siyolwe
Interview with Najwa Tlili

14 October 2009

*It is with sad news that I announce the passing of Chantal Bagilishya, see the dedication to her in the 13 October 2009 post: