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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27 September 2011

Tanella Boni: Women's Bodies between Liberty and Uncertainty | Le corps des femmes entre incertitudes et libertés

Texte en français : Le corps des femmes entre incertitudes et libertés

African women intellectuals—in the arts, the academy and politics—are becoming increasingly aware of the significance of developing a critical discourse on the female body in reading and interpreting visual representation of women in film and visual culture in general. In her lecture, "Le corps des femmes entre incertitudes et libertés"/"Women's bodies between liberty and uncertainty" presented on 14 June 2011 in Paris, Ivoirian Tanella Boni emphasizes this point.

Below is a French to English translation by Beti Ellerson of the summary of the lecture during the seminar entitled "Gender, Politics, Sexuality(ies) West/East” organized by the Foundation Maison des Sciences de l'Homme. 

Since the last quarter of the twentieth century, critical perspectives on the issues of women and gender have developed in Africa, notably by Nigerian theorists. In the Francophone world, studies on “gender and development” have been pushed forward, leaving in the shadows other discourse—artistic, literary, and critiques of the female body, the site on which so much is played out in postcolonial African societies. Hence, one might wonder what is the role of the body when considering gendered social relations and women's experiences.
The issues are very different when dealing with the body of the girl child and that of the older women. What is being done to/for the female body? What are the strategies deployed by women to keep their bodies free and alive, to the extent that they are able to do so? The female body, site of wide-ranging inscriptions and representations, is the centerpiece of the social order, at once malleable tool, rebellious mass, object of exchange, suffering, obedient but rebellious, desiring/desired, in search of autonomy. Our aim, which draws on literary texts, film excerpts, and studies, concerns the multiple identities of the body and its metamorphosis, offering a means to read and think about the societies in which the body inhabits. Embedded in this fragmented and "uncertain" body, are political, cultural, economic and also religious issues.

16 September 2011

The International Women’s Film Festival of Salé (Morocco) 2011

The 5th International Women’s Film Festival of Salé, in a spirit of friendship and universal cooperation, aims to showcase and promote quality works with the view of furthering the development of cinematic art, encouraging the growth of women’s filmmaking globally and facilitating the understanding of other people through their films. The festival is also dedicated to women’s cinemas in order to make their innovative and creative qualities better known, and thus focuses its efforts on the International, as a meeting place for women film professionals throughout the world. Moreover, the festival aims to stimulate women’s filmmaking in Morocco and support it by providing a recognized seal of quality.

Edition: Fifth (5th)
Date: 19-24 September 2011
Opening Film: La source des femmes by Radu Milhaileanu
Closing Film: Winner of the Grand Prize 2011
Films in Competition: 12 feature films (Burkina Faso, Slovenia, Vietnam, United States, Australia, Egypt, Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Morocco)

Guest cinema

Burkina Faso, 5 feature films


Cinema of sub-Saharan Africa : 12 feature films (Benin, Cameroon,
Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Senegal, Chad, Togo, Niger, Gabon, Democratic Republic of Congo)

Showcasing the Moroccan Feature Film 2010-2011: 04 films
Showcasing Short Films by Moroccan Women Directors, 2010-2011: 05 films
Special Screenings

01 Egyptian documentary
01 Short Films Morocco


Halime Gümer, Turkey
Fatima Alaoui Bel Hassan, Morocco
Naki Sy Savané, Côte d'Ivoire
Houssein Fahmi, Egypt

Film Lesson

Louise Portal, Canada

Screenwriting Workshops

Facilitated by Moroccan, Egyptian, French and African professionals


Theme related to women and the cinema of sub-Saharan Africa

Parallel Activities

Presentation of the work of Rita El Khayat "The woman artist in the Arab World"

Launch of the magazine Cine-Mag

The Jury

Louise Portal, actress, singer and writer, President, Canada
Laila Triqui, director, critic, Morocco
Oumy N'dour, journalist, critic, Senegal
Hala Sedki, actress, Egypt
Maryam Khakipour, producer, Iran
Lucile Hadzihalilovic, director, producer, France
Maureen Mazurek, chief editor, U.K

Official Competition

Notre étrangère by Sarah Bouyain; Burkina Faso, France. 2010

Slovenian girl by Damjan Kozole; Slovénie, Allemagne, Serbie, Croatie, Bosnie-Herzégovine. 2010

Vertiges by Bui Thac Chuyen; Vietnam, France. 2010

Winter’s Bone by Debra Granik; United States. 2010

Lou by Belinda Chayko; Australia. 2010

Six, seven, eight by Mohamed Diab; Egypte. 2010

Corpo Celeste by Alice Rohrwacher; Italy, France, Switzerland. 2011

17 Filles by Delphine Coulin and Muriel Coulin; France. 2011

La Petite chambre by Stephanie Chuat and Veronique Raymond; Switzerland. 2010

L’etrangère by Féo Aldag; Germany. 2010

Lourdes by Jessica Hausner; Austria, France. 2011

Agardir Bombay by Myriam Bakir; Morocco. 2011

Guest Cinema: Burkina Faso

Delwende by Pierre Yameogo

La nuit de la vérite by Fanta Régina Nacro

Sia, le rêve du python by Dani Kouyate

Sous la clarté de la lune by Apolline Traoré
Yaaba by Idrissa Ouedraogo

Panorama of sub-Saharan African Cinemas

Mama Aloko by Jean Odoutan (Benin)

Tilai by Idrissa Ouedraogo (Burkina Faso)

Muna Moto by Jean-Pierre Dikongue-Pipa (Cameroon)

Djeli by Fadika Kramo-Lancine (Côte d’Ivoire)

Bamako by Abderrahmane Sissako (Mauritania)

Le Rallye d’Hélène by Chouna Maugondo (Democratic Republic of the Congo)

Madame Brouette by Moussa Sene Absa (Senegal)

Un homme qui crie by Mahamat Saleh Haroun (Tchad)

Le Divorce by Kelly Labouba (Gabon)

Correspondance by Laurence Petit-Jouvet (Mali)

Aïda la bouchère by Rakia Lamnou Kader (Niger)

Itchombi by Gentille Menguizani Assih (Togo)

Showcasing the Moroccan Feature Film

La Mosquée by Daoud Oulad-Syad

Majid by Nassim Abassi

Swingum by Abdellah Toukouna
Les Anges de Satan by Ahmed Boulane

Showcasing Short Films by Moroccan Women Directors

Chapitre dernier by Jihan El Bahhar

La dernière balle by Asmae El Moudir

La pelote de laine by Khadija Saidi Leclère

1000 dirhams by Zaineb Toubali

Mokhtar by Halima Ouardiri

Special Screenings

Zelal, documentary by Marianne Khoury and Mustapha Hasnaoui

Plastique short film by Abdelkbir Regagna


Halime Güner, activist of the Women's Rights movement, founder of Women's Film Festival of Ankara. Turkey

Naky Sy Savané: Actor, activist for the rights of women and children, president of the Mirrors and Cinemas of Africa Festival in Marseille. Côte d'Ivoire

Fatima Alaoui Bel Hassan, designer and visual artist. Morocco

Houssein Fahmi, Actor, the festival pays tribute to him for his role in several films related to the theme of the Festival. Egypt

Film Lesson

Testimony of  the unique, rich and diverse journey of an actress, singer and writer: Louise Portal, Canada

Scriptwriting Workshop

Scenarios focusing on women facilitated by Moroccan, Egyptian, French and African professionals for two categories of audiences: students from the ages of 15 to 20 years old and authors of written stories not yet initiated to scriptwriting.


On the current state of progress of women directors in sub-Saharan Africa, the singular nature of their professional journey and the specificity of their perspectives on women’s issues.
Translation from French to English by Beti Ellerson

14 September 2011

Women in Film Indaba 2011 hosted by the National Film and Video Foundation

Photo from the National Film
and Video Foundation Album
Report on the Indaba originally published by the National Film and Video Foundation, 08 September 2011

The National Film and Video Foundation hosted its first Women in Film Indaba in Johannesburg on Monday 05th September. The purpose of the Indaba was to bring together women in the film and television industries to discuss and chart a road map for the empowerment of women in the sector.

NFVF deputy chairperson Zama Mkosi, who facilitated the session, highlighted that the event was an NFVF Council initiative seeking to engage women to come up with issues relevant to the industry. "At the end of our tenure we need to have seen tangible results when it comes the empowerment of women in the film industry," she said.

During her opening remarks, the NFVF Acting Chief Executive Officer, Karen Son thanked the guests for their input, which will assist in coming up with the required strategy. She further said the industry needs to recognize that the realization of all strategic initiatives requires ongoing collaborations and co-operation with government departments, policy and legislation formulation institutions, and other stakeholders. "As the NFVF we are committed to the principles of co-operative and intergovernmental relations," she added.

Women of the Sun's (WOS) - Eve Rantseli and SA Screen Federation (SASFED)’s Thandie Brewer gave presentations. Eve highlighted that research has proven that the industry employs more than 20000 people, of which women don't play a critical role. "In the last six years, out of 20 films made in South Africa, only 6 were directed by women," she said. She encouraged women to collaborate with each other and have screenings of women films. "The world revolves around the audiovisual media therefore women should have a voice and document their lives, events and South African stories," she added.

Thandie Brewer touched on issues of mentorship, revisiting apprenticeship, creating bursaries for women; and thanked the NFVF for the short film competition and slate funding which are targeted in empowering the women.

The NFVF Council Chairperson, Mmabatho Ramagoshi concurred with her deputy Zama Mkosi and stressed that the Council supports the strategy that talks to training and development. "We need to see the women being the majority of bursary recipients, we need to increase the volume of films produced, with a target of 30 short films per annum. The NFVF and its Council aims to support 5 TV concepts, create awareness especially in the previously disadvantaged communities." She also added that the empowerment of women and youth is key in the strategy and that "we need to create access to films in the township by revisiting the bioscope model."

The Chairperson promised the guests that the event would be held annually to ensure that all the inputs from the industry are noted and activated.

The NFVF continues to support efforts of women in the sector by supporting initiatives including that of Women of the Sun. Other programmes that the NFVF currently launched are NFVF Short Film competition and proposal for Slate Funding that encourages the women to take part. The closing dates for submission for both short film competition and slate funding are 16th of September and 21st of September 2011.

For more information email Communications and Public Affairs Manager Naomi Mokhele.

12 September 2011

African Women in Cinema at People2People 2011, Johannesburg

People to People 2011, held in Johannesburg, South Africa from 12-14 September, includes an impressive line-up of African women in cinema among the participants.

"People to People 2011: a dynamic event dedicated to the art, business and technology of documentary in Africa." A bi-annual event that began in 2007, with the broad aim of bringing people and organizations together, to strengthen the role and the scope of documentary film in Africa. 

The following African women in cinema are guests for 2011:
African Film Festival New York - Sierra Leone/USA
Nomadis-Carthage Film Festival-Fond Sud - Tunisia
Independent Filmmaker - Sudan

Independent Filmmaker - Egypt/France/South Africa

Festival Programmer - Sweden-Ethiopia/South Africa

Independent Filmmaker - South Africa

Independent Filmmaker - Kenya

Filmmaker/ Artist - Botswana

Independent Filmmaker - Egypt

Independent Filmmaker - Kenya

Independent Filmmaker - CineArts Afrika - Kenya

Villiant Ndosowa
Malawi Film Festival/Independent Filmmaker - Malawi

Joyce Nyairo
Ford Foundation - Kenya

Independent Filmmaker/ Sesotho Media Development - Malawi

Independent Filmmaker - Kenya

Independent Filmmaker - Kenya

08 September 2011

Rama Thiaw, A Young Filmmaker in the Struggle

Rama Thiaw, photo ©Sabine Cessou
Article by Sabine Cessou republished from Slate Afrique,  8 September, 2011. Translated from French to English by Beti Ellerson

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.

Rama Thiaw, 33 years old, talks about herself and explores the way that she films Dakar, with her camera, free, in constant movement with perceptive glimpses at the details and surroundings of her city.

Her subject matter also has a purpose. From wrestling, the national passion of Senegal, she goes to reggae, another African passion. Her endeavor: to relate the politics of the last thirty years on the continent through reggae. A vast subject which has already taken her to Abidjan and Bamako, with future locations in Johannesburg following the footsteps of the late Lucky Dube, the South African reggae singer.

First Weapon

Rama Thiaw is of a strong character. While studying in Paris, she pursued both a Masters in economics at the Université de Paris I and a diploma in filmmaking at Université de Paris-St. Denis.  Social issues are her focus. While making her first short film on youth and religion in France, she navigated between the Aubervilliers suburb and the Stalingrad metro station. She also produced short episodes for the politically engaged Parisian television station, Zaléa TV, but quickly ran into hurdles.

No one wanted me to film, no one believed in what I wrote,” she states.

In 2005, she packs her bags and leaves, returning to Senegal. There she is still disillusioned.

At first I went to television stations and communication companies. I was a camera operator and I was looking for work. Either I was not given an interview or throughout the interview the French intern next to me was given the attention. When one looks like a rapper and comes from working class neighborhoods… Moreover, there is the idea in Senegal that women cannot have technical skills.

Rama Thiaw is unrelenting. After all, she knows she must fight.  She grew up in Pikine. Her father came from the Tally Bou Mack neighborhood, (the big road in Wolof) and her mother from Guinaw Rail (behind the tracks). Names she mentions with pride, despite their bad reputation and high levels of poverty.

It is the last part of Dakar, populated by the poorest. Up until the last two or three years there was no power, and before 2004-2005, no water, we had to go to the public tap,” she says.

Both Feet in the Ring

From 2005 to 2009 she wrote her film on the Boul Fallé (don’t worry) Generation, which was born with hip-hop in 1990’s Dakar.

Boul Fallé is the title of a song by the rap group Positive Black Soul (PBS) before becoming the name of the wrestling team founded by Mohamed Ndao Tyson, a Senegalese wrestling star with which thousands of young Senegalese identify. Tyson, who came from nothing, brings hope and shows the way forward. By dint of determination and hard work he became a success.

Rama Thiaw grew up with the Boul Fallé Generation that believed in the "Sopi" (change) proposed by Abdoulaye Wade before being elected president in 2000. For her, the recent developments in Senegal evolved in three stages:

"In the 1980s our parents went to France, we had a French minister, Jean Collin in our government. In the 1990s, young people rejected the French model and French intervention in national affairs. It was about finding out who we were. Wrestling, our national sport, forgotten after independence, had an important role in this quest. It also was a means to break away from these prejudices: the youth of the Dakar suburbs were tired of being treated like bandits, aggressors. In the third stage came the Sopi in 2000, and young people have begun to find their own path, knowing there was nothing else to expect..."
Finally in France she found a Franco-Ivorian producer who was interested in her topic. With Philippe Lacôte she rewrote her script to tone down the aspects deemed "too anthropological." Moreover, she participated in writing residencies with Africadoc in St. Louis, Senegal, an international program for the development of African documentary filmmaking. Then, without a budget, she filmed her documentary, doing the main part of the production work on site.

"I managed to do it," she says, smiling. She obtained a grant of 750 euros from Senegal, after laying siege at the film bureau of the Ministry of Culture.
"It does not look like much, but for us it was a lot of money."

Initially, she wanted to follow Tyson. When she approached him, he had already played in L’Appel des Arènes an adaptation of Aminata Sow Fall’s novel by the Senegalese director Cheikh Ndiaye. She was not able to pay him the desired funds. So she decided to follow Nguer, a wrestler of the Boul Fallé wrestling team in Pikine.

"One may find the spirit of Boul Fallé in hip hop. It is made of liberalism, resistance and involves taking the freedom to own one’s work. To take charge while thinking of others, which is what Tyson did, by investing his money in a team in Pikine to train other young people from the same disadvantaged backgrounds."

Her aesthetic is that of the hip-hop music and action movies that she loves. No fixed frame, the camera moves, as in the Brazilian film City of God [Fernando Meirelles, 2002].
"We're tired of seeing the same brown shades in African films: people who are all black in the same way, while there are people with shades of sand-brown, blue-black and black-brown. In Senegal, there is plenty of light and color. We worked around the camera to change the way of filming. We de-saturated certain colors and saturated others during the shooting, without the classic calibration on white paper or white skin, as everyone does on television or in the cinema.”
Rudolph, her chief operator, fell ill in the middle of filming. Rama Thiaw grabbed the camera and continued working without asking any questions. At one point, her documentary goes from a social perspective to a kind of sensual poem on the bodies of men in training.

"Well-built, hefty men, they’re not my type! But I find them beautiful. It was important to show it. The black man is beautiful. We are always into models that are not our own. Let’s show positive role models, it is important to change the images."
A Fresh Look Amid the Wrestlers

Rama Thiaw filmed a sometimes-violent sport, as Senegalese wrestling is done with punching. She wanted to show the pacifist side, with boys who are committed to great mutual respect, as well as to its spiritual dimension. In rituals prior to the match, the fighters go into a trance, as Nguer is seen in front of the camera. Was being a woman a handicap with the wrestlers? She reverses the question.

"It is because I am from Pikine that I film Pikine in this manner. All the brave people of Senegal come from there. I had to show that I was determined, that I was not there to have fun."

In the male world of wrestlers, it was not yet won. But Rama Thiaw went slowly: at first, she stayed by the door and at the end, she was among the wrestlers, sharing with them a "beautiful human experience." The voice off at the end of Boul Fallé, a film which unfortunately is only visible in film festivals and mobile cinema gatherings across Senegal, provides the key to her topic:

"Let's become again the noble warriors who we are."


02 September 2011

Rahel Zegeye: The Experiences of an Ethiopian Migrant Worker and Filmmaker in Lebanon

Rahel Zegeye from Ethiopia, talks about her passion for filmmaking and her desire to tell the experiences of Ethiopian migrant workers in Lebanon, where she lives and works.  

Janie Shen of Migrant Workers Task Force has this to say about Rahel Zegeye: "A very talented and unique woman, she is most probably the one domestic worker in Lebanon (or the world?) who has put all her savings and free time to filmmaking."

Rahel, you have been living and working in Lebanon for some years and made the film Beirut focusing on the experiences of a group of Ethiopian migrant workers living in Lebanon. What brought you to Lebanon and what inspired you to make the film?

I came to Lebanon because of the unemployment situation in Ethiopia. I was inspired to make the film because of the bad situation of the Ethiopian girls working over here as housemaid. Beirut is a drama about a group of Ethiopian girls in Lebanon working as domestic workers. It is loosely based on the Ethiopian girls that I have encountered during my ten years working in the country.

Please talk a bit about the plot of the film.

The story centers on Hiwot, Z, Zufan, Misir, Saba and Hana who are friends but lead very different lives. Hiwot, left her employer’s house a long time ago and started a life earning a living as a prostitute. She parties, smokes and drinks and seems very happy and free. The story starts when she wants to find a co-worker, another girl who could satisfy her clients (mainly Sudanese workers). Saba, still a housemaid, complains about her ‘madam’ and wishes to run away. One day she takes the courage and joins Hiwot in her free life, much against the objections of her two good friends Misir and Hana. Misir and Hana, both working as maids, represent the ‘good girls’ in the story. Although Hana is being mistreated by her madam she does not want to run away and join the ‘naughty girls’ but just wishes to return home to her country. The lives of the girls get intertwined once Saba, encouraged by Hiwot, goes and lives with an Ethiopian man named Yared. Yared is in fact married to Zufan, but is not a man to be trusted.

Why did you decide to make the film?

My main aim with the film was to show a different perspective on the lives of Ethiopian workers in Lebanon. We often hear stories of abuse and bad treatment of Lebanese employers towards their foreign domestic workers (maids). Most media and organizations working to help migrant domestic workers (MDWs) in Lebanon portray the worker as a helpless victim, her fate ruled by evil agencies and bad madams. Although this often does happen and is definitely an issue that needs attention, reality is much more complicated. I want to shed light on the inner lives and thoughts of a domestic worker, an aspect which is usually hidden from the Lebanese and foreign public.

Many Ethiopian MDWs who come to Lebanon decide to run away from their employers. Some do this due to real reasons of mistreatment, others don’t. They might be tempted to leave the boring household chores and duties at the employer’s house for a ‘freer’ existence. Once they leave the employer’s house and break their contract they do not have any documents and are illegal to stay in Lebanon. More than often they will choose to sell their bodies for a living whilst enjoying their freedom. They live life on the fast lane: drinking, smoking, partying and sleeping with many men usually without any form of protection. The film tackles sensitive topics such as morality, prostitution and HIV/AIDS. These are important issues that need to be brought into attention to both Ethiopian women in Lebanon but also back in Ethiopia, before they decide to go work in Lebanon. MDWs need to understand the risks that are involved when you runaway from an employer. Although many employers are difficult to live with and work for (and some outright impossible), the truth is that they still offer some protection against the risks of the outside society.

You have put forth a tremendous effort to make the film and have incurred distribution difficulties. How did you develop an interest in filmmaking and what was the process of making the film.

I started working on the film in 2004 and it was finished a few months before the July 2006 Israel War. Before making the film, I showed my script to the church as well as the Ethiopian embassy in Lebanon and they approved it. The editing and finishing was done in Ethiopia with the support of Alem Tilahun (Haile Gebrselassie’s wife). Alem was very supportive of my project and would have liked to help me distribute it. However, once I returned to Beirut with the finished film the embassy did not want to give the final approval for distribution. This has stopped the process of showing my film to a wider audience back in Ethiopia, which is my main target audience for this film.

All the actresses and actors in the film are migrant workers from Ethiopia and Sudan. Both my sister Hiwot and I have attended drama and acting school when we were younger. As domestic workers we only have Sundays off, so we could film only on Sundays. It took two years to finish the filming. During this time I put in all my earnings to produce the film.

What has been the reception of the film by the public as a whole and more particularly the Ethiopian migrant workers in Lebanon? 

The film has not been seen by the public because I do not have the means nor anyone to assist me in Lebanon as the country is in continuous strife and war.  After the failed attempt of getting Beirut to be approved for distribution, I encountered my own troubles. I had a residence problem for some years because my boss left the country during the 2006 war, leaving me homeless and without any legal documents. Now I have a new boss and I am legal. And I have found a good employer who supports my filmmaking.  

What is your relationship with Ethiopia and Ethiopians in the larger Ethiopian Diaspora?

My relation with Ethiopia? Well my parents are there and I continue to keep in touch with them. As for the Ethiopians in Lebanon, I do my best to help them, but it is not easy, since most of them have problems with their employers.  

You have expressed an interest in producing a dramatic, fictional web-series about the lives of a group of Ethiopian women in Lebanon along the same line as the film, how do you envision this?

I have many ideas and hope to begin a new project but this time I would need real funding and support from a wider public. I hope with the support of organizations like Migrant Workers Task Force, we can make this happen! 

A special thanks to Janie Shen and Alex Sham who assisted me in arranging the interview, and Janie with language communication. They are founding members of Migrant Workers Task Force (MWTF) who got to know Rahel and about her film aspirations during a language class initiative for migrant workers that they set up in Beirut. MWTF is an initiative that supports migrant workers from many countries around issues on education and awareness-raising about the rights of migrant workers in Lebanon.

Links for support for Rahel Zegeye's film project

Migrant Workers Task Force:

Interview by Beti Ellerson, September 2011

Since this report there has been an outpouring of interest and support for Rahel Zegeye and her cultural projects from around the world.

During the past three years Rahel Zegeye's work and advocacy for the rights of migrant domestic workers have become increasingly visible. In 2013, she wrote, directed and produced the play “Shouting without a Listener”. The play relates the experiences of Lily, a migrant domestic worker, who fights against discrimination in Lebanese society and the inefficiencies of the Ethiopian embassy in dealing with these issues. In addition, she created the non-governmental organisation, Mesewat to raise awareness about migrant working conditions in Lebanon and advocate for them to be protected by law.

See Mesewat:

[i] Rahel Zegeye: The Experiences of an Ethiopian Migrant Worker and Filmmaker in Lebanon

01 September 2011

A Conversation with Yaba Badoe

Yaba Badoe
(photo by Niall McDiamid)
Yaba Badoe talks about her experiences as writer and filmmaker, her film The Witches of Gambaga and its reception, and her current documentary project about the renowned Ghanaian writer, Ama Ata Aidoo.

Yaba, tell us a bit about yourself, your experiences with cinema growing up in Ghana. 

I’m a Ghanaian–British documentary filmmaker and writer. After graduating from King’s College, Cambridge University, I worked as a civil servant at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ghana, before returning to the UK to do a second degree. I then became a General Trainee with the BBC. I’ve taught in Spain and Jamaica and worked as a producer and director for the main terrestrial channels in Britain. My TV credits include Black and White, a ground-breaking investigation into race and racism in Bristol, using hidden cameras for BBC1; I Want Your Sex, an arts documentary exploring images and myths surrounding black sexuality in Western art, literature, film and photography for Channel 4 and a six-part series, VSO, for ITV. I go back and forth between London and Accra and work for part of the year as a Visiting Scholar at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, where I make films for the Audio-visual Unit there.

I left Ghana to attend school in Britain when I was very young, so my memories of cinema in Ghana are early ones of Saturday night trips to the Rex Cinema off the High Street in Accra, to watch American movies. I loved them and vividly recall crying passionately at a particularly poignant scene (so it seemed to me back then) of a blonde-haired girl, around the same age as me, up there on the screen, furiously tearing up a beautiful blue party dress. If she didn’t want the dress, I reasoned, she could at least give it to me! I’ve loved cinema ever since for its power to transport me into another world.

How did you develop an interest in filmmaking?

I’ve enjoyed watching movies for as long as I can remember. However, my decision to become a filmmaker evolved gradually while I was working for an MPhil in Development Studies at Sussex University. It seemed to me that the ideas we were grappling with at the time: the subordination of women in the development process, neo-liberal and Keynesian approaches to economics, the histories of colonisation and imperialism, were much too important to restrict to academic debate within ivory towers. These were ideas that I wanted to disseminate to the widest possible audience to stimulate discussion and change.

I also remember watching Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home at school – a TV drama about homelessness. I was around 14 at the time and the film gripped me completely. It made me want to improve the situation of homeless families in Britain. I guess, ever since then, I’ve always known deep down that film can galvanise public opinion and change attitudes. I know because it happened to me! 

Your film, The Witches of Gambaga has drawn a great deal of interest and has received awards as well. Tell us about the subject and how you became interested in making the film.

I first heard about the Witches’ camp at Gambaga in January 1995 when I was covering a story in Tamale for the BBC World Service. I was working as a stringer for the BBC’s Network Africa back then. I returned to Tamale in March of the same year, hoping to make a day trip to Gambaga to interview some of the women living at the camp. It took me a lot longer to gain access to them than I’d anticipated. When I eventually got to interview three of the women’s representatives, I was shocked to discover that two of them actually believed they were ‘witches’. Tia, who told me she’d been wrongly accused of witchcraft, was quickly forced to retract her statement. I was horrified to find that women accused of witchcraft were forced to undergo a trial by ordeal. Depending on how a chicken died – with its wings facing the sky or the ground – you were either a witch or not. I had to spend the night in Gambaga. I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking what would happen to me if I was accused of witchcraft and the chicken test went against me. How would I let my family down south know? It was then, I suspect, that alleged witches became more than objects of my curiosity. Instead they became women I identified with, because I could see that but for an accident of birth, I could easily be one of them!

The objective of the film was to build awareness. Have the women who are the subject of the film actually seen it? 

The documentary took a long time to complete and eventually came together with help from my co-producer Amina Mama, the women’s movement in Ghana and grants from the EU’s Cultural Support Initiative in Ghana, the African Women’s Development Fund, Pathways to Women’s Empowerment, Ghana, and the NGO, Forward.  Unfortunately, between the time we started filming in February 2005 and completion in July 2010, three of the women who appeared in the film: Asara, a businesswoman, Ma Hawa, the head woman of the camp, and Alima, who we filmed returning home, died. 

At present, Netright – a coalition of Ghanaian women’s groups, who launched the film in Accra this February, is organising a launch and capacity building programme for those working with alleged ‘witches’ in Northern Ghana. I’m sure that during the course of the screenings in the north many of the women who took part in the film will finally see it. 

Gladys Lariba and Simon Ngota who are in the documentary and play a crucial role in rehabilitating ‘witches’ were able to attend the launch in Accra. Gladys Lariba, especially, is as keen as I am, that the residents at the Gambaga camp get the opportunity to see themselves on film.

What were their responses to the film? 

Gladys Lariba and Simon Ngota who worked at the camp for the Presbyterian Church’s Go Home Project – to help alleged witches return home to their communities - are very pleased with the film. They appreciate that they can use it for advocacy and to raise money to highlight issues of violence towards women, who they deal with every day.

What are the reactions of Ghanaians toward the film? 

At the screenings I’ve attended, I’ve noticed that most Ghanaians have been deeply moved by the testimonies of women in the documentary: women who’ve been torn away from their families, who’ve had their livelihoods and property destroyed and have been beaten up and tortured because they’re believed to be witches. When the film was screened at the British Council in Accra, several middle-class women got up to speak about how the belief that women are witches had touched their lives. From broadcasters to scientists, it seems from the response we’ve received, that no woman anywhere in Ghana is exempt from the threat of being accused of witchcraft. The Witches of Gambaga has stimulated passionate debate in newspapers, on radio, television and at universities in Accra and Cape Coast.

Have you seen results in terms of raised consciousness and a call to action regarding the belief and treatment of so-called witches?

It’s really hard to determine the long-term impact of any social issue film. For me, the fact that The Witches of Gambaga is playing a part in a national debate that started when a 70-year-old woman, Amma Hemmeh, was burnt to death in Tema in November 2009 is great. The Commission for Human Rights in Ghana is thinking of using the documentary as an educational tool in schools and Netright is planning to use the film as a campaigning tool to change attitudes towards women believed to be witches. These attitudes, which scapegoat and demonise vulnerable women and children and ostracise them as ‘witches’, need to be questioned and debated. For example, Amnesty International in Kenya is already using the film with teachers and students in its human rights clubs in south-western Kenya. Apparently, every year, in this part of Kenya, elderly women and sometimes men are violently attacked, robbed, rendered homeless and even killed following accusations that they’re witches. If The Witches of Gambaga can play a part in promoting change by helping to stop violence towards women and men alleged to be witches, it will be a great step forward.

You are also a writer. How do you work in the two mediums?

I enjoy both disciplines enormously. Throughout my career I’m combined a love of film with a passion for writing. In my opinion the two disciplines bleed into each other. Making films enhances the skills I’m developing as a writer: a keen sense of narrative structure, clarity of expression, pacing and nuances of texture. When making documentaries I use my sensibility to convey the stories and emotions of other people. I’m not supposed to make stories up – a pleasure I reserve for fiction.

In your novel, True Murder you also explore witchcraft in telling your story...

I started writing True Murder long before I began making The Witches of Gambaga. I think anyone who’s spent time in Ghana is aware of how religious and superstitious many Ghanaians of all ages are. Ajuba, the narrator of True Murder is typical in this regard. However, if the novel is about anything, it’s about an intense friendship between two adolescent girls – both outsiders. Polly Venus and Ajuba Benson’s friendship is what holds the story together and gives it its power. Their passionate friendship accommodates ambivalence and attachment in equal measure. It may be a ‘girl-thing’ but it seemed to me that the only way to convey the full emotional horror of a child’s murder was to ensure that that child was loved intensely by another child – Ajuba in this case.

I enjoy Ama Ata Aidoo's work very much! What is her role in Ghanaian culture and why did you choose to focus your next documentary on her and her work?

As a novelist with roots in both Ghana and Britain, I’m acutely aware of the significance of women’s voices in recounting alternative histories. Ama Ata Aidoo’s life and writing give those of us working on Women Writing Africa: Ama Ata Aidoo at 70 – Amina Mama, poet and critic Abena Busia, and myself – the opportunity to profile an African literary icon as a means to tell the story of post-colonial politics and culture in Ghana through the eyes of a prolific, colourful, Ghanaian intellectual. Her short stories novels and plays have achieved international acclaim. However, Ama Ata Aidoo is a writer with a difference: an artist prepared to dip her toes in the turbulent waters of ‘revolutionary’ change to serve her country as Minister of Education. The idea that creativity can be used as a force to lambast, expose and fight corruption and authoritarianism, as well as instigate change through action, is a form of creativity that is fascinating. All suggestions on how this documentary can be funded will be most welcome!

Interview by Beti Ellerson, September 2011


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