|©Stefanie Van de Peer|
Stefanie Van de Peer from Belgium has crossed the African continent doing research on women in literature and cinema. She has published widely on Tunisian, Egyptian, Moroccan, Syrian and Lebanese films.
Stefanie, your Masters and doctoral studies have specifically focused on gender and Africa. In fact, your first degree at the University of Ghent also dealt with women. What inspired your interest in women in Africa as a topic of study?
My degree in Ghent was in literature, and so I read postcolonial theory, and African poetry and novels. It was at that moment that I became intensely interested in languages, and studied a bit of Afrikaans. It is very close to Flemish, my mother tongue, yet the subtle differences in pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary opened to me a world of shades and nuances. It taught me to think about how big the world really is and how small my world had been up until then.
I travelled to South Africa on a scholarship, for three months of research at Stellenbosch, into the poetry of Wilma Stockenstrom. Many of her collections were at that university, and there was also a special collection there with her protest poetry under Apartheid. It was very interesting how a woman who wrote what were to me the gentlest poems, romantic and introspective, could also write these poignant rebellious poems that did not necessarily sound rebellious but were so nonetheless. Again, I was enchanted with the nuances of language and poetry. So it is those similarities and differences that inspired me, the creativity and the confidence I encountered in women’s poetry and art.
My very long dissertation got a distinction. This was the first time in my life I felt I had done something important, something that would make a difference in the world. It did not in the end, but it changed me a lot. My first time away from home, alone, in Africa, utterly changed me.
Your Masters degree in contemporary film and literature examined alternative forms of feminisms in sub-Sahara Africa. What were your findings, how did you theorize these “alternative forms” in your study of Nigerian women’s literature? Were there references to cinema in any way, especially as it relates to female representation?
When I finished my first degree in Belgium, I took on a job in advertising in the UK, and decided to also do a Masters degree, part-time. Being in the UK, away from home, gave me a new insight into politics. Being away gives you a different perspective on things that have seemed so normal for so long. For my Masters I read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and realized the secrets of Belgium’s history in the Congo. I became very angry: we had not learned about this in school!
So in Newcastle, I was taught by Jack Mapanje, a Malawian poet who had to flee his country because of the poetry he wrote. I read prison literature with him, and every essay I wrote for my MA turned out to be about African literature or film. I realized I had found something I passionately cared about, and I wanted to learn more and more about this massive continent where Europeans had just gone and stolen everything, not just material goods and raw materials, but also people. I guess I was outraged by history and politics and wanted to put things right, for myself, even though maybe I couldn’t. For one essay I decided to write about African women’s literature, and I came across Flora Nwapa’s Efuru and loved it so much I wanted to write my dissertation on it. I read all her novels and really loved the spiritual world of goddesses and stories of strong women and mothers. I had studied feminism and gender studies, but saw resistance to my form of feminism, which was new. I read Ifi Amadiume, Obioma Nnaemeka, I learned about womanism, Africana womanism, a feminism that was founded on equality between men and women, and on collaboration between them, on the community.
I think that for me it is reassuring to know that there are many different forms of feminism, that there are feminisms. It also showed me that I had rather strong opinions, and that I was interested in history and politics. Having worked in advertising and journalism, I had become more and more interested in the moving image as a continuation of my interest in literature. I wanted to study journalism and documentary making in Africa. I wanted to continue to hear different voices – not selected for me by Western media but offered to me by those African women I wanted to learn from.
You recently completed your doctoral research on documentary filmmaking by North African women at the University of Stirling in Scotland. For your research you focused on the countries, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Which filmmakers did you research for your study and what were the factors in your selection?
When I applied for my PhD, I intended to research a Tanzanian documentary, These Hands by Flora Mbugu-Schelling, Anne Laure Folly’s films from Togo and Ateyyat El Abnoudy from Egypt, to get a transnational perspective on the documentary form in Africa, and to look at the different regions’ feminisms. However, as I started my research with the films of Ateyyat El Abnoudy, and read about North African cinema, it became obvious that the Maghreb was seen as something separate from African cinema. Not only that, it was also seen as separate from Middle Eastern cinema. It did not seem to fit anywhere and as such was usually ignored or forgotten. Because of this, I became more interested, and decided to focus on North African film.
I decided to focus on the pioneering women documentary makers of North Africa: Ateyyat El Abnoudy from Egypt, Selma Baccar from Tunisia, Assia Djebar from Algeria and Izza Genini from Morocco. They have been marginalised within the limited space preserved for the field of African filmmaking. I illustrated how North African cinema has suffered from neglect in studies on African as well as Arab culture and particularly African and Arab cinema.
What were your premise, theoretical framework and methodology? And what were your findings?
My approach was transnational and Bakhtinian in the sense that I cultivated an awareness of being an outsider looking in. I promoted a constant self-awareness as a Western European and an academic interested in the area that is defined as the Middle East. Like the documentary makers, I took the nation state as a starting point so as to understand its effects, in order to be able to critique it and place the films in a transnational context. The documentaries in my thesis illustrate that films of a socio-political nature contest the notion of a singular national identity and can become a means of self-definition. Asserting one’s own cultural and national identity, and subjectively offering the spectator an individual’s interpretation of that self-definition, is a way towards female emancipation. Going against the grain and avoiding stereotypes, evading censorship and dependence on state control, these directors find ways to give a different dimension to their identity.
I suggest that their common aesthetic is one that develops moderation in terms of context, content and style. There is a cinematic way of implicitly subverting not only the (colonial) past but also the (neo-colonial) present which goes further than re-inscription or compensation: new modes of resistance co-exist with the more rebellious and heroic ones. These women’s films rewrite, imply and contemplate rather than denounce and attack heroically. They do not reject as much as interrogate their situations, counting on the empathic and intersubjective abilities of the spectator. I conclude with the idea that moderation is the foundational concept of a post-Third Cinema transnational aesthetic in North Africa. Ateyyat El Abnoudy, Selma Baccar, Assia Djebar and Izza Genini are pioneers of women’s filmmaking in North Africa, who opened up a space for underrepresented subjects, voices and gazes.
You also co-direct the Africa in Motion festival in Edinburgh...
I met Lizelle Bisschoff, who founded Africa in Motion, a film festival dedicated to showcasing the best of African cinema in the UK. We travelled to FESPACO together, and decided I was going to join the team of the festival, with the explicit goal to bring North African films to the attention of the audiences. Co-directing AiM with her has been an amazingly enriching experience, bringing films to the attention of audiences who would otherwise not have had the chance to see these films. Inviting filmmakers also enriched my personal experience of the festival and of filmmaking in Africa. It gave us both the opportunity to engage with the films we wanted to write about on a public level – instead of staying in the academic ivory tower, we were able to really set up a dialogue with audiences and film lovers about African film, and the lack of it in mainstream cinema exhibition. That is where my interests lie now: I am interested in transnational production of films, and am especially preoccupied with the (lack of) distribution channels.
Did your Master's research influence in any way your approach for your doctoral study?
Because I was not necessarily completely familiar with all film theories, I used postcolonial literary theory to approach my films and my women initially. During the course of the PhD I of course became more familiar with lots of African film theorists, and feminist film theory, but I kind of devised my own way into transnational documentaries, combining my literary knowledge with my new cinematic findings. It was really interesting.
Why the transition from literature to cinema?
The transition from literature to film came naturally: I became more politically minded and activist, and had always had an interest in the concept of representation and self-representation. This was more explicitly done and problematised in documentary film than any other form I knew. However, I did have to learn about film theory, especially feminist film theory, so I read Laura Mulvey. But this was not satisfactory for me. I had to find transnational feminist theorists Ella Shohat and Chandra Talpade Mohanty, I interviewed my women filmmakers, I read a lot of French theory. Nothing really formed a tight theoretical background however, and so my methodology really rooted itself in the interviews, and the women’s individual views on feminism and women’s roles in North Africa/Middle East. I read books on Islam and women, Fatima Mernissi, Leila Ahmed, etc. and am now hoping to build on my methodology to come up with a reasonable new way into women’s transnational cinema.
In what ways is the study of literature and cinema similar? How are the approaches different?
The similarities I found were great: here was again a new form of feminism for me, that was indeed not so different from the womanism I had discovered during my Master's. Again the community featured very prominently, and so did motherhood. At the same time, I liked the subtlety with which these women, despite their protests against feminism, were so preoccupied with equality and the frustration with despotism, I really liked the ambiguity about terminology, as it made me think again about words and their impact.
Perhaps you can also talk about the differences and similarities of researching women in North Africa and sub-Sahara Africa.
I want to be careful with essentialising the differences, but broadly I think there is more sensuality and outspokenness in sub-Sahara Africa, versus the permissibility in North Africa. This of course depends on the political climate the artwork/film was made in – if censorship is all-encompassing, and the filmmaker does not want to be exiled, she needs to bend and break the rules in order to make films that are satisfactory to her, while still working within the boundaries set out by the censor. This subtle dissidence is intriguing and reveals the amazing creativity behind films. The literature I read by Flora Nwapa was moreover accepted in the canon of African literature in English language, whereas the North Africans I studied were not.
You are presently doing research at the Five Colleges Women’s Studies Research Center in Massachusetts. What is the subject of your research and your future plans regarding your interest on women and cinema in Africa?
I am still working on transnational feminist documentary making and will continue to do so. I am looking at Flora Mbugu-Schelling’s These Hands this week, thinking about the voice and the gaze in her film. Their hands, their voices and their sense of community make of these women literally a body of sensuality under the duress of hard labour.
But mostly, I now look at the younger generations making documentaries in the Maghreb, Egypt and also in the Levant. I am simultaneously scared and excited about what is happening in the Maghreb and the rest of the Arab world during the Arab Revolutions. I think it can potentially open doors for women documentary makers, and indeed it is already doing so. Nadia El Fani from Tunisia, a few other young filmmakers in Egypt and some women in Syria are confronting their recent history head on. Women in Syria are using the revolution as a backdrop and central theme to new films, shot digitally and secretly.
I want to keep trying to make these and other films available more widely. I am especially concerned about distribution. People at festivals everywhere are talking about the optimism and opportunities surrounding transnational co-productions, but I think one of the major things to address is the difficulty of seeing these films. We know they are there, but it is hard to find them. Ideally, I’d like to go into distribution and devise a way of overcoming this major hurdle. Realistically, I am going to keep writing about them, teaching them and organizing festivals or small events to draw people’s attention to films from Africa and the Middle East.
Interview with Stefanie Van de Peer by Beti Ellerson, October 2011