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14 May 2013

Keynote: "40 years of cinema by women of Africa" by Beti Ellerson. Colloquy: Francophone African Women Filmmakers: 40 years of cinema (1972-2012), Paris, 23 and 24 November 2012

Keynote: "40 years of cinema by women of Africa" by Beti Ellerson. Colloquy: Francophone African Women Filmmakers: 40 years of cinema (1972-2012), Paris, 23 and 24 November 2012. [Translated from French]

Ever since I developed an interest in the subject of African women in cinema in the early 1990s, I have been reading and hearing incessant lamentations regarding the absence of women and the dearth of realistic and positive representation, lack of funding, of support, and all the other misfortunes that exist. Which lead me to do a study utilising another epistemological approach. A non deficit perspective reposing questions that take into account the potentials and assets rather than the disadvantages.

Masepeke Sekhukhuni, director of the Newtown Film and Television School in Johannesburg, South Africa, turns these challenges into advantages. At the time when filming equipment was still heavy and cumbersome, even intimidating for some women, Sekhukhuni provided encouragement, recalling that in their everyday tasks they have the strength to lift heavy buckets of water. Furthermore, they have the requisite knowledge to manage their household, which could be transferred to organising a film production.

Similarly, Burkinabé Fanta Régina Nacro took direct action in order to debunk the perceived notion that women lack the competence necessary to succeed in filmmaking. She states: "At the time when I made the film [Un certain matin, 1992], I was a diehard militant feminist. In cinema schools women were directed towards careers that were considered "for women" such as editor or script supervisor. Under the pretext that we have the aptitude only in these specific areas. Directing and cinematography were designated, even reserved for men. For my first film, I wanted to bring together a women-only crew to show that when a woman chooses this profession she invests in it all the way. And women are just as competent or even better than the guys!"(1)

Beyond all the reasons that women have not been successful, have been discouraged or have not dared even to dream, what has fascinated me are the reasons that they continue and are passionate about their work. I am interested in learning about their support networks and resources, their mentors and their references. What are the circumstances of their successes despite the litany of challenges? For me what is equally fascinating is to follow their path, to look at how they have gone from here to there, and to investigate the how and why of their choices.

The question that I postulate as point of departure is what does work? Rather than what does not. What do they have to bring to the profession?Rather than why they cannot, for whatever reason, make films.

This approach is much more representative of their realities in societies where women have always demonstrated ingenuity in whatever circumstance. 

I would like to begin by way of a pre-history to show precisely this spirit of reflection and intelligence that they have always had.

In his story "the tale of African cinema", the inimitable griot-historian Amadou Hampaté Ba, recounts the extraordinary experience of his mother Kadidia Pâté and her first experience with cinema. This fascinating and edifying encounter with cinema provides us with a unique introduction to a study of African women in cinema. 

Hampaté Bâ recalls, as an eight-year old boy, the first film screening in 1908 in his ancestral village Bandiagara in Mali, which the colonial governor ordered the marabouts to attend. Concerned about these "satanic ghosts that may confuse the faithful" they met to find a way to sabotage the event.

While she did not attend the event, Kadidia Pâté, a devout Muslim, adhered to their condemnations.

In 1934, despite the extant interdiction of the marabouts, she reluctantly agree to finally go with her son to the movie theatre. A short time after the screening she related the event to him in this way:

When we entered the cinema, before the film, you showed me a large white cloth on which a beam of light was projected which would then become images that we could look at and recognise. You also pointed out a small house situated rather high above us. You told me that it was in this room that the machine that spat images was located.

In this little house, there are several openings through which light shines; ending on the large white cloth. As soon as the operator, whom we do not see, begins his work, some noise comes out of the little house. It passes over our head while we are thrust into a deep darknessa metaphor of our ignorance of the unknown. The light came from the little house in measured portions, in thin lines, rather than all at once.

We were facing the large white cloth. It was only when looking at it that we could clearly see, make out and understand the images that unfolded in front of us.  We could see horses running, people walking, and villages emerging. We saw the thick vegetation in the rural area, the blooming countryside, the plain sharply fall away. All of this as if in a long reverie, clear and precise, as if daydreaming.

After having watched the large white cloth for a long time, I wanted, in its absence, to make out with my eyes alone, the images which came from the little house. What happened to me? As soon as I turned directly towards the opening in the little house, the beam of light that came out blinded me.  Although the images were in the rays, my eyes were not strong enough to detect it. I closed my eyes in order to concentrate, but my ears continued to clearly make out the sound that accompanied the light.

I found myself in the following situation: First, when I watch the big white cloth, I see the images and hear the sound. I benefit from both the image and sound. But, on the other hand, when I only use my eyes, I only hear the sound. I am not able to endure the powerful light, which blinds me. At the same time that there is some good in it, there are also disadvantages.

This deduction leads me to the conclusion that as long as the cloth is essential to clearly see the images and discern the origin of the sound, a mediator is needed between us and God to understand the divine message.*

Why this long excerpt which is part of the pre-history of African women's engagement with cinema?

If I may, this citation is used as a metaphor in the tradition of a triangular cinema, to borrow a concept developed by Haile Gerima: a dialogue between the filmmaker, critic and public. As I see this intersection between these three actors, in many ways, as the objective of this colloquy.

I am deeply inspired by the story of Kadidia Pâté. It is of great significance in two ways. That an early account of an African woman as spectator exists and that the narration also positions her as a point of reference in a discourse on African women and film criticism.

As one may note, Kadidia Pâté presaged the practice among African cineastes to develop their imaginary by closing their eyes: as the great Djibril Diop Mambety implored us. How often have we heard the elders of African cinema speak about their childhood experiences, where in silhouette behind a white cloth, the horses galloped and people walked across the screen.(2) Or with eyes closed, they imagined emerging villages, thick bushes, billowing plains and the countryside in full bloom--all the ingredients to make a film.

Kadidia Pâté's skepticism in 1908 as a young woman some one hundred years ago, transformed 25 years later when she finally attended a film screening in 1934, is a barometer of the evolution of African women in cinema, and also of women in cinema in countries where Islam is the dominant religion. Some 30 years after, Thérèse M’Bissine Diop of Senegal and Zalika Souley of Niger, both pioneering actresses in 1966, experienced many difficulties for the simple reason that they desired to follow a profession, motivated by their passion.

In turn, during the 1980s, Ivorian Naky Sy Savane, the granddaughter of an imam, confronted a society that continued to believe that an actress was a woman of loose morals. Presently, Tunisian filmmaker Nadia El Fani sought to confront a society in which religion imposes its laws on citizens who believe in another god, or still, on those who do not believe at all.

Having to confront a society that resists opening up to the world is an enormous challenge, but as Burkinabé Aï Keïta who interpreted the role of the queen Sarraounia (Med Hondo, 1987) asserts, gradually people have accepted them as artists, realising that they are making an important contribution to the cultural development of their country.

Another reason that I introduced this speech by invoking Kadidia Pâté is to show a continuity of the presence of women throughout a film history spanning more than a century, which since the last 40 years, women of Africa have been actively engaged.

And on this continuum, sprinkled with pauses, they have contributed to establishing the groundwork of African cinema.

Emerging during the independence movements in Africa in the 1950s and 60s, African cinema reappropriated the camera as a tool to fight against the colonial gaze which had dominated visual representations of Africa. The emergence of women in cinema coincided with this nascent period in the course of which a group of women professionals positioned themselves in the creation of a veritable African film culture. Notably, the pioneer of Senegalese media culture, Annette Mbaye d'Erneville, the first Senegalese to receive a diploma in journalism. Upon her return after studying in Paris, she immersed herself in her work, eventually broadcasting a seminal radio programme on cinema. More than a generation later, Congolese Monique Mbeka Phoba continued this practice, leading her to filmmaking. Inversely, Chadian Zara Mahamat Yacoub, also a filmmaker, is at present the president of the Chadian association of independent radio stations and directs radio programming in Chad.

Annette Mbaye d'Erneville has dedicated her life to cultural policy issues in the country and has forged important institutions such as the Senegalese Film Critics Association, RECIDAK, a Dakar-based film forum, and the Henriette Bathily Women's Centre. And as portrayed in Mère-bi, a film about her life by her son Ousmane William Mbaye, she continues still today.

In the same spirit, Guadeloupan Sarah Maldoror, a diasporan already with a pan African perspective, united in Paris with other artists from Africa and the Caribbean during the course of an intense period of cultural, intellectual and political discovery. Sarah Maldoror's contribution to lusophone African cinema was of seminal importance. In the 1960s she studied cinema in Moscow, and already active in the pro-independence movements, it is inevitable that she would follow the same anti-colonialist path in the themes of her films. Maldoror has always worked at the intersection of African and women's liberation and is mentor and reference to numerous women filmmakers, notably, Togolese filmmaker Anne-Laure Folly whose film Sarah Maldoror ou la nostalgie de l'utopie, traces the politically-engaged filmmaker's life.

Similarly, the experiences of Annette Mbaye d'Erneville and Sarah Maldoror reflect that of other students and artists living in Paris during a period of heightened consciousness, such as the trinity of négritude, Senghor, Césaire and Damas, of Africa and the diaspora, who came together to address important political issues using culture as a weapon. 

After independence the call evolved into a cry of the heart, and the role of culture would be an important tool to highlight Africa's contribution on a global scale. In 1966, six years after its independence, Senegal stepped on the world stage as its poet-president, Leopold Sedar Senghor hosted the first World Festival of Black Arts. The young teacher Safi Faye, was the official guide during the festivities, an experience that undoubtedly opened her eyes to the significance of culture and African art in the world.

Moreover, the work of Thérèse Sita-Bella and Efua Sutherland (both deceased) bears witness to the first cinematographic contributions of women. In 1963, Cameroonian Sita-Bella produced Tam Tam à Paris, a 30-minute filmed reportage of the tour of the National Dance Company of Cameroon, presented at the first FESPACO in 1969. Dramaturge and writer, Ghanaian Efua Sutherland produced the documentary Arabia: A Village Story in collaboration with the American broadcasting company, ABC. While they only made one film each, their trajectory reflects that of many African women who marry filmmaking with their other professions and social, political and cultural interests. For instance, Anne-Laure Folly who is also an international lawyer, and writer Tsitsi Dangarembga.

In the Maghreb and its diaspora in France, women took initial steps which would come to fruition in the 1970s. In 1968 Tunisian Moufida Tlatli went to France to study cinema, though at the time women were directed towards careers as editors. Nonetheless she immersed herself in cinema studies developing the requisite skills of filmmaker, which lead to the production of her first film, Le silence du palais in 1994. Arriving in France as a young adult in 1960, Moroccan Izza Genini immediate plunged into its cultural life, and in 1973 she created her production and distribution company. Similarly, the renowned writer Assia Djebar since the 1960s, elected to the Academie Française in 2005, took a sabbatical  from the world of literature to enter into the landscape of image-sound with her first film La Nouba des Femmes du Mont Chenoua in 1978.

At the beginning of the professionalisation of cinema in Africa, with the emergence of emblematic institutions such as FESPACO and FESPACI in the 1960s, women were at the forefront. While other institutions have developed since, these two structures remain a reference for continental cooperation and organisation in the cultural domain. Pioneer actress Zalika Souley of Niger, sat on the founding committee of FEPACI (Pan African Federation of Filmmakers), while Burkinabé Alimata Salambéré, a founding member of FESPACO (Pan African Film Festival of Ouagadougou), presided over the organising committee of the first festival, which her compatriot Odette Sangho was also a member.

Spurred by the United Nations Decade for Women (1975-1985), the 1970s launched a call to action in all areas of women's lives, according unprecedented global attention to women. Evolving into a universal movement for the promotion of women's rights and of feminist activism, it also played a significant role in raising consciousness throughout the continent. Following into the 1980s many women reiterated the UN Decade themes in their films, focusing on the empowerment of women and highlighting a woman's vision of economic, social and cultural development.

Following the growth of the second wave of feminism, its influence was apparent in several developments during the 1970s: women's studies in the academy, feminist film theory, and the critical analysis of the visual representation of women. From this seminal decade, a presence of African women in cinema slowly emerged. As one of the rare African women enrolled at the École nationale supérieure Louis-Lumière in the 1970s in Paris, pioneer Safi Faye recalls the curiosity around her enrolment at this prestigious film school.

The 1980s also witnessed a marked growth in film production by women. Many of the first generation of Burkinabé women in the 1980s, notably Fanta Régina Nacro, Valérie Kaboré and Aminata Ouedraogo, to name a few of international renown, entered the doors of INAFEC, the historic film school, based in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso which operated from 1976 to 1987.

Moreover, in East Africa, the first wave of Kenyan women of cinema began to study in the Film Training Department at the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication in the 1980s. As Kenyan scholar Wanjiku Béatrice Mukora observes, they have played a determinant role in the formation of a national cinema in Kenya.

This tendency spread to other regions, notably in Southern Africa. In Zimbabwe in the 1990s a cadre of women professionals of cinema was formed around the organisation, Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe (WFOZ). In 2001, WFOZ launched a women's film festival, and in 2009, established the Distinguished Woman in African Cinema award.

In the same way, the 1990s witnessed the strengthening of networks and a visible presence on a continental and international scale. Having already established the groundwork at the colloque Images de Femmes (Images of Women colloquy) at Vues d'Afrique in Montréal, Quebec in 1989, an organised movement emerged. The 12th edition of FESPACO in 1991 marked a historic moment for African women in the visual media, forging an infrastructure for the association which is presently known as the Pan African Union of Women Professionals of the Image. The continental meeting, presided by Annette Mbaye d'Erneville outlined the following key objectives, which are often reiterated in other women's organisations:

-to provide a forum for women to exchange and share their experiences;

-to ensure that women have equal access to training and production;

-to be aware of the concerns of women professionals;

-to ensure a more realistic visual representation of women;

-to establish the means for transmitting their point of view.

Since this emblematic moment, projects initiated by women throughout the continent extending to the diaspora, gained momentum in their efforts to promote African cinema and develop infrastructures.

While all of the initiatives have not been able to come to fruition, their encouraging presence indicates the desire to create sustainable and accessible structures in support of African cinema and the empowerment of women practitioners in cinema in particular.

Paradoxically, during the years after the women's Decade, the second wave of feminism began to wane, with declarations in postfeminist discourses that it had reached its objective of irradicating sexism.

When in fact, rather than paradoxical, this decline is quite possibly the consequence of these multicultural encounters, even confrontations, during the Decade, at which time an oppositional discourse emerged among women of colour around the world in response to the hegemonic feminism of and the  domination of discourse, research and knowledge production by white women.

Moreover, already taking shape in the 1980s, in response to a feminism consider elitist, ethnocentric, or to some, even racist, a third wave emerged. By the 1990s, in rupture with the strategies of struggle and the essentialist aspects of the second wave, a new generation positioned itself to confront the problems of the present world, very different from those of the 1970s and 1980s.

This generational rupture and continuity brings to mind the 2008 Cannes festival roundtable at the Pavilion of Cinemas of the South entitled: "l’Engagement des femmes cinéastes" (The commitment of women cineastes).

At the meeting, veteran cineaste Moufida Tlatli recounted her experiences as a young student in 1968 at the film school, IDHEC l'École Nationale Supérieure des Métiers de l'Image et du Son in Paris at which time women were channeled into careers as editors or script supervisors--or as they were called at that time and still today, "script-girl". Her younger cohorts spoke about very different experiences that were more on a par with their male counterparts. 

The most edifying aspect of the discussion was the intercontinental context regarding the plurality of experiences across generations, ethnicities, cultures and positionalities.

Personal stories and postcolonial histories were part of a very engaging conversation among women of the South in general and women of Africa in particular, highlighting a genuine willingness to meet each other face to face on complex issues. Despite the generational differences among the cineastes, present experiences are in many ways similar to those of the first generations.

For example, feminists film studies that emerged in the 1970s were centred around the term "women and cinema" as its point of departure. Whereas Safi Faye of that generation, had already taken a non-gendered position, thus not distinguishing herself from a male filmmaker: "I do not make a difference between Safi the woman or Safi the man". A position which echoes the present day sentiments of Osvalde Lewat, who coming from a later generation of filmmakers, brought into question the gendering of the term cineaste in the colloquy title at Cannes that specified "women cineastes."

Nonetheless, these events--such as this colloquy--which focus on women, exist, in the same way as the emblematic New York based distribution company "Women Make Movies", because women filmmakers have not yet broken the glass ceiling!

African cinema(s), itself a postcolonial phenomenon, emerged in tandem with African independences and has always existed within a transnational context. Using postcoloniality as the point of departure, the films dealt with tensions between African tradition and westernisation, reframing the colonial version of African history and the politics of identification.

In this regard, La Noire de... by Ousmane Sembene, released in 1966, had already begun to work within postcolonial themes. The film examines the psychological trauma of a young Senegalese woman who finds herself dislocated within a foreign European environment, where she does not  speak the language, isolated with out resources nor recourse. Similarly, the first films by women also postulated a postcoloniality in their intentions working concomitantly within a transnational context.

A generation later, African women filmmakers continue to work through their multiple identities in their films. Some are bi-racial from parents of two different races, and this double identity is problematised in their work. Others have a double nationality or live as permanent residents and confront issues of integration or the complexities of identity having been born of the first generation in the diasporic communities of the West.

Drawing from the notion of double consciousness explored by the American intellectual W.E.B. Dubois where the Afro-American lives with a sense of two-ness—as an American, as a black person, Ghanaian-American filmmaker Akosua Adoma Owusu describes the triple consciousness of the African immigrant to the United States: (1) she must assimilate into the American cultural mainstream (2) she is identified with African Americans by the colour of her skin but may not always identify with their culture or history, and (3) she has to deal with the African world and her own line of descent.(3)

African filmmakers have for a long time insisted on being filmmakers period, and in the case of women, to not have to also carry the label of woman. Safi Faye for example always stood by this idea, even when producing Africa-themed films. As the notion of transnational cinema gathers momentum, the non-identifiability of the filmmaker's nationality is increasingly garnering  notice.

Furthermore, for some filmmakers residing in the West, Africa is not always the subject of their films nor are Africans automatically represented in the main characters. Are these films as well as their aesthetic excluded from the African cinema discourse and reinserted when the subject focuses on Africa? Besides, the practice of a cinema without borders by a growing number of filmmakers reposes the question regarding the categorisation of a film according to the filmmaker's nationality.

Moreover, certain South African film practitioners of European, Indian and Malaysian descent are affirming their African identity and reclaiming their experiences as part of the continent's history, showing their desire to be included in the dialogue, even when the themes of their films focus on people with non-African ethnicities.  

Africa is a vast continent with diverse languages, as well as social and political histories, geographical and demographic specificities, and cultural and religious practices. And thus, its borders, extending to a global diaspora, engender a plurality of cinematic practices.

In addition, this transnationality, with its travelling identities and exilic homelands is increasingly present and thus demands a redefinition of the concept "African women in cinema", as well as the renegotiation of its positionality, social location and subjectivity, not only in terms of filmmaking but also in relationship to its audience.

In the same way, these transmutations underscore the fact that these cinemas and cinematic practices are not a monolith and thus the discourses on African women in cinema are based on the plurality of cinematic histories embracing the intersectionality of trans/national and racial identification and ethnic and cultural specificities.

I opened this talk emphasising that my objective was to use a non deficit approach by drawing from positive, optimistic and encouraging experiences. I want to end in the same spirit. As Sarah Maldoror has declared: "The African woman must be everywhere: on the screen, behind the camera, in the editing room, in every stage of the making of a film. She must be the one to talk about her problems"(4). Africa women pioneers and leaders in African cinema form an impressive list. Their presence on the timeline of African cinema is witness to the heritage they leave as role models, mentors and activists, opening the path to other women who follow them.

I would like to draw from the spirit of what Safi Faye calls "feministing":to defend the cause of women--while framing their experiences within the context of their society as the point of departure. This assertion does not contradict the notion of transnational African women, but rather integrates these experiences, identities and positionality into the continuum of their cinematic history.

Following the example of the admirable Kadidia Pâté, let us close this presentation and open this colloquy with the objective to "see, discern, compare and draw lessons", an exercise that she did with extraordinary skill.

*Translation from French by Beti Ellerson

(1) Fanta Nacro : l’espoir au féminin par Bernard Verschueren : le Courrier le magazine de la coopération au développement ACP-UE N° 190 janvier- février 2002.

(3) Akosua Adoma Owusu Website

(4) Jadot Sezirahiga. Sarah Maldoror : "Il faut prendre d'assaut la télévision / "We have to take television by storm. Ecrans d'Afrique 12: 1995.

The Tale of African Cinema « Le dit du cinéma africain » by His Excellency Amadou Hampaté Ba (premier catalogue sélectif international de films ethnographiques sur l’Afrique noire, published in 1967 by UNESCO the United Nations Organisation for education, science and culture). READ ENGLISH TRANSLATION.

Also see on the African Women in Cinema Blog: African Women and Film Spectatorship: An Early History

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