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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Director/Directrice, Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema | Centre pour l'étude et la recherche des femmes africaines dans le cinéma

11 April 2014

Katy Lena Ndiaye's walls of women, women's words: Interview by Hassouna Mansouri and analysis by Mohamadou Mahmoun Faye

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Katy Lena Ndiaye's walls of women, women's words: Interview by Hassouna Mansouri and analysis by Mohamadou Mahmoun Faye. Translation from French by Beti Ellerson

Interview by Hassouna Mansouri at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival

Katy Lena Ndiaye came to cinema gradually. After studying modern literature in Paris, she studied broadcast journalism. She finds in her vocation a strong desire to talk about Africa. While working for television, she quietly continues her cinematic dream. Because the way that Africa is shown on television, she uses her camera as a weapon to work to correct this image. The line is clearly marked. Without taking the time to go through the process of working on a short, she makes the documentary her vocation.

This is your second film, coming after the first one dealing with the same theme. What is the difference between the two?

Yes indeed, why a similar film to the first? I would say in quotes, because it is not at all similar, in fact it is a trilogy. The initial idea was: "Walls of women, women's words" inspired by a book of photographs called Africa Painting [Canvas], by Margaret Costinklark(?) [Courtney-Clarke], who did a tour of the painted walls of Africa. There was, however, a certain frustration for me: it was beautiful, it was very aesthetic. But where are the speech and culture that are behind it. Thus I started this grand project. Moreover, I would say that there was this desire to go towards a “traditional” artistic practice, in order to show modernity through the words of women.

But when you say trilogy, this means that there is a certain evolution, isn’t there?

Yes of course. These are not the same countries, they are not the same communities, and are not necessarily the same women. I would say that the paintings and the encounters initiated a story of the people I met in Tibilè: Aminata and her three grandmothers. In Oualata, there are Khady, Cheicha and Massouda. They are mature women, not the same age as me. So automatically, it generates conversations quite different than what I had with Aminata: a woman between generations who was looking for her path. So that was the whole question of this communication: to find the journey of women, and also the theme of acculturation in Africa. And these grandmothers, who have seen the passage of time, and this girl who has not yet found her way. Whereas here they are women in-between the two, mature women. And of course there are other themes that emerge.

So your choice of these three women was not arbitrary. There was an idea behind it. You cast them. How did you choose these three women, precisely?

Let's say it was a double casting. They chose me and I chose them. During the location spotting, I became lost and I started turning around in circles in search of interlocutors. Of course there was the language barrier. And then there was a question, like a revelation, which one of the women made right from the beginning: Well, in fact, you there, what are you doing? What are you looking for? Who are you? While I was trying to find a level of acceptance, this question awakened me. And I started to wonder: what did I come here to do? Why women? Why Mauritania? And I began to question the project itself. And in so doing, I found out the why. I felt close to these women. They questioned the woman in me, and so I was questioning the woman in them. A kind of dialogue between women emerged. How can one be woman with you, and then with me (which is between the two) . I was born in Senegal, and thus, African and Muslim and I grew up in Europe. I had in some way to be able to negotiate my place here. So all of that has nurtured the film.

At some point one of the women completely reverses the question by saying to you "and well..." regarding the issue of property. There is a strong intimacy that develops between you and these women. 

Once I had an eye-opener, thinking "this is not going to just play itself out. We are going to put the cards on the table and we are going to establish a dialogue, a discussion." What right did I have to come and ask them questions, to which they kindly and generously responded? Well then we do half and half. I ask questions and you ask me questions and so on: we dialogue. So I put aside my role as director.

When we ask questions we expect answers. But there are cases when people resist, and who refuse to answer . At one point, a woman replied to you, " No, I did not understand your question" or "No I cannot answer your question." You kept this in the film. Was this somewhat frustrating?

It was not at all frustrating, because in refusing to respond, one does so anyway. And it was precisely this kind of interaction and why I came to ask all these questions. And then it was as if it was with a girlfriend, when there is a sensitive issue, it is dropped. So not really, it was not a frustration. On the contrary, I did not want things that were always smooth. I especially liked to be told no and to be brushed off, rather than to be given responses that were not true or authentic in relationship to my questions.

These women are without men. One sees only the women. Men are completely absent, except for a few brief appearances, or they may be mentioned, they are in the women’s speech. This is a choice of écriture?

Of course, it is a choice. The man is present in thoughts or speech but not physically.

You objective was to put an end to the clichés about women in such societies. The woman we see in the film is not weak or submissive. The women that you depict have strong personalities. They raise up against men: husband, father, etc. 

Quite honestly it was accidental. I did not do my casting based on an image of the women that I wanted. No really, it was by chance that I discovered them. Many things are revealed to me during the editing. There are powerful words that I asked to be translated 15 times because I thought: "No, this is not true, she did not say that." It was by happenstance early on that that I came across these women. They chose me and I chose them. On what basis? There was an affinity, a theme: the mural... In fact, it was solely based on their eagerness to participate in this effort. Because I told them that we were going to make a film together. It was not at all a done deal. I did not think of the clichés at all. I simply went to see. In fact, while initially thinking about it before being on location, and wondering why Mauritania, it was because the murals (the Tarkhas) invoked the women and in a very sensual way. It is from this perspective that I was brought there: women with a Muslim culture, the paintings—whether explicit or implicit. This is what led me to Oualata and to these women.

These paintings are works of art, naive art, spontaneous art, all that one wants... This subject has given an artistic look to the film itself, which emphasizes the creative expression within this space, maintaining the artistic atmosphere of these paintings and the surroundings.

Oualata is important to the history of the region. It is beautiful, it is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage 
site. In my frustration as I turned around in circles looking for the right people, I got lost in Oualata. And for me, Oualata was an immense Tarkha, an immense mural. Every detail breathed the Tarkha. Once these paintings give reference to the women, for me, the moments when the women are not on the screen, where one is in a still-life environment, the Tarkhas are still there. This is the continuation of the women's words. What they have just said or what they said ten minutes before is still in one’s mind. All the details really signify the Tarkhas, and their aesthetic.
Photo source:

Private moments with the women of Oualata... Awaiting for men, Katy Lena Ndiaye (Senegal) by Mohamadou Mahmoun Faye at Africine 09 October, 2007

Senegalese Katy Lena Ndiaye is best known as journalist for the programme "Reflection from the South” on the French channel TV5 Monde, and on the Belgian public television RTBF. Katy Lena Ndiaye, who lives and works in Brussels, is also a talented filmmaker. Her second documentary, Awaiting for men, was presented out of competition at the 22nd edition of the International Francophone Film Festival of Namur in 2008.

In Traces, Footprints of Women, her first documentary, Katy Lena Ndiaye gives voice to women in a village in Burkina Faso, near the border with Ghana. Using only their hands, they decorate their houses with colorful frescoes. If her first film focuses more on the pictures than on the speech of the village women, she seems to have changed her cinematic approach in Awaiting for men. In this 56-minute documentary, she gives voice to three women of Oualata, this "red city " in the extreme east of Mauritania that defies the sands of the desert. In this remote corner, life flows like a long quiet river. Here, one does not lived by the tick of the clock. Most of the men have gone to seek their fortune in the big cities of the country or abroad, leaving the women alone with the children and the elderly.

The camera of cinematographer Herman Bertiau positions itself, in a natural setting, on the daily lives of three women. The first is very good-natured, the second expresses herself with humor and the third has a more reserved nature. But all three speak freely about their relationships with their husbands, with men in general, about their setbacks, their joys, their short, how they live in this immense desert region.

The viewer is even sometimes thrown off by this freedom of expression in a society considered (wrongly?) as misogynistic and where the woman gives the impression as counting for less than nothing. However, by examining the voices of the three “heroines", one conjectures that the man is not necessarily the one who rules. "When I want my husband, I tell him so, and he must do it!" remarks the one that seems to be the most playful, the most mischievous. It was not easy to get the women, who are often rather modest, to speak. "The location spotting was difficult, but I managed to put them at ease," says the filmmaker.

In fact, Katy Lena Ndiaye uses the colors of the frescoes as "cutaways" to heighten the women’s discourse as they wait for their men as the end of Ramadan approaches (the film was shot a few days before the feast of Korité [the day marking the end of fasting of Ramada]). "The murals are the representation of their speech", explained the director at the end of the screening.

The camera, always fixed, gives the viewer time to explore facial expressions and the beauty of the landscape. The angles, wide or tight, insist on details: hands kneading clay or mixing colors; stolen smiles; bursts of spontaneous laughter; expressions of such pure faces... The documentary Awaiting for men runs counter to the clichés about African society, particularly Muslim. "It is true that one can easily fall into clichés thinking that in these societies it is always the man who dominates. I think it's more complicated than that..." cautions Katy Ndiaye.

Her film, which is the second of a trilogy on artistic work she wants to pursue, brings to us a universe that we rarely get to see on African screens, "colonized" by the lavish Hollywood films and the rosy South American telefilms. Subtle editing, a stripped down, simplified music by the Belgian jazz musician Erwin Vann, and the beautiful voice of the Mauritanian singer, Malouma, make the viewer feel as if the 56 minutes of the documentary have hardly passed by.

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