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22 March 2018

Cameroonian Women in Cinema, Visual Media and Screen Culture

Cameroonian Women in Cinema,
Visual Media and Screen Culture

Thérèse Sita Bella entered the world of cinema before most of the filmmakers that are recognised today as pioneers. A trailblazing journalist from Cameroon, she was also a pilot. In 1963, she directed Tam Tam à Paris, a 30-minute film documenting the National Dance Company of Cameroon during its tour in the French capital. It was featured at the first FESPACO, the PanAfrican Festival in Ouagadougou Burkina Faso, in 1969—then known as African Cinema Week—alongside the works of pioneers Mustapha Alassane (Niger), Urbain N'Dia (Cameroon), Ousmane Sembene (Senegal), Ababacar Samb (Senegal), Paulin Vieyra (Senegal), and Momar Thiam (Senegal). 

According to a short biography published in Amina Magazine in 1989, after producing the film, Thérèse Sita Bella worked in France from 1964 to 1965 during which she participated in the creation of the first African journal in France La vie africaine. Afterwards, while still in Paris she spent time at UNESCO, as well as participating in the creation of several French-language radio programs for African listeners for both BBC and Radio-Cologne. She was also correspondent for Voice of America, and the Radio Television Luxembourg, then known as the ORTF (Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française), the French Radio. In 1967, she returned to Cameroon where she began working at the Ministry of Information and later as chief deputy at the Department of Documentation, followed by a stint at the Department of Cinematography. In the 1990s she founded the short-lived magazine entitled “Stars” focusing on culture and show business.

Thérèse Sita Bella had a long, productive career in radio and print journalism; during an interview with André -Marie Pouya of the French-language Amina Magazine in 1989, she stated: I continue to write at the present. I have some ideas, and it is never too late to write about them. If I do publish them, the purpose will be to inform and teach. Remember that I am also a filmmaker. I have many scripts that are lying idle that I would love to bring to fruition. I plan to retire soon and filmmakers are ageless. This will be my way to leave a message… And yet, she never made another film. According to the obituary by Jean François Channon, in February 2006 at 73 years old, she died, forgotten and virtually unknown in her own country.

Cameroonian writer, journalist, blogger, and cultural activist Stéphanie Dongmo asked about the foremother compatriot Thérèse Sita Bella in an interview with French film historian and scholar Brigitte Rollet who organised a colloquy celebrating 40 years of Francophone African women in cinema in Paris in 2012. She wondered why that moment was considered a historical landmark when the following year in 2013 would mark the 50th anniversary of Tam Tam à Paris. Interesting question! Brigitte responded: It is true that there was Sita Bella but the films of Sarah Maldoror [the honoree] and Safi Faye have left their mark [they both directed their pioneering work in 1972]. I don't think that the same thing could be said about the film of Sita Bella because it was less known, most people are not even aware of it, I don't even known where to view it…. By organising the colloquium in the physical space of the BNF (National Library of France), I wanted to also highlight the problem of preserving a cinematographic cultural heritage by recalling that there are films that have been lost. Perhaps to note, that Safi Faye's film La Passante, appears to be unavailable for view and while this date is hailed as a landmark, Safi Faye nor her work was present for the occasion of this 40 year celebration!

Thus, as we recognise her accomplishments at conferences and in articles about women in the history of African cinema, it is important to also emphasise that African cultural producers must struggle nonetheless to produce and work. And in the case of Thérèse Sita Bella, her film appears to have vanished—only to be remembered in the literature. And with the increased interest in Africa’s pioneers in cinema, one may ask how this ground-breaking journalist, cineaste, pilot, descended so deeply into obscurity, having defied early in her career at 30 years old, her own assessment of her place as a filmmaker, asserting: “you know cinema is not a woman's business." (1)

Fortunately, Cameroonian women who follow Thérèse Sita Bella’s footsteps as cultural producers are getting more visibility and hopefully will have a more enduring legacy. A decade and a half after the emergence of Thérèse Sita Bella in the chronicles of African cinema, other women of Cameroon followed, training to become directors of the moving image. Blandine Foumane (Ngono Ambassa), who studied filmmaking in Paris from 1977 to 1982, returned home to work at the national office of cinema. Later she moved to the television office during which she produced 15-minute films. From 1986 to 1989 she created her first series entitled Silence on joue. (2) In 1990 she wrote and directed the miniseries Miseria.

Burkinabé film critic Clément Tapsoba observes that ten women graduated from the Centre de formation de l’information de Yaoundé in 1988. Among this cohort of women at the training centre of the newly created national television, Margaret Fombé Fobé made her mark with her television programme Portraits de femmes in 1989, perhaps already inspired by the ground-breaking work of her elder of the moving image. She had this to say about her objectives for producing empowering images of women: “It appeared to me very early on that images made by women about women could be used to break down taboos and encourage women to assert themselves.” (3)

During the same period, Rosine Kenmoe Kenyou and Rosalie Mbélé Atangana produce women-focused series beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Designer, filmmaker and producer Yolande Ekoumou Samba has been at the Cameroon Radio Television since 1994, where she has managed the Fictions Department for many years. She has produced numerous productions: films, sitcoms, series, etc. In 2016, she wrote the book Faire un Film de fiction : à l’intention des Profanes, Amateurs ou Débutants (To make a fiction film : for laypersons, enthusiasts or beginners) – Cameroun | Cameroon, Editions Alternative. Mary-Noël Niba was trained in cinema at ESRA in Paris. Recruited at the CRTV in 1992, she returned to Cameroon, beginning her career as director of news programmes. She has occupied posts at the higher echelons of the national television: Deputy Director of Production and Deputy Commercial Director of Marketing and Publicity. Mary-Noel Niba is currently in charge of public relations for the Cameroon Embassy in Paris, and like many other African women in cinema she wears other hats, that of independent filmmaker and executive producer.

Annette Angoua Nguéa, communicator, filmmaker and lecturer-researcher, is a pioneering woman in the research and study of Cameroonian cinema, beginning her studies in the late 1980s. She holds a Master’s from the Université de Nancy II, France, obtained in 1990 for her thesis "Les infrastructures cinématographiques en France en 1945" (Cinematographic infrastructures in France in 1945), she obtained a DEA in 1991 for the study entitled "Le rôle de l’Etat dans la production cinématographique camerounaise" (The Role of the State in Cameroonian Film Production), University of Strasbourg - France; she completed her doctoral thesis,  "La Production cinématographique camerounaise : le rôle de l’Etat et du secteur privé (Cameroonian Film Production: The Role of the State and the Private Sector, which she defended at the University of Paris III, Nouvelle Sorbonne in 2006. Her book, Repenser la production cinématographique au Cameroun, was published in 2012 (Paris: Harmattan). She is an important stakeholder in the knowledge production of Cameroonian cinema culture.

The first and second decades of the 2000s witness a flurry of cinematic activity indicative of the times, in the age of digital technology, and the focus of themes around identity, as well as the continued desire to network and outreach. While Joséphine Ndagnou’s Paris à tout prix | Paris or Nothing puts the spotlight on the Cameroonian diaspora of France, Ariane Astrid Atodji’s La souffrance est une école de sagesse | Suffering is a school of wisdom explores the diasporic identities within the African continent, as she searches for the Beninese identity that she does not know. She journeys on a road trip from Cameroon to Benin, in search of her paternal family, and hence, her Beninese roots.

Promoting and showcasing African women in cinema and their works has been a longstanding practice in African cinema history, with initiatives such as Fespaco and Fepaci as examples of its significance. Since the beginning of the second decade of the 2000s, there has been a proliferation of women-focused initiatives. Mis Me Binga (the eyes of women) International Women’s Film Festival is an important initiative for the promotion and empowerment of women in cinema, locally, continentally and internationally. Created in 2010, the goal of the festival is to promote the creativity of women from Cameroon, Africa and the whole world, to establish a network among women filmmakers from different parts of the world and to bring about a better understanding of different cultures and of each other. Filmmaker and producer Evodie Ngueyeli is the artistic director of the festival. The QIDEF Residency - Quand l'idée devient un film (When the idea becomes a film) is a successful initiative of Mis Me Binga. The residency "QIDEF" aims: to encourage engaging scripts that through their theme and form bring new perspectives to cinema; to support the emergence of talented filmmakers from countries of the southern hemisphere; to make the "QIDEF" a "label" of quality and rigor; to be a valuable exchange of ideas between scriptwriters from different backgrounds and cultures. By selecting and supporting already developed scripts, and supervising their development within a rigorous schedule, "QIDEF" hopes to provide every opportunity for these projects to find artistic and financial partners. Similarly, ADAMIC (Association des Dames d'Image du Cameroun) founded in 2011 and presided by Elise Kameni has as its objective to promote and empower Cameroonian women in cinema. Another cinematic initiative is the International multicultural film festival of Ngaoundere, founded by Arice Siapi, who wears several hats, also as filmmaker and producer.

Like Sita Bella, who first gained recognition while working in diasporic space, there are cultural producers and thinkers of the second and third generation who have been cultivating their work beyond the boundaries of Cameroon. Pascale Obolo who has a pan-African approach to her art has lived outside of Cameroon since adolescence, but is very much connected to African-centred issues that she brings to her work. Osvalde Lewat circulates between the local Cameroonian scene and diasporic spaces and beyond, negotiating languages, diverse histories and cultures, as well as the moving image and photographic practices. Véronique N. Doumbé, a long-time New York resident, extends her imaginary to universal themes as well as African and U.S.-focused issues. Actress Constance Ejuma who was born in Cameroon and grew up in the United States, like many African women makers, plays multiple roles within the world of cinema. She is also a producer and plans to direct her own film. Similarly, U.S.-based Ellie Foumbi, who is also a producer, relates the experiences of an African American Mennonite for the subject of her thesis film.

French-born Josza Anjembe’s work is indicative of a generation born in the west of African parents who focus their lens on issues related to their country of birth such as her Cesar-nominated film French (Le bleu blanc rouge de mes cheveux), about the desire to acquire French citizenship. Françoise Ellong, who came to France as an adolescent, has a long list of cinematic accomplishments. She is representative of the millennial generation of African makers, who are transnational, multi-lingual and have digital-age savvy embedded within their imaginary.

Florence Ayisi, Frieda Ekotto and Nathalie Etoké whose cultural knowledge production in African film criticism is making a significant contribution to African women cinema studies, work in the Cameroonian diaspora. Frieda Ekotto and Nathalie Etoké teach in the U.S. academy—University of Michigan and Connecticut College respectively, while Florence Ayisi holds a post at the University of South Wales in the United Kingdom. Also like Sita Bella who used filmmaking as a means of communication in her profession as journalist, Ayisi, Ekotto and Etoké employ filmmaking as a tool in their academic work and research. Belgium-based Marthe Djilo Kamga, is founder and coordinator of the Massimadi festival, which spotlights the cultural heritage of the LGBT communities in Africa and the Diaspora.

Following is an impressive list of Cameroonian women in cinema, visual media and screen culture including, filmmakers, producers, critics, and scholars who live and work in Cameroon and the Cameroonian diaspora:

Marie Solange Amougou, Annette Angoua Nguéa, Josza Anjembe, Eka Christa Assam, Dorothy A. Atabong, Rosalie Mbélé Atangana, Astrid Ariane Atodji, Florence Ayisi, Françoise Baba, Therese Nathalie Bell Seppo Eboue, Joséphine Bertrand-Tchakoua, Princess Manka Bridget, Agnès Djuimala, Stéphanie Dongmo, Véronique N. Doumbé, Hélène Ebah, Germaine Ebelle, Constance Ejuma, Yolande Ekoumou Samba, Françoise Ellong, Elisabeth Eteme, Nathalie Etoké, Carine Ezembe, Olive Ketsia Fodjon, Amboise Fogue, Estheline Sandrine Fomat, Margaret Fombé Fobé, Blandine Foumane, H. Carine Guekep, Delphine Itambi, Konham Augustine Kamani, Elise Kameni, Marthe Djilo Kamga, Francine Kemegni, Dovie Kendo, Rosine Kenmoe Kenyou, Nancy Kienyo, Mireille Idelette Kouyembous, Patricia Kwende, Osvalde Lewat, Werewere Liking, Florane Malam, Gaêlle Laure Mawamba, Rosine Mbakam, Patricia Moune Mbede, Jerose Chantal Mbongue, Henriette Medoung, Sarah Muenge Nkwanyuo, Joyce Naah, Joséphine Ndagnou, Agnès Ndibi, Anne-Marie Ndjigi, Marculine Ngebe, Evodie Ngueyeli, Charlotte Ngo Manyo, Anne Ngu, Sandrine Ngueffo, Mary-Noël Niba, Dorine Nina Nyabeyeu, Florence Nkeng, Chantal Julie Nlend, Marie Désirée Nogo, Pascaline Ntema, Hortense Nyamen, Pascale Obolo, Liliane Honorine Oyongho Botiba, Arice Siapi, Thérèse Sita Bella, Venessa Ebote Sona, Petra Sundjo, Florence Tan, Viviane Tassi Bela, A. Zintsem Yolande Welimoum, Chantal Youdom, Agnès Yougang.

(1) Cited in "l'Afrique filmée par des femmes" by Elisabeth Lequeret, Le monde diplomatique, August 1998. « vous savez, le cinéma n’est pas une affaire de femmes. »

(2) Nouveaux visages/New Faces: Blandine Ngono Ambassa, Ecrans d’Afrique, No. 1, 1992. Ecrans d’Afrique marks 1989 as the date of the series while the Repertoire des réalisateurs Camerounais gives the time frame from 1986-1989.

(3) Cited in “Margaret Fombé Fobé” by Clément Tapsoba, Ecrans d’Afrique, No. 8, 1994, p. 26-27.

Report by Beti Ellerson.  

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