Pioneer, trailblazer, communicator
Excerpts from interviews by Beti Ellerson with Zara held at FESPACO in 1997 and in 1998. Translated from French. First published in Sisters of the Screen, Women of Africa on Film, Video and Television by Beti Ellerson (Africa World Press, 2000).
Zara Mahamat Yacoub, pioneer, trailblazer, communicator from Chad played an important role in the evolution of Chadian television and its communication sector in general.
Zara's professional background and evolution
After completing my studies at the Université de Chad I competed for a slot at the l’Institut national de la communication audiovisuelle in France. Upon my return to Chad, equipped with a diploma in communication with a specialization in television production I signed a contract to work as a senior ranking civil service employee. At the time, there was no television network in Chad. Therefore, I assumed a post in radio as producer and announcer. The moment that a television network was created, I was called to come on board. Not only was I the first woman, I was the only woman. I occupied successively, the role of programming manager and head manager of the National Television of Chad. In addition, I worked in South Africa as journalist/director at Channel Africa TV in Johannesburg.
Experiences with the films: Les enfants de la guerre (Children of War), Les enfants de la rue (Children of the Street), and Dilemme au féminin.
Les enfants de la guerre, a fiction film, is a portrait of three children a girl and two boys, all orphans of war. These children, who have lived through war, experience on a daily basis, the trauma and nightmare of war. The film is a TVT, Belgium, Television and Sophilm production with the financial assistance of La Coopération Française, L’Agence de la Francophonie and the European Union.
Les enfants de la rue, a documentary, is a story about Oumar, the leader of a gang of “society’s rejects.” Oumar and his friends live in the streets and steal to feed themselves. They are exposed to all kinds of illnesses, as well as the many risks that are associated with being young children alone on the streets, among which is the danger of pedophilia. The film is a TVT and Centre Culturel Al-Moumna co-production.
The documentary film, Dilemme au féminin, talks about excision. The film is a fiction-documentary about a young girl who is a victim of this horrible practice. She takes us through the multiple contours of the excision operation. The viewer will witness an actual operation followed by the opinions of various leaders. Muslim and Christian representatives give their position regarding this practice. A doctor explains to us the consequences and after-effects of FGM [Female genital mutilation] basing his arguments on concrete cases that have been revealed to him during the course of his medical career. A TVT Production, this film has been awarded several prizes. The film has been shown in Europe and North America.
Zara discusses why she chose the topic of FGM.
Born and raised in a society that practices female genital mutilation, I live the daily suffering of women and children who are victims of this practice. This is what motivated me to join the struggle against it. Dilemme au féminin is a film that speaks about excision. And as you may know excision is practiced practically everywhere in Africa. But in the past, excision was also performed in Europe and in other countries. The consequences of excision are terrible. Today voices have been raised across the world denouncing the phenomenon of excision. It is a reality; I have seen young girls die from excision. I have seen women who have remained infertile for their entire lives as a result of having been excised. I have seen women who have suffered in their souls because of excision. Thus, I assert that it is more so a health problem.
Her role in African women’s struggle against female genital mutilation?
I am making a statement about the practice of excision… my role is to expose, to take note, to report to people when things are not right. And I attest that excision is not a good thing. Excision is causing so much damage, and so it must be stopped. Thus, the reason for my film, Dilemme au féminin.
After the release of Dilemme au féminin there was a great deal of controversy in Chad.
Unfortunately, the release of this film in my country, Chad, presented many problems for me. However, I told myself that this was all part of my day-to-day job. When one espouses this profession, one must expect the worse. And yes, I suffered a great deal, and unfortunately, there are still repercussions. But still I did what I felt was my duty.
The film was viewed just about everywhere. The film was viewed in my country, Chad, and I was very touched and very pleased because after the tour of the film a little girl who once said to her father "Papa, papa I want to be excised," after having seen the film on television said, "Papa, papa if that is what excision is, I don't want to be excised." So I said, no matter what problems I encounter, what is essential is to convey a message. And the message is delivered. That is what was crucial for me. This is my role, it was my duty.
Zara Mahamat Yacoub is among several women in Africa who utilize the media to visualize the experience of girls and women subjected to the practice of excision. She talks about the importance of African women to join the struggle against excision and how women in the media, can be vehicles in this struggle.
African women have a very important role to play in the struggle against female genital mutilation to the extent that this practice concerns, first and foremost, women. In Africa, there is a tendency to reject everything that comes from the outside that puts one’s “culture” in question. This makes our role even more important. But this does not mean that we Africans must exclude our European and American sisters from this struggle. Because of immigration, female genital mutilation is practiced just about everywhere in the world. Thus, social awareness about it and the struggle against it must not be limited only to African countries.
There was a backlash after the release of the film and the direct consequences for Zara.
Well, the consequences, I can speak for the most part, about how it affected me directly. Imagine that you live in a society, your own society, that you live in a community that is your community. I am Muslim. I belong to a Muslim community; suddenly there is a rupture. Suddenly you are banished. Suddenly when you walk down the street everyone says, "There she is." Suddenly wherever you go, you expect that people will speak to you and they don't. If people say "Look, she has done a lot of things, she has done good things," that's alright. But when people say "She is a bad woman, she has dared to insult Islam, she has dared to do this or that," well, that hurts. And then all day long, you hear in each and every mosque people talking about you.
I don't think this experience will leave me right away. Many feelings still remain and I continue to suffer as a result. Today, however, I can leave my house, I can go to my job, I can go visit my friends. But I do not take the risk of going to certain places, the places that are often frequented by fundamentalists, for fear of being viewed as provoking the situation. I tell myself, "No, you must not incite these people," because even if I go without any particular motive, they will think that I am trying to instigate controversy.
Les enfants de la rue, focused on the theme of children, Zara talks about her interest in this theme.
...Les enfants de la guerre, or what I call "in the oubliette," because the surviving children are the forgotten ones. It is a film that speaks about the traumatism that haunts children who have lived through war. My film does not only reflect the reality of Chad; it also speaks about the children of today, whether they live in Rwanda, Burundi, or Liberia. It speaks of all the situations where there has been war.
What moved me to address this problem in my film is the need to record this phenomenon. Because today when there is a war in a particular part of the world, all eyes are riveted on the country where it takes place. The whole world precipitates to this location; the press, the humanitarian organizations. The world is focused on this country, on the children and women who die. As soon as the war is over, there is not a word spoken about this place and the aftermath of the war. No one even attempts to find out what happened to the survivors.
In a war, it's true there are the dead, but afterwards there are certainly those who escaped, who survived. But no one searches to know how those who remain are continuing to live. In my film, I bring out the trauma suffered by the children who were left on their own, who are still there living with family members, in orphanages or in the streets.
They continue to be haunted by images of the war. However, there is no one who stays behind in an attempt to care in some way or another for these children. These children, whether we admit it or not, are sick. They are sick from all that they have lived through during and after the war. Thus, the reason for my film, Les enfants de la guerre.
Zara has made several films that focus on social and human conditions in Africa, especially as they relate to women and children. She talks about her role as communicator.
I have always defined myself as a communicator rather than as a director or journalist or filmmaker. This I will say and I hold my position. I feel that I have a duty as a communicator in relationship to my society, vis-à-vis all that surrounds me. My role is to make known, to bring out what is not right. My role is to draw attention to certain problems. I see that I have a duty towards my people. I have a duty towards each and every person. My role is to inform people, to make them aware of the problems that need attention. This is my role as communicator.
There is a great deal of discussion about cinema and culture. There has also been a great deal of emphasis on women and development. Zara reflects on cinema, culture and development, and how cinema may be used as a tool towards the objectives of women in development
You know cinema is only a reflection of a society. When speaking of a society, one speaks of culture, absolutely! And one cannot really talk about cinema without speaking of culture. And we increasingly find that one cannot talk about culture without speaking of cinema. Though it is true that cinema is a recent tradition in Africa, the fact remains that it is imposing itself on the continent. Thus, when one speaks of culture, cinema has its place within it and vice versa. Whether it is an African film or a film from elsewhere, a film always refers to some elements of culture.
…Today, I would say that there is not a tool more effective than the audiovisual medium, and especially films that raise women's consciousness, and that assist women in general. When one says "women and development," when one says, "Henceforth, women must participate in development," I feel that the direction to follow to sensitize women is through the media…In the campaign for the promotion of women, I certainly feel that the audiovisual medium can assist women to fully participate in the development process. Throughout the world, we find that there is no development without the participation of women. In any country in the world, you will see that there are more women than men, 52 of 100 percent in a great many countries. As I stated earlier, and to emphasize it again, television, video and film are very efficient means to facilitate women's development in society.