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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10 May 2020

African women, screen culture and practices of Motherwork

African women, screen culture and practices of Motherwork

"[Women and motherwork are]…in the center of what are typically seen as disjunctures, the places between human and nature, between private and public, between oppression and liberation." Hence, Patricia Hill Collins's term "motherwork" blurs the dichotomies in theorizations of motherhood and mothering that make distinctions between "private and public, family and work, the individual and the collective, identity as individual autonomy and identity growing from the collective self-determination of one’s group…." Furthermore, she locates the practice of "mothering the mind" in the myriad relationships between community othermothers. (Patricia Hill Collins, Shifting the Center: Race Class and Feminist Theorizing about Motherhood)

Similarly, as a theoretical framework, Catherine Obianuju Acholonu's notion of motherism involves the "dynamics of ordering, reordering, creating structures, building and rebuilding in cooperation with mother nature at all levels of human endeavor." Closely related to the concept of motherism is Wanuri Kahiu's idea of mothering nature: “my metaphor about Pumzi (2009) is life and sacrifice and that we ourselves have to mother mother nature. That we have to make sacrifices in order to live in this world. And that we have to know that our own behaviour will affect generations to come.” (Wanuri Kahiu, TEDx Forum On Afrofuturism In Popular Culture)

A selection of voices and stories of African women in screen culture and practices of motherwork, mothering and notions of motherhood: Reworked as part I with Part II titled African Women in Cinema: Stories of Mothers (This article will be updated to include current works):

Of Annette Mbaye d’Erneville, Mère-bi: the mother of all--a title which she carries with great aplomb--Patricia Hill Collins's theory of “motherwork” and “othermothering” aptly applies. She has mentored scores of Senegalese and African feminists and nurtured a generation of Senegalese film spectators who have taken on the role of cultural producer in the forging of a Senegalese cinema culture.

Sarah Maldoror: "I am one of those modern women who try to combine work and family life, and just like it is for all the others, it's a problem for me. Children need a home and a mother. That's why I try to prepare and edit my films in Paris during the long summer vacation when the children are free and can come along." (Interview with Elin Clason, cited in Women and Film No 5-6 1974).

In a tribute to her mother Sarah Maldoror, Henda Ducados had this to say: …It is also important to talk about Sarah as a woman, and talk about this great love story that she had with our father which led to the two projects, Sambizanga and Monangambee… her view about feminism, about being a single mother, female head of household, taking care of two daughters and making sure that the collectivity was very important. Not looking at the individual but at the collective…She always consider my sister and I as individuals. It was tough to deal with that as a child, but as an adult I appreciate that even more. Here we are, I am asked to talk about our mother… Our childhood was never easy but it was fun and unpredictable…People coming in and out of the house all of the time, good hearted strangers babysitting us while Sarah traveled the world. Later on during my history class at the university, I was astonished by the fact that most of the historical figures of the sixties stayed with us in our kitchen and ate with us. There were very few rules that I could remember, but one was to leave regrets/adversity at the door. So thank you Sarah for being so courageous, and passing this on to us, as you gave us the strength to face my fears and venture out and have an impact in this world…

African women filmmakers highlight the solidarity among the entourage of women who offer childcare when they need to take time alone to work or to travel. Within their circle of women, these practices of othermothering encompass the grandmother, friends, cousins… Similarly, Ethiopian filmmaker Lucy Gebre-Egziabher emphasizes the experiences of many women as they take on the role of filmmaker in tandem with raising children, she recalls seeing a photograph: [While] behind the camera, she had her baby behind her on her back and she was directing. That was a most powerful image; it has stayed with me. To me that is an African woman filmmaker. She doesn't have the luxury to disengage her role as a wife or a mother and then become a filmmaker; she has to incorporate everything. (Sisters of the Screen: African Women and the Cinema)

Kenyan filmmaker Anne Mungai, who recalls the scene described by Lucy Gebre-Egziabher, realized that the most effective way to get her film completed was to incorporate her baby and her duties as a mother in her filmmaking activities: I had to go with my sixth-month-old baby on location. The village people had never seen a woman with a camera. I was holding my baby, carrying film tapes, they are really wondering how I am going to do it. I figure that the best thing to do was to breastfeed the baby, put it to sleep and then continue directing. The baby kept interfering, each time that I started to direct right in the middle it started to cry. I didn't know what to do, it clicked in my mind that the baby needed attention since I was no longer feeding it. So what I did was take the baby, give it to one of the people in the crowd, and make it part of the cast. (Harry Cahill, producer. Africa World Film. World of Film Foundation. 1993)

Similarly, while optimistic about women's capacity to juggle a filmmaking career and motherwork, Zimbabwean Porcia Mudavhanhu recalls a heartbreaking experience that tested her resolve: the greatest challenge in my career was when my youngest daughter refused to breast feed at six months because I was away for five days on a shoot. It was painful for me to come to terms with it, as I felt I had let my daughter down. (Wild track Newsletter, Zimbabwe)

The motherwork of African women in the instances where their daughters have influenced their work is multiple. Safi Faye coordinated her experiences as mother, homemaker and filmmaker as her film Mossane was evolving in her head, doing her daily chores and assisting her daughter with her schoolwork. Her endearing love for her daughter played an important part in the choice of theme and many of the decisions regarding the film: I don't know how Mossane (1996) was born. All that I know is that I have a daughter, my only daughter, who I cherish. And perhaps through these feelings I wanted to cherish Mossane, and to make her the most beautiful, the purest, and most virtuous. Safi Faye also had a desire to mirror her daughter in terms of her age-related experiences; her daughter and the protagonist were both fourteen years old, an age that she describes as a magical and elusive period of childhood. After a long and frustrating search, it was Safi Faye's daughter who suggested that her friend Magou Seck audition for the role. The affection and genuine love that she developed for the daughter/character was reflected off screen. As she was an orphan, Safi Faye took her into her family. (Sisters of the Screen: African Women and the Cinema, 2003)

Similarly, South African Zulfah Otto Sallies was fascinated by her daughter Muneera's evolution which is how the documentary Through the Eyes of My Daughter (2004) came about. “I don’t understand who that 15 year old who sleeps in my house is!” She uses her camera as the means to find out. In the film she focuses the lenses on her family, zooming into their world in the Bo-Kaap community of South Africa for an entire year. The cross-generational response to contemporary society is the thread running through the film, sometimes showing differing perspectives regarding the realities that the current generation confronts. The evolving story contrasts the apartheid-generation of Zulfah with teen-ager Muneera’s experiences in a democratic South Africa. In full view of the camera, one has a glimpse of the strong bond of the mother-daughter relationship. Zulfah Otto-Sallies invites the viewer into their world with all of the unpredictability that comes as a result.

In Salem Mekuria's desire to chronicle the experiences of her brother and her best friend, fighting on opposite sides during the Ethiopian revolution and civil war that ensued, the documentary film Ye Wonz Maibel (Deluge, 1995) unfolds. The story was inspired by Salem Mekuria's daughter, born and raised in the United States, who longed to know about the fate of her uncle. Hence, she was able to actively participate in the making of the film.

Véronique Doumbé teamed with her daughter Malika Franklin to produce the film, Woman to Women (2013). Véronique describes the film in this way: The idea of Woman to Woman grew out of discussions with mothers of teenagers about issues relating to being a woman or becoming one. Producing Woman to Woman is exciting because it touches two areas that matter most in my life, being a mother and making films. Malika recalls her experiences with the film: I joined the film after my mother had already begun because I felt it was important to have a teenager's perspective. The film's intention is for mothers and daughters to better understand each other and to have open conversations. This could not be done if the conversation was told only through a mother's eyes. (From the Woman to Women Press Kit)

FIFF Festival International du Film de Fribourg 2016 – Roundtable/Table ronde: Etre réalisatrice en Afrique | To be a woman filmmaker in Africa. Claire & Angèle, Nadia, Pocas, Rama, in conversation:

Claire Diao, moderator: We have talked about being a woman filmmaker, about solidarity, and now I would like to discuss the part about being a woman filmmaker in Africa. Some of you may have watched in the category New Territories, the film Mère-bi (The Mother of all) by Ousmane William Mbaye about his mother Annette Mbaye d’Erneville, the first professional journalist in Senegal, who was married to a professional man and raised four children. One moment she recounts that she travelled a great deal, produced many stories and her husband demanded that she return to work as a teacher, in other words that she “return to her place.” There was a blow up, and then a divorce. There is a particularity about your work in Africa, even though you may work between France and your respective country, in that there is the expectation that the woman takes care of the household and raise the children. You are also mothers, so the question that I would like to pose: Is family life compatible with a filmmaking career?

Nadia El Fani: It is totally incompatible, that is clear. We have much more difficulty finding the time than men to do our work. It is much more difficult to leave one’s children to go to work, especially when they are small. I have only one child, a daughter who is now 25 years old. I saw the men who travelled to festivals, conferences, to whatever event. I was able to only do so only once a month. It was very difficult for me and for the men they had no problem to go here and there. My male counterparts had their wives to take care of the children. I definitely know what it is like as I have lived it… … My mother, who is French, came to Tunisia when she retired and helped me a great deal, as well as my entourage of friends— women’s solidarity worked well in that regard, my friends took care of my daughter when needed. I think it is also difficult for the children, but at the same time there is a certain pride to have a mother who works in this field which is rather unique…

Pocas Poscoal: It is very difficult. I was an editor for a long time, and there are also long working hours. Several times I brought my children to the editing room. There are a lot of guilty feelings also. Even when there was a chance to take a vacation, there is the question of taking the children and finishing the film, when working independently.

Rama Thiaw:  It is a sacrifice. It is not a profession, between quotes, “for a woman”. I think this is a reason why there is less coalescing among women because there is not the time to go to smoke a cigar in the club and talk about the next film. [Laughter in the audience].

Angèle Diabang: Speaking of solidarity between women, as Nadia says, when I travel he has an entourage of women who takes care of him. And in fact he is able to do more than when I am there closed up in my office or in front of the computer. The house has more women when I am not there, when it is just the two of us. When I am gone, there is the grandmother, the friends, the cousins.

Lilya, 16, remembers her mother Dalila Ennadre, who died on 14 May 2020 after a long battle with cancer: "While traveling, she called me several times a day and when she came back from a film shoot, she immediately resumed her role as mom and was happy to find the rhythm of the house, in particular to return to family meals at the table together: we discussed a lot, I told her about my day, she listened to me, advised me, and afterwards, she told me about her work and we also talked about it. It is also true that she was completed engrossed in her work like many filmmakers, in her daily life, her meal breaks and her conversations with her loved ones." (Source:

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