Matamba Kombila, of French-Gabonese parentage, explores the evolving complexities of her multiple identities and the cultural, geographical tensions of these positionalities. Her short experimental film Mundele n: blanche, étrangère, contextualizes the conversation.
An interview with Matamba Kombila by Beti Ellerson, July 2020.
Matamba, talk a bit about yourself, your evolution into filmmaking.
I had reached a glass ceiling in the fashion industry where I was working as events producer for high-end brands. I had understood I’d never get to the positions my degrees could have led me to because I wasn’t Caucasian. I needed to move on to a field where I would have a sense of community and professional fulfillment after years of feeling used, shortchanged and often alienated. I therefore decided to follow my heart and my innate passion for the moving image and storytelling, and to become a filmmaker. I had actually been teaching myself screenwriting and directing while I was in fashion, and had started developing screenplays. My first experience in film was on the set of Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us, in the production design department. I was always drawn to stories revolving around social justice, so working on a film about the story of the wife of a slain Black Panther leader felt like an omen and confirmed I was on the right path. I started shooting a few years later, after I took amazing intensive workshops at Ela Thier’s Independent Film School. I literally used my cellphone for my few first films. I couldn’t wait to own a camera to start creating, or, for someone who had one, to be available to do it with me. It gave me a good sense of composition and movement in the frame. I realize that editing myself or assisting the editor for all the films I have made since then have allowed me to hone my screenwriting skills. Likewise, producing and managing the production of fellow filmmakers’ shorts or features makes me build capacity while being part of the creative process, which is priceless. I am now working at improving my technical knowledge to understand how to best match the story’s intention and mood with the visual. It's a never-ending, fascinating, growing process.
You film is titled, Mundele n: blanche, étrangère, English subtitled as white, foreigner. What does this title mean?
Mundele literally means white, foreigner in the Lingala language, which is spoken in DRC and Congo, where it was shot. I found through my travels that in many African streets, when you stand out from the crowd, people call out to you. In Congo where I shot the film, I was Mundele. And in many African countries, I am called white, foreigner.
For a short film with a duration of just under 10 minutes, there is a great deal that the spectator must extrapolate. Is that your intention?
It is constructed as avenues of reflection on themes that revolve around the make up of my identity. I don’t want to state anything. I simply want to highlight situations or events that may bring answers to the questioning around it.
You ask questions to your entourage, which appear to be in fact existential, and not really in search of a probing response. On the other hand there are a host of questions that the film provokes. Perhaps I will start with my own questions: what was your objective for making the film?
The intention of the initial project was to unpack some aspects of my complicated relationship with my mother and show her my love. My objective for making the film was to draw a parallel between what’s commonly called France-Afrique and myself, the offspring of a French woman and a Gabonese man. I wanted to explore the juxtaposition of the complicated relationship between the colonizer and its outposts on the continent and my identity, the mix of the cultures and histories of the colonizer and the colonized.
The film starts with you at the hairdresser’s salon surrounded by a circle of young African women as they each take part in coiffing your hair. A metaphor, a signifier, perhaps of your identity, as it is transformed into a Gabonese hairstyle. What role does hair play for you and why this choice in constructing the film?
The film was made during a Documentary Filmmaking Workshop for Women at the French Institute of Pointe Noire. The idea of the salon came from the instructor, Rufin Mbou Mikima, who came up with it when we started discussing the story. Interestingly, I had thought about using hair as a vector of identity but wasn’t sure how. My hair is my antenna, my connector to the universe and the cosmic forces. It is also a shield that protects me against the cold and the heat, balancing out my body temperature. At last, it is an element of style that allows me to tell stories about myself and my ancestors; an “identifier”. Therefore getting my hair done is something very intimate that often leads to insightful conversations, so the salon was a perfect setting to broach the theme of my identity. After we collected all of the images, we came up with the structure of the mirror for the film. Its first part, shot in the salon, is the front of the mirror, what I see and am perceived by others; its second part, my walk in the streets of Pointe Noire, is what’s behind it, what I perceive as my identity’s founding elements.
There have been a flurry of films by mixed-raced women especially of African-European origin, who probe the question of color, of identity, of belonging. To name a few: Ngozi Onwurah: The Body Beautiful. Sarah Bouyain: Les Enfants du blanc (Children of the White Man) and Notre Etrangère (The Place in Between). Claude Haffner: Blanche ici, noire la-bàs (Footprints of My Other). In the latter two, echoes of your film title is evident. There is also the film, Métis (Mixed-race), co-directed by Maëlle Cherpion, Charlotte Manguette and Mélissa Quinet, the latter who is the grand-daughter of one of the two protagonists of the documentary. In addition, Irish-Kenyan Zélie Asava, who is also mixed-race, published her research in the book titled Mixed Race Cinemas, Multiracial Dynamics in America and France. There have even been several films also about mixed-raced girls/women by African women who are not, I am thinking of Sous la clarité de la lune (Under the Moonlight) by Apolline Traoré and Au phantom du père (The Ghost of the Father) by Laurentine Bayala, for example. There is also Isabelle Boni-Claverie, whose grandmother was a white Frenchwoman, who dealt with the subject in her short film, Pour la nuit. Perhaps I could ask you, do you have some thoughts about why this topic may be a specific quest for women?
I am finding out now that there are so many films on the topic. I saw a few of that your mentioned, but didn’t know of all of them. I’ll research and watch. I am curious to see how my fellow lady filmmakers have treated the topic. I will not use the word race because it doesn’t exist within the human realm.
Now back to your question. For me, even knowing quite a bit about genetics, it still is fascinating to know that I come out of the belly of a woman and look nothing like her. It was complicated to construct my identity growing up when I was on one end not allowed to identify to her, and on the other end told that I was only her. Indeed in the West I was always perceived as African or mixed, when in Africa I was perceived as Caucasian. Ultimately, maybe women ponder over the topic because we give life and we are the origin of all these multicultural babies that often find themselves at odds with their environment. The truth is we are the fruit of the love of two individuals of different cultures, the living proof that the divisive concept of race is a hoax. We make a lot of people feel uncomfortable because of their preconceptions and prejudice built-in by 500 years of history. I feel like its onto women to undo this. I am glad to see that several of us talk about our experience being mixed African-European because our testimonies carry elements of solutions to the problems of “racism” and its children, Caucasian supremacy and ongoing colonialism. We are after all the natural link between the opposite sides.
What has been the feedback to the film in African countries where it has been screened?
At the screenings I attended, there was no feedback so I explained the film to the audience. Then some audience members commented that my point of view made them understand aspects of the mixed African-European identity they had never thought about. It gave them insights not only on the personality of some of their mixed friends or relatives, but also on their own makeup, being the descendants of people who used to call Europeans their ancestors. I was asked a few times why the hairdressers don’t answer my questions. In fact they do. But we had sound issues so it turns out to be some sort of monologue with the effect that you describe earlier.
In your experiences, what are the similarities and differences to mixed race-identity in Africa compared to the West?
In my experience, the only similarity to mixed identity in Africa compared to the West is the ever-present unconscious stigma, consequence of the racialization of humans by the Catholic Church to justify the objectification of Africans in order to serve Western capitalism, with the complicity of African traders.
The differences are undeniable. In the African countries I have visited, I was either perceived as a national (Morocco, Egypt, Ethiopia), or as a white/foreigner but in the end always accepted for who I am and integrated. Interestingly, my mixed culture may be perceived as an asset because it may allow navigating a multifaceted African world with ease, to the benefit of the community. South Africa is a different story, because colorism defines social class and status. In Cape Town, I didn't quite feel like a human. I was colored, confined to some margins of society. I had a similar experience in France and in the few European countries I have visited where ultimately, the majority of people were uncomfortable with who I am because I don’t quite fit in any category they are familiar with. Except for the UK where the notion of mixed culture seems assimilated. In the USA or Brazil, I am Black. I am denied my European heritage and I institutionally have a very limited space in the Caucasian world, which ironically, is nevertheless equally as mine as the African world. So ultimately, the main difference is that Africa seems to still be welcoming the other with open arms, when the West seems scared of ghosts that it has not made peace with.
I am currently developing my first feature film, a story of revenge in political circles in Gabon, with a female lead. The project results from two residencies, in Burkina Faso and Cameroon.
I should start editing soon the footage that I have been shooting over the past few months in Cameroon where I found myself stranded when Covid-19 hit and borders closed, and where I spent the past 5 months.
I am also just starting a documentary project with a collective of African filmmakers where the objective is truth and reconciliation with our past as accomplices in the slave trade.