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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26 November 2020

African Women in Cinema addressing democracy, citizen empowerment and free and fair elections

African Women in Cinema addressing democracy, citizen empowerment and free and fair elections

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman to be democratically elected as Head of State in Africa, served as the 24th President of Liberia from 2006 to 2018. She is also a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. At the end of her term, she assured the peaceful transfer of power to her successor, an event that had not taken place in the country since 1944. In her UN General Assembly speech in 2013 she asserted that democracy was the way for Liberia as well as for the entire African continent. Her hope was that Liberia under her leadership would be among those countries setting an example for the continent as a whole.

Featured in the series Unsung Heroes executive-produced by M Beatrix Mugishagwe, about women leaders in Africa, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf talks about the significance of grassroots women's participation in the voting process leading to her election; highlighting the importance of taking responsibility, of strong leadership and of projecting a vision for the future.

She emphasizes the vital role of women's participation in the electoral process: "Women of Liberia, particularly the grassroots women, the market women, decided that I represent what they would like to be in the future, this is one time that they were going to give a woman the opportunity to change the course of our country, I represented that to them and they came out massively and voted…"

Her humility is also a reflection of her strength. The vision that lead to her successful campaign was also her vision for the success of her country: "Obviously after the long road I had travelled, activism and political competition, finally having achieved the highest benefit one could achieve from this effort, exhilarated me. I was excited and all around me we rejoiced, I was humbled by the responsibility that it implied, the responsibility not only to lead the effort to renew a war-torn nation but also to represent the expectations of women, not only in Liberia but all over Africa."

She also underscores the importance of Africans themselves carving out their own future, taking their destiny into their own hands, rather than being influenced by others: "I think sometimes as Africans we are too hard on Africa. Because there has been a lot of progress in many of our countries. Progress in terms of the management of our resources. Progress in terms of opening the political space. But we still have to do more. I think we need to "own" our own processes. We need to take charge of our own destiny. I think we need to use the resources to support the goals that are determined by ourselves and not that are dictated or influenced by others."

She sees this progress taking place through the process of leadership-building from the higher levels of government and especially by the citizens themselves having inspiration and support from those who lead so they see the value in making a contribution and feel empowered to do so: "And we need to build that leadership throughout society. Not just at the presidential level, but the leadership throughout that can influence the consensus. A leadership that can motivate and inspire others to see the vision and to see the agenda and accept and work toward collectively contributing whatever they can from their vantage point toward the achievement of clearly defined goals."

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's words highlight the notion that everyone throughout the world is entitled to fundamental and basic rights and should expect that their government ensures this for all of its citizens. At the same time, she positions her leadership as Head of State to be a model for others: "We hope that we could be a part of those countries whose performance can be exemplary, to ensure that we give equal opportunity to all; to ensure our people can prosper, can be empowered to be able to exercise choice in economic, political and social life. That will respect the basic freedoms and rights of people. That they feel that they enjoy those and basically that they can have a stake in the future and they can claim what they want to be and be a part of the decision-making that enables them to achieve their potential."

Her strategies for success are not only in terms of political aspirations but to life in general: "Set your goals and determine what you want to be, assess your potential and then go after it with everything you got. Give it your time, your skills, your knowledge, and be prepared to accept disappointments, there will be some failures on the long road to success. Be prepared to pick up and start again, and to persist and persevere in what you want to be. And I think that if one adopts those practices you do succeed, if you stay with what you want to be and stay focused on your goal."    

Similarly, Laurentine Bayala's film serves as an example of sound strategies for women's empowerment as voters. In her film Coupled Elections of 2012, Burkinabe Women on the Move, she provides a portrait of women's participation in the election process, similar to the grassroots women who propelled Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to victory: In December 2012, for the first time in the history of the organization of elections, Burkina Faso coupled the municipal and legislative elections. Also for the first time, the law on gender quotas was applied after its adoption by the National Assembly on April 16, 2009. During these elections, the NDI (National Democratic Institute) worked with nearly 700 women through training workshops to enable them to acquire the tools to better organize their election campaigns.

While Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's hopes that an exemplary leadership would spread throughout the continent, there are other examples, nonetheless, that reveal how these principles of democracy have not been upheld. Numerous African women filmmakers have documented some of these instances, including the citizens' revolutions, having been empowered to make change.
Rumbi Katedza had this to say about her documentary The Axe and the Tree: "through my research, I learned a lot about the terrible things that had happened to every day people during the 2008 Zimbabwean harmonised elections. It was an eye-opener, a kind of education in fear, and how fear can paralyze people and make it impossible to live their lives to their full potential. It obviously was not an easy film to make because there were certain people who did not want the story to be told, but I was completely humbled by the bravery of the people who agreed to be in the film. They shared very painful stories of torture and rape. It was because of them that I finished the film and believed that it had to get maximum exposure. Eventually, I would like a wider Zimbabwean audience to watch the film and discuss its content because what happened in 2008 should never happen again."

Neveen Shalaby describes the making of the film The Agenda and I: "Well, the story behind the title is that I met an undercover policeman on the night of 25 January 2011, when police forces stormed Tahrir Square. The policeman helped me get out and told me that I should not return because the protestors were actually supporting foreign agendas to bring down the regime. This became the starting point for me to find out the real agenda, and thus the title The Agenda and I shows that I was not only the director of the film, but I was one of the characters in the film."

Nadia El Fani, both a politically engaged filmmaker and a political activist, was visible throughout the Tunisian revolution and the ensuing election. After a television interview in May 2011, during which she talked about her film documentary, expressing her secularist views, she was the object of an attack campaign by those who considered the film to be anti-Islam. Originally titled Neither Allah nor Master, the name was changed to Secularism, Inch'Allah to minimize the controversy. The film poses the question “what if the will of the people, of a predominantly Muslim country opts for a secular constitution?”, an issue that has broader implications for the world as it relates to religion freedom, freedom of expression and the rights of religious minorities in society. The reactions by extremists regarding the film were personally and professionally perilous for Nadia El Fani. In October 2011, she was invited on France Inter to talk about the election victory of the islamist party Ennahda and its implications for Tunisia, the left and pro-secularists like herself. She had this to say about what she sees as the anti-democracy attitudes of the "so-called moderate islamists": Of course, we know these types who talk about democracy to get in power but once there enact laws that are liberticidal, it is nothing new. It exists everywhere in the world. I am also concerned about this, we saw during the campaign, the islamists do what they do everywhere, they start by attacking artists and then intellectuals…(Read entire interview translated from French, see link below)

Rama Thiaw describes the making of her documentary The revolution won't be televised: "In the 1980s, Senegal was dominated by an unnamed dictatorship. The man who stood against this system, Maître Abdoulaye Wade, decided to establish political liberalism. However, after he was elected, this hero quickly became worse than his predecessors. My film begins on January 17, 2012, at the end of the Senegalese legislative campaign—12 years after the presidential election of Maître Abdoulaye Wade. During this same period, Thiat and Kilifeu, members of the Keur Gui Band, decided to take action where the socialist opposition failed to do so. They mobilised and created with other friends--musicians, artists and journalists, a peaceful and apolitical group called ‘Y'en a marre’ [tr. we’re fed up]. They organised marches and demonstrations to ensure that the Constitutional Council would revoke the candidacy of the outgoing president. The mobilization was unprecedented. The recently-roused opposition joined the young artists of ‘Y'en a marre’. United under the banner of the M23, they stood up to the former man of law who tried to usurp the democracy of 10 million Senegalese."

A similar "revolution" emerged in Burkina Faso 2 years later. In her documentary On a le temps pour nous (Time is on our side), Katy Lena Ndiaye, from Senegal, traces the events that led to the downfall of Blaise Compaoré: Burkina Faso, October 2014. What many did not dare imagine happens. The Burkinabès put an end to the reign of Blaise Compaoré. The rapper Smokey, member of the Balai Citoyen, is among the artisans of change: the victory of a utopia in the real, after the uprising, after the failed coup, and the organization of free elections, what does the future hold?

In Deux petits tour et puis s'en vont, Monique Mbeka Phoba relates a democracy success story teaming with Emmanuel Kolawole to provide a glimpse of the 1996 elections in Benin, which at the time was considered to be a laboratory for democracy in Africa. After 17 years of unchallenged power, Mathieu Kérékou, in the face of popular discontent, called a National Conference in December 1989, which brought Nicéphore Soglo to power in 1991. In the next elections in April 1996, the former dictator regains power: this time he is democratically elected. In 2008 with Guy Kabeya Muya, she returns to the theme of democratic elections in the film Between The Cup and The Election, as they supervise a group of film students, who, inspired by the 2006 elections in Congo, set out to make a film about the first team from sub-Saharan Africa to have participated in a Football World Cup. It was in 1974 and this legendary team was called: the Leopards of Zaire (now DRC, Democratic Republic of Congo).

Related articles from the African Women in Cinema Blog:

Festival Films Femmes Afrique 2020 - Fatoumata Coulibaly, Erica Pomerance : L'après coup, la voix des maliennes (After the coup, Malian women speak)

On a le temps pour nous (Time is on our side) by/de Katy Lena Ndiaye (Sénégal)

Whispering truth to power by/de Shameela Seedat (South Africa | Afrique du Sud)

Laurentine Bayala : Elections couplées de 2012, les femmes burkinabé en marche | Coupled Elections of 2012, Burkinabe Women on the Move

Understanding what is happening in Egypt: A letter from Azza Elhosseiny, Executive Director, Luxor African Film Festival

Neveen Shalaby and the Agenda: The Experiences of a filmmaker - participant of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011

Rama Thiaw talks about the "making of" her film "The revolution won’t be televised"

A Conversation with Rumbi Katedza

Nadia El Fani and the Freedom of Conscience

Cineaste Nadia El Fani reflects on the elections in Tunisia

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