Germany as a site for Afro-women’s cinematic journeying
by Beti Ellerson
Germany, with its rich cinema culture and history, has been fertile ground for African women with an interest in the moving image, many journeying to the country as professionals and students since the 1970s.
An eclectic group of German-based women are taking advantage of this rich audiovisual environment as accomplished creatives looking to enhance their skill sets or novitiates in search of tools to express their identity: some are mixed-race of German and African or African-American parentage, first-generation German-born or raised of African parents, or student immigrants who have settled in Germany or after their studies, have returned to their countries of origin. Hence within this cinematic landscape a current generation of Afro-German women are using the camera and the screen to tell their stories, explore their identities, and to problematize their social location.
Senegalese filmmaker/anthropologist Safi Faye spent the academic years of 1979-1981 at the faculty of the Freie Universität in Berlin as a guest professor. Taking advantage of her séjour in the city she enrolled in video production courses in Berlin, directing 3 ans 5 mois (3 Years 5 Months) which was filmed in 1979 and edited in 1983. The 30-minute documentary, produced by the German cultural association, Deutsche Akademische Austansch Dienst, related the experiences of her own daughter as a young child, effortlessly adapting to the newfound culture. Also while in Germany, with an eye on the experiences of expatriate residents, in 1980 she made Man Sa Yay (I, Your Mother), co-produced with ZDF. The film relates the experiences of a Senegalese student in Berlin during an exchange of letters with his mother at home, revealing his cultural isolation where "West Berlin itself becomes an anonymous mass of glass and concrete”.* Safi Faye would continue her ties with Germany with the co-production of Mossane, released in 1996, with Jürgen Jürges as the director of photography. Later in the 1980s, trailblazer, Flora M'mbugu-Schelling, having already left her mark in Tanzania, ventured to the country to hone her audiovisual interest, which included a German television internship.**
In an environment teeming with cultural and intellectual discourse around identity, representation and visibility, in the mid-1980s, a group of Afro-German women emerged--inspired by Afro-Caribbean-American poet and activist Audre Lorde, forging the Afro-German Women's movement, ADEFRA--Afrodeutsche Frauen. The first wave of women of African descent studying cinema in Germany found roots in the momentum of this period. A cohort of African women with an interest in the moving image as a means of expression, journeyed to Berlin in the late 1980s-1990s to study film; which included Kenyan Wanjiru Kinyanjui who arrived in 1987, Zimbabwean Tsitsi Dangarembga in 1989, having recently attained international recognition as a writer; Auma Obama also from Kenya, in 1990 and Branwen Okpako from Nigeria, in 1992. Branwen Okpako had this to say during her filmmaker-in-residence talk about this early period as a student and colleague: “We were all keen to think about the portrayal of the African continent in film. And particularly African women in film and how we could contribute to the complexity of that image and how we could put stories out there that reflected our experience. That was a conversation that started in the early 90s.” Wanjiru Kinyanjui’s student film Blacks in the Western World (1992) as well as A Lover and Killer of Colour (1988) were seminal works on the subject, referring to Wanjiru's first film, Branwen Okpako notes: “it was one of the first films to talk about the postcolonial, diasporic African experience from a woman’s perspective.” Wanjiru Kinyanjui describes her work:
In Germany, I had also written and directed two short dramas, thirty minutes each, for ZDF German Television. These were stories for a multi-cultural project which were made by a multi-cultural team about Berlin's mixture of "tribes": Turks, Germans, Africans, South-Americans, Poles, Czechs, and whoever else was a professional in the fields of writing and directing. Well, mine were dramas around African-German connections. One is witty, but the other one concerns a neo-nazi attack on an African man who has an eight-year-old daughter by his German wife. The little girl, through whose eyes we see, is suddenly thrown into an identity crisis: Am I not German? Where do I really belong?***
Wanjiru Kinyanjui and Tsitsi Dangarembga returned to their respective countries and are making important contributions to the cinema cultures there. Both are founders of African women film festivals and are forging links with collaborative outreach efforts between Kenya and Zimbabwe. Branwen Okpako who is now based in the United States, settled in Germany after completing her film studies and the majority of her films have focused on Afro-German experiences; while her 2011 film The Education of Auma Obama traces the experiences of her fellow classmate and the elder sister of U.S. President Barack Obama. Coming to Berlin after reunification, witnessing a city under reconstruction, in transformation, she was struck by the idea that culture is dynamic, that there is continuous movement. What inspired her the most about the discourse around identity in Germany among the Afro-German women was that they were constructing a culture, inventing themselves, which motivated her interest in wanting to make a contribution to Afro-German cultural production.
A decade later, Nigerian Ebele Okoye relocated to Germany to study animation in Duesseldorf and Cologne. As a German-based animation maker she shares her knowledge with her compatriots in Nigeria with the creation of an animated film studio that she set up with her brother. “I am bringing Nigerian stories to Germany in the form of cartoons. The knowledge that I have acquired through studying animated films I am bringing to Nigeria.” Iman Kamel of Egypt began her studies in visual art at the Academy of Arts in Berlin but found her creative passion at the Berlin Film Academy. Like many African women who live and work between cultures, she has a sensitivity towards in-between stories, where the protagonists negotiate within liminal spaces. Rwandan-born Amelia Umuhire who came to Germany as a child directs the popular webseries “Polyglot” (2015) which is a reflection of her own experiences as a young Berliner navigating between multiple languages: German, English, French and Kinyarwanda. Namibian Naomi Beukes-Meyer (“The Centre”, 2014), who has lived in Berlin for some twenty-five years, felt that there was a lack of representation regarding African lesbian experiences and wanted to explore it in her work. Psychologist, intellectual, and multimedia artist Grada Kilomba, whose ancestral homelands are both Sao Tome and Angola, was born in Portugal and is based in Germany. As many transnational cultural producers, she situates her work within the global African diaspora. In addition to her short films and video installations, she employs the moving image to perform her ideas and discourse on the myriad issues of race, knowledge, power, and postcoloniality.
U.S. based Nigerian filmmaker and cultural activist Omah Diegu directed the film The Snake in My Bed (1994), produced and released in Germany under the title Die Schlange in meinem Bett, which focuses on her personal experiences with Germany. She had this to say in an interview with me about the case around the story in the film and its aftermath: "There were aspects of my odyssey in Germany that had I included them in my script, my film might never have been produced there. These were not complimentary maneuverings by some higher authorities of the German government. Their actions were mitigated, at some time though, by an elected German politician of a minority liberal party, and at another by the Nigerian Embassy in Bonn. All these intrigues and counteractions were going on outside of the judicial system that was still trying to sort out the German officials’ mess-up with my son’s birth certificate and legal status. Then there was the German activist organization - of which my diligent attorney Marion Tamura Ikeda was a member - that publicized my son’s dilemma in a German newspaper. This had precipitated expert legal opinion being advanced, pro bono by a concerned German citizen, to the relevant court. So in spite of not blatantly telling all in the film (and probably all the better so), I could still make my case to an empathetic German audience; especially those within the lawmakers, bureaucrats and interracial community. My film aired a couple of times on German television and theater. It is of great consolation to think that my story played a part in the enactment of a law in Germany - soon after the debut of my film there. This law recognized the German citizenship of an interracial child born to an unwed German man, as an earlier one had done for the child born of an unwed German woman. This meant equal right of German citizenship to every child born of a German parent! For even though I married his German father in Nigeria, some German bureaucrats, hell bent on throwing my biracial baby to the dogs, were able to feign ignorance of the legality of my marriage. This way, they could camouflage their racism under the umbrella of the absence of a specific law protecting the biracial “illegitimate” child of a German man…On another level, the drive to make The Snake in My Bed at that very time in space was the chance to preemptively tell my son the story of his birth and ancestry in the event of my precipitous demise. That would help him never to let anyone else define him. As his Griot, my son is my primary target audience hence I addressed him directly. I could not have asked for any one more appreciative."****
Photographer-filmmaker Philippa Ndisi-Herrmann, who was born in Germany and raised in Kenya, where she currently lives, has this to say in an interview with me about the multiple identities and complexity of experiences that inform and influence her work: "Being half white and half black, being half African, and half European, and having the perspectives of a German father and a Kenyan mother means that I see two sides to everything – I can put myself in the shoes of two polar perspectives which is advantageous to my filmmaking, especially the films I want to make… This juxtaposition, this contrast was once a battle within me. However now it means that in my work I am drawn to writing stories about people that are misunderstood in their communities. I am also drawn to writing stories whose objectivity comes from their subjectivity of each character." ****
Similarly, pioneer animation filmmaker Cilia Sawadogo of German and Burkinabè parents, employs her art as a bridge between cultures. Born in East Germany she spent half of her childhood in Burkina Faso and migrated to Canada to study and has lived in there ever since. She had this to say in a 1997 interview with me: "The fact is that I come from not only different cultures but also two races—I am half-white and half-black—I truly experience this in every sense of the term. When I was in Germany, I was told "You are black," but when I was in Africa I was told "You are white," I was put in the category "white" and viewed as such. When I arrived in Canada, I was again told "You are black." Thus, I lived in all my environments within a context of never being entirely part of a particular race. What was good for me in this experience was that I acquired a tolerance and a sense of a universality of many things. I also learned the acceptance of difference and the diversity of cultures. Personally, I can say that I am a person who is multi-cultural in every sense of the word. Which means that I feel very European sometimes, often very African, and very Quebecois…"Poly-cultural," yes. I think it brings something particularly interesting. I think it reflects the way that I make films. My films are never about a specific culture. They are films that always touch on a universal theme. I consider myself a citizen of the earth before anything else. I am an Earthwoman."***
German-born Mo Asumang (The Aryans, 2014) and Nancy Mac Granaky-Quayes (Beento, 2007 and Kniffel, 2013) of mixed-race parentage, follow the footsteps of the first generation of Afro-German women writers, who through their writing and research forged a Afro-German Studies movement. Hence, they are using their cameras to cultivate a nAfro-German screen culture in order to visualize their stories, explore their identities and to problematize their social location. Moreover, associations the Black Filmmakers in Germany (SFD) presented a film series by Afro-German and black filmmakers living in Germany at the Berlinale under the title Neue Bilder. The 2023 Berlinale featured several German-produced films in the 1980s by African women dealing with issues of immigration and identity. The Berlinale Forum Special Fiktionsbescheinigung 2023 featured Man sa yay (I, your mother, 1980) by Safi Faye and Wanjiru Kinyanjuri's A Lover and Killer of Colour, released in 1988. In 2021, Wanjiru Kinyanjuri's seminal film Black in the Western World, was also featured in the Special Fiktionsbescheinigung.
Ghanaian-German Jacqueline Nsiah, of Ghanaian parentage is a polyglot transnational researcher and cultural media maker--whose Ghanaian-ness and polyglot transnationalism is as much a part of who she is as her German-born heritage. She had this to say in an interview with me about the Afro-German movement and her identity as a Ghanaian-German: "The Afro-German movement is poignant and very active indeed but I must say that I never felt part of that movement; I couldn't relate to the movement, I understand it but it's not my story. Although I was born and raised in Germany and lived there until my 21st year, I always felt Ghanaian as well as German. I never felt like I didn't have an identity or didn't know where to place it. My parents play a big role in this; both my parents are from Ghana and I was raised speaking Twi and eating Ghanaian food. Also, my parents tried to take us to Ghana as many times as possible. Though I never felt 100% Ghanaian, I always felt very connected."****
Winta Yohannes, born in Eritrea and raised in Germany, is a transnational visual artist of photography and filmmaking. She graduated from London Film School and after creative journeys in New York, London and Paris, she return to Germany and is based in Berlin. Her work along with Branwen Okpako was presented in a film series by Afro-German and black filmmakers living in Germany under the title Neue Bilder, at the Berlinale in 2007 organized by the Black Filmmakers in Germany (SFD) association. In September 2022, an entire panel was devoted to a discussion of the films of Branwen Okpako (sponsored by the DEFA Film Library and the Black German Heritage and Research Association). On of the panelist, Karina Griffith, is preparing her dissertation research on Black German Cinema.
Brenda Akele Jorde, born in Hamburg, studied at the University of Potsdam in Media Studies and then at the Film University at Babelsberg where she completed her final project, the feature documentary, The Homes We Carry. She had this to say about her film: “As an Afro-German director, I want to tell stories about Afro-German families, so that we can see ourselves as a part of German society. Showing the story of Sarah's family means making Afro-German identity visible and emotionally tangible across generations. Like many others, Sarah eventually understands that being Afro-German is not a contradiction, not wrong and unwanted, but an enrichment and a wonderful gift…” (Source DEFA Film Library)
Perhaps Ebele Okoye sums up the complexity of identities of many of the above women. In an interview on German television, to the question “where is your Heimat, your homeland?” she responds “I have two homes, I come from Nigeria and I moved to Germany, and at the moment, Germany is where my heart is, because I have my husband who is my first family here…I cannot say where my Heimat is, it is very difficult, but at this moment, in some areas I feel very connected to Germany and in some areas I feel very connected to Nigeria. That is why I feel that both are my homeland. I feel quite at home in Germany.
Report by Beti Ellerson
*Drawn from Françoise Pfaff. Safi Faye in Twenty-Five Black African Filmmakers.
**Amina Magazine, May 1991.
***Beti Ellerson. Sisters of the Screen, Women of Africa on Film, Video and Television, 2000.
****African Women in Cinema Blog.
Following is a selection of articles focusing on African women and Germany published on the African Women in Cinema Blog:
Brenda Akele Jorde: The Homes We Carry. Black History Month Köln 2023
Wanjiru Kinyanjui: A Lover and Killer of Colour - Berlinale https://africanwomenincinema.blogspot.com/2023/01/wanjiru-kinyanjui-lover-killer-of.html
Wanjiru Kinyanjui: Black in the Western World - Berlinale
Ines Johnson Spain: Becoming Black
Grada Kilomba Talk at 2019 Verbier Art Summit
Report on Fokus: Sisters in African Cinema at the Afrika Film Festival Cologne
Iman Kamel Talks about her Beloved Home Egypt
Ghanaian-German Jacqueline Nsiah's Sankofa
Amelia Umuhire: Polyglot Webseries
Mo Asumang: Die arier aryans
Naomi Beukes-Meyers: Germany Namibia
The Legacy of Rubies, an animation film by Ebele Okoye
Omah Diegu: artist, and filmmaker of the iconic L.A. Rebellion film movement
A conversation with Philippa Ndisi-Herrmann
Conversation with Branwen Okpako