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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Director/Directrice, Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema | Centre pour l'étude et la recherche des femmes africaines dans le cinéma


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05 October 2021

Homage to Maïmouna Hélène Diarra (1955 - 2021)

Homage to Maïmouna Hélène Diarra
(1955 - 2021)

The African Women in Cinema Blog has learned belatedly, of the passing of veteran Malian actress Maïmouna Hélène Diarra in June. May her soul rest in eternal peace.

In homage to her is a presentation of a few of her words. I had the pleasure to talk with her on two occasions, at FESPACO in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in February 1997, and in May 1998, about her evolution as an actor. I am republishing excerpts of the interview, translated from French, as it appeared in my book, Sisters of the Screen: Women of Africa on Film, Video and Television, 2000--Beti Ellerson

Image: Screen capture from film, Sisters of the Screen: African Women in Cinema.

Maïmouna, could you talk about yourself and your background?

My name is Maïmouna Hélène Diarra.  I was born in Segou, Mali.  I have a DEF (Diplôme d'Etudes Fondamentales) and a Diplome d'Etudes Theatrales after four years of study at the Institut National des Arts, in the dramatic art section.  I am an actor by profession and I am host and producer at the ORTM, Office de Radio et Télé-diffusion du Mali.

You have an impressive background in the theater.  How did you become interested?

I do not know quite how to explain how this all came about.  I remember I was still in primary school when one day I was fascinated by the theatrical representations of the Groupe Dramatique National du Mali that was touring throughout the various regions of Mali.

You stated that you did formal studies in theater.  Did you first study theater and then join the group?

Yes, after receiving a diploma in theater at the Institut National d'Art of Mali I spent ten years on stage with the National Drama Group commonly called the "Koteba of Mali."

How did you come to join the drama group?

After I completed my DEF exams I indicated that I wanted to study at the INA in the Dramatic Arts section.  It was during my studies at the INA that this same group, the Groupe Dramatique National du Mali, discovered me while working on our play "Gouverneur de la Rosée by Armand Dreyfus, my professor of theater at the time.  I was in my second year when the group requested that I come to work with them after I completed my studies.

Unfortunately, I was not able to complete my studies at the scheduled time because of a strike followed by the suspension of the students. The entire establishment was closed until further notice.  However, the group was very anxious to have me and requested that I sign a contract, so I worked with them for two years.  After the student suspension period was over I received my diploma and officially became part of the drama group.

The Koteba theater is a well-known theatrical genre in Mali. Could you talk about it a bit?

Koteba is a traditional form of theatrical expression in Mali.  It is adapted to all kinds of stages but most particularly to the "round stage."  In Koteba theater, everybody can be simultaneously spectator and actor.

In fact, it is a way to expose the defects and various conduct of the leaders.  This theatrical form has worked so well for the drama group that the public has dubbed the group, "Koteba".
As I said earlier, I played in the "Gouverneur de la Rosée" in the role of the old Délira Délivrance when I was a student.  However, I also realized that there were other problems and demands arose.

I suppose your evolution from the theater to the cinema was a natural process.  How did it come about?

My entry into cinema was quite by chance. I played my first role as an extra in 1981, in Souleymane Cisse's Finye. My second step into this world of film as actor came about when I played in Nyamanton, by Cheick Oumar Sissoko, followed by Finzan, also by Sissoko.  It was at that time that I got a taste of this "thing" and I decided to give my all. Thus far, I have played in six feature films, in both principal and secondary roles.  I have also played in five short films and one téléfilm.

You have acted in films by the most important filmmakers in Mali. You have also played important roles in the theater.  What connections do you make between the theater and the cinema?

I do realize that my performance is much appreciated by filmmakers and that I am, in all modesty, one of the most sought after actors in Mali today.  At the same time, I also recognize that my first profession, the theater, assisted me a great deal.  If the theater taught me how to move with ease in front of an audience that was in communion with me, the cinema, in turn, forced me to concentrate all the intensity of my actions at the same time that I am totally aware of the camera and the demands of the director.  This work is as demanding as it is passionate, because it is here that the actor, shot by shot, scene by scene, must embody a character.

In the films in which you have acted, could you talk about the roles that you have played?

I have often played the role of mama or the grandmother in the films in which I have acted.  I have also played the role of wife.

Do you feel a certain affinity with your character in these roles?

I feel that I have a certain gift.  The personality of the character comes naturally to me.  When I am asked to play a certain character, I look in my environment and I reflect on what could resemble this character.  It often comes spontaneously.  I do not have any difficulty in embodying the character.

As an actor, what are your general impressions of the image of African women in the cinema?

At the beginning of African cinema, people did not understand the role of women, nor did they accept them, but people are now beginning to understand their importance. They now see that, in the roles in which we are playing, we are actually communicating something, and they now understand. At one time people thought that actresses were women of loose morals, but now they realize that we are not that at all.  They see that we are showing and exposing problems that actually exist. They are beginning to realize the true value of African women in the cinema.

As a veteran actor, what do you say to other actors who follow you?

If I have advice to give from my modest experience, I would say that an actor must never take herself or himself for a star.  To the contrary, she or he must be open to criticism and let the public judge as they see fit.

I would not want to finish without putting a particular accent on the importance of discipline in the actor's work; it is essential and paramount.

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