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.


My photo
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


Search This Blog

10 December 2021

Behind the camera, in the frame: African Women's Autobiographical Imaginaries

Behind the camera, in the frame: African Women's Autobiographical Imaginaries

“You want to do a story on Zanele Muholi? Where is she in this? You do a story on me, where will I be? Will I be another subject standing in front of the camera and tell my story completely?...What will be my position?

The above quote highlights the urgency of the African woman practitioner to be the agent of her own story. Hence, for her, “history, historical agency, and autobiographical consciousness have become significant and signifying components of identity, artistic production, and social agency.” She is an “empirical subject” who exists separate from and prior to her films.

Hamid Naficy describes autobiography as a dominant motif in “accented films” where self-reflexive strategies that inscribe the filmmaker are also employed. Self-inscription is evident in many of the works of African women filmmakers in which identity and belonging are prevailing themes. Hence, as Naficy notes as well, these films inscribe the filmmakers both authorially and autobiographically as well as diegetically, and occasionally the character becomes the alter ego of the filmmaker.

The themes of the African woman maker/protagonist are multiple and diverse. The discussion that follows draws from a selection of themes—ranging from practices of beauty, mental illness, the complexities of lesbian identity, the parent-child relationship, in search of family histories, questions of belonging, duty of memory—in order to highlight some of the strategies of self-inscription that the filmmakers employ.

South African visual activist Zanele Muholi, affirms her subject positioning, reclaiming the right to tell her own story, taking proprietorship of her images and encouraging other black South African lesbians and Africans as a whole to do so as well. Zanele Muholi co-produced Difficult Love (2010) with Peter Goldsmid under the condition that she has certain rights and the ownership of her story in the documentary. Interwoven into a composite of her visual works with interviews of her, her friends and colleagues, the film relates her experiences and the complexities of her life: as lesbian, family person and as participant in her society.

Zulfah Otto-Sallies, also from South Africa, exclaims: “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 Through the Eyes of My Daughter (2004) 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. Used to having control of her subject, she discovered the dilemma of inscribing her family into her film: “It’s not easy being in your own film. You can’t structure it, you can’t control it. Things happen and it’s a letting go process. It’s not just a documentary that other people watch; it’s also a document for my family.” Hence Through the Eyes of My Daughter plays the dual role of a story to share with the public and a visual biography for the family to better understand their own lives.
Mame Woury Thioubou gazes openly into the mirror. Face to face with her image she compares it to the beauty and historic elegance of the women of St. Louis, Senegal, which had always been her idea of feminine beauty. Her film Face à Face, Femmes et beauté à Saint-Louis (Face to Face, Women and Beauty in St. Louis, 2009) provides a cross-generational perspective of notions of beauty past and present. In her investigation of the societal practices as it relates to beauty she poses the questions: Why do women have to resort to artifices to feel beautiful? And in so doing, to what need are they submitting?
Employing the camera as a strategy of self-reflection, Aicha Thiam’s Papa (2006), is structured around memories of presence and absence. Her face fills the frame as she addresses her recently deceased father in voice-off narration. The poem-film is a journey between two worlds. It is a film-letter of her love, a space where she could communicate directly to her father and ultimately find relief from the loss of his physical presence. Paradoxically, to face the camera was an act of courage for Aicha Thiam, and yet, in that moment, there was a natural sense of being able to share her feelings in an intimate way on the screen—a cathartic instance at the same time an artistic fulfilment.

Similarly, Annette Kouamba Matondo’s catharsis evolved during the filming of her portrait of artist Sylvie Diclo Pomos. Recalling the case of the “Beach” disappearances, the duty of memory was at the same time a means to liberate her from her ghosts. She begins On n’oublie pas on pardonne (One does not forget one forgives, 2010) by reading out loud her intentions for making the film as Sylvie Diclo Pomos listens: to recall the case of the “Beach” disappearances in order to remember, because too often there is a tendency to forget. Sylvie Diclo Pomo’s play “Janus’s Madness” is the point of departure of the story and it is through her work and experiences that the film unfolds. While it was initially planned to be a portrait of Sylvie the artist, during the shooting of the film Annette Kouamba Matondo began to ask herself questions. Hence, this self-interrogation caused a momentous shift in the story, which lead to her ability to find answers at the film’s conclusion. Unexpectedly, during the shooting, not able to control her emotions, she begins to cry; at that moment she realizes that she had not yet mourned her sister’s death. Though she thought that she had forgotten, the past began to resurface inside of her. Like many other filmmakers dealing with those intimate moments, there was hesitation about including this private part of her life, and yet: “The only therapy that remains is dialogue, sharing those fears, those problems. I think that it is a first step of a long therapy, and I am on the right path to healing. My narrative at the start of each sequence is a travel diary, in order to seize those intense moments and share them with everyone.”

Khady Sylla’s camera becomes an open window, as self-inscription has been a critical way to reveal parts of her personality through her films. Une fenêtre ouverte (An open window, 2005) is a space that she tried to open for Aminta Ngomgui, the protagonist of the story, for herself, and for the public, on the world of mental illness. Her camera is also a mirror into which she gazes directly as she addresses the viewers, interrogating their own sense of sanity, she states: "You look at yourself in a broken mirror. You see pieces of your face. Your face is crumbling. And whoever looks at you in the broken mirror, sees pieces of images of your face. Which of you will come to reconstruct the puzzle? Are you not, perhaps, on the same side of the mirror?” She continues the monologue with the disquieting admission of her own mental illness. However, it is through Aminta Ngomgui’s madness that she finds her window to the world. Khady Sylla’s camera is also cathartic. She elaborates this therapeutic element in an interview with Françoise Pfaff: “By looking at another, I wanted to look at myself, but not too directly. To look at oneself, alone, is not very interesting. But if one does so through another, it is there, where perhaps something can be found about oneself. Who am I? Who is the other? Between these two spaces, there is something to be found…rather than looking solely at my insanity, I wanted to analyze it through the madness of someone else in order to show that one shares a great deal of experiences with others.”

Taghreed Elsanhouri does not claim her parents’ exilic status, as she was only a young child when the family left Sudan for the United Kingdom; yet her historical agency and autobiographical consciousness is located in her place of her birth. In her films she is situated as an empirical subject, moving incrementally to the point where she claims a place for herself within the historical boundaries of Sudan. All About Darfur (2005), Orphanage of Mygoma (2008) and Our Beloved Sudan (2011) reveal her self-inscribing positionality as a means to explore the complex nature of her subject. In the same way it is a means to rediscover her country, and in the case of Orphanage of Mygoma, a life-changing journey. Commissioned by Aljazeera, Taghreed Elsanhouri set out to Sudan to make a film about the children brought to the Mygoma Orphanage in Karthoum after being abandoned by their unwed mothers. She encounters baby Abdelsamih and incorporates the emotional journey of growing close to him while making the film. From this experience she evolved from exploring filmmaker to ultimately, an engaging mother, he becomes her son.

Journeys of identity, to cite Hamid Naficy, are omnipresent in the works of Sarah Bouyain. Inside both films, the documentary Les Enfants du blanc (Children of the White Man, 2000) and the fiction feature, The Place in Between (2010) she teases out her bi-racial and bi-cultural identities that are an intricate part of her personal and historical experiences. In the former, Sarah Bouyain herself returns to Burkina Faso to document her family history. The latter is a reflection on identity, loss and in-between-ness. It is about the duality and either/or-ness that she is resigned to work through, the irreconcilability of an exilic consciousness: “The feeling of exile is an inevitable consequence of being bi-racial. Whatever I do, I cannot be in my two countries at the same time.”

While narrating in voice-off in Les Enfants du Blanc, Sarah Bouyain recalls her childhood summer vacations in Burkina Faso, with her paternal grandmother, Jeanne Bouyain. She also remembers her great grandmother Diouldé Boly who refused to speak in French because it brought back painful memories. These remembrances form the basis of her family-history meetings with her grandmother, visualized in the documentary. Her recollections are framed in a sequence of questions to which her grandmother responds in detail, sometimes elaborated by elements of Sarah’s research, which the latter narrates in voice-off. The internal journeys with her grandmother also entail voyages through the family photo albums, chats together during daily chores. Her grandmother’s remembrances uncover a little known phenomenon of French history of which Jeanne’s mother was directly concerned: the abduction and forced concubinage by French colonials of African women. The other thread to the story is the forced placement of the mixed-race children of these unions, often against the will of their families, into orphanages; Sarah Bouyain’s grandmother, who later was able to rejoin her mother, recalls this sad period in her life as her granddaughter looks on mournfully. Sarah, filmmaker, researcher, family historian, is also witness, inscribed into this aching multi-layered history of her family.

Though Sarah Bouyain attempted to distance herself from any similarities to the protagonist’s story in The Place in Between there are subtle aspects that give hints of an autobiographical consciousness: the recurrent themes of belonging, language and place. Elements of departure and return, the leitmotif of the film, are structured in parallel stories. Amy, who has not had contact with her mother since she was an enfant, leaves France for Burkina Faso to find her. As the story unfolds, it is revealed that she had left home years before en route to France, in search of her daughter. The separation of mothers and daughters is another powerful thread that runs through the film.
The title of the original French version Notre Étrangère, “our foreigner”, has a very different meaning than the English title The Place in Between. And yet they both reflect the parallel stories that command the film. Amy and her mother Miriam are both "in a place between two" in the respective countries where they are located, and at the same time, both are foreigners in these places. But why "our" foreigner, the nickname that her African family called her? In Africa at the same time different, Amy belongs to the family, to Africa; hence, through the film the filmmaker, Sarah Bouyain is able to reconcile with the two countries of which she is a part.

Similarly, in La Souffrance est une école de sagesse | Suffering is a School of Wisdom (2010) Astrid Ariane Atodji set out to resolve the increasingly nagging questions of belonging, in a voyage from Cameroon to Benin, the land of her father, where she had never been. Questions of identity began to surface in her during an interview when she was referred to as "the Cameroonian of Beninese origin." Born of a Cameroonian mother, she never doubted her Cameroonian-ness. However, the question of identity, of belonging, started to manifest itself, an uneasiness gradually developing: “I wanted answers to these questions that I asked myself and to which my father did not satisfactorily give me answers.” 

The film is structured as a road trip on various means of transport: airplane, car, bus, bush taxi, on the back of a motor scooter, by foot. New technologies facilitate the voyage, notably the cell phone. In the voice-off narration she talks to her father, asking him questions about his past, which are reflections of her thoughts as she travels from place to place to find hints of where her Beninese family are located. Language barriers encumber the endeavor, which is ultimately overcome by the many fellow travelers who facilitate as translators. Though ultimately, communication in the most intimate encounters with the newfound family is transmitted simply by emotion. Hence, the desire to communicate with each other supersedes the barrier of language. Similarly, Sarah Bouyain inserts the language of compassion in the forceful moments when there is incomprehension between the two languages.

In the same way that Annette Kouamba Matondo grappled with the decision to share private moments, Astrid Ariane Atodji also chose to do so as a means to unravel the complexities of a family history that had begun to consume her: “making a film was not easy because it was about me personally; an intimacy that one wishes to preserve; but this need imposed itself on me to the point of being vital. It was a psychological and emotional pain that I wanted to share in order to heal.” Astrid inscribes these very intense emotional experiences of her journey to her father’s homeland by showing her own responses to the information that she receives. She cries, she meditates, and during one powerful moment, she appears to almost faint when learning the details of family members. She lays her emotions out for all to see, as she reacts to the experiences during her journey of self-discovery to her father’s homeland.

Claude Haffner focuses most of the story in Footprints of My Other (2012) on her second return voyage to the land of her birth. During her initial visit she was accompanied by her mother, which she describes as having experienced the reality of the Congo as she hid behind her. The second journey, which was planned around the shooting of the documentary, was made alone; having been “liberated”, she was searching for her own place among her Congolese family. However, this was not the story that she had initially set out to tell, but rather of a more politically focused theme regarding the region of the Congo where her family lived, and how they were affected by it. Nonetheless, she realized that in order to tell the complexities of this story she would have to enter into it. Hence, her autobiographical consciousness unveiled during the filmmaking process. She explains:

“The film should redefine itself as the shooting unfolds in the same way that the filmmaker redefines herself in relation to her initial idea and to her subject. This is evident in the fact that in 2004 I could not foresee that I would be expecting a child after having filmed in the Congo, and that I would actually include myself, while pregnant, during the scenes in Alsace. Somehow, the film helped me to define my identity and my place between Europe and Africa and to become aware of the richness that I possess to have come from a double culture or perhaps I should say, multiple.”

The filmmaker/participant duality is evident in her desire to be at the same time auteur and protagonist of the history that she mines. Hence the subjective strategies of many of these stories emerge from a mode of autobiographical practice, which negotiate reflection, questioning and memory through acts of self-inscription, even if it entails succumbing to long-held resistance to divulging private, intimate moments of emotional expression or family histories.

Excerpted from the article: Black Camera: On-screen Narratives, Off-screen Lives: African Women Inscribing the Self (Behind the camera, in the frame: African Women's Autobiographical Imaginaries) by Beti Ellerson (Spring 2018)

A selection of articles on the African Women in Cinema Blog about African women's autobiographical stories:

Rim Temimi: Manco Moro

Nesrine el Zayat: On the Fence

Laura Sousa: Fin | End

Karima Saidi: Dans la Maison | A Way Home

Lina Soualem: Leur Algérie

Ines Johnson Spain: Becoming Black

Tamara Mariam Dawit: Finding Sally

Matamba Kombila: Mundele n: blanche, étrangère - white, foreigner

Eliane Tekou Donchi : La main interdite

Aline Angelo Milla & Soraya Milla: Afropolitaine, la websérie 100% afro french touch

Beryl Mgoko: In Search

Words of Frieda Ekotto, producer of the film Vibrancy of Silence: A Discussion With My Sisters

Aicha Macky: The Fruitless Tree | L’arbre sans fruit

Khady Sylla & Mariama Sylla Faye : Une Simple Parole | A Single Word

Astrid Ariane Atodji : La Souffrance est une école de sagesse | Suffering is a School of Wisdom

Fidel 2013: Perspectives of Black African Women - Images of Diversity and Equality Festival (Paris)

Tapiwa Chipfupa: The Bag on my Back

Claude Haffner: Footprints of My Other (Black Here, White There)


No comments:

Post a Comment

Relevant comments are welcome - Les discussions constructives sont les bienvenues

Blog Archive