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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16 December 2021

Death, loss and mourning in films by and about African women

Death, loss and mourning
in films by and about African women
by Beti Ellerson

In the ending chant at the final scene of Mossane, as the procession carrying Mossane’s body passes the ubiquitous baobab tree, a recurrent image throughout the film, Yandé Codou Sène completes the Serer myth of the beautiful Mossane, punctuating the verse with effusive praise, and unknowable questions--since it is etched in Serer legend, has always been, and will continue to be:

Who chose our village
laying Mossane on its shores?

Sparkling pearl
at the merchants

Sweet calabash
so fresh and so fragile

In the blue sky
like a forestand its haughty bouquet of palm trees
before the axe

O Mossane,
magnificent emblem of the sun

Around you, there is no rush

It is fate that has render us deaf
to your anguish

O Mossane
in our songs
your face forever radiant
O Pearl of Mbissel

Taken away at such a young age
Roog did say
that you would only have fourteen winters

Do you remember that day?
A cloud of dust
enveloping Mbissel

Mossane, sister of Ngor
It is the end of her night

Who chose our village,
laying Mossane on its shores?
Notes to continue...

A subtext of the two fiction films, Sous la clarté de la lune and Pour la nuit, is death and separation from the African mother. At the beginning of Isabelle Boni-Claverie's film Pour la nuit (For the Night, 2004), the young woman Muriel, raised by her European father and African mother in France, buries her mother; it is at the funeral that her shame of her mother’s African-ness, her mother’s speech, her voice, surfaces. Both father and daughter reveal to each other for the first time, at the site of the African woman’s reposed body, the tensions that surrounded their relationship to her African-ness. The father accuses the daughter of being ashamed of her mother because she was African; the daughter accuses the father of not really being interested in understanding his wife, knowing her deeply, knowing who she was. Though this beginning is only a brief part of the story in this fiction short, it provides the context for the emotional drama that ensues as Muriel seeks to free herself. In Sous la clarté de la lune (Under the Moonlight, 2004) by Apolline Traoré from Burkina Faso, young Martine has become someone very different, having being raised in Europe by her European father, rather than in Africa by her African mother. The uprooted Martine, returns briefly to Africa with her father, discovering her African roots through her mother. And yet, she does not realize the woman’s relationship to her, as she was kidnapped by her father while still a baby, a trauma of which her mother suffered a double loss, her daughter and her voice, as she was rendered speechless. Upon Martine's brief return the mother recovers her voice and rediscovers her daughter, only to lose her again to death.


Refusal that ultimately ends in death

Mossane, Beletech (Harvest 3000, Haile Gerima) and Diouana (La Noire de..., Ousmane Sembene) die in very different stories, the reason leading up to their death equally dissimilar. And yet the act of refusal plays a role in the deaths.

In Safi Faye’s Mossane rebellion and resistance are deeply rooted in the story, and it is ultimately Mossane's refusal that she pays with her life. And yet it is her mother Mingue who loses the most, her daughter—who she sacrifices for financial comfort, and the dowry which she will not receive—since Mossane will not be "delivered". Safi Faye implies that the consciousness raising begins after the death of Mossane—when the story has ended. It is then that Mingue realizes her complicity and understands the consequences. If she had only listened more closely to Mam, if she had not been deaf to the words of her daughter who demanded to make her own choices.

At the closing sequence, as Mingué, followed by the other villagers run sorrowfully towards the sea at the sound of the death knell, Mam’s voice is heard relating the end of the legend: "Never forget: Siga, daughter of Leona, Yacine of Dioffior. They left before getting married." As the same group stands stricken with grief after Mossane’s body is retrieved from the sea, Mam walks pass them as she completes her refrain: "All left, taken away with their virtues. Mossane is gone." Mam’s storytelling dissolves into the continuing action of the film’s final sequence, revealing the remaining elements of the legend, which now includes Mossane. That Leona's daughter Siga was taken away 400 years ago, followed by Dioffior's daughter Yacine 200 years later, both like Mossane before they were married, and now 200 years in the present, Mossane has also been taken away. 

Beletech refuses to be confined to the strict gender role assigned to girls/women. As if a premonition, right before her death she declares, looking directly at the camera: "Even if I am a woman, I will not submit, I am not afraid". In part, her death results from her transgression of the boundaries of work, insisting on taking the freedom to play, in the same way that the boys are allowed. She acknowledges this as she runs frantically down the hill to save the cow that is in the midst of the imminent floodwaters: "Oh my misfortune, I wish I had not gone to play. Oh my bad luck! What’s going to happen to me?" She indeed recalls the earlier warning of her master: "Tend the cattle—See that none gets lost. Quick! I’m warning you. If just one is missing you’ll pay with your life." Beletech's mother is inconsolable. In the tradition of shaving the women’s hair, the spectator takes part in what seems to be the entire shaving ritual, as each strand of the mother's hair is removed. With their shaven heads, the grief-stricken mother and grandmother prepare the meal. The mourning around the smoldering fire in the smoked-filled room installs more drama.

Also a foreboding, during a scene in the first sequence of La noire de..., after her arrival to France and a tour of the apartment where she will be living with her employers, Diouana cleans the bathtub. Her daydreams are increasingly in the form of muses, of flashbacks to Dakar, relating past events that lead to her journey to France. She feels increasingly isolated, imprisoned, she becomes despondent. Diouana begins to make a mental note of the acts of betrayal she experiences from her employers: she is given an apron to wear, she is told to take off her high heel shoes, she is called lazy, she has not visited France as she was promised.

Her only link to Africa is the mask that she presented as a gift to her employers while still in Dakar. She takes it from the wall, and again muses about Dakar. Her ultimate refusal and resistance comes when "Madame" attempts to reclaim the mask. Diouana refuses. In her final break with the job and all its trappings, she refuses the money that "Monsieur" counts out to her. Falling to her knees, she sobs silently.

While preparing her suitcase, Diouana recounts the mistreatment that she has endured, especially by "Madame". As she enumerates the litany of misdeeds, she repeats "never again". She dresses, coifs her hair continuing to recall the list of offenses. Leaving the room and the camera frame, she goes to the bathroom. The door shut, the camera cuts to the inside, revealing her lifeless body in a bathtub filled with bloody water.

Diouana's suicide is the final rebellion against her employer: the ultimate refusal to be a slave.

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