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

African Women in Cinema: Stories of Mothers

African Women in Cinema: Stories of Mothers
On the timeline of women's lives are the myriad stories of the hope of childbirth, the fear of it not happening, societal expectations of motherhood, the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, memories of mothers, stories of aging and caregiving. Of these experiences, African women in cinema weave stories of mothers--many of them, their own.  
Following is a selection of cinematic stories of mothers by African women in screen culture. Reworked as part II of the article, African women, screen culture and practices of Motherwork
(This article will be updated to include current works):

In the fictional semi-autobiographical film, The Body Beautiful (1991), Nigerian-British Ngozi Onwurah casts her real-life mother, Madge, a white woman, in a multilayered story at the intersection of race--focusing on her bi-raciality, and the notion of beauty and the body--using her mother's experience with the crippling effects of arthritis, and her bout with breast cancer and the subsequent mastectomy. She hauntingly illustrates the societal privileging of the youthful, "perfect" body. It is especially moving to observe Ngozi Onwurah's mother, Madge, as the survivor of breast cancer, willingly present her body as text for the story, as her daughter explores this complex and remarkable phenomenon.

While narrating in voice-off in Les Enfants du Blanc (2000), 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 fiction film, Notre étrangère | The Place in Between (2010)--in real life Sarah Bouyain's mother is white European and her father is African, and her search is of a very different nature--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 infant, 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 mother/othermother(s) and daughter/otherdaughter(s) is another powerful thread that runs through the film.

Claude Haffner focuses most of the story in Noire ici, Blanche là-basFootprints 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. She describes this visit as experiencing the reality of the Congo as she hid behind her mother. 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. In the film she talks about reconciling with her mother having better understood where she comes from, beginning to respect her experiences, becoming closer to her. Reconciliation of course implies that there were issues that had to be resolved. She explains what prevented reconciliation before the experience with making the film: I felt secondary to my mother’s concerns about her family in the Congo. I thought she spent too much time dealing with them and not enough on us. I suffered from her "absence." With age, one finally understands the complexity of life, and if one follows the path of wisdom, one is able to forgive. Moreover, 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.” (African Women in Cinema Blog)

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 to Africa, 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 mute. Upon Martine's brief return the mother recovers her voice and rediscovers her daughter, only to lose her again to death.

In Orphanage of Mygoma (2008), commissioned by Aljazeera, Taghreed Elsanhouri sets 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, blind, having lost his eyes to cancer as a baby, 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.

Aïcha Elhadj Macky was only five years old when her mother died after childbirth. It is this trauma that Aïcha, who is married, still without children, reconstructs in L'arbre sans fruit | The Fruitless Tree (2016) about infertility and its disorder. She starts with childbirth: the calm, the esteemed advice of the midwife, the fatigue of the mother, the arrival of the child. Then a spoken letter that refers back to it: "Dear Mother, behind the camera, I tremble throughout my body"; and before concluding: "In my sleepless nights, your spirit guides my steps."

In Children of the Mountain (2016) by Priscilla Yawa Anany a woman who gives birth to a deformed and sickly child. Because she’s criticized and blamed for her child’s conditions, she becomes determined to do everything in her power to find a cure for him. When all fails and she becomes hopeless, she’s pushed to getting rid of her child. (From film description)

Françoise Ellong's W.A.K.A - « pour son fils elle est prête à tout… » | “for her son she is ready for anything” (2013) reveals the unraveling world of Mathilde/Maryline, a single mother desperate to care for her child. Françoise has this to say about the film: "The theme of the film was the result of a casual conversation that I had when dining with friends. During the discussion, I hear: "... in any case she is not a good mother." Is there a manual somewhere that follows to the letter what automatically makes one a good mother or not? Or does it depend on each person’s experience? The idea of the film resulted from this. Prostitution is a pretext in the film to talk about the journey and struggle of a woman—both as a woman and as a mother." (African Women in Cinema Blog)

Moroccan Maryam Touzani's Adam (2019) centers on the inner experiences of Abla and Samia whose interior journeys bring them together as they confront the myriad experiences of motherhood. Abla, a widow with little means, caring for her young daughter, brings into her household Samia, pregnant and unmarried, in a society that condemns the situation in which she finds herself.

The eponymous character of the film Sofia (2018) by Meryem Benm'Barek, is also pregnant in a Moroccan society that criminalizes motherhood outside of marriage. She is encircled in a world of women: mother, aunt, cousin, who work together to protect her and also the honour of women.

Cecile Mulombe Mbombe—cinematographer, and Pauline Mulombe—filmmaker, two sisters, talk about their lives, their experiences, and the film, Tout le monde a des raisons d'en vouloir à sa mère (Everyone has Reasons to be Angry with her Mother) 2010, which they made together. Pauline has this to say about the film: The protagonists, the daughters...respect their cultural heritage but they want to live their lives as they see fit. The film is located principally within the context of tolerance, indeed acceptance, by their mother, of their multi-culturalism and their reality. The youngest wants to enjoy herself and grow and develop by making the most of European social and cultural life. The middle daughter wants to utilize all of the possibilities available to resolve her problems, even if it means doing things that are unthinkable in her culture of origin, such as taking the birth control pill when still an adolescent. The oldest, even if she does not openly show her homosexuality, knows that she is 100% gay. (African Women in Cinema Blog)

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