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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15 October 2022

FALILA GBADAMASSI interview with/avec CORNÉLIA GLELE - The Woman King": how the actresses learned Fon, the language of the "Agodjiés" of Benin | comment les actrices ont appris le fon, la langue des "Agodjiés" du Bénin

African women's reflections on The Woman King

Falila Gbadamassi, introduction and interview with Cornélia Glele

The Woman King": how the actresses learned Fon, the language of the "Agodjiés" of Benin 
Cornélia Glele is one of the two background consultants who took part in the American production.

"The Woman King" : comment les actrices ont appris le fon, la langue des "Agodjiés" du Bénin
Cornélia Glele est l'une des deux consultantes en fon qui a participé à la production américaine.

Translation from French by Beti Ellerson

Source (version originale en Français):

Beninese filmmaker Cornélia Glele launched the International Women's Film Festival of Cotonou (FIFF) in 2019, whose aim is to promote film productions made by African women. Recently, she worked on the film The Woman King by Gina Prince-Bythewood. Her mission was to assist the cast—Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim—to master Fon, one of the main languages of Benin and which is spoken by the Amazons, who are originally from the south of the country. The Woman King, which evokes the warrior exploits of the Amazons, is pure Hollywood entertainment, while at the same time a symbolically just cultural product, even if, like all fiction, The Woman King takes some liberties with history.*

Franceinfo Afrique: You are listed in the credits of the film The Woman King as a Fon-language consultant. What did your job consist of? 

Cornélia Glele
Along with Beninese actress Carole Lokossou, our role was to teach Fon to the various actresses and actors of the film, a dozen in all. Since it was shot during the pandemic, we did Zoom meetings all the time, about one hour a day for each actor. We responded to each one with their dialogue in Fon. We also worked with the music team, for example, translating into Fon and verifying that the sound of the recordings in the Fon language was good.

Is it easy to learn Fon? 

Fon is not an easy language to acquire but we had good students. It was a very enjoyable experience teaching it. We experienced a lot during this project.

In Benin, The Woman King has been criticized for cultural appropriation. The question is who tells Africans’ stories and to what extent they are able to do so themselves, especially cinematic stories. Your reflections? 

I don't know if it is a story that belongs only to Africa or specifically to Benin. I believe that it is also their history, that it is the history of humanity. The slave trade took place along the entire coast of the continent: people were deported from Benin and were taken to America. Is it any less the history of an African American than of a Beninese who remained in Benin? I don't think so. It is all of our history and each decides to tell it as she or he feels. In Benin, we are not yet able to tell this story because we certainly do not have the means to do so. However, at the present, there is a statue in Benin that represents an Amazon, which demonstrates that the Beninese State had the means to erect this monument. Perhaps in a few years it may be able to invest in a large production such as The Woman King.

You are the director of a festival dedicated to women in cinema. What inspired you about this cast, this majority-woman team as a contribution to the history of extraordinary women?

The film was proposed by a woman (Maria Bello), produced by a woman (Viola Davis), directed by a woman (Gina prince-Bythewood), edited by a woman. I was very proud to be part of all of this because this film demonstrates that women can bring to reality a production that is presently lauded by the critics. This means that we are capable of doing everything and that it simply takes a bit of willpower. The Woman King is a wonderful experience and I hope it will inspire many women in Benin and in Africa.

What will you take away from this experience?

I learned a lot. I did not know, for example, certain events in the history of the Amazons. Presently, the film’s significance makes this experience unique. In the future, when I am asked which country I come from, this film will make it possible to situate Benin, which means that I don’t have to explain that it is a neighbor of Nigeria. However, what stands out for me above all is the discipline that permeated the space during our work sessions. All the actors practiced constantly to get the right pronunciation. They are real professionals! We would love to work with this kind of people all the time. We don't always have the opportunity on the African continent. 

Of your famous students, who was the best in Fon? 

Trick question (laughter)! I would like to invite them to the FIFF in Cotonou one day and I hope they will accept my invitation. 

*A point drawn from historian Sylvia Serbin, author of Reines d'Afrique et héroïnes de la diaspora noire in an interview by Cédric Cousseau. 

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