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24 February 2023

Safi Faye : La Grande Référence - 1943-2023 - A Tribute, "I dared to make a film!"

African Women in Cinema Collection
Safi Faye : La Grande Référence - 1943-2023
A tribute to her life and work
"J'ai osez faire un film!"
"I dared to make a film!"

Safi Faye has joined the ancestors, she passed away on Wednesday 22 February in Paris. "Na Touti" as she is called by her loved ones, will be buried in her native paternal village of Fadial. In a first tribute to her, some reflections on her life and work and excerpts from an interview with her at Fespaco in 1997--Beti Ellerson

When tracing a timeline of the history of African women of the moving image, we can better appreciate Safi Faye's place as a pioneer. Moreover, it is not by chance that the person recognized as the "father" of African cinema—Ousmane Sembene is also Senegalese. The time span between the emergence of these two firsts is relatively short: Sembene made his first film in 1963, while Faye's debut film was released in 1972. Ousmane Sembene released La Noire de...(Black Girl), in 1966, the year that Safi Faye was initiated into the world of international culture during the First World Festival of Black Arts in Dakar, Senegal, there she realized how little she actually knew about Africa. There she began her connections with people and places that led her to her career path. She also became aware of the importance of the preservation of African history and culture, a theme that was omnipresent at the festival and became a leitmotif in her work. She describes that event as an expression of national energy and recalls her desire to meet the intellectuals and researchers who had gathered there. Her encounter with French ethnologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch at the festival was important, since it allowed her to travel abroad as an "actor" beginning in 1969 for the film Petit à Petit. She returned to her position as school teacher in Senegal after the film was completed, though soon after she would leave for France to study ethnology at the Sorbonne in 1970.

Jean Rouch is often described as Safi Faye's mentor because of similar elements in their work—anthropology and cinéma-verité documentary filmmaking. However, Safi Faye herself refutes this interpretation, that he influenced her evolution into filmmaking and her study of ethnology. While film critics and historians have drawn these conclusions, she views her decisions as more intuitive, opting for ethnology in order to better understand the continent, which she did not know very well. Moreover, one significant component of the ethnology curriculum at the Sorbonne where she was a student, was the use of the camera as an instrument for field research, there she discovered that the camera was an important tool for comprehending what she observed. She also became aware of the importance of film as a means of communication with the predominantly oral people of her country. She realized that even though they did not read literature and books, the 70 percent of the population that was non-literate knew how to read images.

In 1972 she enrolled in the Louis Lumière Film School in Paris. From the start of her filmmaking career in France, Safi Faye's visibility as an African woman was immediate. She recalls that it was relatively easy for her to enter into the profession. Since she was the only African woman making films; a lot of attention was given to her and her work. At the end of that year she completed her first film, La Passante, which she defines it as an intimist work. She recalls that she initially filmed for her own pleasure, but later her filmmaking interest evolved around her research. It is significant that in her film, she acts as the main character and uses Paris as the setting. In a very individual way, the film echoes her own experiences as a woman "divided between two cultures—French and Senegalese," yet defining herself as neither, "a Westernized or liberated woman". Faye's poetic sensibility, viewed early in her filmmaking with La Passante, evolved into an important element of her cinematic écriture. Beyond the film's poetic incantation, Faye attempted to deal with cultural diversity expressed in a woman's encounter with two men from different cultures; particularly in the way they experience food. With the European man, she dines at a restaurant. With the African man, she prepares a meal at home. They both live out their fantasies with her according to their cultural habits related to eating and cuisine. Food is explored as a medium of culture, a theme Faye also investigated later in the documentary, Ambassades nourricières.

While Safi Faye is a proponent of women's rights, she does not use the term "feminist" to describe herself or her work but rather sees herself as “feminisant”, doing womanist work by affirming women's rights and opportunities. She looks for the African specificities regarding women and their experiences, noting that many Western feminist issues are unrelated to African realities. While stating that "phallocracy is universal; she emphasizes that there are women in African societies who want to change their situations. Safi Faye has rejected the woman-focused element of Western feminist filmmaking, which has often privileged only women's lives. She emphasizes the very different experiences of African women and what she views as the more important issues regarding the agricultural sector and its ability to sustain itself. It is much more effective to present women in the context of their experiences and society. She does, however, call attention to the empowering aspect of a matriarchal society, where women are raised to be independent and self-sufficient. Hence, she attempts to evoke the contrasting aspects in women's lives, for example, with the character Mossane, whom she describes as "living between rebellion and effacement." Likewise, her film Selbé et tant d'autres (Selbé and So Many Others, 1981) describes village women left behind after men have migrated to cities in search of work. Selbé works hard to raise her children but finds herself alone in this endeavor, despite the fact that she has a husband, and she comes to understand her power when she relies only on her own strength.

Though modest in her acknowledgment of her role as "pioneer;' Faye recognizes that other women respect her accomplishments. When asked about her role as a "woman filmmaker;' she does not make a distinction between "Safi as a man or Safi as a woman" –to her, they are one. She emphasizes the similar problems that African men and women encounter as filmmakers; however, she also notes that it has been especially difficult to attract women to filmmaking.

Even when the themes in her films have not focused on women’s issues, they reflect a perceptible woman’s sensibility. There may not be a clear distinction between how Faye as a woman makes films compared to how a man would do so, but Mossane projects a female subjectivity in the way the female characters are assigned agency. Moreover, it shows a very distinctive interpretation of female sensuality and a specific emphasis on the female protagonist.

Safi Faye’s interest in anthropology and the visualization on film of experiences in her native village has continued throughout her career. While her earlier films privileged the documentary format in order to foreground social, political and economic realities of the village, Mossane, is a completely fictionalized saga of the eponymous protagonist who is the “most beautiful girl in the world.” Woven into the story of a fourteen-year-old girl and the myriad experiences she faces at that age is a fictionalized Serer myth that every two hundred years, a girl is condemned by her beauty to a tragic destiny. Mossane is so stunning that her beauty haunts even the Pangool, ancestral spirits of the Serer. In the end, through the arms of Mamanguedj, she is returned to the seashore where the ancestors live, the only place where she may be protected.

Refusing to focus only on the traditional aspects of African cultures, Safi Faye renounces the reductive tradition/modernity dichotomy that many Western viewers perceive in the portrayal of resistance to beliefs and customs. She does not offer a moral to the story but rather shows that tradition and modernity are undifferentiated in the reality of today’s Africa. For Safi Faye, Mossane is an adolescent as any other: adolescence is a time of confusion, and resistance to the wishes of parents prevails. Faye would view Mossane as a universal story within the specificities of an African culture and interpreted from an African perspective.

Such tensions and debates that center on interpretations of “documentary” versus “fiction” and “reality” versus “fantasy” appear to be the basis for Safi Faye’s refusal to make these delineations. As a filmmaker, she views life as the story— unlike western filmmakers who try to tell a story. Safi Faye considers her works as documents, oral reportage. Thus, her films are records, texts, or correspondence, especially in the dialogic sense of an exchange between interlocutors—the visual text, the interpreters in the story, and the viewer. Faye does not distinguish between fiction and documentary, she does not see linear progression in her work from documentary to fiction or in terms of thematic evolution over time.

What has been constant throughout Safi Faye's career has been to represent the realities of Africa. Based on research of her native village, in Kaddu Beykat (Peasant Letters, 1975) she highlighted the economic upheaval caused by the imposition of the groundnut monoculture, giving voice to inhabitants as they recount their stories in Kaddu Beykat (Peasant Letters, 1975). In Fad’jal (Come and Work, 1979), Safi Faye recalls Amadou Hampaté Ba’s well-known phrase: “When an elder dies in Africa, it is as if a library has burned down,” as she portrayed the richness of African oral tradition and the importance to future generations that people learn and pass on their history.

Using films as a tool for teaching and learning, Safi Faye aimed to teach future generations of Africans about their origins. The passion that she had for her continent and its people has been evident throughout her career as teacher, anthropologist, filmmaker: I do what I can for my Africa, to tell how beautiful Africa is, and show that the people will not disappear, even if one forgets us.

From “Africa Through A Woman's Eyes: Safi Faye's Cinema by Beti Ellerson. In Françoise Pfaff, Focus on African Films. 2004.

Excerpts from an interview with Safi Faye by Beti Ellerson at Fespaco in 1997

Safi, You hold the title of “Dean of African Women Filmmakers.” What do you think of this title that has been bestowed upon you?


I don't mind having it. Fate had it that I was the first woman to make films; I accept the role as such. However, it leaves me neither hot nor cold.


Do you feel in some way a model for the women who follow you?


Yes, the women who follow show a great deal of consideration for me. They respect me because I try to do my work as a filmmaker by giving my best, which, I suppose, commands respect. But also, the Senegalese people feel the same way. They call me the “National Safi.” However, those are not the things that I am concerned about or even think about.


What was it like during the time when you began in the 1970’s?


I did not come to the cinema by chance. I studied ethnology at the Sorbonne. We had access to cinematographic equipment once a week and had to learn how to use it. I realized that in order to be more efficient, I should go to film school. That’s why I went to L'Ecole Louis Lumière, one of the best film schools in France, in Paris. I learned like everyone else—I was the only African woman there—how to handle a camera, and I became familiar with how to use the cinematographic equipment.


At the end of the first year, I dared to make a little film [La Passante]. It was mainly to put myself to the test, for me to know whether I had learned cinematography well or not. That is how I came to learn filmmaking; it was very easy during those years. I made the film in 1972. Right away, everybody began to talk: “There is an African woman who is making films.” It was easy for people to hear about me because I was the first to appear on the scene. It was by chance and by choice that I made this little film, a little film, rather intimist, that I made for myself. Afterwards, out of curiosity, people began to ask about the film.


Your film Mossane is very striking and very touching. It treats the themes of beauty, virtue, and sensuality. In many ways, the film language is very different from your other films, in the manner in which you tell the story. Could you talk about the themes of Mossane and its evolution? What inspired you towards the idea of Mossane?


All my other films were half-fiction, half-documentary. Since I worked with the rural population, it was not possible to arrange the community and its people to fit within the story line of my films.  Only in Mossane was I able to adapt the community and the people to the story that I had imagined.


I don't know how a film is born.  It's an idea that comes and then I begin to work on it. I had been working on Mossane since 1982, I was while cooking, getting dressed, taking a bath, and everywhere I went. During that time, I made little films that were commissioned, which allowed me to earn a living. I don't know how Mossane was born. All that I know is that I have a daughter, my only child, whom I cherish. And perhaps because of these feelings I wanted to cherish Mossane and make her the most beautiful, the purest and most virtuous.

Some moments in the life and work of Safi Faye (ongoing and continuing)

1943 - Born in Dakar

1963 - Begins teaching in Dakar after receiving her teaching certificate

1966 - Served as a hostess at the Premier Festival Mondial des Arts Nègres, Dakar

1968 - Begins participation as actor in Jean Rouch's Petit-à-Petit traveling to Cote d'Ivoire, France, Niger, Switzerland, the film was released in 1970

1970 - Studies ethnology at the Sorbonne and Ecole des Hautes Études in Paris.

1972 - Begins studies in filmmaking at the Louis Lumière Film School, Paris.

- Completes student film, La Passante (The Woman Passerby). 10 min.

- Begins filming Kaddu Beykat (Peasant Letter).

1973 - Completes collective film, Revanche (Revenge). 15 min.

1975 - Release of film, Kaddu Beykat. 95 min.

Receives award at the Festival International du Film de l’Ensemble Francophone (FIFEF), Geneva, Switzerland.

1976 - Kaddu Beykat receives the Georges Sadoul Prize, France.

- Special award, 5th Pan-African Film Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO), Burkina Faso.

- International Film Critics Award, Berlin Film Festival, Germany.

- Daughter, Zeiba is born.

1977 - Completes studies in ethnology

1979 - Receives doctorate in ethnology

- Release of film, Fad'jal (Come and Work). 108 min.

- Selected for “Un Certain Regard,” Cannes Film Festival, France.

- Release of film, Goob na ñu (The Harvest Is In). 30 min.

- Spends the academic years from 1979-1981 at the faculty of the Freie Universität in Berlin as a guest professor

- Studies video production in Berlin, Germany.

- Begins film, Trois ans cinq mois (Three Years, Five Months).

1980 - Completes film, Man Sa Yay (I, Your Mother). ZDF production, Germany. 60 min.

Fad'jal receives award at Carthage Film Festival, Tunisia.

1981 - Release of film, Les Ames au soleil (Souls Under the Sun) commissioned by the United Nations. 27 min.

1982 - Release of film, Selbé et tant d'autres (Selbé and Many Others). «As Women See It» Series, UNICEF and Faust Films Production. 30 min.

1983 - Completes film, Trois ans cinq mois. Daad Production, Germany. 30 min.

Selbé et tant d'autres wins Special Prize, Leipzig Film Festival, Germany, and Vancouver Film Festival, Canada.

1984 - Completes film, Ambassades nourricières (Culinary Embassies). «Regards sur la France» Series, FR3 Television, France. 58 mins.

1985 - Completes film, Racines noires (Black Roots) for Télé-Europ and FR3 television, France. 11 min.

- Completes film, Elsie Haas, femme peintre et cinéaste d'Haiti (Elsie Haas, Woman Painter and Filmmaker from Haiti), FR3 Television, France. 8 min.

- Member of Jury at the 10th International Film Festival of India, New Delhi

1989 - Completes film, Tesito, commissioned by Comité Catholique contre la Faim et pour le Développement (CCFD). 27 min. 

1990 - Completes the shooting of Mossane.

1990-1995 - Legal proceedings for film rights for Mossane.

1996 - Release of Mossane. 105 min.

Mossane selected for for “Un Certain Regard,” Cannes Film Festival, France. 

1998 - Safi Faye Retrospective and Gala, Festival International de Films de Femmes, Créteil, France

2001 - Member of Jury, Fespaco

2006 - African Film Summit, South Africa, Panelist.

-Hommage to Safi Faye and Nour-Eddine Sail at the festival de Khouribga (Maroc) 

2010 - Tribute to Safi Faye at the 32nd Festival International de Films de Femmes Créteil, France

2015 - Prix Safi Faye pour la meilleure réalisatrice - Safi Faye Award for the best woman filmmaker - JCC - Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage (CREDIF - UNESCO). Initiated by the CREDIF Centre de Recherches, d'Etudes, de Documentation et d'Information sur la Femme (Centre for the Research, Study, Documentation and Information on Women) and supported by UNESCO (United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture). It aims to reward a woman filmmaker whose film—be it a feature or a long documentary—has been selected in the official competition. The award bears symbolically, the name of Safi Faye; as the first African woman filmmaker: "This pioneering artist has shown the way to a possible woman-inspired and African cinematographic creation."

2016 - Tribute to Safi Faye - Luxor African Film Festival

2017 - Festival du Film Documentaire de Saint-Louis (Senegal), Invitée d'honneur receives the Grand Prix d'Honneur

2018 - One of the three halls at the Complexe Cinématographique Ousmane Sembène in Dakar bears the name of Safi Faye. The other two are Djibril Diop Mambety and Ousmane Sembene.

- Restoration of Selbe et tant d'autres with the Wolof-language version – screened at the African Film Festival New York in the presence of Safi Faye

- Safi Faye returns to Cannes with Fad,Jal, restored by the CNC, presented at Cannes Classics.

2019 - Special Focus: Safi Faye - Royal Anthropological Insitute (RAI) Film Festival 

2021 - Screening of Kaddu Beykat. Black Women at the Centre as part of ‘Ruptures – Beyond the frame: Experimental Cinema from Africa and the Diaspora’, a film program screened at the Cinemateket in Copenhagen in October-November.

2022 - Tribute to Safi Faye - Festival Films Femmes Afrique, Dakar with screening of Kaddu Beykat

Carte blanche à Fatima Sissani | Mossane de Safi Faye (30 November 2022) Marseille

2023 - Safi Faye Man sa yay | I, your mother Berlinale - Forum Special Fiktionsbescheinigung

- After an illness, dies in Paris

- Buried in paternal native village of Fadial

Homages to Safi Faye:

- Homage to Safi Faye as part of the Focus: Thérèse Sita Bella, Safi Faye and the evolution of African women’s cinematic practice. A project initiated by Rosine Mbakam through the KASK & Conservatorium / Gent School of Arts, Belgium, 20 March 2023

- Homage to Safi Faye at the Festival de films de femmes, Créteil with Franco-Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop - 27 March 2023

- I Dared To Make A Film": A Tribute To The Life And Work Of Safi Faye. Indiana University Cinema, 12 April 2023, a conversation with Beti Ellerson

Articles on African Women in Cinema Blog

Safi Faye : La Grande Référence - 1943-2023 - A Tribute

Safi Faye: Man sa yay | I, your mother - Berlinale Forum Special Fiktionsbescheinigung 2023

Safi Faye's Mossane at 25

Black Camera: Safi Faye's Mossane: A Song to Women, to Beauty, to Africa by Beti Ellerson (Spring 2019)

Safi Faye : Selbe, one among many | Selbe et tant d'autres – restored/restauré en/in Wolof – African Film Festival New York 2018

Safi Faye : “Fad,jal” (Cannes Classics 2018)

Prix Safi Faye de la meilleure réalisatrice - Safi Faye Award for the best woman filmmaker - JCC - Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage.

Safi Faye: Role Model | La Grande Référence

Gendered Sensibilities and Female Representation in African Cinema : An analysis of Mossane by Safi Faye and Ousmane Sembene's Moolaadé

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