My journey into African Women Cinema Studies began with my interviews of the women at Fespaco in 1997, Safi Faye was among them. I remember very vividly those moments I shared with Safi, she was laid-back, passionate, engaging, and funny. The film that resulted from those interviews, Sisters of the Screen, is an important part of that journey, and her words introduce it. She, without a doubt led the way for me. I have learned a great deal from her, her work, her cinematic practice and innovative ethnological methodology, the importance of listening, the primacy of voice, all of which I have incorporated in my own work. Indeed, as in her own filmmaking: the camera, the cameraman and I, were eyewitness to her story. Here twenty-seven years later, it is an honor to share this tribute.
Safi Faye was born in Dakar, Senegal, on November 22, 1943, and throughout her life embraced her Serer roots of the rural world. Raised in a large family—the second of five sisters and a brother, her parents emphasized the importance of formal education and encouraged their children to succeed academically. She received her teaching certificate from the Normal School of Rufisque and spent her tenure as a teacher in Dakar. As an official guide at the First World Festival of Black Arts held in Senegal in 1966, she was introduced to African cultures and learned about the significance of their contributions on a global scale. This was a turning point in her personal and professional development. During the event she would meet intellectuals from around the world, including anthropologist and cineaste Jean Rouch who would invite her to participate in his film. During the shooting, she would travel to Europe and other parts of Africa.
She often talked about receiving a French colonial education, which gave her more knowledge about France than about Africa, and the paradox of having to go to Europe to learn about her continent. In 1970 she went to Paris to study ethnology at the Sorbonne, from a desire to work on her own culture and traditions—she studied as well at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. She completed her doctorate in 1979. As part of the curriculum at the Sorbonne she had recourse to the camera as an instrument of research. Having understood the significance of film as a visual record, she enrolled in the Louis Lumière Film School; there she “dared” to make a film, La Passante, in 1972. Other films followed, fourteen in total, notably the internationally acclaimed Kaddu Beykat (1975), Fad’jal (1979) and Mossane (1996). Using cinema as a tool for teaching and learning, Safi aimed to educate future generations of Africans about their origins, their history. The passion that she had for her continent and its people has been evident throughout her career as educator, ethnologist, filmmaker. She talked fondly of her beloved daughter, Zeïba, who was born in 1976; she was also a grandmother: “I am spending more and more time with them, and I enjoy it.”
On Feburary 22, 2023 she joined the ancestors, where she lays to rest in her paternal native village of Fadial. But rather than a library burning down—a famous citation of Amadou Hampâté Bâ that she quotes in her legendary film Fad’jal—her story will remain alive, passed on to the next generation, as we continue in the oral tradition, to say her name—and show her work.
Safi, may the earth rest lightly upon you.
Indeed, in the words of her compatriot Birago Diop, Safi Faye lives—through the sounds and whispers of the Serer country, through her daughter, her grandchildren, through our memories, through her films—the last of which invokes the Pangool ancestors.
May they guard and protect her.
This essay is a tribute to her life and work.
Table of contents:
The Oeuvres of Safi Faye
Kaddu Beykat | Peasant Letter
Goob na ñu
Man sa yay
Les ames au soleil | Souls Under the Sun
Selbé et tant d'autres | Selbé, One Among Many
Trois ans cinq mois
Ambassades nourricières / Culinary Embassies
Racines noires / Black Roots
Elsie Haas, femme peintre et cinéaste d'Haiti
Safi Faye through a Womanistic Lens
Work as Leitmotif
Visualizing Oral Tradition: Giving Agency to the Voice of the Peasantry—The Duty of Memory
The Peasantry and the Production of Knowledge
Safi Faye’s Imaginary and the Western Gaze
Safi Faye Reclaiming Discourse on the Anthropology of Africa: The Dichotomies of Fact and the Fictional Imaginaire
Words on Cinematic Practice
For Whom Do I Make Films
Filming in Africa
The Politics of African Cinema