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Director/Directrice, Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema | Centre pour l'étude et la recherche des femmes africaines dans le cinéma


Towards an African Women in Cinema Studies

Towards an African Women in Cinema Studies
The original version appeared in Journal of African Cinemas, 2012

The focus of this article is the conceptualization of an approach to the study of African women in cinema, proposing tenets for constructing a methodology, developing a theoretical framework and formulating a feminist critic of African women’s cinematic practices. The article considers the extent that African transnational relationships have influenced its makers from the very beginning of African cinema history. Avoiding reductive declarations of a monolithic African women in cinema studies, the article attempts to discern key components that are representative of African women and their cinematic gaze.

As practice, professional body and network, and conceptual framework and field of study, ‘African women in cinema’ has been informed by diverse local, regional, continental, and world-wide movements during the last several decades: the global independence movements notably in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, the international women’s movements and initiatives of the 1970s and 1980s, third cinema and postcolonial theory emerging in the 1970s, the global focus on multiculturalism and gender during the same period, and, during the last decades of the twentieth century onward, the dominance of digital technologies, new media and the Internet.

Africa, a vast continent with diverse languages, social and political histories, geographic and demographic specificities, religious and cultural practices, whose boundaries extend to a global diaspora, encompasses a plurality of cinematic practices. Moreover, this growing transnationality inherent in these travelling identities necessitates a redefinition of African women’s cinemas as well as the renegotiation of positionality, social location and subjectivities, not only in terms of film-making but also as it relates to their audience. Similarly, these transmutations emphasize the fact that the cinemas and cinematic practices of African women are not a monolith, and hence discourse on African women in cinema studies is informed by the plurality of these cinematic histories, embracing the intersectionality of trans/national and racial identification and ethnic and cultural specificities.

African cinema(s), itself a postcolonial phenomenon that emerged in tandem with African independences, has always existed inside a transnational framework. From a postcolonial approach, it has long dealt with the tensions between African traditions and westernization, the reframing of the colonial version of its history, and the politics of identification. In this regard, La noire de ... by Ousmane Sembene, released in 1966, had already begun to work within postcolonial themes. Similarly, the early films by women postulated postcoloniality in their intent, working simultaneously within a transnational context: as an expatriate film student in France, Safi Faye’s La Passante (1972) focused on the transnational nature of the protagonist’s world as she navigates between two cultures, African and European – a reflection of the film-maker’s own experiences. Sarah Maldoror returns to her ancestral continent using her camera as a tool for liberation. In her classic film Sambizanga (1972) she positions Maria as an agent of change in an Angola breaking free of Portuguese domination. In La Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua by Assia Djebar, Lila, who has recently returned to her native region fifteen years after the war of independence, must renegotiate this very space. For Djebar, a native Arabic speaker whose literary expression is in French, film-making in Arabic ‘is to return to the source of language’.

A generation later, African women film-makers continue to work through their multiple identities in their films. Some are bi-racial and their dual identities raise issues that they problematize in their work; others are bi-national and focus on problems of integration and the complexities of identity as first- generation-born citizens in their diasporic home. Still others choose universal themes that do not specify their racial and ethnic identity. On the other hand, autobiographical écriture is a growing trend among the contemporary generation of Afro-Europeans as they attempt to integrate their Afro-European metissage identity.

Drawing on American thinker W. E. B. Dubois’ notion of double consciousness: wanting to live as both black and American, Ghanaian American Akosua Adoma Owusu negotiates what she describes as the triple consciousness of the African immigrant in the United States, having to assimilate in white American culture, being identified with African Americans because of shared skin colour but not always identifying with their culture and history, and having to deal with the African world and one’s line of descent.

African film-makers have long insisted on being considered filmmakers, period, and in the case of women, on not having to also wear a gendered label. Safi Faye has always stressed this point even though her films have African-focused themes. As the notion of transnational cinema takes hold, the non-identifiability of the filmmaker’s nationality based on her work becomes more likely. Many western-based women tell stories that do not always feature African or black characters. Are they excluded from the discourse on African cinema and African film aesthetics? Are they reinserted into the dialogue when their stories do focus on Africa? Moreover, the border-crossing filmmaking of several cineastes also challenges the ‘nationality’ categorization of filmmaking. In the same way, some white South African film-makers and film professionals are asserting their identity and claiming their experiences as part of African history, expressing a desire to be included in the dialogue as well, even when their stories are about white South Africans.

As the formulation of theories and methodologies in African women in cinema studies materializes, there are many lessons that may be learned from other research at the intersection of gender, race, geography and power. Tsitsi Dangarembga, who has already explored the postcolonial condition in her influential novel Nervous Conditions (1988), is onto something regarding her interest in exploring Laura Mulvey’s gender analysis of the male spectator and screen representation of the woman as object of desire in the context of the racialized gaze.

While critiques of the male gaze were among the first analyses of women in cinema discourse, as women’s experience in cinema developed into an importance corpus of work, the female gaze and female subjectivity have emerged as underlying components of feminist film theory. Similarly, during the development of African film criticism, an abundance of critiques of the white gaze and pre-African cinema representations in the colonial imagination materialized. To note, Ousmane Sembene famously called Jean Rouch’s filmic observation of Africa as ‘looking at Africans as if we were insects’. Hence, the organizing principle of a theoretical framework for African women in cinema would appropriately underscore the racialized gaze of colonial and western filmic representations of Africa – often replete with stereotypes and racist subtexts – at the intersection of the investigation of African women and visual representation. In this regard, Frantz Fanon’s examination of the white gaze upon the black person as an object to be looked at (1952) parallels Mulvey’s analysis of the male gaze and the ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ of the (white) female screen image, as both consider the cinematic treatment of scopophilia. As such, the employment of intersectionality as a conceptual framework allows the convergence of gendered, racialized and postcolonial identities. To illustrate this point, one of the first African feature films, La Noire de ... (1966), directed by Ousmane Sembene, explores the psychological trauma of a young black woman as she experiences dislocation within a foreign, European environment. And while male desire is a subtext in the film, the underlying text, the black female body as postcolonial subject, underscores the relation of power between the black and white female characters. Thus, a gendered post- colonial analysis would be more applicable to the film than the feminist film theory based exclusively on the interrogation of the male gaze.

Ngozi Onwurah examines this vexed history of representation at the intersection of African cultural practices and western stereotypes, locating the visualization of African traditions within the context of power and the gaze. Brought on board to direct the BBC-commissioned documentary film Monday’s Girls released in 1993, she realized immediately that the story was fraught with western stereotypes and notions of African women. The film follows the experiences of two young Waikiriki women during the Iria coming-of-age ceremony, a celebration of women’s rites of passage that entails seclusion in the ‘fattening rooms’ during which the young women are fed and pampered; during the formal procedure they are adorned with body paint and ceremonial attire including nude breasts. Onwurah is apprehensive about the interpretation of these images by western spectators who have preconceived notions of Africa, having already seen Discovery Channel- and National Geographic-type programmes about Africa. Her concern is especially relevant to the current discourse on the female body, a pervasive theme in feminist film studies and cultural studies.

Onwurah would have rather told a different story had she had the real power over the outcome of the film. Much more forceful and pertinent to African realities where tradition and modernity coexist were the off-camera experiences of the young women during the shooting. They had developed their own cinematic gaze and, based on whether the camera was on or off, knew what was expected of them, as they were familiar with westernized black female representation. This repositioning of the subject was the film that Ngozi Onwurah found more compelling rather than adhering to the African/ western dichotomy of the original script.

This elaboration of Onwurah’s arguments considers several issues towards the formulation of theories of African women in cinema studies and criticism: the intent of the filmmaker, the targeted audience, the politics of representation, the cultivation and forging of structures for critical discourse, the enhancement of cultural readership of the audience, and, perhaps most importantly and ultimately, how the film-maker is allowed to tell her story and to whom.

While African women in cinema have expressed concerns about the screen representation of women by African male filmmakers, they also caution against the automatic application of western feminist discourses of the male gaze and female objectification. On the other hand, there is a growing prevalence of a masculinist focus on the female body and sexuality, and in the case of Mama Keita’s L’Absence (2009), Abdellatif Kechiche’s Vénus noire (2011) and Djo Munga’s Viva Riva (2011) pornographic violence towards the African female protagonist. And yet Ngozi Onwurah raises the issue of her own use of violence, noting that it is an approach that is generally not attributed to women. Indeed, Welcome II the Terrordome (1995) employs a level of brutality upon the white female character that parallels the pornographic violence mentioned in the films above: pregnant by her black partner, she is punched and kicked viciously in the stomach by her former white partner. On the other hand, much of Onwurah’s work is provocative, pushing the limits of racial, sexual and ethnic hatred, and of the violence and fear expressed by both black and white people. Similarly Fanta Nacro does not shy away from the taboo of graphic depictions of sexuality (Puk Nini, 1996) and, in the case of La Nuit de la verité, the extreme, obscene and often sexualized violence of madness and war. Nor does Safi Faye censor her work from potential criticism of female objectification regarding her very explicit depiction of nudity, sexuality and female pleasure in Mossane (1996). Furthermore, Tsitsi Dangarembga, accused of presenting Africans as cannibals in her recent film Nyami Nyami and the Evil Eggs (2011), had already drawn this same metaphor of famine and human body consumption in her work Kare Kare Zvako-Mother’s Day (2004) , which also depicts the brutal murder of a woman by her husband, who then consumes her remains. Whether visual metaphors or fictionalized rituals, such as Safi Faye’s stunning world of the Pangools in Mossane, African filmmakers are constantly defying the preconceived notions about Africa that Onwurah describes above.

Since the seminal moment in Ouagadougou in 1991, which I situate as the genesis of the African women in cinema movement, there has been an increased academic and scholarly interest in African women in cinema, though not necessarily as a result of it, as research on the subject dates back to the 1970s. Nonetheless, the underlying desire for framing an organized movement spearheaded by the continent-wide association was to forge an indigenous continent-based infrastructure that included film criticism through initiatives like the defunct Écrans d’Afrique and audience-building through local ciné-clubs and film forums. And while African film studies in Africa have not been institutionalized in the academy, there is a growing interest in formalizing it into university curricula. This is not to say that local initiatives do not exist, as this article has demonstrated the many activities that have been created since the 1960s. Nonetheless, there continue to be disparities in research, publication, and networking opportunities and, perhaps most importantly, in the ability, the imperative even, of African women themselves to formulate and establish the discourse.

Works Cited
Bouyain, Sarah (2000), Les Enfants du Blanc.
Dangarembga, Tsitsi (2011), Nyami Nyami and the Evil Eggs.
—— (2004), Kare Kare Zvako-Mother’s Day.
—— (1988), Nervous Conditions. London: The Women’s Press.
Djebar, Assia (1977), La Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua.
Fanon, Frantz (1952), Black Skin White Masks. New York: Grove Press.
Faye, Safi (1996), Mossane.
—— (1972), La Passante.
Kechiche, Abdellatif (2011), Vénus noire.
Keita, Mama (2009), L’Absence.
Maldoror, Sarah (1972), Sambizanga.
Mulvey, Laura (1975), “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen 16: 3,
pp. 6–18.
Munga, Djo (2011), Viva Riva.
Nacro, Fanta (2004), La Nuit de la verité/The Night of Truth. —— (1996), Puk Nini.
Onwurah, Ngozi (1995), Welcome II the Terrordome.
—— (1993), Monday’s Girls.
—— (1991), The Body Beautiful.
Sembene, Ousmane (1966), La Noire de ...



African Women’s Perspective as Alternative Discourse: Reflections on African Women and Film Criticism

Adapted from my article "Reflections on Cinema Criticism and African Women and Film Criticism" in Feminist Africa 16 African Feminist Engagements with Film. Issue 16: July 2012
In the intriguing “Le dit du cinéma africain” (A Tale of African Cinema) by the inimitable storyteller of the African griot oral tradition, Amadou Hampâté Bâ, published in 1967, is the extraordinary story of Kadidja Pâté, his mother. Her fascinating and edifying encounter with early cinema provides a unique introduction to research on African women and film criticism.

Hampâté Bâ recalls as an eight-year-old, the first film screening held in his native village Bandiagara, Mali in 1908. The local colonial governor had ordered the religious leaders of the village to attend a film screening, and concerned about this “satanic ghost ready to trick the true believer”, they gathered to find a way to sabotage the event. Though she was not present at the screening, Kadidja Pâté, a devout Muslim, embraced this collective belief. However, in 1934, while still under the 1908 interdiction of the marabouts of Bandiagara, though to please her son, she accompanied him and his wife to the movie theatre.
Research on early cinema and spectatorship of that era underscores the near-universal response of amazement and wonder in the first decades of the birth of cinema. Audiences in both westernized and non-western societies experienced the stunning effect of this new technology. Hence, it is not surprising that even the learned leaders of the small village of Bandiagara, Mali had awed reactions, encouraging their extant opposition to the veneration of images under Islam. At the same time that Hampâté Bâ presents an introduction to early African experiences in cinema, his story also explores the relations of power between coloniser and Africa at the site of the image and spectatorship, and the negotiation of endogenous (religious) beliefs with external cultural forms.
The most intriguing aspect of the story and a useful example for my work, is the absolute transformation of Kadidja Pâté, from a young woman who in 1908 accepted the elders’ belief that cinema was evil, to a mature woman in 1934, who had evolved into an independent thinker critically engaging its possibilities. In this article, Kadidja Pâté serves as a conduit of sorts to the emergence of an African women’s cinematic gaze; demonstrating her ability to interpret, discern and demystify the moving images of her time, a time when cinema was just developing and taking shape. When Hampâte Bâ’s story begins, a mere decade and a half had passed since the first public screenings of the moving images in the 1890s in Europe and North America, at the time of Kadidja Pâté’s first encounter with cinema in 1934, the sound era had just emerged. Though an untrained spectator, she was able to draw lessons and benefit from her first experience at the movie theatre. Her interpretation of the screen as metaphor, her ability to observe, differentiate, compare— likening the screen to an intermediary between the Maker and the viewer, is indicative of a perceptive cultural reader able “to develop [her] own beliefs into firm ideas and not through passive conformity.” Her reflection, I would venture to say, is the earliest evidence of an African woman’s experience of cinema.
Hence drawing from Kadidja Pâté’s first cinematic encounter with the moving image is a manner to explore the tenets of an African woman’s cinema criticism and its application of an African cinematic practice that emerged some twenty years later in the 1950s. It is highly significant to have an oral testimony transported into text of such a historical event that occurred more than 75 years ago. It is also significant that it has not elicited much scholarly interest, although this may be due to its obscurity—tucked away as the introductory text of a French-language catalogue on ethnographical films on Africa originally published by UNESCO in 1955. Pâté’s testimony is vital to the ongoing efforts to forge an African perspective on the image in general and African cinematic representation in particular. While it would be twenty years after Kadidja Pâté’s 1934 cinematic encounter before the emergence of an African cinematic practice, and thirty years before an African would direct a film on the continent, the span widens when considering an African engagement with film criticism, although Paulin Soumanou Vieyra pioneers a historiography of African cinema in the late 1960s. The lack of a veritable foundation within which to debate, discuss, exchange discourse and forge a theoretical framework endogenous to African cinematic realities has been an ongoing concern since the creation of a continental cinema infrastructure in the 1960s.

Continuing the work of Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, also known as the father of African film criticism and history, Burkinabé film critic Clément Tapsoba (1995) asserts that African film criticism is an intermediary between the public and the filmmaker, and hence it should first be an encounter with the people to whom it informs, guides, and enlightens, which in return provides the necessary feedback to the filmmakers. Film criticism must reveal not only multi-layered meaning to the public, but it must also find the most appropriate technique for the creation of meaning. Influenced by Vieyra’s (1990) work on oral tradition and film production, Tapsoba (1995) asserts that evolving from a culture of orality, African filmmakers have always reflected the close links between their film narratives and traditional stories. However, the new demands of cinema on the one hand and the changes in attitude of the African public as a result of foreign images on the other, are factors that call for a new approach to African cinema for both the filmmaker and for film criticism. He notes that increasingly, African filmmakers must combine the social function of their work with the aspect of entertainment, while still retaining its own identity, as the preservation of identity is the fundamental challenge they face confronted with the tendency toward the standardization of world cinema by Hollywood. Hence, he insists that African film criticism must be endogenous and inward looking. He reminds us of the reflections of Vieyra: “criticism is born with the object that it critiques. It develops and is also strengthened in time because the art evolves, people become more knowledgeable and thus more demanding.” Similarly, Imunga Ivanga (2005), Gabonese filmmaker and director of the Gabonese National Centre of Cinema, paraphrases Cheikh Anta Diop as he urges Africans to be the ones “to generate their own theoretical, conceptual, psychological, psychoanalytical, and aesthetic language and categories, which will not be indebted neither to Oedipus or Electra.”

Togolese Anne-Laure Folly Reimann (2000) follows this reasoning vis-à- vis her view of the role of African cinema whose endeavor is to restore its values within a thought system that can no longer survive in this era unless it is disseminated beyond its borders. Africa has alternative values that it must learn to impart and exchange with others. According to her: “the world is evolving in such a way that we will interchange with each other no matter what. Everything is interconnected, and if we express our culture, the logic of the system is such that it will be shared elsewhere as well.”

These irrefutable conclusions draw attention to what Tapsoba views as the major obstacles in the development of an endogenous African cinema criticism: the shortage of film production, the lack of distribution and venues for exhibition and hence an absence of an African public to view African films. Tapsoba expresses his concern at a growing tendency towards western hegemony of African cinema criticism. In many cases western critics and scholars have access to African films before the African critics and the African public and hence from this privileged position assume the right to define, categorize and assign meaning, appropriating an important part of African cultural heritage. Imunga Ivanga (2005) has other concerns that are equally compelling. He poses important questions: what is film criticism? What purpose does it serve? And moreover, should it serve a purpose? According to him, the educational aspect that can result from these questions may be of interest to an African public that has not yet entirely integrated reading and writing in its traditions. While paradoxically, radio, television and film can be defined as constituents of neo-orality as they have continued success among the African population. The challenge is that access to these reflections must often pass through the written word, and thus it is necessary to create places of debate that would take this constraint into account.
It is for these same reasons that Tsitsi Dangarembga (1997) finds filmmaking more applicable to the African context than literature, as films reach a wider public. Similarly, she observes that “to understand a film you don’t have to be educated to the same extent where you do when you have to pick up a book.” Since she writes in English she must take into account that all Zimbabweans do not read in English, “whereas even if a film is in English, I think if it is made well enough, a person can probably understand what is going on.” Taking this consideration into account, Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe (WFOZ), initiated outreach to remote regions in Zimbabwe, using film as a means to engage with the messages in the films so that the young women especially, may recognize, examine and discover possible solutions to the problems that affect them. Continuing Imunga Ivanga’s (2005) query on the role of film criticism: For whom is African film criticism intended? Who are the intended viewers of African films? As African films are notoriously inaccessible on the continent, they are invisible to African audiences. And thus, asks Imunga Ivanga: Who sees? Who reads? Who sees what? Who reads what? And under what conditions?
If the notion of an African gaze continues to concern African filmmakers and critics it is because it is imperative to assert an African specificity facing a standardized universalism, not only in the form of added testimonials attesting to its existence, but more importantly as an agent of a world that has inscribed it no place on the world map. In the same way, Folly Reimann (2000) asserts that power comes from those who say things. There is a widespread attitude that if one does not express oneself, has nothing to say, then one does not exist; and that the problem is that culturally speaking, Africa does not say things. That there is the perception that what is important is not told, or is expressed discreetly, or is told only to one another, by word-of-mouth. She perceives that the attitude among Africans is that a culture that exposes itself disintegrates, agreeing that in some ways it may be true, that the notion of the total diffusion of something corresponds to losing something of one’s essence. Echoing Vieyra’s reflections above, Folly Reimann observes that changes occur in the West and then are reproduced and diffused. And through this diffusion, a mutation occurs. These notions and values are transmitted elsewhere, which are then modified and changed by the receiver and hence these values evolve. Whereas in African societies, these values once transmitted, are kept and applied throughout one’s life. “I think that we are a bit lost in our international discourse to the extent that we no longer exist. Now we must say something.”

What then do African women say? What is an African woman’s cinematic voice? How do they speak through film? How do they express their vision to their societies and to the world? How do they inscribe their écriture into their work? What are the issues related to the creation of an African women’s film criticism? What are the elements needed to develop it? Why is it important that it be endogenous—that African women themselves formulate the theories and discourse? How would this discourse be encouraged and sustained beyond the film festival forums and occasional conferences and meetings that have given it voice? How can film production be enhanced in order to build a collection of quality works? How can an endogenous African women cinema studies be reconciled with the dominance of western feminist film criticism that interprets female representation and women’s filmmaking practice within western canons and paradigms? Under what conditions are African women able to forge a critique that is meaningful to their experiences? Folly Reimann (2000) proposes an African woman’s perspective as an alternative discourse as “their perspective does not simply analyse things; they live them.” Aminata Ouedraogo (2000) has noted that while there is an under-representation of African women in film criticism involving written works; on the other hand, there is a visible presence of women at film debates at film festivals, film forums and ciné-clubs on the continent. Her assertion underscores the arguments by Tapsoba and Vieyra, that the role of criticism is to directly engage the public, who in turn become more knowledgeable and discerning.

During my work on the African women in cinema project that culminated with the Sisters of the Screen book and film, many of the women were asked about their perspectives on African women cinema criticism, feminist perspectives on cinema, the African female gaze, and female sensibility. Since the publication of the book in 2000, I have continued interviewing women, collecting their perspectives along the way and have witnessed the emergence of a cadre of African women doing advanced study and research and showing increased interest in the area of cinema studies.

Many African women come to cinema with other professional experiences, with advanced academic degrees, or emerge from other disciplines such as visual arts, theatre, journalism, literature, anthropology, sociology, psychology, museum studies, art history, architecture, education, geography, communication theory, development studies, law, medicine, international relations, political science, and business. They come increasingly from backgrounds in film theory and criticism, all of which strengthen their position to theorize about their own work and expectations in terms of audience reception and efforts toward consciousness raising. One need only read interviews and artistic statements and transcripts of colloquia and keynote addresses to see the depth of critical engagement with their films and African films in general, as well as their capacity to make broader connections within an array of issues. Though not necessarily as a searchable collection or ensemble that names it a body of work, increasingly there is scholarship and documentation on which they can build. The intersection of theory and practice is, in fact, the methodology among African women, rather than the academic criticism and study that is the tendency elsewhere. On-the-ground, community-based issues are important to African women filmmakers rather than theory for theory’s sake, criticism for the sake of criticism. They continue to create cinematic institutions and initiatives such as film festivals, film organizations, newsletters, ciné-clubs, pitching forums, production companies and hence are well positioned to critically engage with the films and the audiences who view them.

African women have held key positions in film institutions and in government ministries focusing on culture, education and women, where they can influence policies and make decisions on state, continental and international levels. The initiatives and the women who have forged and sustained them, attest to the scope and breadth of possibilities in the development of an endogenous African women’s cinema criticism capable of embracing the plurality of the continent and drawing directly from its cinematic realities.

What remains important are all the lessons learned in the ongoing growth of African women cinema studies and criticism, and the value of documenting the cinematic experiences of African women from their perspective, told and written in their own voices. Imbedded in this discourse is also my idea of a sisterhood through cinema, where language is not a barrier, where geography is not an impediment, and where the screen becomes the meeting point for all the stakeholders: directors, producers, actors, festival organizers, critics, and audiences. And drawing from the wisdom of Kadidja Pâté, the screen becomes the intermediary through which the moving image is viewed, interpreted and understood.

Bâ, Amadou Hampâté. 1967. “Le dit du cinéma africain”, Films ethnographiques sur l’Afrique noire. Paris: UNESCO.

Bulane-Hopa, Seipati. 2009. FEPACI Newsletter Nl01-09-09. Link no longer active at http://www.fepaci-film.org/Newsletter/Nl01-09-09-9.html

Dangarembga, Tsitsi. 1997. Interview with the author for the African Women in Cinema Project.

Folly Reimman, Anne-Laure. 2000. Sisters of the Screen: Women of Africa on Film, Video and Television, Beti Ellerson. New Jersey: Africa World Press.

Ivanga, Imunga. 2005. “Autant en emporte la critique.” Afriques 50: Singularités d’un cinema pluriel. Paris: L’Harmattan.

Ouedraogo, Aminata. 2000. Sisters of the Screen: Women of Africa on Film, Video and Television, Beti Ellerson. New Jersey: Africa World Press.

Sama, Emmanuel. 1992. “Le cinéma au féminin sort ses griffes, ‘Un certain matin’ avec Régina Fanta Nacro,” Amina 265: 22-21.

Tapsoba, Clément. 1995. “De l’orientation de la critique du cinéma africain”. L’Afrique et le Centenaire du Cinéma/Africa and the Centenary of Cinema. Fepaci Federation Panafricaine des Cinéastes/Panafrican Federation of Filmmakers. Paris: Présence Africaine.

Vieyra, Paulin Soumanou. 1990. Reflexions d’un cineaste africain. Brussels: Editions OCIC.


African Women and Film Spectatorship: An Early History

African Women and Film Spectatorship: An Early History. Originally published on the African Women in Cinema Blog, 29 May 2009.

In the 1967 text, “Le dit du cinéma africain” (The Tale of African Cinema), Amadou Hampâté Bâ recounts the extraordinary history of Mali’s early encounter with cinema revealing an equally fascinating story of an early instance of an African woman and cinematic spectatorship.

He recalls the first film screening held in his native village Bandiagara, Mali in 1908--he was eight years old. The village ulemas[1] met in order to prevent a film projection commanded by the local colonial governor. In their view the notion of a "film" as described by the governor, was a “satanic ghost ready to trick the true believer.” Kadidia Pâté, Amadou Hampâté Bâ's mother, though she did not attend the event, accepted the collective belief of the ulemas.

Though still under the 1908 interdiction of the marabouts[2] of Bandiagara, in 1934, to please her son she agreed to go to the cinema house. Her testimony is among the earliest reflections of an African woman regarding experiences of cinema. An astute cultural reader, Kadidia Pâté likens the movie screen, which mediates the projection of images to guide the viewer, to the divine messenger who intercedes between God and his believers. This is not to say that Kadidia Pâté views cinema as a divine intervention, but rather that at the time, in 1934 as an untrained spectator, she used a spiritual metaphor in her attempt to understand what she was experiencing, as she had been taught by the ulemas to condemn cinema, for its "satanic seduction."

Scholarship on early cinema and spectatorship highlights the near-universal reaction of film viewers in the first decades of the invention of cinema. Whether in westernized environments--rural and urban, or in non-western societies, studies focused on how the viewer experienced the spectacularity of this new technology. While western writers tend to categorize non-westerners as backwards or holding a specific “native” worldview vis-à-vis technology and modernity, Stephen Bottomore gives a more balanced view when analyzing the reception of non-western spectators of early cinema: “these awed reactions on first seeing films may partly be due to sheer unfamiliarity, as much as to traditional beliefs in spirits and the like and the same is probably true of the introduction of other new technologies and media.” Similarly, westerners untrained in the new technology of film were equally awe-struck as well as overwhelmed by certain moving images. The mythical response to the Frères Lumière’s L’arrivée d’un train en gare de Ciotat is a classic example. Bottomore’s analysis of these reactions underscores the similarities of viewers in general during their encounter with the unprecedented phenomenon of the moving image. On the other hand, Tom Gunning attempts to debunk the myth of the incredulous spectator by focusing on the evolution of visual technologies created for entertainment which have often had as their intent to trick the eye, to create illusion--and this notion may apply to most cultures. Thus, the cinema, wherever it was viewed for the first time, "was an encounter with modernity."

While Amadou Hampâté Bâ relates similar instances of awe and suspicion among the film viewers of Bandiagara at the 1908 film screening, his story provides a rare testimony by an African, especially about early cinema reception. Moreover, his story elaborates both the power relations between French colonials and Africans even at the level of spectatorship, and the negotiation of culture at the intersection of religion and technology.

The most extraordinary element of the story is the total transformation of Kadidia Paté, from a young woman in 1908, sharing the view of the village elders of the evil of cinema, to a mature woman in 1934, an independent thinker having critically engaged its possibilities. Following is an excerpt from “Le dit du cinéma africain"(The Tale of African Cinema) relating Kadidia Paté’s first cinematic experience as recounted by Amadou Hampâté Bâ:

I shall now come to my mother, Kadidia Pâté. She remained under the curse that was thrown in 1908 by the Ulemas of Bandiagara, on the machine that “spat shadows”.

In 1934, she came with me to Bamako where I was employed as the “native” secretary. I asked my mother to go to the cinema with me. Remaining under the influence of the interdiction of 1908 by the marabouts of Bandiagara, my mother shook her ears (a gesture of exorcization that one does with the hands to ward off the curse of the dreadful words that were heard) and says to me:

“Ah! When these diabolic shadows were silent, I refused to watch them, and now that they speak, you want me to see them! I will not go my son, no, I will not go.”

My wife, children and I conspired against my mother. We would not stop until we succeeded at least once to take her to the cinema. This would not be easy. My mother would not be taken in by our games or tricks.  But an unexpected occasion presented itself two years later.  My younger sister, Aminata, my mother’s favorite daughter, gave birth to a son. I told her about the good news. My mother was so happy that she said:

“Oh my son! My son you have brought me great happiness. Tell me what can I do to return the happiness.”

I took my mother by her word and said:

“Mother, what would make me really happy is if you would go to the cinema with me.”

My mother annoyed, frowned, revealing a quiet irritation. She finally regrouped and said to me, as if to get over this setback:

“Amadou, my son, a worthwhile person is as good as her word. If these words are broken, in other words, if they lose their value in the eyes of others, this person will lose her dignity and will become a good-for-nothing. You’ve got me, so to honor my word, I will go see you wretched “machine that spits images”, whenever you like.”

The most extraordinary characteristic that mother possessed, even more than her great beauty, was a remarkable intelligence, enhanced by a phenomenal memory.

My mother, my wife Baya Diallo and I, finally went to the cinema. My mother followed the film from start to finish. She showed no exterior reaction. She remained impenetrable; it was as if she had seen or heard nothing at all. I was very disappointed, for I had expected, if not some fuss, at least a muted scream from her. But nothing, absolutely nothing at all.

We returned home. My mother went to her room without having ruptured the silence. I was convinced that she had closed her eyes during the entire film in the same way that the distinguished residents of Bandiagara. And thus, she had honored her word by going with me to see the film, but not violating her conscience by refusing to gaze upon those sinful images.

As for me, my venture had failed, my mother had once again shown that she could not be easily taken in.

The next morning, before going to work, as usual, I went to say hello to my mother before leaving.

She gave me her blessings as she does every morning. But she said nothing about my “machine that spits images”; which confirmed what I had surmised: that she had seen nothing while at the cinema.

But after the prayer at sunset, I notice my mother’s favorite servant, Batoma Anta, carrying her prayer mat. She placed it next to mine; my mother came and sat down.

She said to me: “Do you have additional prayers to say at Icha (the last prayer of the day)?

I said: “Mother if you need me, to be at your disposition is the best prayer that I could ever make.”

Before I could say anything else, Mother said: I want you to talk to me about your “thingamajig” from yesterday evening.

I could not begin to say how glad I felt when I realized that my mother had purposely kept silent.

Mother said to me:

“Amadou, my son, yesterday evening I saw a wonderful machine. That man can make such a creation was not what gave me such a pleasant surprise. When someone accomplishes such a miracle, this does not surprise me at all; because for me, this remains in the realm of possibilities. Tierno Bokar, our master, has taught us that Allah has made of man his Representative on earth. This status was not given to man by God without entrusting in him a bit of divine power. For to achieve wonders is a result of God’s power. Therefore, it is not surprising that a being born of this bit of power—in this case, a human—accomplishes these wonders. Rather what would be surprising is if man did not create wonders. I admired this human creation of cinema, but I am not surprised.

I want to thank you for taking me to the cinema. I ask God’s forgiveness. Yesterday I had evidence that the worse error that someone can make on this earth is to condemn before seeing and knowing. I felt how wrong it is to refuse to see, if nothing but to educate oneself.

Tierno Bokar said: Wisdom desires to know all, which is preferable to knowing nothing.  One must know the lie in order to separate it from the truth. One must know the good in order to distinguish it from the bad.
In 1908, our well-intentioned holy men and esteemed notaries had declared that the “tiyatra” is a magical machine of diabolic invention. But for me rather, the cinema is a wonderful instructor, an eloquent master who amuses and instructs.  The film screening yesterday, diabolic or not, permitted me to find an irrefutable proof to bring into being within myself, something that I had only accepted by absolute confidence in Tiero Bokar who taught it. Up until now, I had no faith that was actually born from a conviction inside myself. Yesterday evening your cinema gave me the private confidence that I had needed spiritually to build my faith on firm ideas and not through passive conformity.

“Mother, what is this thing?” I asked.

After a long moment of silence, she said to me:

For a long time, our marabouts have had serious disagreements. They fiercely debate the question whether there must be a “mediator” between an individual and God.  This has brought about serious discussions and has triggered many quarrels. This has propagated disputes in the mosques, right into the homes of close-knit families. In certain regions, there have been bloody clashes.

Modern marabouts who have recently returned from the Orient support the view that people do not need someone else to interact and have contact with the divine or to speak to God. For these marabouts, each person may speak with God directly, without an intermediary.

On the contrary, the old turban-wearing men of the village who are from the old school, uphold the view that a person will always need a mediator between himself and God.

Tierno Bokar is situated between these two tendencies. He has taught that there are cases where we do need a mediator, a person who speaks to God in our behalf, but there are nonetheless cases where we may interact directly with God.

Yesterday, I had perhaps material proof of the possibility of these two cases about which Tierno Bokar has spoken: the direct contact and contact through an intermediary.

When we entered the cinema, before the film, you showed me a large white cloth on which a beam of light was be projected which would then become images that we could look at and recognize. You also showed a small house situated rather high above us. You told me that it was in this room that the machine that spat images was located.

In this little house, there are several openings through which light shines; ending on the large white cloth. As soon as the operator, whom we do not see, begins his work, some noise comes out of the little house. It passes over our head while we are thrust into a deep darkness—a metaphor of our ignorance of the unknown. The light came from the little house in measured portions, in thin lines, rather than all at once.

We were facing the large white cloth. It was only when looking at it that we could clearly see, make out and understand the images that unfolded in front of us.  We could see horses run, men walk, and villages emerge. We saw the thick vegetation in the rural area, the blooming countryside, the plane sharply fall away. All of this as if in a long dream, clear and precise, as if dreaming in a waking state.

After having watched the large white cloth for a long time, I wanted, in its absence, to make out with my eyes alone, the images which came from the little house. What happened to me? As soon as I turned directly towards the opening in the little house, the beam of light that came out blinded me.  Although the images were in the rays, my eyes were not strong enough to detect it. I closed my eyes in order to concentrate, but my ears continued to clearly make out the sound that accompanied the light.

I found myself in the follow situation: First, when I watch the big white cloth, I see the images and hear the sound. I benefit from both the image and sound. But, on the other hand, when I only use my eyes, I only hear the sound. I am not able to stand the powerful light, it blinds me. At the same time that there is some good in it, there are also disadvantages.

This deduction leads me to the conclusion that as long as the cloth is essential to clearly see the images and discern the origin of the sound, a mediator is needed between us and God to understand the divine message.

This is the end of my mother’s story. 

Excerpted from “Le dit du cinéma africain" (The Tale of African Cinema) by Amadou Hampâté Bâ (1900-1991). Introduction to "Films ethnographiques sur l'Afrique noire" (Ethnographic Films on Black Africa), UNESCO Catalogue, 1967 (Translated from the French by Beti Ellerson).

[1] Muslim scholars trained in Islamic law
[2] African Muslim holy men
[3] Name of cinema in Mali, an altered version of the word theatre.

Relevant Links:
The Panicking Audience?: Early Cinema and the 'train effect' by Stephen Bottomore
An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator by Tom Gunning


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

Gendered Sensibilities and Female Representation in African Cinema : Mossane by Safi Faye and Ousmane Sembene's Moolaadé. First published on the African Women in Cinema Blog, April 2009.

While African women filmmakers are eager to come together under the grouping of "women filmmakers," there is some resistance toward stating categorically that a woman's sensibility exists in filmmaking. Aminata Ouedraogo (Burkina Faso) perceives the category "women's films" as a vehicle for making people aware that women exist in the area of cinematic creativity, that they make films--not necessarily women's films but rather films made by women. Anne-Laure Folly Reimann (Togo) considers a woman's aesthetic as having a certain understanding, perception, and awareness of practices beyond the accepted standards, the familiar views and references. However, she does not consider these aspects unique to women, as some men share them as well. Franceline Oubda (Burkina Faso) finds that a woman is in a better position to deal with the question of women, because she has lived these experiences or perhaps her sister, mother, or aunt lives this situation. Similarly, Aïssatou Adamou (Niger) considers women directors to be in a better position than men to speak about the problems of women as they have the better advantage to go in the direction of their sisters.

Salem Mekuria (Ethiopia) tends to include more women than men in her films; since in her view, women's perspectives are often neglected. Moreover, she feels that women open up more easily to women, because of a sense of shared experiences. Najwa Tlili (Tunisia) makes a clear distinction between male and female sensibility; even among the most enlightened, sensitive, engaged male filmmakers. The notion of a woman's sensibility in filmmaking often translates to the filmmaker's identification with her subjects as women even in cases where she may not necessarily have the same experience. She finds the vision and questioning different; that women and men problematize the situation differently.

Nonetheless, many women are cautious about delineating a male and female sensibility. While she thinks there is a definite woman's sensibility, Comorian Ouméma Mamadali observed that working with her male colleague, Kabire Fidaali allowed the subject to be treated from two different perspectives which brought an added richness to their fiction film Baco (1995). Film school director Masepeke Sekhukhuni (South Africa) sees a certain danger in essentializing, since there are also "very sensitive" men, though it is an attribute that is often associated with women. On the other hand, she sees a definite difference in the way that women and men see things and solve problems. Therefore, while many women perceive a "female sensibility", pinpointing, localizing and defining it becomes more difficult. Their pause in naming it as such comes from the fact that they view male filmmakers capable of a sensibility that rejects masculinist depictions of women, as well as men. Thus, Burkinabé Fanta Nacro reminds us that there remains simply, the human being.

From this perspective I will look at two films by a man and a woman: the most recent works by Senegalese filmmakers Safi Faye, and Ousmane Sembene, of beloved memory. Both filmmakers are pioneers in African cinema, and the films, Mossane by Safi Faye and Moolaadé by Ousmane Sembene reflect this notion of a human sensibility.

A brief synopsis of the two films: Mossane: Woven into the story of the eponymous Mossane, a fourteen-year-old girl and the myriad experiences that she faces at that age, is a fictional 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. After fourteen rainy seasons, she is returned to them, through the arms of Mamangueth, the seashore where the ancestors live, the only place where she may be protected. Mossane defies the custom of arranged marriage, pursuing instead the desires of her heart. She refuses to marry the unknown suitor, Diogoye as she is in love with the university student, Fara. Safi Faye emphasizes that while arranged marriage is a practice that exists in some parts of Senegal, it is not her experience. The film is in particular, a metaphor of beauty; that she wanted to relay as a song to women.

Moolaadé, an ancient Pulaar word, means protection, the right to asylum. It demands that one be accorded protection when seeking it. If one encounters a perceived danger and flees from it, the person has the right to asylum.  The film’s point of departure is the confrontation with the tradition of Moolaadé and the tradition of Salindé, a Malinké word for ritual ceremony of purification, which entails female excision. Four girls flee the Salindé to seek Moolaadé under the protechtion of Collé Ardo, a woman known to have refused to have her daughter undergo this practice. Sembene states, “It is not about whether one is for or against the eradication of excision. It is that women in the village do refuse. And this refusal is an act of courage. To stand against a group is sheer madness. But to mobilize the others, that is courage. Daily struggles, one step, then another, then another. This is what brings about the evolution of attitudes.”

French film critic Olivier Barlet notes that in many African films there is often allusions to how the community controls and manages the body, or references to an individual’s choice of managing one’s pleasure or desire, or that women must suffer in their bodies in order to not be excluded. These instances will be explored in Mossane and Moolaadé.

It is through the tradition of Salindé, female purification, that a girl passes to womanhood.  To remain a bilakoro, to not be purified—excised, obliges her to a life without a husband or children—the traditional definition of womanhood—and thus, she is excluded from the rewards and benefits of the community. Collé has resisted this tradition and four young girls come to her for protection. Mossane, determined to choose her own husband and be with the one she loves, betrays the fixed identity that tradition and the community have defined for her, she refuses the arranged marriage. In both Mossane and Moolaadé the girl child finds refuge in flight.

Thus, in the two films resistance or confrontation with tradition is the fulcrum around which the stories pivot. The village is the location in which African traditions, values, and mythologies are born and nurtured. The village is often presented in African films as the counterpoint to city life in African capitals or the westernized experiences of the European metropoles. Sembene uses the village setting to show that deep changes in attitudes that will have the most impact will evolve from the village. Through the unwavering refusal of Collé, her co-wives ultimately give their support, which gradually spreads to the other women of the village. In Ousmane Sembene’s view the men will ask themselves: how can the mothers and daughters who have never left the village have these rebellious thoughts?

Among these more spectacular acts of rebellion one finds more subtle systems of support that indicate the basis of this solidarity.  While in his other films Ousmane Sembene gives vivid indications of his opposition to polygamy, such as the classic film Xala. Moolaadé reveals a more intimate look at a household that promotes harmony among the co-wives. Even as Hadjatou wields her power as first wife, she quietly champions her second co-wife Collé Ardo’s choice to give protection.

Safi Faye’s portrait of women in Mossane reveals a rare cinematic intimacy between women in African films, much like her experiences when growing up. This intimacy generates both solidarity and deception.  Mossane is very close to her cousin Dibor, who is both a mentor and confidante. It is Dibor who provides the support and courage that will sustain Mossane. She has a loving relationship with her mother as well; they share stories and chores. Mossane washes her mother’s back, they cuddle and tell secrets. But her mother’s eventual betrayal confuses her, while Mossane’s rebellious spirit takes her mother off guard.

Ironically, it is Ousmane Sembene who pushes the men to come to terms with their complicity in the perpetuation of women’s oppression. His story is much more driven towards a message for consciousness-raising for the eradication of genital cutting and the shared responsibility of men to understand the role they play in its perpetuation. By contrast, Safi Faye’s film is poetic, with beautiful images of the waters of the Mamangueth, the fascinating rituals, the remarkable ancestral spirits. The women’s bodies are sensual and soft. I am of course, contrasting films that tell their stories in very different ways, one of beauty and myth, the other of pain and confrontation. But yet, Safi Faye weaves within this story, the emotionally and psychologically agonizing consequences of a tradition that refuses one’s right to manage one’s own desires. Though, unlike Ousmane Sembene, she does not press the men or women to change.

While one may ask if women filmmakers’ response to the forces of tradition is sufficiently militant, an essential characteristic of the representation of African women in cinema is the opposing sides of women’s experiences. Safi Faye describes this polarity in reference to the women of the film Selbé: “at the heart of misery they triumph. To achieve one’s independence, one must realize one’s dependence.” Similarly, caught within opposing sides, Mossane, lives in a space “between rebellion and effacement.” African women filmmakers avoid the “super-heroine” syndrome, which does not mean that the female characters must be nondescript and commonplace. Rather, in what Ousmane Sembene calls the heroism in daily life, women can make a difference bit by bit, one step, then another. Looking at the film Mossane on a continuum of female representation, as a discourse on the evolution of womanhood/womanness, one finds the opposing forces of women’s experiences as Safi Faye suggests.

Safi Faye looks for the African specificities regarding women and their experiences, rather than creating a female character for the sake of a “feminist agenda.” She finds that African societies do much for the emancipation of women and the subject is often explored in African films. One must look inside the film narrative and look at women’s experience within the context of the society. While there are stereotypical attitudes about women in the countryside versus their urban counterparts, Safi Faye finds the women in the villages to have much more agency, for instance, than the women of the city. Comparatively speaking women in the city are much more financially dependent on their husbands. Ousmane Sembene identifies the village as a symbolic location, it is the cultural foundation of Africa. In his view, the strength and energy of the rural woman, the vital force of Africa, must be mobilized for the development of the continent.

Barlet also notes that African women are often used to question the virility of society. Modernity undermines patriarchy and films especially set in the village highlight this vulnerability, as often these features of modernity are foreign, western elements. The village is the signifier of the culture’s language, it is a metaphor, a symbol.

Exploring this concept in the context of the two films, Ousmane Sembene incorporates three foreign elements into the film, Moolaade: the travelling merchant, an ex-soldier who has served in peacekeeping efforts around the world; the village chief’s son, wealthy by African standards, who returns from Europe to attend his wedding; and the radio, an important means of communication for the village women. In Mossane, the introduction of the unseen outsider Diogoye upsets the already fragile harmony of the village, destabilized by the stunning beauty of Mossane. Diogoye, who also lives in Europe and is equally wealthy by African standards, arranges his marriage to Mossane by proxy. Thus, Diogoye’s wealth has power, and this invisible foreign element is able to entice a mother to “sell” her own daughter, the precise thoughts of many people in the village.

The fortune of the two sons performs as surrogate masculinity to a vulnerable patriarchy, allowed to exist by those who continue to sustain it, through habit, tradition, and fear, and in the case of the women, against their interest. And yet some women oppose these archaic conventions and step outside of the circle of traditional rules (Barlet). And thus in fighting for their own interest, women break down the “social consensus” that determines the conditions that are used to oppress them. Their disloyalty towards tradition causes a breach in the order of established interests, which in turn, rallies to suppress this rebellious force.

Thus, in Moolaadé, we see the elder brother Amath force Ciré to return to the circle of traditional rules of the patriarchy by questioning his ability to control his wives and daughter. Ciré submits by publicly beating his wife Collé, in an attempt to make her submit.  She resists. In a twist of events, Mercenaire, the traveling merchant, disrupts the patriarchal structure, and stops the beating. This scene is a quintessential Sembenian moment: the peace-keeper has found himself able to enforce peace. This is a decisive blow to the increasingly fragile patriarchy. But there is more to come that will further weaken its power. A series of events progressively strengthen the solidarity among women beginning with the courage of the formidable Collé as she is beaten, and culminating in the tremendous momentum of resistance as the women rebel en masse. The Dougoutigi, the village chief, and his entourage, are at their usual meeting place, at the village center. Patriarchy’s waning power is put to the test as Collé confronts them. The dying patriarchy crumbles when Amath again orders his younger brother to control his wife Collé. The younger brother Ciré responds by saying, “it takes more than two balls to make a man”, then abruptly leaves the male order. In turn, the village chief repeats his command to his son, that he will not marry a bilakoro (a non-excised woman). The son, Ibrahima stands and responses, “Father, I will marry who I want.” The Dougoutigi strikes his son, to which he retorts, “the time of the little tyrants has passed.” Amsatou, his fiancé, who is a bilakoro, steps into the frame of the dwindling male power announcing: “I am and will remain a bilakoro.” Both Ibrahima and Amsatou turn and leave together.

Is patriarchy dead then? Safi Faye’s Mossane has no heroine that defeats the male order, no epiphanic moments that reveal a female awareness of oppression; though rebellion and resistance are deeply rooted in the story. In fact, it is Mingue who loses the most, her daughter—who she sacrifices for financial comfort, and the dowry—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 her aunt, if she had not been deaf to the words of her daughter who demanded to make her own choices.




Gendered representations of Africans in the French Hexagon: An Analysis of La Noire de... by Ousmane Sembene and Med Hondo's Soleil O

Gendered representations of Africans in the French Hexagon: An Analysis of La Noire de... by Ousmane Sembene and Med Hondo's Soleil O. First published on the African Women in Cinema Blog, May 2009.

An analysis of Ousmane Sembene's La Noire de… and Med Hondo's Soleil O provides a gendered discourse on the psycho-social experiences of the protagonists of the respective films, a woman, Diouana in La Noire de... and the unnamed man in Soleil O. Hence, entering into the complex environments of their individual journey in France and the manner in which they interiorize and exteriorize their alienation and oppression as well as the strategies to free themselves within these vexed spaces. Released in 1966 and 1970 respectively, the films are set during the late period of colonial rule, embodying a gendered perspective of alienation and displacement at a time when African countries were only beginning to shed its political, social and cultural manifestations. The inner dialogue of both characters reveals the emotional upheaval caused by the colonial language and the physical presence of the black body in the French environment. Their anger, anguish and confusion reveals the colonial violence and the concomitant rage of the colonized. The two characters have quasi opposing behavior when dealing with their circumstance. And while this analysis does not suggest that their response is based on gender, it does offer insights into the manner in which two different filmmakers, both men, visualize a woman's and a man's divergent experiences in France, having arrived there for very different reasons.

In La Noire de…, the space--small and restricted--is confined to the apartment of Diouana's employers, the French couple; while the protagonist of Soleil O has access to many environments. He roams about the French spheres with much liberty. He wanders into the homes of the French residents, the courtyards, cafes, restaurants, offices and country houses. He is also able to exteriorize his rage and confusion in large outdoor surroundings such as in the woods, and along the railroad tracks. Diouana's spatial environment is established in the beginning sequence, when she arrives from Senegal to the French couple's apartment on the French Riviera. "Madame" guides her to the room that she will occupy, she introduces her to the Cote d'Azur through the window. From there they go to the kitchen. A cut to the bathroom begins the second sequence. Diouana's spatial environment consists of the kitchen, bathroom and her bedroom, while her access to France is only through the window view to the outside world.

These spaces are exploited cinematically in order to interpret the psycho-spatial interaction of the characters. Diouna's insights into French space derives from her living with a French family while the Soleil O figure gains access to intimate French settings through Hondo's focus from his point of view. He is allowed to enter these spaces as a spectator, while the observed remain unaware. The small, confining space describes the monotony and interiority of Diouana's psychological options to express her emotions and feelings. The relative fixity of the camera exacerbates the sense of ennui and internalized space. Sound is limited to the voices in conversation, the inner voice of Diouna, and the four types of music which set the rhythm and pace, as well as define the cultural context of the milieu. The pacing of Soleil O is often quick and hurried, sometimes frenzied; interpreting an angst and an agitated anger, despair, confusion and frustration. The protagonist's inner voice through voice-off, reveals urgency: he breathes heavily, he speaks quickly. At the film's end, he is enraged: shrieking cries, running frenetically to the thumping of the background audio. The camera cuts are frequent, interpreting his movements that search back and forth, sometimes aimlessly.

Both Sembene and Hondo use this spatial focus and pacing as a means to describe the emotional response to the protagonists' oppressive environment. Diouana's anger, humiliation and rage are expressed interiorly in much the same way as the composition of her space. In Soleil O, the character communicates his anger outwardly in an exterior space through the rage and indignation that he is able to express in an explosive manner.

In contrasting ways the two personages gradually experience disappointment, feeling duped by the failed expectations of their journey to France. The Soleil O character has been educated in the language and thoughts of the European. He has been taught to believe that he is equal and that he has an equal chance to work as his European counterpart. He intellectualizes his deception, his attitude toward France stems from his expectations that he has come to his metropolitan home: "Sweet France, I've come to you, I've come home." Similarly Diouana expresses her attitude toward France with excitement. While still in Senegal, she is elated when she finds a job: "I found a job, I found a job working for the whites." As she muses about her journey to France, she skips around joyfully singing: "I'm going to France, to France, to France!" Both characters see France as a journey to be made. Diouana's expectations of France derive from her direct experience with her employers while in Senegal; the Soleil O character learns through books, the French language, and Christianity: "One day I began to study your graphs and thoughts and speak Shakespeare and Rousseau."

The Soleil O character reads the job ads for accountant in the newspaper, going from place to place inquiring about the position, his mastery of the French-language enables him to challenge his prospective employers' rejection: "I know there is no discrimination in the land of liberty. I'm at home, we're equal. They taught me in school." On the other hand Diouana circulates mutely in the French-defined spaces of Dakar, silently presenting herself after a knock on the door, only for it to be slammed in her face. She rings the bell at the gate, a guard dog barks ferociously, she leaves quietly in despair. Her off-voice reveals that she has "gone up and down in the apartment buildings, and everywhere it is the same, no one wants a maid." While the Soleil O protagonist uses the formal job announcement system in his search for employment. Diouana hears about the "maid market" where Senegalese women sit in a designated area waiting for a white woman searching for a maid to pass by: "the sun set several times and as the others did, I came every morning and stayed until the evening."

Diouana's daydreams are 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. The dreams of the Soleil O protagonist take him back to a prior scene at the beginning sequence of the film, a melange of metaphors linking symbolisms, of uniform, religion, country and culture. He wakes in a sweat, panting uncontrollably. He tears through the mattress, overturns the bed, leaving the room in disarray. He rushes through the streets. He runs along the tracks, he repeats over and over: Africa, Africa, Africa! He runs faster, as screams torment him and pounding sounds pressure him to find a release.

Diouana's 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. In the finally encounter in French space for the Soleil O character, he witnesses a family lunching outside at their country home, as the children throw food at each other and play on top of the table. He walks away, then starts to run, his screams tear through the air, the camera cuts to images of Malcolm X, Lumumba, Mehdi Ben Barka and Che Guevera. He looks around, he searches, he stops breathlessly and lets out a final scream. He sits and rests surrounded by these images, as if to have found peace. A fade to a blank screen with the words: "to be continued".

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.

In the last sequence, "Monsieur" arrives in Dakar with Diouana's suitcase and the mask--symbolism marking the return of Diouana's soul to Africa. The mask atop her belongings is rediscovered by the same little brother from whom Diouana initially takes it in the beginning of the film. With the mask to his face, he walks steadily behind "Monsieur" who frantically attempts to leave, as if to rid Africa of colonial oppression.

In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon asserts that the "effective disorientation of the African entails recognition of social uneconomic realities." He further states that the presence of an inferiority complex stems from the double process of economic and internalization or epidermalization of inferiority. In The Wretched of the Earth, he prescribes a three-stage process in the evolution of the liberated black self: one, assimilation; two, awareness; and three, rebellion. Language in both films is a key force in the alienation of the characters. Fanon says that "to speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization…Every colonized people--in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality--finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation; that is with the culture of the mother country" (Wretched of the Earth). Diouana's ability to express this language is muted, while the protagonist of Soleil O is armed with the tools of this civilization. It is perhaps for these differences that the two characters have contrasting responses to their alienation. The former becomes inward and self-destructive, the latter becomes more and more outward as his screams and howls provide a release for a pent-up range. And more importantly he is able to verbally articulate his alienation.

Fanon continues: "the black man who arrives in France changes because to him the country represents the Tabernacle; he changes not only because it is from France that he received his knowledge of Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Voltaire…France creates round himself a magic circle in which the words Paris, Marseille, Sorbonne, Pigalle become the keys to the vault. He leaves for the pier, and the amputation of his being diminishes as the silhouette of his ship grows clearer" (Black Skin, White Masks). Diouana arrives in France on the ship Ancerville, her mutation is evident in her polkadot dress, wig, and high heel shoes, her dress within French spaces. The character of Soleil O arrives by train, having already penetrated the interior of France as he approaches the capital. His mutation has already taken place, as he is stripped of his African name and taught the civilization of France. This describes as well the first phase of Fanon's three-stage process. The protagonists have assimilated the culture of the dominant power.

The second phase reveals a conscious-raising of the characters, they become disturbed. Diouana begins to make a mental note of the acts of betrayal she experiences from her employer: 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. The ultimate gestures in response to these acts of betrayal is to retrieve the African mask that she gave to her employers as a gift and to refuse the money presented to her for her work. In Soleil O the protagonist assembles a similar list of actions: his job hunt, his search for housing, the general response of the French to his presence, the hypocrisy of their notion of equality. His final refusal comes after a dream, during which the French currency that has been attached to his body begins to burn. He attempts to tear it off, a symbolic destruction of imperialist capitalism.

The third phase, the fighting stage or rebellion, perhaps is less apparent in Ousmane Sembene's character than that of Med Hondo. Although Diouana's suicide may be interpreted as the final rebellion against her employer: the ultimate refusal to be a slave. Sembene, however, at the end, employs the mask--which has watched over Diouana throughout the film--as the ultimate weapon to oust the presence of the colonizer. The protagonist of Soleil O attains the fighting phase amid the revolutionaries, Malcolm X, Che Guevera, Mehdi Ben Barka and Patrice Lumumba, who were in their time "the mouthpiece of a new reality in action" (The Wretched of the Earth).


Black Gay Male Spectatorship in the United States The Reception of the films Dakan and Woubi Cheri

Black Gay Male Spectatorship in the United States. The Reception of the films Dakan and Woubi Cheri. First published in Africultures, 23 October 2008

In his critique of Mohamed Camara’s Dakan in Ecrans d’Afrique 20, 1997, Burkinabé film critic Clément Tabsoba highlights the role that African filmmakers have taken on to address pressing issues in their societies. He questions however, the relevance of the subject of homosexuality as an example. In the case of Dakan, Tapsoba also raises longstanding questions in African cinema criticism: For whom do African filmmakers make films? What message are they presenting to their audience? In rather harsh terms he suggested that Camara’s film was more about his interest in western tastes than African audiences. My project evolves from a desire to further address Tapsoba’s concerns in a different way; to explore black gay male spectatorship in the West, specifically the United States, as it relates to the film Dakan, which was well received among gay men. Tapsoba makes a point and then asks a question: "Homosexuality has become a fact of society in the west. What is the situation of this phenomenon in sub-Saharan Africa and how can we interpret it through the film Dakan" ? A question I may ask is, did Mohamed Camara make his film Dakan to please a western audience curious about the subject of homosexuality in Africa? During my interview with him he gives a categorical « no ». In fact, he goes on to state that he was quite surprised at the overwhelming interest in the film by gay black men in the United States.

It is true that the film’s trajectory among the U.S. gay public was very different from the majority of African films. While attending a screening of the film hosted by a black gay male group in Washington DC in 1999, I was struck by the audience interaction with the film Dakan and the questions posed to the filmmaker Mohamed Camara afterwards. I later interviewed Mr. Camara and based several of my questions on the discussion session after the screening. In this project I want to explore black gay male responses to identities, masculinities and homosexualities in relationship to the films Dakan and Woubi Cheri, especially in light of recent developments in men and masculinities studies. While Camara was eager to begin a debate of a controversial and « taboo » subject, he was not in the habit of coming face to face with an informed audience of gay black men who were familiar with western debates on homosexualities in Africa and who were prepared to take the discussion further than « opening a dialogue of homosexuality in Africa », Camara’s stated reason for making the film. The audience was prepared to have a much more complex discussion on African masculinities and identities and the diversity of homosexualities and sexualities. Masculinities studies as a theoretical framework provide the opportunity to frame the conversations with black gay men on spectatorship and the visualization of homosexualities to better discern the tensions that took place during the debate after of the screening of Dakan as well as to appreciate the existing dialogue on homosexualities and subjectivities as was evident in the organized screening and discussion of Woubi Cheri for this project. A masculinities studies approach provides a framework for discussing the tension between the « straight » filmmaker of a film about homosexual love and the gay black men who had multiple-layered responses to the film.

When the film Dakan hit the scene in the United States, it was welcomed enthusiastically in black gay communities. African gay men living in the United States expressed excitement at seeing images that reflected their experiences, feeling a sense of affirmation and visibility. The film had « Africanized gayness », by presenting African specificities of homosexuality. Many gay film festivals included Dakan in their film listings. As a critic of African cinema, I began to take notice that gay communities had given the film another life outside of the general African film circuit in which the majority of African films circulate. The film had become a kind of manifesto both for gay Africans who live in the West as well as black gays of African descent. At the same time other non-black gay men showed a strong identification with the film as a universal story of same-gender love.

The film was screened several times in Washington DC during filmmaker Mohamed Camara’s tour in the United States in 1999. A screening was organized by the Black Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Coalition. The majority of the audience was comprised of black gay men. The debate held after the screening revealed both the level of interest that black gay men from the African Diaspora had in getting more specific information about homosexuality in Africa, and it also showed the level of affirmation that African men experienced. In one instance a man came to the open microphone to express his pride in being a homosexual from Senegal and stated that it was the second time that he had seen the film and was deeply touched by it. After receiving applause from the audience, he thanked Camera in the name of the entire gay population. He stated that the film had pulled back the curtains of hypocrisy.

Several of the African Diasporan men recounted specific details that they had heard about homosexuality in Africa and were looking for even more information from Camara. After the event, I discussed the film and debate with some of the men who were in attendance. They expressed their frustration that Camara was not able to give them a deeper understanding or perhaps more detail about homosexual life in Africa. For instance, they wanted to know if in fact the scene at the end of the film was realistic, that a homosexual couple could go away and live their lives together. Could two people in a homosexual relationship really live openly together, at least in Guinea? Another person wanted to know about homosexual experiences beyond the « fete divas » and « party dandies » that Camara described as his knowledge of homosexuality in Africa. According to him, these « effeminate men » were accepted in some circles-especially among women-as entertainers.

During the debate one man said to Camara:

You stated that the first time that you met or saw a homosexual was when you were in Europe at the age of twenty-three, I wonder if you could tell us a little about your earlier years back home in Guinea, what you experienced in the way of stories that you heard, or any other type of information you received vis-à-vis homosexual life or homosexuality in Guinea or other parts of Africa for that matter.

He further stated:

I have a friend from Africa who told me stories about growing up that revealed a rich life, perhaps not equivalent to homosexuality or homosexual lifestyles as is known in U.S. culture, but that there was the existence of homosexuality and that there was mention of these experiences during the generation of his parents and grandparents.

Camara replied:

It is true that gay relationships or homosexuality presented in the film is not the way that it is viewed by the great majority of people in my country. Homosexuality is very much accepted in the community. The reason is simple, in people’s view a male homosexual is someone who is very feminine and who imitates women, they are the friends of women or they are close with women. So when there is a party or a social gathering it is the homosexuals who come to make the party alive. Because they know how to do the traditional dances, they dance well and they make people laugh. So in that sense homosexuals are very accepted and integrated into society. But the minute that you say that a homosexual is a man who makes love with another man or a woman who makes love with another woman that is when the problem starts. Because they don’t even understand how that is possible. So there is a certain level of confusion in people’s understanding about the situation.

In the context of my project on black gay male spectatorship, I found that the film Woubi Cheri (1998) by Philip Brooks and Laurent Bocahut served as a follow-up of sorts to Dakan in the sense that it provided answers to some of the questions posed by black gay audiences in the United States vis à vis homosexuality in Africa. While Dakan presents a fictionalized version of what could happen between two lovers in a same-gender relationship, Woubi Cheri presents a documented reality of some men in same-gender relationships.

During several discussions after screenings of Dakan and Woubi Cheri, I was able to get an array of responses from black gay men regarding their impressions of the films. The first gathering was an informal discussion held after the screening of Dakan at the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, « Reel Affirmations, » among whom were several gay men from various parts of Africa who expressed a great deal of enthusiasm about being able to see representations of themselves and their experiences on screen, they were especially excited about seeing the film at a movie house at full-capacity on a big screen. There was a clear level of euphoria that they could for once leave a movie theater and discuss images and experiences that reflect them.

The second informal discussion took place with two men, from Africa and the African Diaspora. Both had seen Dakan as well as Woubi Cheri, thus the discussion centered on a comparison between the two films. Both identified more closely with Dakan. The African Diasporan man felt that Dakan fit more into his ideal of a relationship with another man. While it was a fictional account he felt more in touch with its characters and their romance. It was the way he would like to imagine the representation of homosexual love. While Woubi Cheri was a non-fiction account, he felt more removed from it. It did not represent for him how he lives out his life as a gay man. The African man also felt that Dakan reflected more realistically his experiences as a gay African man. He expressed disappointment in Woubi Cheri, asking why it had to focus so much on the « excesses » of that life. Why did they have to show drag queens and transvestites, why couldn’t they show just regular gay people? While he was not embarrassed, he appeared to be concerned about the general impressions that outsiders would have. He felt that because there were not many films about gay Africans, this film might leave the impression as the definitive representation. I suggested to him that perhaps these men had less to lose by « coming out » publicly on film than other men who preferred to be less visible. I asked him would he have been willing to come out in this film. He agreed that he is dealing with the issue of « coming out » in a videotaped presentation of a performance group of African gays and lesbians. The group is dealing with the whole issue of audience. The members are asking the question, « who are they really 'coming out' to in terms of presenting their work publicly? »

The third session was organized for the express purpose of discussing black gay male reception to the film Woubi Cheri. Most of the people in attendance had never seen an African film before. The majority in attendance had not seen Dakan. I told the group the purpose of my project; I asked an initial question and from that point, the group engaged in a discussion with each other.

I asked the group how many of them had ever seen an African film before Dakan or Woubi Cheri, the majority said they had not. I asked the same question while waiting in the long line to get tickets to see Dakan at the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Most of the people that I queried also said they had not. While it is true that in the United States African films in general are not released in commercial movie houses and on rare occasions--outside of film festivals-are programmed in art houses, Dakan and Woubi Cheri were embraced by a group who generally do not go to see African films. Also, both films have been screened in various black gay social venues around the United States. My preliminary research in black gay male spectatorship as it relates to these two films confirms the long held attitude that specific groups, whoever they may be, seek to find what the Washington DC Gay and Lesbian Film Festival title suggests « Reel Affirmations »--a play on the homonyms, « reel » and « real » the former in terms of film, and the latter in terms of the actual--an affirmation of their experiences and life.

During the group discussion, an African Diasporan man from the United States talked about what he perceived to be similarities between gay life in the United States and Africa in the film Woubi Cheri:

While I had never seen an African film before, I was amazed that the gay life in Africa was as similar to the gay life in America. We have always heard that there is no gay life in Africa or that there is a very small gay population. From the film, you can see that there is a gay life and at every level, lesbians, homosexuals, drag queens, bisexuals. If you were to take people out of that setting and bring them here, it just matches very well.

Another African Diasporan man felt moved by Woubi Cheri:
I found it to be inspiring, as an African American gay man it is always inspiring to see other people of color who are gay, willing to take risks to be who they are, so for me it was touching in some ways, and I appreciated the opportunity to see it.

The transgender aspect of the film drew the attention of several men:

#1: I enjoyed the trans-genders in the film because I did not think that Woubi Cheri was--well not unbelievable--but I certainly imagined that there were experiences of other gay men. I thought it was good to see trans-gender people, I don’t know that I necessarily see trans-genders on the continuum of homosexuality but I like seeing that it is a calling, something innate and it was good for me to see them choosing to live what they felt inside, and I thought that was encouraging.

#2: I thought that it was interesting that the trans-gender people became the focus of the film. It leaves a question as to what extent it is an aspect of gay life in Africa, as opposed to the gay life in Africa. I suspect that it is an aspect of gay life in Africa as in America; where with most gay Africans, like gay black Americans, we are less out front about who we are.

#3: Barbara (1) is fascinating; she is so good!! They should just bring her here. You know it is interesting that drag queens have always been in the front, on the line of the gay movement. She is such a good example of that; she is so good at disarming people’s fears and prejudices.

#4: I think that happens with trans-genders even in our [U.S.] society. I think of RuPaul and how society picked that one to accept and to put her in an old navy commercial, have her own talk show; she is somewhat mainstream. But, on many levels I still see most societies treating trans-genders like they use to treat African Americans, as minstrels; « It is okay to entertain me and make me laugh, and yes she can come to my parties and add a certain amount of color. But, I don’t know if I am really going to accept you, or invite you to my church or join my social organizations or anything like that, but it is okay if you entertain me. »

The above statement confirmed the predominant attitude regarding the « queen » or « folle » that Camara described as the general impression that he and many other Africans have of homosexual men.

The idea of family within gay communities was also a point of comparison. One figure in the film, Laurent, stated: « your real family is the one you create. Nobody has to hide anything. » As is discussed below, in the film Paris is Burning by Jenny Livingston (1990), the family, as part of a « house » is an important social outlet for some gay men.

One comment was made:

It was interesting to see how they have to carve out their own families. In the same general population, many times we have to do the same thing--carve out our own families. Family has a different terminology and a different definition and to be in a position where you are in a community that is welcoming and embracing--many times we choose our neighborhoods and places we go and the things that we do because of the comfort level, of not being chastised or ridiculed. It was much the same in the film and I find that to be interesting. It was very enlightening, heartfelt, and affirming.

The African member of the audience talked about his experiences with both Dakan and Woubi Cheri as well the general responses he receives as a gay African in the United States:

Being African and being gay, I was not at all surprised to see these kinds of films about Africa because I have been through this, seeing these boys coming out. I hope that we have more and more people seeing these kinds of films, so that these people who ask these questions about homosexuality in Africa after seeing films like this will no longer do so. I have been asked: « what is the difference between an African gay and an African American gay. » The question was a surprise to me because a gay is a gay. I do not see the difference. People ask me does my family know and so on. But yet, here in the United States there are many, many gay people who are not out to their families.

Two comments were made:

#1: There are reasons for black Americans to think that there are no gays in Africa because there are religious and social groups here that tell us that there is no such thing as gays in Africa and I was told that if they were, they would be stoned, which is shocking in itself.
#2: Well there is this whole myth that when homosexuality exists among blacks it is a white « disease » and it came from white people and it is not something indigenous to or inherent to African people. It is white, bizarre and perverted.

Drawing from the film, Woubi Cheri, the group had varying perspectives regarding what they perceived to be supportiveness and tolerance of homosexuality in Africa.

#1: I found it interesting that there seems to be a level of tolerance that I saw in the film among the straight community. I was thinking had that been filmed here in America would the response have been the same. People did not seem to be « freaked » out by it. I don’t know if that would necessarily have been the case here. I did not see any gay bashing, I am sure homophobia exists in Africa; I think I got a bit more knowledge about the attitudes. They seemed to be more tolerant. It did not seem to be such a big deal and people who talked about it disclosed it to their family. Here it is uncommon for people to disclose to their families. But it appeared that the family was very supportive. I did not hear about people being beat up, people were actually celebrating. Again, I don’t know if I could have seen that here. I think that there can be a lesson learned, that the African community…well it is our nature [as black people] to be more tolerant and we should give ourselves more credit.

#2: I hope you are right but Barbara did talk about being stoned during the daytime.

#3: And they wanted to have parties only in certain communities because they thought it was safer.

#4: They also said that they wanted to be away from journalists who came out of curiosity. They wanted to have some level of privacy.

#5: There did not seem to be anybody who was homophobic, repulsed, or opposed.

#6: I am sure that they could have walked up to the average person and gotten the homophobic response. I think for this kind of film they were trying to show the positive aspects of being a gay person. They did not show any lesbians in the film, which may have been more balanced.

#7: This just proves that the goals of gay life are the same, to be whom you are and to enjoy your life.

#8 (white audience member): I wonder how they selected the straight people, the two women that Barbara was talking to and then the group of guys. I wonder if the producers picked out people who appeared more sensitive than others. And asked them would they be willing to talk about gender issues. Maybe nine out of ten refused but the ones that we finally saw agreed. Documentaries are not as objective as people think they are. When I visited Senegal, for instance, I never saw people as comfortable talking about gay sex. This is the second time that I have seen the film [Woubi Cheri] and I see more the second time, and I would love to see it a third time since I will be able to pick up even more from the subtitles. It is wonderful that there is a complexity in the social structure...In terms of how the straight people were selected. Barbara seemed to have a relationship to the two women. They did not seem to be strangers. They know people themselves, and they know who is going to be receptive and who is going to be friendly.

#9: From what I saw from the film it seems like a great place to go if you are gay (laughter).

#10: Yes I am thinking that is where I wanted to be.

The African member of the audience gave a different perspective about responses to homosexuality in Africa, suggesting that the level of tolerance is different from country to country. At the same time, he agrees with the attitudes that Camara expressed about the general stereotypes that people hold about a gay person:

It is not easy being gay in Africa. It is not easy to just say so openly that you are gay, perhaps it exists in Cote d’Ivoire, but it is not that way in Senegal, people are not as free to be open. People will get beaten up. I remember only one person openly cross-dressing in Senegal. He was a very famous gay. Gorjigeens (2) are what one may call the « folles » or queens, they are entertainers who cross-dress and perform at weddings and parties. They dance and make the guests laugh. They are not like the young gay men that you see in Cote d’Ivoire having intimate relationships. It is difficult to come out in Africa. I came out when I was seventeen, for five years my father did not talk to me at all. My mother did not talk to me for three months. It is hard; it is not easy.

Labeling and role playing within couples was also a point of comparison:

#1: One person in the film said that he refused categorically to be put into labels. But yet it was clear that he fit into the category of yossi (3), where he was not « effeminate » and he was clearly the « male, » and I guess that meant in role-playing also, he was going to be the « top » so to speak. I doubt that you will find a yossi who would bottom. So they are still fitting into these sorts of categories. That is sort of primitive lingo. None of us here likes to discuss our sexuals that way. Everyone protests, « oh I want to get beyond that stuff. » And it is true it is kind of BS [bullsh*t]. He says he wants to get beyond those definitions, yet he is still planting them. He is a yossi, why can’t a guy who wants to be a « normal » guy, i.e. non-feminine, why can’t he be the bottom, it doesn’t look like they give themselves the opportunity. If you are going to bottom then you are going to be a woubi. So it’s complex but it’s simple.

#2: That’s sort of typical here to. We use roles as well, butch/femme, top/bottom; it’s the same.

#3: In Senegal too, gorjigeens, act feminine, they want to be the wife, they want a man as a husband. Similar to the roles of butch and femme here.

#4: I remember during the debate after Dakan when the audience asked Mohamed Camara did he know any gay people and he said « no! » He meant no, in the context of how he presented it in the film, men loving men. Men overtly expressing love for each other, he said no. And the people in the audience could not accept his denial. He said well, in fact I only knew them as the entertainers, as the « folles », « queens » who would come to parties and give everybody a good time. And so, they would never be taken seriously. Heaven forbid if they start saying, « I love him, we make love together. » It is as if to say: wait a minute; you can dress up, as long as it is fun and we are entertained but that it is only to this extent.

#5: In fact, this is the same attitude regarding the gorjigeens in Senegal, but at the same time, if I could talk about the scenario in Dakan, I don’t think it is realistic either. That was not something that I lived in Senegal.

#6: If I could compare this film with Paris is Burning and look at the ball scene and the houses (4), we notice that the role models for the drag queens were white women. What I found interesting in Woubi Cheri, was that, while you did have some who wore lipstick and straight wigs--and of course Barbara, who seems to have studied every mannerism of a westernized woman--you had the head wraps and the boubous, so that even when there was the cross-dressing, there was that African aspect to it and I found that interesting, it was not always the emulation of westernized white women in terms of make-up, hair and dress.

#7: Talking about Paris is Burning in another context, I think it is interesting that when we were talking about a timeline, I don’t think that Africa, in terms of the gay community, is so far behind us. People talked about when Paris is Burning came out that this would be the new thing and there were going to be all these black gay representations on the screen and that did not happen and Paris is Burning came out less than ten years ago and there has not been a major influx. And now there have been two films, and of course, Africa is not a single country. There have not been many other black gay films in the United States, beyond Marlon Riggs.

#8 (white audience member): I was struck that one of the men [in Woubi Cheri] was a seer. You think for instance in Native American culture, where gays are accepted they are made to fill a role almost as a spiritual character. Vincent appeared to rise above the categories of gender and he could be whatever he wanted to be, his relationship with the older woman was full of imagery. The two of them were spiritual leaders almost. It is almost as if there has to be this obligatory visual representation of the gay man who is a spiritual character. Whereas Paris is Burning, which is an incredible film--actually the first time that I saw Woubi Cheri was in tandem with Paris is Burning, it was a very self-conscious pairing, there were many parallels made--but, there was not the spiritual character like Vincent who rose above it all, throwing cowry shells to predict the future.

#9: Yes it was incredible, I found it interesting that the man who came to see the seer was also gay and the reading was a prediction about his future relationship with another man. I also found it interesting that Vincent’s experiences were presented as « a glance in the life of an Ivoirian man ».

#10: I was struck by the range of people; we saw a cross-section of gays with different identities, and we saw the yossi, the woubis and the transgenders.

The audience members discussed the demographics of gay representation in the United States. The discussion was in response to a comment about how homosexuality is experienced in an African village from which ensued a comparison with gay life in small town USA.

#1: I found it interesting in terms of class or social milieu, I found that there was a glimpse of the life of gay men in popular areas of the city, to some extent in the outskirts of the city as well as the rural areas, in very simple, everyday neighborhoods.

#2 (white audience member): My first experience in Africa was two and a half years in a village. Naturally, I contrast my first experiences on the continent with that. In the village there is nothing like anything we see in Dakan. I saw Paris is Burning when it came out a long time ago so it is good to have that kind of association now, Paris is Burning was a very foreign experience to me. Very urban in that sense. In rural communities, I did not see any of that; it is not talked about. In a village, a man is expected to have a wife or two or three or four, and to have as many children as possible and get a plot of land. Yes he may travel and go to town and so on, but this manifestation of gayness would not be an experience of people in the rural areas, nor would it be something that would, from my impression, be talked about and considered to be a kind of life outside of traditional male, female roles, which is the whole fabric of society, the kinship and the agrarian-based society and so I think it is a very urban phenomenon. You would see it in Abidjan, or in a big city, but I don’t think you would see it just anywhere. And people who grew up in small towns here in the United States; gay men get out of their small towns and go to big cities where they can find their own families. I think it is an interesting contrast, and even in the villages here in the United States people say, » oh no we don’t have that here, it is not in the village », and it is a conception of… it’s just like a villager saying they have never seen a two storey building, or they hadn’t seen the ocean or what have you, it is not a part of people’s reality.

#3: I think that is what people mean when they ask the question that someone mentioned earlier about gay people in Africa. I had the impression that there are gay people in small town America, there is not necessarily a gay life you may have a couple of gay friends but nobody else knows they are gay, of course, and then you live your role to your family, you perhaps get married you have children. I don’t think that a lot of people feel there are no gay people in Africa, but is there a gay life? Because « gay life » is a very western concept, and a form based on constructs in industrialized societies and notions of « modernity ». Many of us are brave, but we choose to be brave still when we leave home, when we leave whatever town we are from, we come to the big city, we come to Washington DC, or we go to New York and then we live this « gay » life. But I know many people who did not live that life when they were in their particular community.

#4: There is no social context within which to really act out ones gayness in Africa; other than South Africa, there are no gay bars.

#5: Or the whole notion of « coming out » is a more recent phenomenon itself in the United States. So it is very interesting to have this film from Africa where they were certainly coming out on screen to be seen by thousands of people.

#6 (white audience member): I also wonder what was the impression of the people in this film, that this film was going to be distributed in Abidjan or is this something that is going to be taken across the water and distributed in Europe and the United States.

#7: That is an interesting question, what were the expectations of the participants, what did they feel? I also wonder if they generally felt, that they had nothing to lose.

#8: Even within the gay community here in the U.S., not everybody would accept being in this film. It is not being afraid that your family is going to see it. It is something about a sense of privacy.

I found during these discussions, that African gay men felt a powerful affirmation from the attention that African gayness received, African Diasporans exhibited a sense of shared experience with their continental brothers and felt a strong sense of parallel experiences. And while it was not overtly stated, there was also a sense that Africans were not so different than African Diasporans, thus debunking false perceptions that the U.S. media presents of Africans in general, which often cause misconceptions and alienation by African Diasporans. I also felt that other men of color as well as white men felt affirmed that the diverse homosexualities and masculinities were universal.

The two films released in short intervals added an important element to the discussion on spectatorship and African films among the gay men of different racial and cultural backgrounds. In African cinema discourse, there is often the question: « for whom are African films made? » especially since so few Africans on the continent actually get to see these films. Since my query focuses on spectatorship in the United States, I will say that if films like Dakan and Woubi Cheri initially attract the attention of people in search of a commonality vis-à-vis their sexual orientation, because they also show African faces, life and the reality of Africa in general then it serves a larger purpose. I remember hearing about a gay African Diasporan man stating after seeing Dakan that he was struck by the close-up images of African faces on the screen. These were faces, with features and dark pigmentation that he never sees on U.S. television and movie screens, unless it is to ridicule or stereotype black people. He felt that these were faces of people presented in a beautiful and careful way. So in a way, as a black person, while he came to see the film because of its gay subject matter, he left better appreciating Africa and its people and at the same time identifying himself with them not only as a gay brother but also as a black brother. Perhaps in that way Dakan and Woubi Cheri were able to break through a well-defined African film viewing circuit and reach another group of people who will now seek out African films in general.

Bringing together the two films, Dakan and Woubi Cheri allowed the possibility to discuss the continuum of male homosexualities and masculinities that emerged – a secluded, same-sex intimacy within the complexity of African traditions to a close-knit gay community that included a very open transvestite. While the emphasis on the very "female-looking" Barbara is a dominant element of Woubi Cheri, there are also very diverse masculinities that other men express within equally varied sexual identities. (5) The films Woubi Cheri and Dakan shed light on the debates around the « un-Africanness » of homosexuality that gay African Diasporan men have to refute constantly or that gay African men must challenge when confronted with claims that it is a « white man’s disease » introduced to black people. The emergence of masculinities studies that encompasses discourses on homosexualities and sexual identities is an important contribution to the reading of visualizations of African masculinities.

1. Barbara, a prominent figure in the film Woubi Cheri is a transvestite and the leader of a very close-knit transvestite group. She is the president of the Cote d »Ivoire Transvestites Association. Bibiche and Tatiana, two other figures in the film, are cross-dressing prostitutes.

2. Ousmane Sembene includes a brief presentation of a gorjigeen in his film Xala (1974) as a cross-dressing waiter at the wedding of the protagonist El Hadj. In Touki Bouki (1973), Djibril Diop Mambety depicts a wealthy homosexual named Charlie. In this almost utopian environment where women and men live in luxury and bliss, their homosexual lifestyle is presented as just one among others. As an « iconoclast » Mambety inserts this scene as a shock effect, as Charlie flirts with the character « Mambety » on the telephone and suggests that they will get together later.

3. An explanation of terms is given for various expressions used among the « woubi » community, as follows:
 woubi: is a male who chooses to play the role of « wife » in a relationship with another man.
 woubia: gayness
. yossi: bisexual
. controus: homophobes
. toussou bakari: lesbian

4. The film Paris is Burning is a documentary depicting one aspect of the lives of a gay subculture in New York City. « Balls » are events where gay black and Latino men dress and role-play in a variety of categories for competition. « Houses » are the families that the men construct in order to have a sense of solidarity, companionship, support and friendship.

5. Similarly, filmmaker Jenny Livingston’s focus on the transgender people and transvestites in Paris is Burning de-emphasizes the diverse identities and masculinities that the other men played out.