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.
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—— (2004), Kare Kare Zvako-Mother’s Day.
—— (1988), Nervous Conditions. London: The Women’s Press.
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—— (1972), La Passante.
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—— (1993), Monday’s Girls.
—— (1991), The Body Beautiful.
Sembene, Ousmane (1966), La Noire de ...