What is the gaze of a female film-maker?

Interview with Anne-Laure Folly, by Olivier Barlet

Paris, october 1997
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Interview with Togolese film-maker Anne-Laure Folly, director of three documentaries that talk about women – Femmes du Niger, Femmes les yeux ouverts and Les Oubliées.

Do you attribute anything specific to the female gaze?
A woman expresses what she is … I’m not a man, but I probably wouldn’t have been interested in the female issue two hundred years ago. What is being done these days is enormously different to the way that the issue was previously approached. Its specificity is probably associated with a point in History. In Les Oubliées, my latest film, I showed the 30-year war in Angola through the eyes of the civilian – female – population. This point of view is not commonly chosen. This gaze tampers with our preconceptions of History, of war and the logic of war. From the victims’ point of view, this logic is completely outdated!
It really struck me how much the female gaze highlights the impact that war has on people’s dignity.
This gaze is rarely shown, this angle is rarely chosen. The absurdity of violence is that it destroys the individual. The logic of a statement such as « to die for your beliefs » is flawed since those who survive have been through the wringer all the same! When a war lasts 30 years it ends up by destroying all social, cultural and emotional bonds. Female dignity « essential » – it’s what’s left when all hope has gone.
The women that you depict have incredible faith in the power of the image.
That’s what worries me. I am fully aware of the fiction that the documentary represents. Some people even call it « fictionalised reality ». It’s still subjective. An excess of images will end up diluting and weakening any cry. The women in my documentary still believe in the message. That makes the responsibility so much the greater and highlights what is so frustrating about this kind of work – bearing witness for those without a voice is increasingly difficult.
And yet, your film is seen and is appreciated.
Yes, but in a world that that’s bombarded with more and more images, to the point that the spectator ends up thinking that this is not the only issue out there and that it’s not really that urgent! Twenty years ago, a film like this would have had greater impact but no one made it then.
Is it a matter of accumulation? Does it take lots and lots of films before they have an impact?
I don’t know whether the public can still be mobilised. It took 60,000 deaths in Algeria to shake the world … it’s all a matter of how much blood has been shed. The longest war that this century has known is being fought in Angola and no-one’s lifting a finger. Nobody seems bothered by the lack of interest it’s creating.
You once said to me that the African and European woman’s degree of consciousness are similar.
It is astounding how acutely aware of their situation people are. All the same, people question their freedom far less in democratic societies. They think that legal rights make them free. And yet, the law doesn’t stop crime, and abolishing slavery hasn’t made people equal. You can be free without being equal. That’s what happening with women. They still have just as much trouble fitting in at work and they are still turned down for the important jobs. I think that there are simply fewer traps in societies that don’t claim to be progressive.
In less democratic societies like in Africa (in comparison with Western societies) do women lay greater importance on democracy?
Yes. In supposedly democratic societies (which doesn’t mean that they actually are – the ancient Greeks had slaves!), the notion itself is not questioned. In societies where democracy is still establishing itself, other models for harmony and equality can still be envisaged. The problem with the way we communicate as the new Millennium approaches is that behind the words is an empty shell and a lack of questioning. I get the impression that the technological boom is stifling the evolution of thought… There’s nothing of the great movement of change in literature, or philosophy that marked the beginning of this century.
In Africa, women are playing an increasingly important role in social change.
Developing societies have been through a lot of social strife. Whereas their mothers had absolutely no rights, the daughters can now be the subject of History. They are gaining from the struggles of women in Africa and elsewhere.
In you work, have you come up against problems because you’re a woman?
Of course. Men don’t have much difficulty adapting to the norms of the « working world » since it is they that set them. We women, on the other hand, have to learn to adapt to norms that aren’t natural for us.
Do you have to justify being a woman?
We learn very quickly, but initially we are surprised by the competitiveness, aggression, and professional violence. We can do it but we’re not prepared for it. Being African and female in certain circles sometimes creates hurdles that have to be overcome. But being a woman can also be an advantage.
In Angola, you even shot the film in a cultural context that was foreign to you.
True. That’s why I constructed the film with a gaze from the exterior by setting out from Paris. In the film I say, « I didn’t know anything about Angola ». So as not to deceive or pretend I knew more than I did. I think that in most audio-visual works the gaze comes from the exterior. A French filmmaker who shoots a film in the heart of the Auvergne, doesn’t necessarily know much about the region. The important thing is to know who looks at what. You really need to consider a complete filmography for the cameraman and director before making each film! Being Black doesn’t mean that I have that culture, now that I’m out of the little corner I lived in as a child. Being African doesn’t mean having a culture in Africa, just a culture from Africa, contrary to the immodest and horrifying statements that some people have been heard to make! Just because you’re a Zulu doesn’t mean that you know everything about Yorouba culture.
I recall the Nigerian filmmaker, Funmi Osoba, saying that people thought her capable of making a film about female circumcision, just because she was a woman, when she’s never had any contact with it, not even remotely.
Of course. It doesn’t take much for people to believe that the sun revolves around the earth.
Les Oubliées is in the past tense.
Yes, I thought I’d better not call it As Olvidadas! Angola provides 6% of petrol to the USA and the whole world has a vested interest in it. The war hasn’t ended because there wasn’t any compassionate gaze. Our economic system is founded on moral indecency. It’s worse than violence. What will be said about Algeria or Yugoslavia twenty years from now? Moments of amnesia that grip the world, when no one wants to see anything or do anything because the individual concerns are eclipsed by far higher interests.
Your film clearly shows the minefields that are making so much news at the moment.
And the children who are hit when they’re sent through the minefields ahead of their elders, when there aren’t any more test dogs to hand. Everyone is so cynical about it. Lots of countries manufacture mines, and they all know perfectly well that the mines mostly kill civilians. No system looks out for the individual. Each Nation makes sure that it’s own people are safe but manufactures the mines that kill others.
Do women see things more clearly?
No, I don’t think so. A quote from the female philosopher, Simone Weil, was always very present in my mind when I made my films about women: « One should always be interested in the lighter side of the scale, before it becomes the heavier side »(1). I’ve filmed women. Now I’m moving onto something else.
In Femmes aux yeux ouverts, one woman tells the story of how she suggested to her daughter that she should take part in the events that caused Moussa Traoré’s demise. Her daughter is subsequently killed during the events. The way she talks about how important it was for women to take a stand when the men weren’t doing anything is extremely powerful.
History is lived at a very gut level. Change doesn’t necessarily need ideology or a political party. I believe in the gut feeling theory. It’s what isn’t said but rather done, that’s hardest to erase, deny or question. That’s why I only show simple everyday people in my films. I think that personal growth is provoked by things that we come to understand through chance events in our lives. It’s internal upheaval rather than social, literary or cultural upheaval that changes us.
Where do you intend going from here?
I am going to do a portrait, work on form, and define my way of expressing things. Film is a conglomeration of different art forms and the emotion that it projects is soul cleansing. It has to be beautiful.
You have a close-up shooting style. The camera lingers on faces. Is this a modern trick, to avoid aesthetic issues?
Yes, but I’m not changing it! When people talk about blacks or Asians, they say they’re all the same. People look at their bodies more than their faces. The aesthetic attributed to black people does not include faces, features or the expression in their eyes. It’s a physical aesthetic. It’s about their bodies. It’s a cosmetic beauty. Negro features have never been linked with any aesthetic in Western literature. In fact, quite the opposite! That’s what pushes me to use so many close-ups of Black faces. I want the spectator to look at the people. Seeing pain forges respect and causes people to really look. I want to close the gap. By focussing on the gaze, I am freezing emotion and bringing the « Other » closer. My films discuss issues such as war and exclusion, but I avoid any trace of the « exotic ». The « Here » resembles the « There ». We all share the same History.
And how do you feel about your African Identity?
There are not four races of which one is African!! That just isn’t a reality any more. It’s an issue that shouldn’t be raised but that comes up every day! Is a black Brazilian African or Brazilian? Angolans come from everywhere. It’s not a matter of race, but rather of culture. In Africa, the Bambara and Yorouba cultures are totally different. I am nothing but the product of my own history and I don’t aspire to anything more than that!

(1) Translated by Africultures for the purposes of this article.///Article N° : 5284


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