Women and men in black African film

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Black African film has long since surpassed the boundaries between male and female. Recently, however, it has done so in a very new way.

Women in film
Official discourse regularly pays homage to the work and dedication of African women. The Fespaco did so when it held the « Paroles et regards de femmes » conference in 1995. A somewhat ambiguous way of celebrating their obligation to work themselves to death. Whilst modernity weakens patriarchy, women represent the perpetuation of this emulation that incarnates the value of the traditional village. Films readily pay homage to women by depicting their endurance and courage at work, as they take on a documentary aspect to dwell on the gestures constituting their daily toil.
But while the films both show respect for female abnegation and thus idealize the theme of mother Africa, they also depict women’s forced silence and submission before the violence carried out against them. « Nanyuma, we bring forth the world and it violates us. Patience and resignation are our recourse!  » says one woman in Finzan (Cheikh Oumar Sissoko, Mali, 1989).
« In an African culture, it is more important to feel than openly to express », Anne-Laure Folly from Togo once told me. It is at this price that her documentaries on African women (Femmes du Niger entre intégrisme et démocratice, 1993, Femmes aux yeux ouverts, 1994, but also Les Oubliées, 1996, on women in Angola) find their ability to listen and their emotion. The women filmed one by one in Saïtane (Oumarou Ganda, Niger, 1972) do not contradict this. They watch over the courtyard wall without intervening as Safi is beaten by her husband, and their silence says more than an impossible revolt would.
Yet, we are immediately struck by one paradox. This essentially male-authored cinema often focuses on women in order to question society’s virility. Filmmakers very often celebrate women’s revolts (against obsolete traditions and the condition imposed on them): the refusal of excision, forced marriage, harassment, and unequal opportunities in society. Their intent surpasses the simple logic of a screenplay wanting to play on opposites. Women are above all seen as being those who rise up, who refuse the established order that diminishes them. Nanyuma doesn’t hesitate to flee the ranks of her community several times to escape a forced marriage in Finzan, just like the other women in Le Wazzou polygame (Oumarou Ganda, Niger, Grand prix at the first FESPACO in 1972), Wend Kuuni (Gaston Kaboré, Burkina Faso, 1982), Histoire d’Orokia (Jacob Sou and Jacques Oppenheim, Burkina Faso-France, 1987), Baoré (Maurice Kaboré, Burkina Faso, 1992), or Mossane (Safi Faye, Senegal, 1990-1996). Refusing to consummate a wedding is another recourse, for example in Marl Tanié (The Second Wife, Mahamat Saleh Haroun, Chad, 1994), where 17-year-old Halimé says to herself: « I’ll drive him mad until he repudiates me, and then I’ll be free! »
« You have to know how to betray in order to succeed », as Soma put it in Yeelen (Souleymane Cisse, 1987). It was this, in fact, that filmmakers were interested in. Rather than questioning existing patriarchy per se by analyzing it thoroughly, women’s always-dramatic revolts gave them a story line that would make an impact on the audience. Women’s revolts struck them as being emblematic of a possible revolt against the traditions. That is, against the existing norms. They thereby committed themselves to social change in general.
So much so that when it came to designating Historic figures capable of stirring this same audience’s spirit of resistance, filmmakers often chose heroines, such as the queen Sarraounia portrayed by Med Hondo in 1986 (who fought the French colonizers), the princess in Ousmane Sembène’s Ceddo (1976), who kills the marabout king who imposes a foreign religion, or Shola the rebel slave in Haïle Gerima’s Sankofa (1993).
Modern developments
It is a very masculine image of woman, when all is said and done. But it is precisely the way in which it refutes common sense that gives filmic fiction its force. It is thus not new for filmmakers to overstep the habitual dividing line between male and female, that Rubicon pass which offers ideal screenplay story lines for delving into the socio-political domain.
What is new, however, is that filmmakers have moved from the eulogies to insubordination to an in-depth questioning of the male-female relationship. By exploring the arguments exchanged in relationships or couples’ rows, they encourage a reflection on individual responsibilities within relationships, of course, but also within society. In this way, they posit the questioning of male-female relationships as a theme which in itself questions the future of Africa. They do so by focusing on exploring the intimacy of the relationship, rather than on the transgression of established order as in the past. This enables them to make an impact on the viewer, enjoining him/her to think his/her relation to the world in terms of a greater responsibility.
What is new is that they call themselves into question by prioritizing uncertainty and doubt. They do not hesitate to take risks both in terms of form and content. They sometimes even go as far as directing themselves, playing their own role on the screen. They thereby dissect existing contradictions in both the male and female archetypal arguments found all over the world whereby the feminine is primarily identified with the domain of the soul and affectivity, placing pleasure (justified by principals: it is normal to…), well-being, passion, joie de vivre and the libido at the fore. The masculine, on the other hand, tends rather to prioritize the logos and the mind at the service of principals (justified by pleasure), sacred convictions, and a certain morale of effort.
Women’s films
This is first of all expressed through the demand for women’s emancipation, starting with the emancipation of their bodies. And logically, it is the women filmmakers who openly tackle this subject. (1) The Burkinabè Fanta Regina Nacro thus ends her 32-minute film Puk Nini (Open your eyes, 1995) with the Rika Zaraï song: « Tonight we’re going to dance with no shirts, with no trousers ». Once her anger has subsided, a woman whose husband cheats on her tries to understand why he prefers a high-class prostitute to her and ends up getting on with her. This connivance opens the way to her veritable rebirth. Indeed, the films made by women are very often about a rebirth. The women fighters in the Chimurenga war of liberation emancipate themselves in Flame (Ingrid Sinclair, Zimbabwe, 1996), confronting patriarchy in the freed society. Saïkati leaves the village to become a doctor but returns changed to escape prostitution (Saïkati, Ann G. Mungai, Kenya, 1992)… But there are still very few feature-length films made by African women. Alternatively, a whole host of documentaries have seen the light of day over the last few years. Behind the diversity of themes tackled is the demand for the recognition both of the injustice of their living conditions (2) and of what they contribute to society. But they do not just denounce the hierarchy in couple’s relationships, the work load, sexual mutilation, or the inequalities and violence they suffer. They see the fight against war and all forms of oppression as their combat. In so doing, they affirm through a modernized feminism that they are not the only victims of patriarchy. By challenging social codes, they also adopt the perspective shared by the filmmakers who tend to subvert their society.
Men’s films
Of the films recently made by men, three strike me as being exemplary of the current move to redefine the male and female and to call relationships into question.
1) In La Fumée dans les yeux (1998, 23 mn), the Cameroonian François Woukoache films the young African filmmaker Bwesi’s desire for Malou, who comes to spend the weekend at his place. Everything starts out well and Bwesi cheerfully questions the traditional relationship:
– « You drive?
– D’you have a problem with that?
– I’m a modern man: make way for women!
– Yeah, when we go back home, modernity will become just a vague memory… »
The camera plays at establishing the tension in the kitchen as they prepare the meal, with sensual close-ups of hands chopping tomatoes and onions. But the same knife will keep Bwesi at bay when he takes the liberty of kissing Malou’s neck. Later, tormented with desire, Bwesi listens to his friend Vital’s advice: « Treat her rough! » But Malou is racked by her desire for a child. The camera captures her clawing her face or rubbing her thighs and stomach whilst a gentle lullaby plays in the background. When Bwesi tries to force himself on her, it is not the right method, of course:
« If you want what everybody has had, you can have it, but you won’t have the jewels that go with it!
– I’m sorry…
– Why are you sorry? I want you to tell me why you’re sorry!
– I don’t know, it’s not what I wanted.
– Yes it is.
– No, it isn’t what I wanted.
– Yes of course it is. It’s the sex you’ve got on the brain, huh? »
The old misunderstanding that makes us take pleasure for love and narcissistically believe that the Other’s body alone can fill our void, until the recognition of the Other allows the relationship to be re-established. « Do you fancy being a modern dad? », Malou finally says.
In Fragments de vie (2000), Woukoache continues his reflection on the consequences and the violence of male chauvinistic models, stringing together flashes of the images conveyed by the media and comic books. He even goes as far as orchestrating a woman’s revenge against a police superintendent who killed her father when he intervened to try to stop him raping his mother. Using her charms to woo him, she kills and emasculates him, telling her mother the next day that she is cured. We are at the movies: the symbolic murder of the Other allows the reconstruction of the image of the self. Similarly, in Le Génie d’Abou (1997, 9 mn), the Ivoirian Isabelle Boni-Claverie films a black sculptor’s ritual murder of a fat white woman beneath the vigilant gaze of the black woman. The artistic ritual is aggressive here too, a liberation from the Other’s (maternal) hold, a prerequisite for creation, for language, for taking one’s life back into hand.
2) In Fragments de vie, the opening also lies in the end of the film in the re-establishing of the relationship through the return of the father. It is the experience of the lack of the Other, but also of one’s own lack, one’s own loss of identity, that the Other makes one live through love. This is what Bye Bye Africa by the Chadian Mahamat Saleh Haroun (1999) theorizes amongst other things. A filmmaker gets back in touch with a woman he knew in Ndjaména on another film shoot. He tries to rekindle their amorous relationship. At the time, Isabelle played the role of an AIDS victim. But, as the audience makes no difference, her entourage have rejected her and she asks the filmmaker to take her away with him. He uncourageously sends her packing, which has its dramatic consequences. It is this ability to put oneself in danger, to take risks both in terms of form and content, to ask questions with no answers, to explore the human without making concessions that constitutes a new style. This is all the more heartening as it updates one of film’s essential functions: that of helping people face up to themselves making everyone more responsible.
This cinema is therefore no less politicized than that which came before. Using very limited means, it has the advantage, moreover, of being independent. Quite logically, it works above all on improvisation, day-to-day details that make us smile, direct testimony before the camera as if in an audition, on the personalization of the subject/discourse. Haroun cites Godard: « the cinema constructs memories ». This cinema of memory is thus that of sincerity. It is without a doubt the best gift that can be given to the viewer. Haroun ends up giving his young cousin his camera so that he can film the family and lessen the distance of exile. He too will be able to film life with that point of view that knows how to say « it’s my concern »…
3) Isabelle thus shows Haroun his weaknesses. That is what love is about. Under the effect of the Other’s urges, comes the human’s revelation, its renewal. We are always suffering from love sickness! The Congolese (DRC) Zeka Laplaine clearly illustrates this in (Paris : xy), a mathematic equation that does not necessarily have a solution, for this cinema risks uncertainty. We can recognize the two chromosomes in the title: our subject isn’t far off! Max (played by the director once again) has promised to take his white wife Hélène on holiday with their children. His work prevents him and his macho reactions only make things worse. She leaves him. A feeling of loss sets in. He takes advice from a friend, from a medium, fights back, searches. Even his mistress Keba can’t help him, which makes her stick her foot in it and block the way out even further. Max finally lays siege to the house Hélène has taken refuge in… « Stop being afraid », says the sign in the street. Destabilized, Max gradually shakes off his fears and he too becomes aware of his weaknesses. His wife forces him to make the journey he refused to undertake, that of a questioning of his virility, that of a quest for an identity, that is, a quest for memory, one which gives him back the desire to live.
Having returned to Ndjaména to be with his father after his mother’s death, Haroun’s voyage in Bye bye Africa is also a questioning of memory and of the impasse of transmission in a town where video and the war have squeezed the cinema out. « Seek minds », the (Paris : xy) billboard cries out again. Memory shakes off narcissism by opening the way to finding the Other. Not just the memory of a souvenir, but the memory which requires being present in the world. For men and women have always sought their loved ones outside their own clan. Of different origins, they love and desire one another, couple, and make the Other their nearest, thereby expanding cultures and creating cultural half-way houses, blends that are rich with so many contradictions and pluralities. They have always questioned the definition of male and female as they love and tear one another apart. And, by being the witness to the present, far from all ideological prophecy, African cinemas play everyone’s responsibility for the sake of their future society.

(1) On films made by women, see the article « Les femmes réalisatrices en Afrique subsaharienne », by Sophie Hoffelt in Afrique politique : Femmes d’Afrique (Karthala, 1998), pp 21-44, and the article by Michel Amarger in the 1998 Créteil Women’s Film Festival catalogue. Also see, « Feminist Approaches in African Cinema », the fourth part of the recent work edited by Kenneth W. Harrow, African Cinema – Post-colonial and Feminist Readings (Africa World Press, 1999), and Sisters of the Screen – Women of Africa on Film, Video and Television by Beti Ellerson (Africa World Press, 2000). There are also some interesting articles in African Experiences of Cinema edited by Imruh Bakari and Mbye Cham (British Film Institute), plus interviews and reviews published in the African cinema database on the www.africultures.com web site.
(2) This has sometimes got them into trouble. In 1995, the Muslim authorities issued a fatwa against the Chadian Mahamat Zara Yacoub for having raised the question of excision in Le Dilemme au féminin. In 1996, the Zimbabwean Ingrid Sinclair had to face fierce attacks on her film Flame. Reels were seized from the shoot, the film banned on release, etc.
///Article N° : 5489

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