Cinema: Women shaking things up

Roundtable with Olivier Barlet: Chloé Aïcha Boro, Hinde Boujemaa, Nina Khada, Aïcha Macky, Amina Weira - FCAPA

In front of a full house, Chloé Aïcha Boro, Hinde Boujemaa, Nina Khada, Aïcha Macky and Amina Weira discussed the difficulties as well as the opportunities and challenges that women experience in their current filmmaking practices. The discussion was moderated by Olivier Barlet and can also be viewed on video (in French) at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clfKoktCgCI

Olivier Barlet: We realised that at this year’s festival women were in the majority. Hence, this round table developed rather naturally. We propose, therefore, to address the question of women filmmakers in African cinemas in two ways: on the one hand, experiences of gender bias and on the other, the cinematic practices that are formed, such as, the intentions and desires.
As always, a short introduction of the subject that will be further developed: At the start of African cinemas there were only a few women pioneers, while today there are a fair number of women who have taken up the camera. Even if women were few in number, they were often the main protagonists in the films, where they served as a vehicle for questioning society, in particular the patriarchy that Calixthe Beyala calls “the dictatorship of balls.” In these films heroines, or persecuted women characters that revolt, are present. In 1995, the theme of Fespaco was in homage of the African woman. Though singing of her beauty, her courage, her patience, her devotion, her indispensable presence, she was not given a voice. The immense amplified silence endured. Marginalisation hinges on the powerlessness of independent voices and self-expression to gain access. Nonetheless, the rebels of the films have a strategy: “In order to succeed, one must know how to betray,” says Soma in Yeelen by Souleymane Cissé. This refers to the question of infidelity, according to custom, to social consensus, in order to express a faithfulness that women perceive as a source of life for themselves, for relationships between men and women, for humanity. This opposition will result in flight and even death.
The films, made by women in particular, demand equality. Does this parity call into question the social order? This is the question raised, for example, by Simone de Beauvoir, who said: “One is not born a woman, one becomes one”. This vision of women forged by society leads to a politicisation of women’s discourse. It is found in films in two ways: on the one hand by addressing the condition of the woman itself – an exploited woman but also an immoral or subversive woman; On the other hand, in the unveiling of political relations where they are not seen, i.e, that women tell the truth to those who do not yet see it, on behalf of those who cannot say it. There is, indeed, a radical change in the struggle against forms of power: to make power appear where it is most invisible and insidious is the project of a large number of films. This leads to the lifting of the veil of the unconscious that weighs on the most trivial acts as well as the themes that uncover the taboo, the invisible.
 And with the invisible, this is a question of cinema! The Africultures issue entitled, Feminism(s) in Africa, shows that the call for a universal feminism (such as Gisèle Halimi) is being overturned by a cultural feminism whose discourse differs from country to country. Thus we see in Africa what Obiama Nnaemeka calls nego-feminism or a feminism of negotiation and without ego. A feminism of compromise and negotiation is necessary when confronting a violent patriarchy; it is counterproductive to oppose it head-on. Mutual concession, bartering, but also cunningness, resourcefulness, circumvention are necessary strategies.
 I remember an edition of the International Women’s Film Festival- Creteil during which the evolution of feminism was addressed. The filmmakers focused first on the condition of women before broadening the subject to the condition of people in general, the injustices of society, inhumanity in the world.
 Hence, we could first talk about your experience as a woman in a world of cinema still largely dominated by men, before addressing the opportunities and challenges of a woman’s écriture. You are mostly young filmmakers: have you ever been confronted with discrimination because of your gender?
Nina Khada: I am 25 years old and I am presenting Fatima at the festival, which is a film about my grandmother’s exile from Algeria to France. On this project I was fortunate to have the opportunity to be surrounded by women who were moved by the issues of the film. I am part of a generation that never thought that you could not make it because you are a woman, when you hear about it from those of previous generations there is a heightened awareness.
Aïcha Macky: I come from a sociology background and so I fell into cinema somewhat like a fly in ointment. As a woman, I was perhaps lucky because I grew up in a mainly male environment: my games were those of boys, and I was never responsive to dolls, for example. I was also from an early age involved in cultural clubs where women knew how to assert their position. In Niger, the gender parity law of 2000 applies equally to appointed and elective positions. This, however, reinforces prejudices about the merits of women for promotions and I prefer to do cinema just as men do. The main difficulty is the lack of self-confidence. The Tuareg society is patriarchal and women can only be homemakers and care for the children, but things are changing. Most of the films [in Niger]are made by women. Zalika Souley was called every name in the book during her time: we are now evolving into a more open period. Cinema was viewed as a diversion made by immoral people, and yet the films presented in the local languages speak of social problems. The population quickly identified with them, to the point that there was an evolution in attitudes. Women in particular, make films about subjects that men have difficulty dealing with properly.
Olivier Barlet: In the case of Niger, has the emergence of documentary filmmaking made a difference regarding these issues?
Aïcha Macky: Mentalities are changing. My film talks about fertility, a taboo subject, like Amina’s film, which is about the consequences of uranium mining. These are situations that people experience. The State has understood the importance of the arts in changing mentalities. The Ministry of Culture has become a “cultural renaissance”.
Olivier Barlet: In the case of Amina’s film, the politics of the subject will undoubtedly be less pleasing to the government.
Amina Weira: I would like to return to what Aïcha said: we are here because we have fought. We have shown that we are able to do a job that men do. When I was with Aïcha in the Master of Creative Documentary programme at the Université de Gaston Berger in Saint-Louis, Senegal, we were a total of eight, four women and four women. At the end of the programme we made a collective film where there was a scene in a canoe. The men told us to stay and watch the equipment while they go out to shoot, as if we would not be able to do it! The subject of La Colère dans le vent | Anger in the Wind is the exploitation of uranium by Areva in Niger: many people warned me not to make this film, that I was putting my life in danger, and so on. Still today, I am advised against screening the film in Arlit, though it is for the inhabitants of Arlit that I made the film. If we have reached this stage, it is because we have proven ourselves: we have demonstrated that we are able to change the world.
Hinde Boujemaa: I can only talk about the Tunisian context in which I work. As a filmmaker, I have no concerns about equality. I have never felt any difference. Before being a filmmaker, I was a technician and worked with most of the Tunisian directors: I did not encounter any problems with gender bias either. Neither does the gender factor play a role in terms of commissions. Nor do I think that the previous generation had many problems at this level. There were simply fewer women who chose the path of cinema. On the other hand, in other Arab countries, I have felt the machismo when presenting my films. The Tunisian situation is atypical. When we talk about our society, this positionality is there: it is reflected in what affects us, or what revolts us as a woman. That is what we re-transcribe in our films. This is where the reaction is situated, with a woman’s gaze and not a man’s. There are issues in society, but as professionals, we are fortunate not to be confronted with discrimination. After the revolution, there was a trend toward the documentary, which arose because of its low cost, making it possible not to have to seek financing abroad. Otherwise, the political objective of funders is to encourage women, which opens doors. Training also makes it possible. But with commissions, it is the project that matters. Everything is not ideal, problems do exist, but it is not at the technical level of the profession. It would be more so at the level of ideas.
Olivier Barlet: As it relates to Aïcha and Amina, there is the Africadoc structure, which organises the Nord-Sud co-production for films through professional meetings in Saint-Louis, Senegal, where the issue of gender bias does not surface either. On the other hand, I imagine that it develops more insidiously in personal relationships, especially with producers.
Aïcha Macky: In Niger, we do not have public funding to make films. It is this Nord-Sud co-production that allows us to make our films, and hence, they benefit from the assistance of the French CNC (Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée). The films are numerous, but the circuit is a bit long: our state must become involved. Some agencies encourage women candidates; hence, our chances of benefiting from them are thus multiplied tenfold.
Olivier Barlet: We are here at a festival founded by Dominique Wallon who, when he was director of the CNC, set up bilateral agreements allowing films from certain African countries to gain access to French proceeds. It was discovered that few women were able to benefit from it because the agreement was specific to feature films; in addition, there has been less confidence in women to manage projects with such large crews and budgets.
Chloé Aïcha Boro: I have never been confronted with a producer or a technician giving me an up-and-down look because I am a woman. I feel that this question is a bit out-dated. On the other hand, we film within social realities, where women are not in privileged circles where this relationship has changed. The film Farafinko is immersed in a polygamous family where several generations coexist. My idea was to show how one is shaped within the family structure. I was in these households with the women. I do not think a woman can be more successful at a subject than a man. In order to form bonds it takes time to immerse oneself fully. On the other hand, to enter the women’s household, it is necessary that the men agree to not let other men enter. In addition, women often do not have the chance to encounter anything other than what they have been taught. I filmed for almost two years. The fact that they saw a woman who had travelled and who came back with a camera did not leave them indifferent: even the little girls understood that that there were possibilities if we shake things up. But in our privileged environment, I have the impression that we no longer have to take on this battle. On the contrary, my producer often told me: you are a woman and will have a better chance! I am not saying that the issue never surfaces, but it is up to us to respond forcefully and to affirm to our younger sisters that there is something more important than to run after a man, to cook rice and make him babies!
Aïcha Macky: It depends on each society. There are themes that women can approach and men cannot, and vice versa. A man could never question women about their sexuality, as I was able to do. In my film, one may observe that as a woman, I could not go to the cemetery to turn on my mother’s grave. Similarly, in Niger, a boy cannot enter into the women’s room.
Hinde Boujemaa: I could not enter the men’s prison, though I spent 48 hours in the women’s prison cells…
Chloé Aïcha Boro: There are images of mosques in my film but I could not go inside to shoot them, I told the technical crew what to do. Sometimes compromises have to be made!
Aïcha Macky: But it must also be noted that it was difficult for me to have the final decision on the title of my film: I was told that it was not for a woman to do it. And the same goes for the editing choices! This is where you have to fight.
Amina Weira: My team was predominantly male. The cameraman, the sound recorder and the producer were men. In Arlit, the police immediately check the film shoots. And each time, they would address the Algerian cameraman, and each time I would intervene to say that I was the director. But they prevented me saying: “we are not talking to you!”
Chloé Aïcha Boro: Was it because he is a man or because he has white skin?
Amina Weira: For both! My African producer was obliged to take the papers and explain to them: They would not listen to me. Though I was in my own town! I only had the right to translate because the cameraman did not understand the language!
Chloé Aïcha Boro: It is often the chauffeur or the technician who is addressed because they generally are men.
Hinde Boujemaa: You should make a film when you are filming!
Olivier Barlet: So being a woman is not neutral! What is striking is that you are inclined to say that things have evolved a lot in the milieu of cinema. At the beginning of the 2000s, filmmakers reacted to the confinement within a category by saying that they were not African filmmakers but filmmakers “period”, even though it is difficult to claim an essentiality of the filmmaker: we do come from somewhere. Can we translate the question to women: do you define yourself as a filmmaker “period” or do you see a certain specificity in the fact that you are women filmmakers?
Chloé Aïcha Boro: Any label is reductive because if you are labelled, you are not like the others. When filming I do not wonder what to do because I am a woman. I do not exist as an African filmmaker or as a woman filmmaker.
Aïcha Macky: When at school we sit in the same seats as the men and often we beat them! Why should there be a genre of woman’s cinema? It is only an art that we learn. On the other hand, there may be African specificities in cinema, a cultural perspective. One may engage in political cinema, activist cinema, which deals with a lot of themes. Africa is diverse. There are eight ethnic groups in Niger, eight ways of thinking.
Chloé Aïcha Boro: Westerners have been making condescending films about Africa, but I do not think we can do anything that is representative of a culture: we film a moment, everything moves. There are observable constants: for example, we often cook in three households in Burkina Faso.
Hinde Boujemaa: This positions the universality of what is being told. My first desire is to be a filmmaker, period, without being put in an Africa pigeonhole, within a religion or whatever. I tell a story, which one may ultimately find elsewhere in the world.
Aïcha Macky: However, to me, the question of identity does seem important: the perception of things varies according to cultural practices, and this is what we transmit in our films.
Hinde Boujemaa: I am afraid there is an attempt to force us into an identity box. A distributor told me that my film was not “Arab” enough. Our films are universal: I have had feedback from around the world expressing perceived similarities.
Aïcha Macky: My film is universal in the sense that, everyone finds his or her own experience, but it starts from a singularity.
Chloé Aïcha Boro: One must disconnect from the ethnographic films of the past: one must not fall into the trap of validating it…
Olivier Barlet: There is the famous phrase of Sembène about the cinema of Jean Rouch “who looks at us like insects”. It should be noted that the Festival of Apt does not focus on African cinemas to recreate a ghetto. French society is deeply shaped by the question of national identity. By highlighting African films and reflecting on them together, we attempt to return the colonial glaze that is still very much present. It could be compared to patriarchy, which is also a relationship of domination. This festival will no longer be relevant on the day, still far away, when issues of discrimination will be resolved and where denial will no longer dominate our vision of our History. Hence the urgency persists, to listen to the voices of cultural diversity and their contribution to the world. Your films have a singularity with universal scope. Africa should not be limited to a category; because when that happens, if one’s film does not fit precisely into it, it is not African!
Chloé Aïcha Boro: At festivals, African filmmakers have chided me for showing our dark side: “do you want to still clench the baton so that we can be hit?”
Aïcha Macky: We must film reality so that it changes: it is a duty. We should film our leaders!
Chloé Aïcha Boro: The West experiences a romanticised Africa where everyone is in solidarity, just as Africa experiences a fantasised West where everyone is rich. One finds in Farafinko a very realistic animosity between women.
Hinde Boujemaa: The percentage of women filmmakers in the West is probably not much higher than in Africa. Jean-Claude Carrière said: “Women should go into politics and men into cinema.” He was criticising what was happening in France.
Olivier Barlet: Calixthe Beyala said that she talks about African men with guts and feelings. Nina, for example, has a film about family memory that draws attention to the body, a feeling that is brought out through a series of details. Undoubtedly while it may not be specific to women, men do not have ready access to it. Is there not in your films a vision or at least intent?
Nina Khada: That is kind of a trick question and I want to say no. One does not talk about a man’s cinema. There is no men’s film festival. We are presented as a minority. In order to exist within a normality, there is a need for women’s film festivals; but it’s paradoxical: one conveys one’s experiences, bicultural in my case, but I want to resist having to say that because one is a woman, one would see things differently.
Olivier Barlet: However, for women who are in a system dominated by men, to speak is political: it is an act that changes society.
Nina Khada: Yes, but not in relation to me, rather of my grandmother. There are many films about the Chibanis, about the old immigrant workers, but women were relatively absent.
Amina Weira: I would say that in my film, it’s a generational question. I called upon my father in order to have access to the former workers. It served as a leitmotif for me, as an opening, because the elders would not have been comfortable revealing certain things to me.
Hinde Boujemaa: I think about the course of History in the schools. During the time of Ben Ali in power, the Bourguiba period had been purposely lessened. It is a general phenomenon everywhere. I would not want us to do the same with feminism. The relative ease in our career is the result of the struggles of our elders. I felt this quite strongly at the women’s film festival at Créteil. Our elders built the foundations. Everyone brings its stone to the global construction. I wanted to say this before we are considered ungrateful: I wanted to say thank you for the freedom we have today. It is certainly fragile but we continue to build. In terms of perspective, I am a woman and I do not ask myself this question. This perspective is driven by what I feel and what revolts me. I made two films that are about broken women, and the third is about adultery. I do this because I can only be accurate about what I know! That said, in my current script, I have two male characters and I admit to having limitations in the construction of these characters. I wonder if I am not making them think like me, who I am as a woman. So I am working with a man while writing the script. I can only imagine what a man feels. This experience has brought me a lot of balance.
Q&A with the audience
Question: The women’s Mediterranean film festival in Marseille derived from the desire to highlight the work of women in cinema, not necessarily on women’s issues. Having programmed the festival for eleven years, I observe that the films are rather serious and that there are few comedies and rarely genre films. Why not more light-heartedness?
Hinde Boujemaa: The world of women is still full of problems. There is still this gravity in the History of women. We are so touched by it that we talk about it very seriously. It is not a difference of sensibility with men. I think of an American comedy I saw when I was 14-15 years old about a white man who could not enter university because there were quotas set aside for Black people. As a result, he paints himself black and is subjected to racism on all levels. When he talks about it, a black man tells him that he can remove the paint and become a white man, which is not the case with a black man. I think it is the same thing for women. We are women! There are always things that one will not understand in the Other because one is not the Other.
Partnership: This is the translation by Beti Ellerson of the Africultures Article in french on her blog http://africanwomenincinema.blogspot.com
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