Aminata Ouedraogo
             Burkina Faso

Originally published in Sisters of the Screen: Women of Africa on Film Video and Television. Africa World Press, Trenton, NJ,  2000.

Interview held at the 15th Edition of FESPACO in February-March 1997, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Translated from French.

Aminata, you are a visible presence in African cinema, especially as organizer and general coordinator of the Union Panafricaine des Femmes de l'Image, UPAFI (Pan-African Union of Women in the Image Industry).  Could you start by talking about your background in cinema?

I entered the cinema when I began my studies at INAFEC (Institut Africain d'Education Cinématographique).  It was a film school at the Université de Ouagadougou here in Burkina, where some two hundred students throughout the continent were trained between 1976 and 1987.  The core curriculum at INAFEC was multifaceted.  Therefore, we touched on many areas, such as radio television, print journalism, and film.  After completing the core curriculum, there was the choice between two divisions, one for those who specialized in cinema; and the other for those who specialized in communication.

        After this training, I went to Paris to continue at IMAC (L'Institut du Multimedia et Architecture de la Communication).  During my professional career, I have done four films—one fiction film and three documentary films.  The first film was about the new world order of information.  The second focused on the SIAO (Salon international d'artisans d'Ouagadougou).  The third examined the use of stimulants by students preparing for examinations.  And the last touched on alcoholism.  Two of the films were shot on 16mm and two on Beta.

Within the discourse on women and the cinema, there is much discussion about a woman's gaze or a woman's perspective.  Do you feel that there is a certain sensibility that women bring to their films?

If you mean sensibility in the popular sense of the word, I would say yes, there is a certain woman's sensibility.  Evidently, sensibility depends on the personality of each individual.  The fact that we are women means that we have a sensibility that is different from men.  And then, it depends on the subject.  Let us take a car accident as an example.  When looking at the accident, each person is struck by an aspect that touches her or him.  Generally, a woman would be more sensitive to blood.  And if she were to speak about this accident, she would put more emphasis on the presence of blood.  If she were sensitive to other things, perhaps, these would draw her attention, because there are many factors involved.  If she were a mother and if it were a young person hurt, her maternal instinct would be roused, which would perhaps be different from the vision of a man.

I think this sensibility spans all spheres.  For example, a woman and a man enter a store.  The woman would automatically go towards the dishes and chinaware, or foodstuffs or beauty products or children's clothing, if she has children.  Instinctively, the man will go towards hardware or household maintenance, because there is a general attitude that men are much more handy in the area of home repairs, where a priori women are less likely, unless she is professionally disposed to it.  This aspect is also included in the notion of gender sensibility.

However, when it comes to cinematic creativity, I do not think there are subjects that have especially a female orientation.  I think women may treat any subject.  There is no male or female subject matter.  The subjects are the same and we treat them according to the message that we want to get across, for the reasons that drive us to do the film.  Whether we are women or men, we may deal with any subject, but it is true that the process would be different.

Even if we were to take into account the nature, character, or the treatment of a subject, the process would be different according to the person.  Take for instance a written essay.  When you give a topic to a class of twenty-five students, you will receive twenty-five different ways of treating the same topic.  It is informed by the person's temperament and individuality.

However, I do not feel that there is a subject that is designated only for women.  Moreover, I think that it is also up to us women to rectify this impression.  To use the term "feminist film" or "woman's cinema" does not mean that there is a cinema exclusively for women.  When there is a minority, it is always this minority which has to speak out, to protest or make a call for action.  It is simply due to the fact that in the field of cinema there are not many women.  People have always thought that cinema was a male profession.  Thus, attitudes had to change, there had to be a great deal of evolution, and women had to be encouraged to go into film.

The woman, in essence, is the one who calms the situation; she is viewed as the reasonable person.  And I am not saying this to be in opposition to men.  If she invests in the area of film to address the many afflictions that plague us today, such as war, famine, illness, she will be heard.  As women tend to speak little compared to men, therefore, when she does speak she draws more attention and her words have more power, because they are rare.

"Women's films" or "images of women" as a concept must be interpreted in a positive way, and not in a sense that will ghettoize or pigeonhole women because they have made a certain film.

I do not know if you are familiar with the filmmaker Kitia Touré. He made a film and, though a man made it, it made a significant proclamation to women.  It spoke of the role of the woman in the home, the household, as educator of the children, and he also addressed women's negligence in certain areas.  Though it is a film open to criticism, it is a positive film.  One must look at it and discuss it.  Yes, the film was an expression of his sensibilities, and though there are questions that may be posed about it, there is still something valuable that can come from it.

When one speaks of "women's films, it is principally to let people know that in the area of cinematic creativity, there are women, women make films—not women's films, but films made by women and this must be encouraged.  It is equally important that women enter in this domain.

In the area of film criticism, there is much discussion about the visual representation of women.  What are your impressions of the image of women in African cinema?

I think that people focus too much on the image of the woman.  I do not think that initially filmmakers really made their films thinking, "I must have a 'feminine' presence."  Human beings are composed of man and woman.  The woman is everywhere, so you cannot make a film without her.  There are two images, a positive image and a negative image.

Let us take the film La noire de... as an example, the position of maid in our culture, at least in Burkina Faso, is held by girls.  In Europe—though I am not in a position to talk about it in a detailed way—generally women are the maids.  It is for that reason that [in French] they are called femmes de ménage, because one thinks that housework is women's work.  Nowadays we see men doing housework.  One can also do a film where a man does the housework, and then ask men how they view the image of men.

However, in general, I think that we have certain images because men are the ones who have made films.  They are behind the camera, and women are in front of the camera.  I do not think this was a preconceived idea, it was not consciously done.

We do see African films where the woman's body is objectified.  There is no apparent reason for the nudity or the specific attention that her body is given....

It is true there have been male filmmakers who have used the woman as an object of pleasure, and that is due also to the influence of Western films that they see.  It is in the West that we see the woman nude, the woman kissing a man, the woman making love with a man on the screen.  Individuals can be influenced and filmmakers are also influenced, because we see these films on television, on the screens, and these are films that are commercialized to make money.  Films that are now being made have been influenced by these images in order to be sold.

In Africa, sexuality is not banalized as it is in the West.  There is modesty and a sense of respect.  This distinction must be understood.  Westerners think that it is because we are "primitive" and "uncivilized"—and of course I ask, "civilized in relationship to what?"—or not liberated or evolved that we don't view sex in a banal, common way.  Nevertheless, it is a question of understanding.  In their societies it is acceptable, and they do it.  In our societies, we do not.  In addition, I totally disagree with the notion that we must imitate them.  I do not see how that helps us.  When we think it is useful or good for our population, we will do it.  We do not take all from the West; we take what is good and leave what is not.  I do not see at this stage of our evolution, of our civilization, that these images are actually good for us.

Some will say that it is because it is not allowed or because we do not make these kinds of films that people want to see sex.  We can show sexuality, but it is how it is shown.  There is a way of portraying it.  To go even further, I will note that in Europe today, unwanted pregnancies are not known as they are in Africa. The practice of abandoning infants is not known in Europe as it is in Africa.  The young Western woman who becomes pregnant, wants to become pregnant.  She has decided what she wants, she knows her body, she knows what sexuality is, and she goes into sexual relationships aware of the consequences.  She lives her life freely.

How many parents here in Africa talk about sexuality with their children?  We must first start to speak about sexuality correctly with our children, without resorting to vulgarity.  We can speak with them about any subject because we are their parents.  We are the ones who have a direct interest and are the only ones who can tell the truth and speak objectively to our children.  No one else can do it for us.  Parents must prepare their children for this and not let them learn about life from the exterior, through films and television shows.  Though I am mainly talking about girls, I include boys as well—because respect for the girl cannot happen if the boy does not know that he is supposed to respect her.  There is a lot of work that has to be done and ground that must be covered.

What part do women play as filmmakers?

We who create, who are behind the camera, who want to get a message across, whether we are women or men, if we want to use women, it is not sex that should be the dominant feature.  Nothing in particular adds to a film or enhances it by using sex; on the contrary, it often does a disservice to the film.  If you were to ask people what kinds of films they would like for the youth, they would readily say educational films.  The violent or risqué films are not as popular, though people do watch them privately.  It has to be discussed because each person has a point of view on the subject.

I am a filmmaker, but I do not know if a film with a black woman or white woman used as an object of pleasure would be a subject that I would want to focus on one day.  Perhaps if I were to do so it would be done in a manner much more respectable, more subtle, without—if I can express myself in this way—lowering myself, as I have seen done in other films, and I don't agree with this portrayal in these films.

You have raised some interesting points in the context of images of women.  I do not often hear or read film criticism by African women or critiques of images or films by African women.  African women as film critics are not very visible, at least not to me in the United States.  Does a visible film criticism by African women exist here on the continent?  If so, how does it manifest itself? If not, do you see it emerging?

Of course, it will come.  Do you know why you do not see African women in the area of film criticism?  Because in the film arena in general women are not well represented.  And as long as this is the case, there will not be women visible in the various spheres within the field of cinema.  When women enter in larger numbers in these different areas, you will then see women film critics doing objective criticism and analysis of films.  It is not because you have not seen any that there are none.  If you were to attend the debates that take place after the film screenings during FESPACO, you would see that when women take the microphone to talk they do critique the films that they have seen, they give their opinions about the films that they have just seen.  Perhaps there are no written essays, but there is a critique.

To return to what I said earlier about African films and even Western films where women are used as objects of pleasure, this is not the image that we want of women.  When making a film there is often more emphasis on women than men, and I do feel that it is done unconsciously, because what actually attracts people's attention is the woman.  A man may pass by nude and it will not be as shocking as if it were a woman.  People will turn to look because it is a woman.

Women are symbols and represent something for a society, no matter what society.  Women inspire respect and consideration.  If a woman lowers herself to a certain level, it is shocking to a society.  It is also a rejection of that society.  I think it is in this way that the image of women should be interpreted.  Fundamentally, the image of woman is positive.  We must not render it negative, whether we are women or men; I am speaking of the society in general.  We must insist on this.

In 1991 at the 12th FESPACO, an African Women in the Cinema Workshop was part of the official FESPACO platform.  As the organizer of this workshop, could you talk about the organization and the needs and interests that made it a reality?

We organized this workshop because we realized that, ever since Burkina Faso established this festival, there was a female presence in front of the camera, but the female presence behind the camera was minimal.  However, we are seeing the emergence of women behind the camera, and there are increasingly more films made by women.  There have not been very many women trained in this area in Africa, and the first women to have made films are not actually on the continent.  Compared to African men, African women make films far less frequently.

A workshop was organized to make women's place known and understood by the international and local public.  The objective of the workshop was first to pay homage to the African woman for all the work she has done in front of and behind the camera and to make this work known to everybody.  It was not a workshop organized to fight against men.  It was an event organized with FEPACI (Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers) and FESPACO, in agreement with all the concerned officials of the country.  This permitted us to bring together some fifty women, with different perspectives and from different countries. It allowed us to see that, in fact, there are many women who work in this industry, who have various funding needs and diverse problems, and thus it was important to find out what solutions were needed, as well as to exchange ideas.  Perhaps you have noticed that the presence of women at FESPACO is more visible.

What has happened since this event?

During the past six you know, like any other new organization there are difficulties.  Unfortunately, we in Burkina Faso are the only ones who are doing something for African cinema and culture, and the government supports us.  These concerns must be supported by all African states and must lead to concrete action.  For instance, during the 1991 FESPACO, funding was available to invite the women because outside partners have become more aware of the presence of women and their importance.  They understand that this presence also benefits the entire society.  However, the funding did not come from any initiatives by African states.  It has to be the concern of our own countries.  They must have an interest in initiatives such as the workshop.  They must have an interest in the place that women will occupy in the cinema, so that this structure that has been established may grow and be strong enough to stand on its own.

There are still many realities that cannot be overlooked.  There is the problem of the financing, production, and distribution of films, which are the same problems that male filmmakers have.  However, certain considerations must be taken into account, due to the role of woman as it is defined in her social context.  She is a woman, she is a wife, she is a mother, and she is a daughter—therefore, she has responsibilities towards her parents—thus, she has responsibilities that are not the same as male filmmakers.

Today, in order to get a film financed there must be a lot of networking.  It is a world where one must have many contacts, or one must be known.  It is a kind of a closed group.  No one will approach you.  No, you must knock on all doors.  You must run after people in order to make yourself known.  It is easier for a man to do this than for a woman, for logical reasons.  For example, because a woman has a baby, it is more difficult for her to travel.  To travel she must have money, for herself and for the child.  She must care for the child if she takes the child with her.  That is one restriction.  Either she has children and afterwards she works, or she works and then has children.  If she has young children, she cannot be as efficient.  A man has a baby, it is not he who takes care of the child, it is the woman. Whether he is married or single, it does not play a role in his being able to go out and meet people to find funding.  In Africa, women are not sufficiently organized to do so.

There are no economic structures in Africa that invest in the cinema.  Prospective financiers are not convinced that it is an industry that can bring in money, but this must happen.  Africans must understand that they can invest in the cinema and can make money from it.  And when this happens, our cinema will not be as reliant or dependent upon others as we are today.  In addition, in the same way, the "Union panafricaine des femmes de l'image" would not be as hesitant as they are today because of lack of funds.  We must start relying on ourselves.  We must start working with our partners and stop depending on them.  We have a saying that goes: "While one washes your back, you must wash your own face."  If somebody helps you, you have to do your part.  This attitude must be followed in Africa.

What do you see as the future of the organization of African women in the cinema?

The project that we are working on at the moment, and that was one of the objectives at the time, is to compile an index of women in the cinema.  This document will include a list of women filmmakers and their needs, a list of the names of partners, a list of organizations who are interested in promoting women and their works, a filmography of works by women, a list of organizations that are interested in the promotion of women, and a list of the various festivals.

Since the first meeting, at each subsequent FESPACO we have met to talk about the association, and to support the women.  It is a slow process, it is true, and there is even the impression that we are not doing much; but in reality the association does work, and we see an increasing number of women just about in every sphere of the cinema.

We are working towards the promotion of women in cinema.  If you read the revue Ecrans d'Afrique/African Screen, you will notice that each time that a woman has done something, we talk about her, we promote her work.  However, the work that we do is not yet visible today.  The Italian organization, Centro Orientamento Educativo (COE), based in Milan, also plans to do something regarding African women.  In 1996, in Harare, we had a women's workshop and the women of Zimbabwe have formed an association.  Every time the opportunity comes, we must seize it.  Though it is not only up to women to do this work, men too must do it because the work that we do benefits everybody, men as well as women.

        And you, in terms of the work that you are doing, you are in some way a mouthpiece.  Others will know that this association exists and that there are women filmmakers, editors, scriptwriters, and other women in the cinema.  Consequently, more people will know about African women in the cinema and about the films made by women.