Reference Guide to African Women in Cinema
Film/Media Analysis and Scholarship

Safi Faye's Gaze: The Evolution of an African Woman’s Cinema by Beti Ellerson

An earlier version of this article under the title “Africa Through a Woman’s Eyes: Safi Faye’s Cinema” appears in Focus on African Films. Françoise Pfaff, ed. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2004. 

By considering the history of African women in film production, we can better appreciate Safi Faye's place as a pioneer. Moreover, it is not by chance that the person recognized as the "father" of African cinema—Ousmane Sembene is also Senegalese. The time span between the emergence of these two firsts is relatively short: Sembene made his first film in 1963, while Faye's debut film was released in 1972. However, the interval between the birth of African cinema and the visible presence of African women playing key roles has been much longer.

Ousmane Sembene released La Noire de...(Black Girl), in 1966, the year that Safi Faye was initiated into the world of international culture as an official guide during the First World Festival of Black Arts in Dakar, Senegal. There she began her connections with people and places that led her to her career path. She also became aware of the importance of the preservation of African history and culture, a theme that was omnipresent at the festival and became a leitmotif in her work. She describes that event as an expression of national energy and recalls her desire to meet the intellectuals and researchers who had gathered there (Cissé and Fall 1996, 6). Her encounter with French ethnologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch at the festival was important, since it allowed her to travel to France a year later as an actor in his 1968 film Petit à Petit (Little by Little). She returned to her position as primary school teacher of French in Senegal after the film was completed.

Later, as an experienced filmmaker, Faye looked retrospectively at Rouch's film and admitted that she did not like it at all, viewing it as too unwieldy and unstructured, naïve and somewhat silly. Even as she found the film amusing, she did not especially like this display of entertainment and found it rather foolish to make a film with no real plot or ending (Haffner 1982a, 64). While Faye did not explain why she found the film silly, I would suggest that she simply outgrew it, and in retrospect found her character to be superficial and perhaps completely in opposition to her experiences as an African woman in Paris. Other African viewers who critiqued the film during a ciné-club screening and Q&A in 1979 in Kinshasa agreed with her sense of its superficiality (Haffner 1982b, 88). Jean Rouch even admitted, after being pressed by film critic Guy Hennebelle, that the film presented a folkloric impression of Africans (M. Martin 1982, 92). A loosely-structured film about Africans who encounter Paris for the first time, Petit à Petit has been viewed as controversial because of its ambiguous interpretation of Africans and is considered one of Rouch's least successful works (Serceau 1982, 159).

Rouch is often described as Faye's mentor because of similar elements in their work—anthropology and documentary-style filmmaking. However, Faye herself is unsure to what extent he influenced her evolution into filmmaking and her study of ethnology. While film critics and historians have drawn these conclusions, she views her decisions as more intuitive. Not knowing exactly what area of study to pursue, and realizing that she did not know Africa very well, Faye opted for ethnology in order to better understand the continent. One significant component of the ethnography curriculum at the Sorbonne in Paris was the use of the camera as an instrument for field research. Faye discovered that the camera was an important tool for comprehending what she observed:

During that time there were many abstract things in the course of events that could not be explained, such as African ceremonies. One observes them but cannot actually explain them. I thought perhaps that in analyzing these elements, I might find the foundation of these things. I decided that the best solution was to do film.(Cissé and Fall 1996, 6)

Faye also became aware of the importance of film as a means of communication with the predominantly oral people of her country. She realized that even though they did not read literature and books, the 70 percent of the population that was non-literate knew how to read images (Amarger 1998).

Faye learned how to use the camera during her studies in ethnology and began to study filmmaking at the Louis Lumière Film School in Paris in 1972. At the end of that year she completed her first film, La Passante (The Woman Passerby). While this student film is not generally included in the analysis of her body of work as a filmmaker, (1) she defines it as an "intimist" work. She recalls that she initially filmed for her own pleasure, but later her filmmaking interest evolved around her research (Traoré 1979, 28).

It is noteworthy that Faye's first work is a short fiction film inspired by the theme of beauty and fantasy, a theme that recurred in full glory some twenty years later in her film Mossane. She describes La Passante as influenced by French poet Charles Baudelaire's poem "A une Passante." In an interview, Faye said of her film:

[It is] the story of a beautiful African woman who arrives in Paris. Dreamlike, she notices that everyone watches her, admires her. Among her admirers she chooses a White man and allows him to dream, then a Black man who dreams as well. They watch her walk down the street. In fact, they are dreaming. That is not at all my reality; Baudelaire inspired me. (Cissé and Fall 1996, 6)

It is significant that in her film, Faye acts as the main character and uses Paris as the setting. In a very individual way, the film echoes her own experiences as a woman "divided between two cultures—French and Senegalese," yet defining herself as neither, "a Westernized or liberated woman" (Remy 1996, 34). Faye's poetic sensibility, viewed early in her filmmaking with La Passante, evolved into an important element of her cinematic écriture. Beyond the film's poetic incantation, Faye attempted to deal with cultural diversity expressed in a woman's encounter with two men from different cultures; particularly in the way they experience food (Bouzet 1991). With the European man, she dines at a restaurant. With the African man, she prepares a meal at home. They both live out their fantasies with her according to their cultural habits related to eating and cuisine. Food is explored as a medium of culture, a theme Faye also investigated later in the documentary, Ambassades nourricières (Culinary Embassies, 1984). (3)

From the start of her filmmaking career in France, Faye's visibility as an African woman was immediate. She recalls that it was relatively easy for her to enter into the profession. Since she was the only African woman making films; a lot of attention was given to her and her work. In contrast, she finds that women now have a much more difficult time entering the domain of filmmaking.

While Faye is a proponent of women's rights, she does not use the term "feminist" to describe herself or her work but rather sees herself as affirming women's rights and opportunities (Cissé and Fall 1996, 7). She looks for the African specificities regarding women and their experiences, noting that many Western feminist issues are unrelated to African realities. While stating that "phallocracy is universal; she emphasizes that there are women in African societies who want to change their situations (Faye 1984,8). She remarks on external misconceptions about African women:

It is always difficult for Europeans to see Africa, and its women, without taking sides and without bringing European notions of civilization. Today, we do a lot, toward the emancipation of women. It is a subject of many of the films on our continent, but women are not as dependent, submissive or deprived of rights as one thinks. If I consider the situation where I live, in the country, in the Serer region, and the responsibilities that the women take on, for their families and the house- hold, I see women as active partners-courageous and liberated-in relation to their husbands. In the city, on the other hand, women's dependence, financially speaking, appears to me to be much greater. (Eichenberger 1976,2)

Faye rejects Western feminist filmmaking, which has often privileged only women's lives, and emphasizes the very different experiences of African women and what she views as the more important issues regarding the agricultural sector and its ability to sustain itself. It is much more effective to present women in the context of their experiences and society. Faye does, however, call attention to the empowering aspect of a matriarchal society, where women are raised to be independent and self-sufficient (Faye 1984,4). She attempts to evoke the contrasting aspects in women's lives, for example, with the character Mossane, whom she describes as "living between rebellion and effacement." Likewise, her; film Selbé et tant d'autres (Selbé and So Many Others, 1981) describes village women left behind after men have migrated to cities in search of work. Selbé works hard to raise her children but finds herself alone in this endeavor, despite the fact that she has a husband, and she comes to understand her power when she relies only on her own strength.

Though modest in her acknowledgment of her role as "pioneer;' Faye recognizes that other women respect her accomplishments. When asked about her role as a "woman filmmaker;' she does not make a distinction between "Safi as a man or Safi as a woman" –to her, they are one (Cissé and Fall 1996, 7). She emphasizes the similar problems that African men and women encounter as filmmakers; however, she also notes that it has been especially difficult to attract women to filmmaking:

I think it is important that there are women filmmakers and it is a pity that film work is so hard and that many African women don’t get involved in it.  Women should have an important role to play in African cinema, given their sensitivity and their truthfulness.  There is also the reluctance to tackle such a hard and unstable job, that doesn’t offer much financial security (Ouaga, 1989).

The tenacity and conviction necessary to endure and survive a profession such as filmmaking also means that there may be a level of tension in a relationship with a male partner. This is especially the case when the woman is self-sufficient and economically autonomous, as Faye remarks:

I think it is very difficult when you are an intellectual, to find a man who accepts these things. They become jealous, the relationship is destroyed. But sometimes I say to myself—if you are born free, buying your own clothes, bringing your own money to get your own food, then if you are not with a man, you have more time to think about your own work. And that is very important. What a woman like me needs in only affection, nothing else. If it is possible ok, if it is not possible, I prefer to get affection from my child rather than staying without work because a man wants to destroy me. I am not afraid of anything. (Vasudev 1985, 3)

Even when the themes in her films have not focused on women’s issues, they reflect a perceptible woman’s sensibility. There may not be a clear distinction between how Faye as a woman makes films compared to how a man would do so, but Mossane projects a female subjectivity in the way the female characters are assigned agency. Moreover, it shows a very distinctive interpretation of female sensuality and a specific emphasis on the female protagonist. For both, Faye draws from her personal experiences; she reflects her own sexual education during adolescence; and as a mother, she shows her adoration for her daughter and her desire to represent this in the character, Mossane. Faye has declared, in fact, that she made Mossane for herself and her daughter to show a certain reality within African society (Rémy 1996, 34). The close bond that she has with her daughter exemplifies the important place that she regards motherhood in her identity. Locating herself within the simultaneous identities of mother, filmmaker and anthropologist, she illustrates their interconnected and the impossibility of indulging in only one role. She sometimes incorporates her daughter in her work, as in the film, Trois ans cinq mois (Three Years Five Months), which portrays her daughter as an infant. Faye’s fourteenth film and her daughter at fourteen years old were two seemingly disparate elements that Faye linked together and celebrated by choosing the subject of Mossane. She noticed her daughter was at the magical age when she turned fourteen, a specific moment in life where the transformation was distinctive and visible.

Faye’s interest in anthropology and the visualization on film of experiences in her native village has continued throughout her career. While her earlier films privileged the documentary style in order to foreground social, political and economic realities of the village, Mossane, is a completely fictionalized saga of the eponymous protagonist who is the “most beautiful girl in the world.” Woven into the story of a fourteen-year-old girl and the myriad experiences she faces at that age is a fictionalized Serer myth that every two hundred years, a girl is condemned by her beauty to a tragic destiny. Mossane is so stunning that her beauty haunts even the Pangool, ancestral spirits of the Serer. In the end, through the arms of Mamanguedj, she is returned to the seashore where the ancestors live, the only place where she may be protected.

Critics have associated much of Faye’s work with reality-based documentary so some resist her contention that Mossane is not an ethnological-based account of actual events in her society, but rather a story that came entirely from her imagination. Even the impressive rituals and ceremonies in Mossane were her invention (Barlet 1997, 11).

This was particularly striking during the press conference of the 15th FESPACO in 1997 when Faye was invited to discuss Mossane with the public and a panel of various members of the press. Faye is not very keen on giving interviews about her films because she feels that after the film has been made, it belongs to the public. At the same time, she believes that she should not have to defend her work. During the discussion, several European members of the audience insisted on anthropological explanations for portions of the film, but Faye insisted that it was a fictional account not based on factual events and a debate ensued. That Faye wanted to present a mythical figure based on ideas from her own imagination became a point of tension and was ultimately rejected by those who viewed her work as based on anthropological research even if fictionalized.

This exchange suggests that in the minds of some viewers, Africa remains a continent that can be fully explained in the anthropological studies that have undergirded European-based research on Africa, as if an African filmmaker/storyteller were prohibited from exercising the artistic authority to create from her own imaginary. For instance, one European speaker insisted that the arranged marriage scenario in the film was based on Faye’s account of what actually exists in Senegal, whereas Faye maintained that it was drawn not from her experiences, but from her imagination.

In another instance, in a published dialogue, the French interviewer asked why Faye portrayed filial sensuality towards Mossane by her brother, since this is not an actuality in African societies (Rémy 1996, 34). Faye emphasized that the events of the story were strictly a product of her imagination, and she was suggesting that the fascination inspired by Mossane’s breathtaking beauty could torment her own brother, just as the entire village had been hypnotized by it.

Refusing to focus only on the traditional aspects of African cultures, Faye attempts to go beyond the superficial tradition/modernity dichotomy that many Western viewers perceive in a portrayal of resistance to beliefs and customs. She does not offer a moral to the story but rather shows that tradition and modernity are undifferentiated in the reality of today’s Africa. For Faye, Mossane is an adolescent as any other: adolescence is a time of confusion, and resistance to the wishes of parents prevails (Barlet 1997, 10). Faye would view Mossane as a universal story within the specificities of an African culture and interpreted from an African perspective. 

Such tensions and debates that center on interpretations of “documentary” versus “fiction” and “reality” versus “fantasy” appear to be the basis for Faye’s refusal to make these delineations. As a filmmaker, she views life as the story— unlike western filmmakers who try to tell a story (Playback 1981, 7). Faye considers her works as documents, oral reportage (A. Martin 1979, 18). Thus, her films are records, texts, or correspondence, especially in the dialogic sense of an exchange between interlocutors—the visual text, the interpreters in the story, and the viewer.

Faye does not distinguish between fiction and documentary, she does not see linear progression in her work from documentary to fiction or in terms of thematic evolution over time. One element, however, has been constant throughout her career—representing the realities of Africa. Based on research of her native village, Faye highlights the economic upheaval caused by the imposition of the groundnut monoculture and gives voice to inhabitants as they recount their stories in Kaddu Beykat (Peasant Letters, 1975). In Fad’jal (Come and Work, 1979), Faye recalls Amadou Hampaté Ba’s well-known phrase: “When an old person dies in Africa, it is as if a library has burned down,” as she portrays the richness of African oral tradition and the importance to future generations that people learn and pass on their history. And while Mossane was largely created from Faye’s imagination, she draws from Serer mythology.

Mossane is a fiction film in the sense that the scenes do not correspond to actual events, although specific situations presented in the film, such as arranged marriages, have historical or contemporary referents. Kaddu Beykat and Fad’jal, while documentary in style have fictionalized aspects in that there are reenactments, or certain events created for the film. Listening to her explanation of Kaddu Beykat, we can better appreciate how Faye interprets her work:

Certain sequences in the film…were a mise en scène. So what is it that one calls fiction? The scene…was set up especially for the film… Is that what one calls fiction, or is it reality that one calls fiction? For me all these words—fiction, documentary, ethnology—have no sense. All I know is I base what I do in reality, be it for a reconstitution or for a film…And that’s what I call the punctuation in my film: the life of a village, the problems of life and death, economic and social problems…At the end of my films people wonder if there is a mise en scène or not. I think I have chosen this way, [mixing] what is [with] what is done especially for the film. (A. Martin 1979, 18)

This clarification underscores critical specificities of Faye’s work and also responds to the many interpretations that attempt to categorize her films according to a fiction/documentary dichotomy. Her style is described as “realistic yet poetical, anthropological yet with a fierce social concern” (Playback 1981, 7). Faye uses her camera to discover African life (Traoré 1979, 28). She and her camera are observers. The camera becomes part of the discussion as if a participant in the conversation (Maupin 1976, 78). Her approach to filmmaking privileges the voice, experiences and perspectives of the actors/participants, who for example, made suggestions during the shooting of Kaddu Beykat that were incorporated in the scenario. Problems were solved as a team and when sequences were changed, they were made spontaneously on the set. In Faye’s search for an African filmmaking practice, she rejects certain cinematic conventions regarding the camera position, shot or duration: “When I am in the village with my grandparents, I stay in my place and I listen to them talk, the camera remains fixed” (Maupin 1976, 78).

Just as Faye opposes the documentary/fiction dichotomy she also questions the notion of ethnology as a field of study that most often involves Westerners going to so-called Third World societies in search of information. Asserting that there is no translation for ethnology in African languages, she describes her studies and research as a way to better understand her own society, country and continent (1984, 6). Faye finds it frustrating that she had to go to Europe in order to learn how to study her own culture (Vasudev 1985, 2). In the end, she met the challenge of using European-acquired tools to understand the realities of African societies and to dispel the myths and misconceptions that have been perpetuated about Africa, ironically, by the same Europe to which she was obliged to go for an education.

Faye continues her first profession as teacher and takes up the baton as griot, carrying on the oral tradition by recording the voice and memory of her people in film. Paradoxically, her initial interest in studying anthropology grew from her desire to understand Africa, about which she knew little as a graduate of the French colonial education system in Senegal. Returning to her Serer community as researcher, she was amazed to find that the oral historians of her village could trace back seventeen generations to tell their history, and she wanted to give homage to them (Vasudev 1985, 2).  Faye debunks the misunderstandings and falsifications of African history by giving a voice to those who have recorded this history in their memories for generations (Schissel 1980, 7). Referring to the community participants in Kaddu Beykat, she describes rural farmers as the “greatest economists and sociologists” (Vasudev 1985, 2). They do not read or write, in contrast to those who interpret from an intellectually detached perspective, yet they know about the local economy and are able to interpret and understand the pragmatic realities of farming. This point is brilliantly made by one of the interlocutors who asks: “If groundnuts weaken the soil, what good are they?” And the implied response is, “To pay taxes.” In Mossane, she again highlights the wit of the villager as the griot queries his friend’s son who has returned from university because of a student strike:

“Tell me again the name of your studies.”


“A-g-…I am never able to pronounce the word. So many years of your youth lost at the university to learn how to become a farmer!”

At the present, Faye views Africans living in a period of neo-colonialism in which western film monopolies dominate film theaters, which means that African audiences have little control over which films they can see (Vasudev 1985, 2). While colonial education previously prevented Africans from learning their own history, foreign film industries now make it difficult for Africans to see their own images. For this reason Faye was pleased at the warm reception of her films by the very people to whom she gave a voice to narrate their experiences. When she showed the films to the community, viewers often stated that it was “the first time they had seen on film something with which they could identify” (Playback 1981, 7). Using films as a tool for teaching and learning, Faye’s goal is to teach future generations of Africans about their origins. The passion that she has for her continent and its people has been evident throughout her career as teacher, anthropologist, filmmaker: I do what I can for my Africa, to tell how beautiful Africa is, and show that the people will not disappear, even if one forgets us. (Mossane promotional brochure, 1996).


(1) Mark A. Reid (1995), however, focuses specifically on La Passante, arguing that it represents a dialogic mode of womanist filmmaking.

(2) Here she focuses on the cuisine of diverse immigrant populations in France. In Man Sa Yay (Me, Your Mother), a film that she made before Ambassades nourricieres,Faye also examines the theme of immigration and adaptation in the host country, and like Kaddu Beykat (Peasant Letter), the epistolary form provides the thread of the story:a son reads a letter from his mother that begins, "It's me, your mother."

(3) The attention given to these three films is largely because they have attained international recognition. However, Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike examines Selbé as an example of African feminist-oriented films. See African Experiences of Cinema, ed. Imruh Bakari and Mbye Cham, London: BFI, 1996.

Works Cited

Amarger, Michel. 1998. "Interview with Safi Faye." Brochure, International Women's Film Festival at Creteil [France], 95.

Barlet, Olivier. 1997. "Interview with Safi Faye." Africultures 2: 8-11.

Bouzet, Ange-Dominique. 1991. "Safi Faye, cinéaste à I'africaine.” Liberation, 15 May, 44.

Cissé, Alassane, and Madior Fall. 1996. "Un film en Afrique, c'est la galère." Sud Week-end [Dakar, Senegal], 12 October, 6-7.

Eichenberger, P. 1976. "Une Africaine derrière la caméra." Unir Cinema, 1-2. Reprinted from ZOOM, revue de l’Office Catholique du Cinéma de Suisse Allemande [Switzerland].

Faye,Safi. 1984. Interview with Pantelis Karakasis. Paris. July. Typescript.

Haffner, Pierre. 1982a. "Interview with Safi Faye." CinémAction 17: 63-64.

Haffner, Pierre. 1982b. “Petit à Petit en question." CinémAction 17: 79-91.

Martin, Angela. 1979. "Interview with Safi Faye” Framework 11: 17-19.

Martin, Marcel. 1982. "Jean Rouch et la memoire africaine." CinémAction 17:92-96.

Maupin, Françoise.1976. Interview with Safi Faye. La Revue du cinéma: Image et son

(February): 76-80.

Ouaga: African Cinema Now! 1989. Directed by Kwate Nee Owoo and Kwesi Owusu. Ghana: Efiri Tete Films.

Playback: A U.N. Family Bulletin on Audio-Visual Matters. 1981. Radio and Visual Series #3. New York: United Nations.

Reid, Mark A. 1995. "Dialogic Modes of Representing Africa(s): Womanist Film." In Cinemas of the Black Diaspora: Diversity, Dependence and Oppositionality, ed. Michael T. Martin, 56-69. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Remy, Catherine. 1996. "Interview with Safi Faye."Amina [Paris] 315: 21, 34.

Schissel, Howard. 1980. "Africa on Film: The First Feminine View:' Guardian, 9 July,7.

Serceau, Daniel. 1982. "Interview with Pierre Braunberger” CinémAction 17: 158-60.

Traoré, Moussa. 1979. "Interview with Safi Faye." Bingo [Paris] 319: 28-29.

Ukadike, Nwachukwu Frank. 1996. "Reclaiming Images of Women in Film from Africa and the Black Diaspora." In African Experiences of Cinema, ed. Imruh Bakari and Mbye Cham, 194-208. London: British Film Institute.

Vasudev, Aruna. 1985. "Interview with Safi Faye." Festival News,Tenth International Film Festival of India [New Delhi] 15 January, 1-3.

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Centre pour l'étude et la recherche des femmes africaines dans le cinéma