Building a Historiography of African Women in Cinema

Building a Historiography of African Women in Cinema. Published in Africa Update Newsletter. CCSU, Vol. XIX, Issue 4 (Fall 2012) Beti Ellerson

Sarah Maldoror famously asserts, “African women must be everywhere. They must be in the images, behind the camera, in the editing room and involved in every stage of the making of a film. They must be the ones to talk about their problems.”[1] Extending Maldoror’s assertion to women in front of the screen as cultural readers, they must also be present in all areas of discourse as scholars, critics and theorists of African women in cinema studies. They must be the ones to talk about the vital role that women in cinema play in creating, shaping and determining the course of their cinematic history and the knowledge that it produces.


The African Women in Cinema Project that I initiated in 1997, culminated with the book and film Sisters of the Screen, a title that envisioned a veritable screen culture in which the moving image visualised on myriad screen environments from white cloth to movie screen, television set, computer monitor, inflatable giant screens and now mobile phone, tablet and diverse emerging media could be the meeting point for African women in cinema to tell their stories. Moreover, the title contemplated an imaginary community where African women’s experiences of cinema may be shared, analysed, documented, historicised, and archived.


Following the release of the book and film, the Project developed into the Centre for the Study and Research of African women in cinema tracing the trajectory of women as they circulate within evolving screen cultures, mapping a historiography of strategic moments and a timeline of key events, as well as analysing trends and tendencies. The Centre’s organising principle is based on two key elements: the work of the pan-African organisation of women professionals of the moving image created in 1991, now known as the Association of Professional African Women in Cinema, Television and Video/ Association des Femmes Africaines Professionnelles du Cinéma, de la Télévision et de la Vidéo, and the experiences of these individual women recounted in interviews, speeches, artists intentions, mission statements, and in their work. Drawing from the objectives of the organisation: to provide a forum for women to share and exchange their experiences, to formulate mechanisms for continued dialogue and exchange, this formulation may extend to the realm of historiography for which an infrastructure may be developed to assemble the disparate parts.


The year 2011 marked the 20-year anniversary of the historic conference in Ouagadougou on African women film professionals during which an organized movement was born, putting forth the ground rules for an infrastructure to represent and promote their interests. The fruits of these efforts are particularly visible in the institutions that form the future generations of film professionals. As women’s discourse plays an increasingly important role in global dialogue, especially via the Internet and new technologies, an infrastructure for research on African women in cinema studies is imperative. At the same time that digital technologies emerge as key to such a vast endeavor, it is a daunting task in a continent where the digital divide continues to widen.

The myriad political, social and cultural environments of African women in the audio-visual media provide the context for the analysis of current discourse on gender and cinema and its role in cultural policy development; the examination of the various networks that contribute to women’s expanding roles in cinema; the exploration of theoretical questions by African women, and critical perspectives that demonstrate African women’s contributions in cinema through pedagogy for mass communication and consciousness raising, all of which as an ensemble, connect theory, practice, research and scholarship with activism and community outreach.

 While there is potentially a great deal of intellectual capital and resources for research, theory-building and dialogue, women’s film history as an academic entity is at present primarily within the boundaries of western institutions, often deemed as research for research sake from an African point of view, and is not generally viewed as a necessity as other issues prove more pressing. On the other hand, film-screening debates have long been a practice throughout the continent. Moreover, cinema as an instrument for community participation and involvement is an increasingly widespread phenomenon. In general, the non-written medias of radio, television and film have always generated dialogue and possibilities for discourse. Nonetheless, academic and activist communities in Africa do coalesce around cultural policy issues, the role of cinema as a tool for consciousness-raising, and the importance of women cultural producers as agents of change. Hence, conferences, seminars and organised debates bring together women across disciplines, from diverse sectors and regions, and as more women filmmakers join academic and film departments, this bond is increasingly strengthening.

A historiography of African women in cinema necessitates an active, protracted, ongoing practice of data collection, organisation, analysis, documentation, and archival work-  an activity that entails coordinated, committed, and sustained efforts, though not necessarily centralised. The organising principles of the pan-African organisation of women professionals of the moving image laid out the groundwork for such a continent-wide initiative and the conceptual framework has been embedded in myriad initiatives especially on the local levels. It is on this level that women are the most familiar with needs and concerns on the ground, in the community, and the local and state policies needed to implement them. On the other hand, women on the local level are the least likely to have the resources and the broad-ranging connections to participate in the outreach necessary to benefit from a larger community of women regionally and continentally, which is not to say that there are no efforts towards this objective.


And while Kenyan Anne Mungai, the coordinator for the East Africa region in the 1990s lamented the lack of financial and personal resources to devote to these efforts, she implored women to strive forward nonetheless. However, with the far-reaching potential for coalescing and networking via the Internet and new media technologies in the 2000s onward, the gap has yet to narrow. While projects that include women continent-wide do exist, notably at FESPACO (Pan-African Film Festival of Ouagadougou) and (Federation of African Filmmakers) FEPACI-sponsored initiatives, activities continue to be linguistically based, with the languages of communication in English or French, often at the exclusion of one or the other, a concern of the pan-African women of the moving image organisation from its beginning.

Among these many endeavours, to highlight film festival initiatives emphasises the important role that the film festival has played in promotion, exhibition, marketing, and training and its potential as local and regional conduits around which women may interconnect continentally and globally. As it is at the same time a meeting place for pitching, networking, workshopping and sharing ideas, it is often a pivotal space where African women continent-wide may gather and meet. These initiatives spanning twenty years demonstrate the advocacy role that African women in cinema take on to create the requisite infrastructures for promoting African cultural production: Sierra Leonean Mahen Bonetti, founder and president of the influential New York-based African Film Festival has forged an important Diaspora network since 1993 recently creating cultural projects in her home country. The creation of Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe (WFOZ) in 1996 ushered in a network of prolific Zimbabwean women in cinema. Notably, the International Images Film Festival for Women (IIFF) launched in 2002, the oldest women’s festival on the continent, founded by Zimbabwean Tsitsi Dangarembga, of which WFOZ is the parent organisation and the initiator of the Distinguished Woman in African Cinema Award in 2009. In 1998, Ivoirien actor-producer Hanny Tchelly established the Festival International du Court Métrage d’Abidjan-FICA (the International Festival of Short Films of Abidjan). In the same year, Burkinabè actress Georgette Paré initiated Casting Sud, a pan-African casting agency to promote African actors. To note, l’Association des Actrices Africaines/the Association of African Actresses had already been created in 1989.

The defunct South African-based Women of the Sun organisation a resource-exchange network of African women filmmakers launched in 2000, inspired several other projects in the region, notably, the African Women Filmmakers Awards in 2003, and in 2004, the African Women Film Festival. Nigerian Amaka Igwe’s BOB TV, the Best of the Best African Film and TV Programmes Market and Expo inaugurated the next year, has as objective to offer a continental platform for African practitioners of the moving image. The African Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) also an initiative from Nigeria, established in 2005 by Peace Anyiam-Osigwe, highlights the significance of African cinema by providing a platform for recognition and celebration. The African in Motion (AIM) Film Festival of Edinburgh founded by South African Lizelle Bischoff in 2006 emerges as one of the most important festivals of African films in the UK. In 2007 a portion of the festival was dedicated to African women and for a few years, Cape Verdean Isabel Moura Mendes served as director. The Festival International du Documentaire of Agadir in Morocco, founded in 2008 by the late Nouzha Drissi who died tragically in 2011, is the first festival devoted exclusively to documentaries. Festivals des 7 Quartiers, the itinerant film festival of Brazzaville founded in 2008 by Nadège Batou, honoured the women filmmakers of the Congo and elsewhere during the 3rd edition in 2010. Cameroonian Evodie Ngueyeli has taken the baton as chief representative of MisMeBinga, International Women’s Film Festival of Yaoundé created in 2009. A key objective of the Malawi International Film Festival created by Villant Ndasowa also in 2009 is to pioneer the film industry in Malawi by sourcing and providing training to talented Malawians. In the same year, Mariem mint Beyrouk formed the Association of Mauritanian Women of the Image as a means to raise women’s consciousness about women in general, issues around health, female genital cutting, marriage of adolescent girls, among others. In addition, their hope is to organise festivals and meetings with other women throughout the continent.

At the start of the second decade of the new millennium several festival-related projects were launched in Africa and the diaspora: View Images Film Festival, an undertaking by Zambian Musola Cathrine Kaseketi, founder of Vilole Images Productions, created a space to celebrate through the art of film, the abilities of all women, and particularly to integrate women with disabilities. Images That Matter International Film Festival of Ethiopia founded by Madji-da Abdi has a main objective to expose the Ethiopian public to local and international films, especially by utilising subtitles in Amharic, the national language. Kenyan Wanjiku wa Ngugi founder of Helsinki African Film Festival wants to show the diversity of the African continent to the Finnish public in order to have a conversation informed by Africans themselves thus giving a more realistic view of their realities. Similarly, Norwegian-Ghanaian Lamisi Gurah founded FilmAfrikana in order to expose the Norwegian public to films by people of Africa and the African Diaspora by providing a different perspective that counters the dominant media portrayals of a helpless, war-ravaged, disease-ridden continent. Nigerian Adaobi Obiegbosi’s desire to create a continental platform for African film students to share their work and ideas inspired the creation of the African Student Film Festival (ASFF) in 2012.

These film festivals and meeting places, both women-focused spaces and general milieu created by women have mechanisms set in place for the kinds of activities necessary for the organisation, analysis and archiving of information, as the events, meetings and activities are often recorded and filmed, biographies, artists’ statements and filmographies amassed and newsletters and catalogues and directories published, all foundational components for the acquisition of resources and data collections.  These initiatives demonstrate the genuine effort to globalise the experiences of African women in cinema and their potential as information-gathering strategies, for opening avenues for access to informational networks and for creating archival sources for research and consultation.

[1] Interview with Sarah Maldoror, Guadeloupean director by Jadot Sezirahiga, p6