© Beti Ellerson 2004-2023. Centre for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema |

Centre d'étude et de recherche des femmes africaines dans le cinéma
© Beti Ellerson 2004. Visualizing Herstories: Towards an Introduction to African Women Cinema Studies

Visualizing Herstories: Towards an Introduction to African Women Cinema Studies.

Beti Ellerson ©2004

The specifics of some of the information has changed, especially as it relates to geographical location, but will not be updated as this is the original text written in 2004.


As a general introduction to African Women Cinema Studies, the text examines African women's cinematic practices, African women as cultural readers within the cinema arena both in front of and behind the camera, and in front of the screen as critic and audience. The essay explores the following questions: In what ways do African women use "cinema"? What are their commonalities and differences? Is there an emergence of film criticism practices by African women indicative of African realities? How are African women going beyond dominant gazes (masculinist, white feminist, western) to visualize the specificities of Africa and its extended boundaries? What are African women's experiences in cinema?

The broad categories for examination are: the contextualization of African women's cinema within African filmmaking; women's voices and cinematic practices; women's stories, experiences and realities; theoretical and critical practices of interpretation; thematic approaches to African women's cinematic practices; women organizing and working together.

The essay provides the groundwork for readers from the diverse disciplines of African Studies, Women Studies, and Cinema Studies to appreciate the myriad aspects of African women in the cinema and their evolution in this domain. It explores the various political, social and cultural contexts of African women in the audio-visual media, examine

s current discourse on gender and cinema and its role in cultural policy development, and analyzes the various networks that contribute to women's expanding roles in the cinema.  In the process, the reader will be exposed to theoretical questions and criticism by African women that probe the issues of identity, subjectivity, the body, and positioning; and critical perspectives that consider how African women's contributions in the cinema through pedagogy for mass communication and consciousness-raising are directly related to African development. Likewise, the essay looks at African women's cinemas as an "alternative discourse", as another way of experiencing cinema outside western and masculinist hegemony. One of its goals is to contribute to the ongoing dialogue in the areas of Women Studies and World Cinema.[1]

Contextualizing African Women's Cinemas

In order to understand African women's cinematic practices, it is important to contextualize African women's cinema within the larger sphere of African filmmaking, African cinema history, and the social, cultural and political structures within Africa; which have direct influences on the role that African women define for themselves in this milieu. Moreover, Africa is a vast continent with many different languages, social and political histories, geographic and demographic specificities, as well as religious and cultural practices. This diversity of African life and experiences highlights the plurality of African cinema.

While one may now speak of "African women in the cinema" as an idea, the emergence of African women practitioners in the cinema has been gradual and sporadic. Their visibility in this milieu has been an evolving process with beginnings that coincide with the origins of African cinema in the 1960s and 1970s. Historically, African filmmaking practices have been uneven along regional lines, where there is an obvious dominance among African countries that were formerly colonized by France, as well as in other "francophone" regions. Moreover, there is an absence of national cinemas and a lack of financial support and general funding for infrastructure within national borders. An exception to this tendency is in Burkina Faso, dubbed the "capital of African cinema", whose cinema infrastructure receives significant support from the government. At the present, however, throughout the African continent there is a general increase in film production. This boost is due as well to the significance of video production as an important medium, especially in Nigeria and Ghana.

The relative low-cost and capacity to produce and disseminate video is a significant reason for its prevalence. African women makers, who generally have fewer possibilities than their male counterparts do, understand this especially, often emphasizing the practicality and accessibility of video. Burkinabé Franceline Oubda director/producer at the national television, puts it this way, "if I had the means, I would do six video-documentaries in a year, whereas if I worked in 35 mm. I would take five to ten years without having made one film. I think we should turn towards the means that are most accessible" (Sisters of the Screen). Diffusion by television, rather than the dominant idea of cinema on the movie screen, is significant to the cinematic practices of African women; and in fact, an important sector of the audio-visual medium that is generally included in the definition of African women's cinema is television. Festivals devoted to African films also include programs for television, which give a great deal of visibility to women television directors.  Accordingly, there is fluidity in the use of the term "filmmaker" and in the boundaries of filmmaking practices; and by using the term "women of the image", African women are broadening the scope of "cinema" to include the diverse mediums of television, video and film, which include fiction, documentary and dramatic presentations. As a concept, "women of the image" encompasses the diverse means and processes that comprehend their film practices.

British-Nigerian director Ngozi Onwurah argues that at the same time that there are geographical differences between women in Africa and those who reside in western countries there are significant technological disparities that create different needs and interest that must be acknowledged and emphasized. For instance, many women who choose to work in Europe and North America do so because they have better opportunities and facilities, more funding, increased contacts and less isolation as film professionals. Ngozi Onwurah's assertion calls into question the definition of African women's cinema or cinemas as well as African women's positioning, not only in terms of filmmaking but also as it relates to their audience. Her declaration emphasizes that the cinema(s) of African women is not a monolith, and hence a work towards an African women's cinema studies is informed by the plurality of their cinemas, including the intersectionality with trans/national and racial identification, and ethnic and cultural specificities of the body and corporeal practices.

The Camera as Eye

What marks an African woman's vision, her gaze, her way of seeing and visualizing?  One may answer this question by discerning why African women make films. Algerian writer Assia Djebar who came to filmmaking twenty-one years after writing her first novel gave this response:

I realized that the woman was forbidden any relationship to the image. While her image cannot be taken, she does not own it either.  Since she is shut away, she looks on the inside.  She can only look at the outside if she is veiled, and then, only with one eye.  I decided then, that I would make of my camera this eye of the veiled woman.[2]

Through her filmmaking, Assia Djebar lifted the veil that shrouded women's vision, allowing women's experiences to be visualized and those on the outside to see through women's eyes.  Other African women filmmakers use the eye specifically as a metaphor for the camera. The camera becomes their eye, the lens through which women's experiences, feelings and "herstories" are envisaged.

Togolese Anne-Laure Folly begins her film with a poem by a woman from Burkina Faso recited by Burkinabé journalist Monique Ilboudo. The gaze fixed directly at the viewer, she recounts: "A respectable woman should learn from her husband.  She should not read.  She should not have her eyes open."  Folly names her documentary film Femmes aux yeux ouverts (Women with Open Eyes, 1994) therefore opening to view the diverse experiences of women in societies in the West African countries of Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal.  While some women remain blinded by the traditions that may be harmful to them, such as the exciser who continues to believe that excision is an important part of womanhood despite its proven psychological and physical dangers; other women move forward with open eyes to improve their lives and those of their societies, such as through grassroots organizing.

Puk Nini (1995) a short fiction film, by Burkinabé Fanta Nacro, translates in Moré [3] as "open your eyes, be vigilant". It explores a woman's response to her husband's infidelity. Fanta Nacro's objective was to encourage women to push ahead and proceed forward towards solving their problems rather than be inactive and discouraged. British Ngozi Onwurah experiences a double vision as a bi-racial, bi-cultural woman; always looking with two pairs of eyes, which she describes as being "on the outside looking in and the insider reporting out."

As the camera becomes the woman-eye [4] as the lens becomes the vehicle for expressing woman/women's experiences and showing her vision of the world, many African women transcend geographies and locations, boundaries are blurred, their positioning goes beyond nationality and country, their identities become multiple as well as fragmented. Their gazes, their imaginaire are fixed both within and beyond.

Coming to Cinema

A significant number of women active in filmmaking also work in other areas thus bringing an interdisciplinary approach to their filmmaking and discourses in film criticism. Senegalese Safi Faye's entry into cinema evolved from her work in anthropology.  Using film as a means to convey certain ideas became an important element in her approach to anthropology:

I found that there were many abstract things in my studies or things that could not be explained, such as African ceremonies.  One observes them, but is not able to explain them.  I thought perhaps in analyzing these elements, a basis could be found for them.  Therefore, the best solution is to film them.[5]

Up until her fiction film Mossane (1996), Safi Faye, one of the pioneer women of African cinema, worked mainly in semi-fictional documentary and as an ethnologist used the oral tradition of Senegalese societies to tell the stories that emerged in the films. Mariama Hima from Niger also evolved into film from ethnology, specializing in museum studies. Having worked with French ethnologist Jean Rouch as well as translating his films made in Niger, Mariama Hima became interested in filmmaking. As a museum specialist, she finds that recording objects on film brings them to life. She also interacts directly with the everyday experiences and activities of the societies of Niger using her camera.[6]

Other women also came to cinema as a way to visually document the events and experiences they encounter in their professions. As an international lawyer, Anne-Laure Folly has become increasingly interested in women's discourse, which she describes as an alternative discourse, hence, treating her film themes from a woman's perspective. Her evolution into filmmaking came through the realization that it was useful and effective. While she initially focused on abstract elements, her transformation to specific topics such as socio-political issues came about during a screening of Le gardien des forces (The Guardian of the Forces, 1992), a documentary film regarding the spiritual beliefs of her native Togolese village.  Realizing the difficulty in presenting certain practices on film to people who are reluctant to believe what they see, but rather what they understand, Anne-Laure Folly began to think about imaging differently, especially not having a film background. She began to do socio-political documentaries with this in mind.

Zimbabwean Tsitsi Dangarembga, who is known internationally for her novel, Nervous Conditions, 1988 added filmmaking to her repertoire of communication tools as another means of conveying her ideas. Comparing filmmaking to writing a book, she observes that cinema is more accessible.  To understand a film one does not have to be educated to the same extent as one who reads a book.[7] Others who came directly to cinema have used it as a tool for communicating certain themes or specific issues such as Valerie Kaboré from Burkina Faso who focuses on media and development. Her multiple duties as filmmaker, researcher in media development and general director of the production company, Media 2000, converge as she poses the question: "how can we use the media to transmit information and to communicate so that people can acquire knowledge in all spheres of development?"

Often African women filmmakers have come to cinema because of their desire to tell the varied and myriad stories of Africa. Because of her love for storytelling, Kenyan Wanjiru Kinyanjui, who studied in Germany and is especially known for the fiction film, The Battle of the Sacred Tree, 1995, pursued filmmaking over a more scholarly path. Congolese Monique Phoba, who has established herself in documentary filmmaking, evolved from radio to film because of her desire to visualize her audio stories. Burkinabè-German Cilia Sawadogo, who has settled in Montréal, enjoys drawing her stories using animation cinema with little dialogue in order to touch a wider audience. Concerned about the disappearance of the cultural practice of women singing their experiences as they worked, Florentine Yameogo, director/producer at the Burkina national television, began filming these "melodies of women".  For Franceline Oubda making films is a means of expressing herself in relationship to women; be it a panel discussion, field reporting, or a more elaborate topical treatment in a documentary film.

"I always say that women are the best storytellers in Africa," declares Masepeke Sekhukhuni, director of the Newtown Film and Television School in Johannesburg, South Africa. Therefore, this is where she starts. When recruiting young women to the film school she tells them, "It does not matter whether you call those stories gossip or chit chat or whatever; women have these stories." Going beyond storytelling, she shows that women are also producers and directors in their daily lives. They control the budget at home as well as direct the household, skills they may transfer into film production.

Within these diverse experiences there is a convergence of reasons that African women are drawn to cinema: to transmit knowledge to other women who have not had the chance to go to school; to contribute to the development of women and Africa in general; to communicate and reveal the problems and issues in African societies; to materialize one's thoughts and to make sure that they are clear and communicable; to make sense out of one's surroundings; to correct the negative image Africans have of themselves by portraying the humanity of Africa.

Consciousness Raising

Themes explored by African women filmmakers often fall within the rubric of consciousness-raising; specific topics intended for the general population or women specifically, with the express purpose of building awareness. In these instances, women filmmakers continue the role that African women in grassroots and non-governmental organizations for development have had for a long time. In many cases, international organizations and development groups promote and finance films to develop social consciousness. Distributor, Media for Development International features an extensive collection on gendered-focus awareness-building.

For instance, many of the issues that filmmakers focus on in their work are also the concern of AAWORD (Association of African Women for Research and Development), a Dakar-based research group founded in 1976. The theme "Women and Agriculture", for example, has been one of the topics of main concern within AAWORD-supported research.  Franceline Oubda focused on this theme as well in her documentary film, Femmes de Yatanga, which explores the initiatives of the Association Six 'S' ("L'Association Six 'S'"), based in Burkina Faso. The Association Six 'S' in French illustrates the first letter of the words, all beginning with 's', which describes the objective of the group--savoir se servir de la saison seche en savane au Sahel (to know how to make use of the dry season in the savanna of the Sahel). Femmes de Yatanga portrays the women's efforts to survive the desertification that is threatening the region by using alternative methods of rearing sheep.

The themes, "Women and Health", and "Culture and the Law" as it relates to religious and political fundamentalism, which are also research topics of AAWORD, proved to be quite controversial when Zara Yacoub, director/producer for the national television of Chad, highlighted the physical and psychological manifestations of female excision in her docu-drama, Dilemme au féminin, (Feminine Dilemma, 1994). In raising this issue and presenting on the Chadian television an actual procedure during a ceremony, she came under the derision of the Islamic Council of Chad, which reproached her for publicly exposing the female genitalia. Despite the backlash, Zacoub emphasizes the importance of her role as communicator to reveal practices that she views as harmful; as well as to bring forth the issue toward societal awareness, in an attempt to provide a balanced debate on the various perspectives as it relates to the practice.

Addressing the AIDS crisis in Africa, Le Truc de Konate (Konate's Thing, 1998), a humorous short fiction film by Fanta Nacro was very popular among the audiences in Burkina Faso. The film blends traditional skepticism of new ideas, masculine virility and honor, and emerging female consciousness. On a more somber note Tsitsi Dangaremba's feature film Everyone's Child, 1995, deals with the daunting consequences for the children who are left to fend for themselves when their parents die from the devastating affects of AIDS.  Kenyan Wajuhi Kamau, who works in the Film Production Department of the Educational Media Service of the Minister of Education, emphasizes the effectiveness of video as a means of educating people about issues from AIDS to family planning. Using both the documentary and drama presentations, the objective of the Educational Media Service is to take the results to the people who then see themselves reflected in the images, "when you see yourself, you see your situation, then it is easy to remember and change attitudes and behavior." Zimbabwean Prudence Uriri, a director at the Harare-based Capricorn Video Unit  focuses on issues related to AIDS and health in general. In her role as filmmaker, she sees the importance of opening a dialogue about the problems that people face so that they may be better informed of the situation. Her objective in making the documentary film, The Whisper (1995) was to demonstrate how women's organizations educate the public about inheritance laws and its effects on women.

Franceline Oubda makes films about women and their accomplishments in order to highlight the importance of women as role models, as well as a means to debunk preconceived ideas. Prudence Uriri also sees the effectiveness of involving the community in the filmmaking process and sharing the results with them; in so doing, she may assess the issues that people feel are important to be discussed through film. Valerie Kaboré's short fiction film series Nâitre fille en Afrique (To Be Born a Girl in Africa, 1993) focuses on the importance of literacy, education and training towards a better future for the African girl-child. In her view, women as filmmakers may play a direct role towards this objective as each woman aims her camera towards the area of awareness-building "she may contribute in her own way to the development of the continent."

Realistic Representations of African Women

Elsewhere I have examined the use of the African female body in African films emphasizing the importance of the cultural specificities of corporeal practices. I explored, as well, how the use of the "western male gaze" is becoming increasingly visible in contemporary African films. [8] Here I would like to examine how African women filmmakers and actors envisage a realistic representation of African women in African films especially as it relates to sexuality and the body.  The issue of sexuality and the body is appropriate to my present work as I attempt to problematize it in the context of African realities and not discuss it merely because it plays an important role in western feminist film discourse. Françoise Pfaff's 1991 essay [9] examines the relative absence of explicit sexuality in earlier African films, while in the 1998 article by Mbye Cham,[10] he notes an emergence of a pronounced, developed focus on sexualities among other subjects that had been more or less unexplored.

The striking portrayal of women and sensuality in Safi Faye's film Mossane is an explicit and daring representation of her sexual expression as she lived it in Senegal.  In the sexually graphic scene, an older friend plays an active and assertive role. This sexual knowledge is passed on to the young eponymous Mossane. According to Safi Faye, the younger girls always had an older married friend to relay her experiences, enabling the younger girls at their turn, to be knowledgeable and informed.  Thus, she portrayed this experience as she lived it, depicting the sex education of her adolescence. Refusing to be hypocritical was also Fanta Nacro's reason for showing explicit sexuality in Puk Nini. Concerned about the troubled relationships between men and women in Burkina Faso, she made the film to address what she describes as an alarming crisis. The affair between a married man and his mistress has been described variously as "risqué" and pornographic. Nonetheless, Fanta Nacro felt that to exclude lovemaking in a film about love relationships would be hypocritical. Both Safi Faye and Fanta Nacro insist that they are presenting realistic images of women's sensuality and sexual expression, unlike the often-gratuitous portrayals in recent African films by men who have used the woman's body for mere objectification, and nudity for the sake of nudity.

In Africa where nude breasts are accepted expressions of corporeal practices in many societies, nudity in films raises questions of whether they are representing "authentic" cultural practices or mimicking the sex-filled cinema of the West. In May 1991, the Paris-based African woman's magazine, Amina, engaged a debate among diverse African women regarding the issue of the body and nudity in African films. The actresses interviewed during the debate categorically opposed roles where women's bodies are used to embellish a film. Moreover, they expressed that there have been negative consequences among family members and others who were not able to discern the fictional role of the character from the person in real life.[11] Fanta Nacro's protagonist in Puk Nini also experienced a backlash after the release of the film. Burkinabé, Aminata Ouedraogo, General Secretary of the pan-African organization, African Women of the Image, suggests that the influence of western films may be the reason why some African male filmmakers use women as objects of pleasure; since many of these films present nude women, a woman and man kissing or sexually explicit scenes. Furthermore, because films with erotic content are commercialized to make money, there is an increase in African filmmakers who attempt to exploit this interest.

Ngozi Onwurah introduces an important element to the discourse on the visual representation of the African female body in cinema as she brings into question the motives behind the production and financing of the documentary Monday's Girls (1993). The documentary film that she directed about the Iria initiation ceremony, traces the rites of passage among the young Waikiriki women from Nigeria. During the five-week ritual, the girls are confined to "fattening rooms" where they receive lavish care and pampering. An important part of the ritual is to present the girls bare-breasted before the community to prove their virginity. At the end of the ceremony, the girls proudly dance with nude breast as they celebrate their passage into womanhood.  Because of its cultural significance, the ritual is explicitly visualized by Ngozi Onwurah. Yet, she is concerned about the western consumption of these images. Having already consumed "Discovery Channel" or "National Geographic" kind of programs, Ngozi Onwurah believes that Westerners have certain expectations regarding African life and culture.

This is especially significant in the discourse on the African female body in that at the same time that she is the film director, she brings into question some of the assumptions that the film brings out. Ngozi Onwurah's own response to the way the film was eventually edited and narrated, which she has stated that she did not consent to, is an example of how a filmmaker's intentions may not be the determining factor on the finished product. It also suggests that while the film has been viewed as "feminist filmmaking" in that it was assumed that Ngozi Onwurah was giving an insider's view of an "authentic" African woman's experience with her body, that in fact it was ultimately constructed for the consumption of an outside gaze. She observed that the behind-the-scene view of the girls was a much more interesting and relevant story, especially as it relates to their behavior--based on whether the camera was on or off--or how they "played African for the camera" to correspond to western expectations of African women. She has emphasized that had she had real power over the outcome of the film, this latter scenario would have been the point of departure of the film.

Reflections from women filmmakers and actors show that they are conscious of the implications of the presentation of certain images and how the viewer will perceive them.  At the same time, they realize the importance of showing African realities.

Mothers and Daughters

Relating the multiple roles of African women in the cinema, Ethiopian filmmaker Lucy Gebre-Egziabher emphasizes the experiences of many women as they take on the role of filmmaker in tandem with raising children--in some instances by themselves, maintaining a household, and continuing their role as wife and daughter:

She was behind the camera, she had her baby behind her on her back and she was directing. That was a most powerful image; it has stayed with me. To me that is an African woman filmmaker.  She doesn't have the luxury to disengage her role as a wife or a mother and then become a filmmaker; she has to incorporate everything.

Lucy Gebre-Egziabher's description recalls the image of Kenyan filmmaker Anne Mungai who realized that the most effective way to get her film completed was to incorporate her baby and her duties as a mother in her filmmaking activities:

I had to go with my sixth-month-old baby on location.  The village people had never seen a woman with a camera.  I was holding my baby, carrying film tapes, they are really wondering how I am going to do it.  I figure that the best thing to do was to breastfeed the baby, put it to sleep and then continue directing.  The baby kept interfering, each time that I started to direct right in the middle it started to cry.  I didn't know what to do, it clicked in my mind that the baby needed attention since I was no longer feeding it.  So what I did was take the baby, give it to one of the people in the crowd, and make it part of the cast.[12]

It may also be interesting to consider the African filmmaker as mother in the instances where their daughters have influenced their work. Safi Faye coordinated her experiences as mother, homemaker and filmmaker as her film Mossane was evolving in her head, doing her daily chores and assisting her daughter with her schoolwork. Her endearing love for her daughter played an important part in the choice of theme and many of the decisions regarding the film:

I don't know how Mossane was born. All that I know is that I have a daughter, my only daughter, who I cherish. And perhaps through these feelings I wanted to cherish Mossane, and to make her the most beautiful, the purest, and most virtuous.[12]

Safi Faye also had a desire to mirror her daughter in terms of her age-related experiences; her daughter and the protagonist were both fourteen years old, an age that she describes as a magical and elusive period of childhood. After a long and frustrating search, it was Safi Faye's daughter who suggested that her friend Magou Seck audition for the role. The affection and genuine love that she developed for the daughter/character was reflected off screen. As she was an orphan, Safi Faye took her into her family.[14] Similarly, Zulfah Otto Sallies was fascinated by her daughter Muneera's evolution which is how the documentary Through the Eyes of My Daughter set in South Africa, comes about. An autobiographical story emerges as the recounting is something very personal where family and the experiences of her child are the central themes.

In Salem Mekuria's desire to chronicle the experiences of her brother and her best friend, fighting on opposite sides during the Ethiopian revolution and civil war that ensued, the documentary film Ye Wonz Maibel (Deluge, 1995 unfolds. The story was inspired by Salem Mekuria's daughter, born and raised in the United States, who longed to know about the fate of her uncle. Hence, she was able to actively participate in the making of the film.

One observes a mirroring of Naky Sy Savane's real life experience in the story in which she acts. The Ivoirian actor reflects on her own daughter's experience and connects it to her part in the film La Jumelle (The Twin, 1997) by Fadika Kramo-Lancine. As she struggles to prevent her own daughter from being excised, she plays the role of a mother who fights in the same struggle.

One may explore a mother-daughter relationship in reverse, as the devoted daughter-filmmaker incorporates her mother and her experiences into her work. In the fiction film The Body Beautiful (1991), Ngozi Onwurah intersects the themes of race--focusing on her bi-raciality, and the notion of beauty and the body--using her mother's experience with the crippling effects of arthritis, and her bout with breast cancer and the subsequent mastectomy. She hauntingly illustrates the societal privileging of the youthful, "perfect" body. It is especially moving to observe Ngozi Onwurah's mother, Madge, as the survivor of breast cancer, willingly present her body as text for the story so that her daughter may explore this complex and remarkable phenomenon.

Evolving Identities

As Africans from the continent traverse frontiers and migrate to extra-African locations, issues around identity have broadened, extending to their children. While there has been much more focus on Africans migrating to European metropolis in order to work and live as filmmakers, they are also migrating to North America, both to Canada and the United States, in which they are forging other relationships beyond the "traditional" former colonizer ties.  More particularly, African women filmmakers are working through their multiple identities in their films. Some of the women are bi-racial and their dual identities raise issues, which they problematize in their work.

Tunisian Najwa Tlili based in Quebec approaches her filmmaking from the context of immigration. She links the identity of her cinema with her own identity, which she describes as "both one and multiple, and sometimes fragmented." Her hope is that her daughter, born in Canada, will not experience a similar fragmentation. At the same time being Arab from the African continent, she sees her identity within a broader psycho-geographical context: African is part of who she is as well. Rwandan Chantal Bagilishya, a Paris-based producer, has lived a large part of her life outside of Africa. Because she does not currently live on the continent, doing African-related film projects provides her with a connection to Africa. Tsitsi Dangarembga, who has lived for some time in Germany, where she studied film, longs to return permanently to Zimbabwe but faces the economic reality, which makes it difficult to work as a writer and filmmaker.[15] Salem Mekuria has lived outside of Ethiopia for half of her life yet she finds it difficult to identify herself in exile. As she has always imagined returning to Ethiopia, to name categorically her status as "exile" would mean a certain permanency. Having lived in the United States for an extended period, Lucy Gebre-Egziabher focused on issues related to Ethiopian identity in her first three short fiction films[16]. In Emancipation, 1995, Bag-age, 1996 and Tchebelew, 1996), she highlighted the difficult task of balancing the elements of integrating into the host country in what she describes as "voluntary exile", with maintaining her national identity. Because she has not lived in Ethiopia for such a long time, filming current Ethiopian realities would be problematic. Similarly, Salem Mekuria found herself questioning to what extent she could actually tell the "official story" in Deluge, set in Ethiopia when, in fact, she was not there. This ambivalence lead her to tell a family story about the events through her brother's, best friend's and other family members' experiences.

While Najwa Tlili as a Montreal-based Tunisian filmmaker examines her positioning outside of her native context, Paris-based filmmaker Fanta Nacro, is rooted in her Mossi culture when choosing themes for her films: "When I look for an idea for a film, I base it on Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, or my village.  My reference has not yet gone beyond the limits of my country's borders." After living for extended periods of her life in Europe, Congolese Monique Phoba has returned to Africa and now lives in Benin, though she still experiences issues regarding identity. Loyal to her country and intensely interested in the events that take place there, she nonetheless adapts herself to her host country focusing on issues she finds relevant. Cilia Sawadogo of Burkinabè and German parentage, identifies very much with the culture of Quebec, where she now resides. She tends to go in and out of cultural identities depending on the context. The animation film L'arret d'autobus (The Bus Stop, 1995) was inspired by her personal experiences vis-à-vis prejudice and intolerance towards people like her who are racially different from the Quebecois majority.

Zambian Wabei Siyolwe, who has Namibian roots, was raised in New York City. Because there are many places that are very much part of her identity she does not experience home in only one location and refuses to recognize designated geographical borders. Her feature film in progress, Exiles reflects this blurring of boundaries. It is an emotional journey about Dawn, a Namibian refugee brought to the United States after the Cassinga Massacre, who returns to Namibia to vote upon the country's independence. Because of her own African and African diasporan roots, Siyolwe is interested in seeing the cross-Diaspora situation play out powerfully in the film.

Born in Madagascar of a Malagasy mother and a French father, producer Marie-Clemence Paes’ identity was informed by a childhood where racial identification played an important role in her sense of self. Her films, which she produces with her filmmaker husband from Brazil, are influenced by her mixed-race identity as they reflect the diversity and richness of cultures. In the documentary film Awara Soup, 1995 Marie-Clemence Paes parallels her identity to the preparation and consumption of Awara soup, a dish from French Guiana, which she uses metaphorically to reflect the richness of diversity as disparate peoples live together in one location. Ngozi Onwurah's bi-racial identity informs much of her work especially in the experimental films Coffee Coloured Children (1988), Welcome II the Terrordome, 1994), and The Body Beautiful.

The geo-politics of identities are intricately part of African women's cinemas. Juggling within various languages, meeting the demands of different financiers, filming for and presenting to diverse audiences, mean that African women must wear different hats and show different faces. Moreover, traveling, sojourning and relocating across the globe may require shifting or ultimately expanding the identity of one's cinema.

In War and Peace

One of the unfortunate realities of contemporary Africa is the lot of suffering, unrest and insecurity that has resulted from independence struggles against colonial rule, civil wars, political strife and the brutality of dictatorships. From the start of African cinema, women have played a role in documenting Africa in war and conflict in some cases under perilous conditions that have put their lives in jeopardy. Guadeloupian Sarah Maldoror,[17] who has been conferred the honorary title of African filmmaker for her extensive work in Africa, studied filmmaking in the Soviet Union in the early 1960s. She is known especially for her activist filmmaking during the African liberation struggles. It is also significant to note that her partner, Mario de Andrade was one of the leaders of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Her first film Monangambee (1970) is a feature work that tells the story of a political prisoner in Angola during the Portuguese colonial occupation. Her second film, Des Fusils pour Banta, shot in 1971 but never completed, focused on resistance against Portuguese rule in Guinea-Bissau. The feature film for which Maldoror is best known, Sambizanga was made in 1972. It was the inspiration for Anne-Laure Folly who followed Maldoror's footsteps thirty years later with her documentary Les Oubliees, (The Women of Angola, 1996) also set in Angola. Describing Sambizanga as one of the masterpieces of African cinema, Folly regards Maldoror as a trailblazer. Maldoror's story in Sambizanga told from a woman's standpoint, was significant because of the prominence of women's participation in the struggle for African independence, "Most importantly, the participation of women in liberation struggles must be shown, because wars will never end unless women participate to make it happen." [18]

Algerian Horria Saihi wanted to highlight a different side of Algerian women involved in political struggles, other than those who are often seen crying at funerals, but rather those who fight.[19]  In the documentary Algerie en Femme (Algeria's Women, 1996) Saihi presents the current political situation in Algeria, a dramatic situation, where each day has its lot of assassinations, destruction, and massacres. The film portrays women of different social categories; peasant women who are illiterate, intellectuals and artists, as well women who take up arms to defend their own lives and the people in their villages. Saihi wanted to depict "women in arms and those who fight peacefully, so that life continues, so that Algeria continues to stand on its feet." [20]

Anne-Laure Folly looked for an "alternative discourse" not based simply on reason, filled with dates and facts. Treating the problem of war from women's perspectives goes beyond analysis and preconceived notions of war and suffering towards lived experiences, "survival, dignity and a sense of hope." In the fiction film, Des Fusils pour Banta, Sarah Maldoror actually filmed on location along side the freedom fighters. Similarly, Folly filmed the documentary Les Oubliees in a dangerous environment; since the remote area surrounding the film location was heavily concentrated with landmines. At the devastated site of post-war Angola, Folly found herself almost ready to abandon the project. Maldoror lauds Folly for her courage to make a film in such hazardous surroundings.

Salem Mekuria's documentary film Sidet (Forced Exile, 1991) focuses on the trials and tribulations of being in exile. The film depicts the experiences of three Ethiopian/Eritrean women who seek refuge in Sudan after leaving the unstable environment of their homeland in the 1970s and 80s due to political unrest and its consequences. Like Anne-Laure Folly, Salem Mekuria also views women's dialogue as an alternative discourse, going beyond western interpretations and accounts to reveal the experiences of a people who "remain buried under the busy rhetoric of disaster and relief."[21] Tanzanian Flora Mmbugu-Schelling highlights the plight of refugee women in These Hands, 1992), a documentary film about the experiences of Mozambican women refugees who work in a Tanzanian quarry outside of Dar es Salaam. Having fled the turmoil and devastation caused by long years of civil war, the women go about their daily toil at the same time continue their cultural practices of singing, dancing, and mothering.

Zara Yacoub directs her attention towards the trauma of children who have lived through the experience of war in her docu-drama Les enfants de la guerre (Children of War, 1996). She highlights the troubling aftermath of war when international attention has long disappeared and the survivors, women and children, often the most devastated, are left to fend for themselves. This same desire to portray the intimate experiences of children who are victims of war compelled Wanjiru Kinyanjui to tell the story of Gatashya, a ten-year-old boy who managed to survive while his entire family was lost to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda where both Tutsis as well as Hutu sympathizers were massacred.  Filmed in 1996 in Kigali, for a German television series "Rights of Children", Wanjiru Kinyanjui researched the events that revealed the horrendous experiences of children who watched their fathers and mothers being hacked to death.  In the end, she questioned whether it would ever be possible to make a film that was suitable for children who have not gone through war, but all the same, it was horrific for all who viewed it.

Horria Saihi received the International Women's Media Foundation "Courage in Journalism" Award in 1995 for her coverage of Algerian life in the face of government censorship and threats of Muslim fundamentalist retaliation. In the name of the Algerian people, she dedicated this award to the two women who have marked her life. Saihi's unflagging and courageous reporting as journalist/documentarist continues amid death threats by fundamentalists; which forced her into hiding in 1994. She traveled in the field with a small camera crew living with women patriots fighting the Islamists' in "the Death Triangle," an area west of Algiers.[21] She highlights the extreme difficulty of making documentaries because of the obvious dangers. Why risk one's life? Why put oneself in such peril? Horria Saihi concludes: "The struggle is not only against terrorism, but against the politics of exclusion. I know what awaits me in the end is a bullet in my head, but what kills me more is censorship when I am not allowed to produce or create."[22]

Concerned that women's experiences, knowledge and capabilities as peace-builders are not taken into account and are largely unnoticed outside the family context, UNESCO sponsored a pan-African Women's Conference on a Culture of Peace held in Zanzibar, Tanzania in 1999 entitled "Women Organize for Peace and Non-Violence in Africa". An objective of the initiative was to gender the issues of disarmament, peace, security and other legal and political matters; areas often considered "gender neutral".[23] These efforts coincide with African women filmmakers' view of women's perspectives on war and peace as an "alternative discourse" to the masculinist rationalizations that are generally proffered. By focusing on the issues of war and conflict from a woman's perspectives, African women as filmmakers are joining the efforts of the many groups of women throughout the continent as they search for ways that challenge the perverse logic of violent conflict.

African Women's Sensibilities

While African women filmmakers are eager to come together under the umbrella of "women filmmakers," there is some resistance toward stating categorically that there exists a "woman's sensibility" in filmmaking. Aminata Ouedraogo perceives the term or category "women's films" as a vehicle for making people aware that women exist in the area of cinematic creativity, that they make films--not necessarily women's films but rather films made by women. Anne-Laure Folly considers a woman's aesthetic as having a "certain understanding, perception, and awareness of practices beyond the accepted standards, the familiar views and references." However, she does not consider these aspects unique to women, as some men share them as well.

Najwa Tlili makes a clear distinction between male and female sensibility; even among the most enlightened, sensitive, engaged male filmmakers. The notion of a woman's sensibility in filmmaking often translates to the filmmaker's identification with her subjects as women even in cases where she may not necessarily have the same experience. She finds the vision and questioning different; that women and men problematize the situation differently. In Rupture (1998), a documentary film about conjugal violence within the Arab community in Quebec, Najwa Tlili experiences a keen sense of empathy with the women as if she herself suffers the violence that is inflicted upon them: "for this chain of women behind me, that I have in my genes, which I feel are here inside me." Franceline Oubda finds that a woman is in a better position to deal with the question of women, because she has lived these experiences. Even though she may not be in a polygamous marriage, perhaps her sister, mother, or aunt lives this situation. Similarly, Aissatou Adamou, director/producer for the National Television of Niger, considers women directors to be in a better position than men to speak about the problems of women: "As a woman and communicator, I have the better advantage to go in the direction of my sisters." Because women's perspectives are often neglected, Salem Mekuria tends to include more women than men in her films. Moreover, she feels that women open up more easily to women, because of a sense of shared experiences.

Like Anne-Laure Folly, many women are cautious about delineating a male and female sensibility. Film school director Masepeke Sekhukhuni sees a certain danger in this generalization since there are also "very sensitive" men, though it is an attribute that is often associated with women. On the other hand, she sees a definite difference in the way that women and men see things and solve problems. After viewing the film, Femmes d'Alger (Women of Algiers, Kamal Dehane, 1992), made by a man, with what may be described as a "woman's sensitivity," Fanta Nacro is no longer convinced that there is a specific male or female sensitivity, but rather a human sensitivity. While she thinks there is a definite, woman's sensibility, Comorian Ouméma Mamadali observed that working with her male collaborator Kabire Fidaali allowed the subject to be treated from two different perspectives which brought an added richness to their fiction film Baco (1995). Valerie Kaboré considers the importance of a gender complementarity since women have a perception, a way of seeing that is gender specific. Sierra Leonean Mahen Bonetti, founder and president of the New York African Film Festival, observes a specific sensitivity, rhythm and depth in films by African women. She finds women to be deeper, three-dimensional, with more complexity.

While Ngozi Onwurah admits that she has a female sensibility, she also emphasizes that she uses violence to give an impact on how things really happen, yet violence is not generally associated with women. Her struggle to delineate among "female sensibilities"--white, black western, African--reveals how complex the question of a female sensibility in African women's filmmaking may be. So while many women perceive a "female sensibility", pinpointing, localizing and defining it becomes more difficult. Their pause in naming it, comes from the simultaneity of their experiences as woman and African where the issues of these two identities are intertwined. So that even by saying an "African woman sensibility", going beyond the male/female binarism, and in spite of the pervasive masculinist hegemony, there still remains simply, the human being.

Practices of Film Criticism by African Women

While many published works on theoretical and critical practices of interpretation have focused on the visual representation of women in African films or the interpretation of the filmmakers' cinematic language, there are a few emerging works that draw directly from African women's voices and experiences. More significantly, African women's voices within critical discourse in African cinema are becoming visible. "Can African women as visual media producers have a direct impact on a realistic and positive visual representation of women?"[24] This question was posed in 1978 by a group of African women researchers, which is indicative of early instances of an African woman criticism in visual culture.

In putting forward an African women film criticism, is it important that it be indigenous? That African women themselves begin the dialogue and discourse? How would the discourse take shape outside of the film festival circuit and workshop environments that come together bi-annually or once a year, showing only a handful of the films produced in that time frame, or that take place within the meetings that are organized in western metropolis by partners who are committed to African cinema? Or among "western" film criticism contexts, which often do not draw from the actual voices of African women, do not actually ask African women what their cinematic experiences are but rather interpret them within western critical canons and theoretical frameworks? Under what conditions are African women able to forge a critique that is meaningful to their experiences? Is the idea of an "African women's criticism" another western formation whose purpose and benefits reside within western locations?

While my purpose in this essay is not to initiate for African women a context for an African women's film criticism practice, I would like to emphasize the significance of these fundamental questions. In order for a film criticism practice to emerge, films must be available to screen, review, and be used for multiple viewings. The established forum of film criticism practices--which is mainly written--would not allow for the specific contexts within which African women work. Nonetheless, Aminata Ouedraogo insists that there is a criticism that exists among women.

How will such criticism be amassed, formulated and disseminated? Will the spontaneous critiques at film festival gatherings only serve for the moment or are they important sites for discussions later reflected in publications? And if so, for what purpose? While African film criticism in the United States and Europe generally take form within academic institutions or culture-based circles, this is not necessarily the case in Africa, with the exception of the FESPACO infrastructure, and South Africa[25]--where, forums and film screening venues become important sites for discourse. What remains to be done after the events is collect and disseminate the proceedings from the discussions that have taken place. While the FEPACI-initiated Ecrans d'Afrique gave great hope for an African forum for film criticism, it was not able to financially sustain itself as a veritable African-defined critical text and its publication has been discontinued. Moreover, though African women had a visible presence in Ecrans d'Afrique, they rarely appeared as authors of articles, with the exception of Zambian Wabei Siyolwe, a filmmaker and producer as well as founder of her company Global Posse, who periodically contributed to the magazine. Tunisia Najwa Tlili based in Canada, made an admirable effort with her work Femmes d'Image de l'Afrique francophone (Women of the Image in Francophone Africa), which is a repertory of contacts, filmography and biographies of "francophone" African women. A more comprehensive volume is to follow, but since 1994, the date targeted for publication, it has not been published. It is important to note, however, that Wabei Siyolwe and Najwa Tlili are not based in Africa.

While its style is more journalistic than a probing analysis, the rubric on cinema featured in the Paris-based francophone magazine for black women, Amina could be viewed as an example of efforts towards an African film criticism practice. Some of the articles are written by the Guinean editor-in-chief Assiatou Diallo who travels extensively to various festivals and media- and film-related events, while others are collected by a variety of journalists, men and women, throughout the African continent, (mostly in its "francophone" regions) and abroad. While Assiatou Diallo does not consider herself a film critic, an impressive body of work on African women in the cinema exists. Even though there is not a "critique" of films as such or critical reflections on filmmaking practices of African women, the "reportage" of film events and dialogue with African women in the cinema are  important components of the film criticism process. In a similar journalistic style, the polyvalent Cameroonian artist Werewere Liking, based in Cote d'Ivoire, raises important questions concerning African cinema as a male-dominated sphere.[25]  While her arguments are not in direct confrontation with African filmmakers, she does ask poignant questions related to the nature and identity of African cinema.

Though there is no formal infrastructure in terms of a specialized group of women who name their work and discourse film criticism, an African woman film criticism does exist. African women have distinctive impressions about women and the image and their role as maker, interpreter, cultural producer and reader in general, so that critiquing the image is integrated in their filmmaking practices.

Maspeke Sekhukhuni raises an important issue as it relates to women and the filmmaking process and the extent to which they are able to express their womanhood in their films. Already coming to the medium with certain inhibitions, how are they touched by this medium? To what extent do they know what the camera is saying? How do they know when to edit? How does one freely express herself as a woman in this medium? These questions are asked in the context of male-defined filmmaking, where the principles of making films are formulated within a male frame of reference.

Maspeke Sekhukhuni further probes the male-inspired design of the equipment. She often looks for ways to approach the teaching and handling of the equipment so that it is less intimidating to the women students. As they remember the heavy buckets that they carry on their heads, it reinforces the fact that they have the strength to carry heavy cameras and other equipment and the power to do whatever else they set out to do. The demystification process of cinema and filmmaking begins at the stage of the recruitment of students, since very few women directly inquire about the possibility of enrolling. Maspeke Sekhukhuni understands the importance of starting with perceptions of women on the screen even before talking about the filmmaking process. To Maspeke Sekhukhuni's dismay the majority of women who have an interest in the cinema want to be in front of the camera, to be presented on the screens. She finds the biggest challenge is finding the right approach to ensure women's entry into the film school.

Kenyan Wajuhi Kamau questions the widespread visual perceptions of women and men that become automatic choices during casting. She observes the television shows that are exported from the United States that present a female/male couple where the man is always taller than the woman and therefore, the woman looks up to the man. She questions the conscious choice of this arrangement and to what extent it is reality or a construction. She observes the existence of this type of characterization in the diverse mediums of literature, theatre, television and film. It thus becomes fact and is perceived as reality, even though there are many women who are taller than their male partners are. Wajuhi Kamau emphasizes the importance in thinking consciously about the meaning of these messages when writing a script or casting characters for a film.

She stresses the importance of analyzing these images as the filmmaker's choice rather than reality; which highlights that filmmakers do have a role to play in the perpetuation of certain stereotypes and attitudes. Moreover, the traditional role of woman as storyteller also perpetuates the invisibility of women. Wajuhi Kamau argues that while there is criticism of male-defined works and the male gaze, there is at the same time an absence of female role models in women's stories. While women may be drawing from oral tradition, their stories may lack relevance as it relates to women's experiences and in fact, may propagate stereotypes of women. There are many stories in the oral tradition that highlight the male character while rendering the female character invisible. "So we are saying at this time in history that we need to have women who have a name in the stories."

Wanjiru Kinyanjui stresses the importance of African women's participation in film criticism as a way of presenting accurate and realistic portrayals of themselves and their surroundings. As a medium, cinema allows one "to travel in a projected world of the possible, not necessarily the present reality." As filmmakers, women have the opportunity to define their own place.

Thus to the question posed by the group of African women researchers in 1978, "can African women as visual media producers have a direct impact on a realistic and positive visual representation of women?" African women of the images respond with a resounding, "yes".

Women of the Image Working Together

African women must be everywhere. They must be represented on the screen, behind the camera, at the editing table and involved in every stage of the making of a film. They must be the ones to talk about their problems. African [men] filmmakers are never sensitive enough about women's problems, as far as the cinema in general is concerned.[26] Sarah Maldoror

Since the inception of African cinema, there has been a female presence, visible in front of the camera, but much slower to show itself behind the camera as well as in other important areas in cinema production. The genesis of an organized movement of African women emerged at the beginning of the 1990s as "women of the image" concretized their desire to come together as a larger force in order to make their interests and needs known. As a focused structured body, it may be traced to the 12th edition of FESPACO in 1991.  The objective of the meeting was first to pay homage to African women in the cinema and to make their work and their place in the cinema known and understood by the local and international public. The historic meeting would evolve into a pan-African organization of African women in the cinema, called "African women of the image".

In 1989, Anne Mungai raised the point during a FEPACI meeting that while there are both men and women filmmakers, the issue of cinema is addressed as though there are only men. Thus in 1991, a group was formed to address women's issues.  While she agrees that it was a good start, Anne Mungai, who is also the East African regional coordinator of the Women of the Image group, shares the view with many other women that it is very difficult to organize on a continental level since language barriers and traveling are significant obstacles. In particular, the scarce funds for faxing and other organizational needs are a low priority as women must also allot monies to their households as well as their own filmmaking budgets.[27] More philosophically, Anne-Laure Folly suggests that in order to organize as a group there must be a common objective to uphold; that in order to have an organizing spirit there must be a culture that develops it, which she feels, African women do not yet have.  There must also be a means for women to support themselves, of which there is very little.  Women filmmakers do not originate their own projects, but rather they are initiated by television networks or distributors, or from an external demand to do a documentary made by women.  As others have stated, the inter-continental distance presents significant obstacles, since women are too far from each other and there is not the means to come together.  At the same time women are not always interconnected, and perhaps what is more revealing, as Anne-Laure Folly asserts, "women do not have a sufficiently elevated political consciousness to do so."

Beyond a structured body, however, African women have shown an "organizing spirit", to use Anne-Laure Folly's term, even before the 1991 organizational meeting. They have revealed an interest in working together, in providing a level of mentorship and support for each other. Mespeke Sekhunkhuni, as director of Newton Film School in South Africa remarks that women search and inquire about how to connect asking questions such as, "How do we start to network, we have heard there are other women, how do we get in touch with them?"  Women often approach her wanting to know how they can link with other women to share each other's experiences.

Gyasiwa Ansah, Ghanaian filmmaker and daughter of veteran filmmaker Kwaw Ansah insists that women must work collaboratively in order to achieve the objectives that they have set forth. She finds FESPACO an important forum, which allows her to exchange ideas with women filmmakers, find out what is going on in the filmmaking arena, and make contacts so that they can continue to communicate with each other.[28] She met with Kenyan filmmaker Anne Mungai in 1997 and was invited to work on the set during the shooting of her next film. Anne Mungai encourages other women to work in "non-traditional" positions in the cinema which stems from her own experiences during film shoots when her all-male crew exhibited sexist attitudes toward her as the director. She realized that because of attitudes within African male-dominated cultures in general and the culture of cinema in particular, film crews are generally made up of men.[29] Observing this same phenomenon, Fanta Nacro wanted to prove that women are as capable of working in any position in a film production. She was able to see this become a reality during the shooting of her first work, Un certain matin (A Certain Morning, 1991), a short fiction film that serves to demystify cinema in Africa. Five women, three of whom were African, held the important posts on the crew.

Often in film schools, there is a tendency to steer women in the areas of make-up artist, scriptwriter, editor, etc. Yet, women are just as competent with the camera, the Nagra, the boom and fish pole. It is for this reason that I gave the key positions to women.[30]

This practice of support and solidarity affirms Gyasiwa Ansah's plea to African women to be more helpful and sharing with each other in order to succeed in the cinema. Kenyans Catherine Muigai and Anne Mungai work together as producer and filmmaker respectively, and are in partnership with other Kenyans both women and men in the company Sambaza Productions.

Like African filmmakers in general, Flora Mmbugu-Schelling's approach to African cinema is multiple, where she takes on not only filmmaking, but also the advocacy role that is an essential part of the process.  In 1986, she created the company, Shoga Women Films, whose aim was to develop an awareness of African cinema, its aesthetics, as well as the representation of African images and culture in film, especially as it relates to women. The objectives of Shoga Women Films as stated in its brochure are; to produce and distribute African films and films made by women or about women from all over the world; to show for the purpose of entertainment or education African films or films by women or about women; to operate a literary and film club with the intention of conducting discourse on films and pertinent matters concerning African cinema.

Anne-Laure Folly received a kind of "mentorship" from Sarah Maldoror, who had a significant influence on her work. As an international lawyer she had already developed an interest in socio-political issues and having been moved by Sarah Maldoror's Sambizanga, Anne-Laure Folly followed her path with Les Oubliées. A generation later, Anne-Laure Folly had an interest in making a film about Angola, also from the perspective of women, placing Sarah Maldoror prominently at the start of the film to introduce the journey that continues from where she left off. At the inception of African cinema, Sarah Maldoror was there, also beginning her filmmaking journey in Africa. More than thirty years later, Anne-Laure Folly shows the importance of tracing the path of her life and work, in the documentary Sarah Maldoror ou la nostalgie de l'utopie, (Sarah Maldoror or the Nostalgia for Utopia, 1998). As a mentor, pioneer, and woman she has led the way for others.


While the organizing efforts of African women in the cinema remain modest, due to the vast resources needed to sustain such a project, the die has been cast.  The Internet is a potentially important tool, with the capacity for web-site creation, e-discussion groups, asynchronous messaging, video streaming, language translation tools and infinite other possibilities.[31] The word is spreading quickly of the existence of an African Women Cinema Movement. Film distributors are expressing increasing interest in acquiring films by African women. Festivals and conferences are devoting a category for African women's films. University courses are including films by and articles about African women in the cinema in their syllabi, and in more and more cases are creating entire courses or seminars on the subject. University theses and extensive research projects on African women in the cinema are increasingly visible. All are collectively contributing to an African Women Cinema Studies.

It is hoped that this tendency that is sustained mainly in the West, will find ground on the African continent where an indigenous critical practice on African women's cinema may take hold.


[1]For more extensive history of the emergence of African women the cinema see Sisters of the Screen, which includes a bibliography .

[2] Cited in Suzanna Crosta, "Strategies de subversion et de liberation : l'inscription et les enjeux de l'auditif et du visuel chez Assia Djebar et Ousmane Sembene, " Littérature et cinéma en Afrique francophone, Ousmane Sembene et Assia Djebar, edited by Sada Niang (Paris: Harmattan, 1996), from Benesty-Sroka, Ghila, "La Langue et l'exil", La Parole métèque, 21 (1992): 24, p. 51.

[3]  A main language of Burkina Faso.

[4] Here I refer to Dziga Vertov's Kino-Eye: "I am kino-eye, I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it--My path leads to the creation of a fresh perception of the world. I decipher in a new way a world unknown to you" (1923).

[5] Sud Week-end, No. 1054 12 October, 1996, p. 6.

[6] Mendy, Renee.  Interview with Mariama Hima, Niger-Director/Ambassador to France as of 1997. Amina, no. 328, August 1997, p. 15.

[7] Interview by author, April 1997, African Literature Association Conference, East Lansing, Michigan.

[8] Because of the predominance and accessibility of films by men especially at the time of the writing (1994 and 1995), the majority of the works focused on films by men, by which the majority of fiction films are made.

[9] For an elaboration of eroticism in African films see Françoise Pfaff, "Eroticism and Sub-Saharan African Films" in African Experiences of Cinema, eds. Imruh Bakari and Mbye Cham, London: BFI, 1996, pp. 252-261.

[10] Mbye Cham. "Film,Text and Context: Reweaving Africa's Social Fabric Through Its Contemporary Cinema".

[11] Emiliano, "La Nudité dans le cinéma Africain-quand le nu chasse le beau/Nudity in African cinema- when nudity drives away beauty," Amina, No. 253 May 1991, pp.30-32.

[12] Harry Cahill, producer. Africa World Film. World of Film Foundation. 1993.

[13]Interview by author, February 1997, FESPACO, Ouagadougou.

[14] Sud Week-end, No. 1054 12 October, 1996, p. 6.

[15] Interview by author, April 1997, African Literature Association Conference, East Lansing, Michigan.

[16] Lucy Gebre-Egziabher distributes her films through her U.S.-based company Teret Productions.

[17] In their book, African Experiences of Cinema, (London: BFI, 1996) editors Imruh Bakari and Mbye Cham address Maldoror's positioning vis-à-vis Africa as follows: "Placing Maldoror within the context of African cinema more often than not prompts an apologetic tone in response to the fact she was born in France. But this seeming incongruity should serve as a reminder of the important relationship between the emergence of African cinema and the ideas of pan-Africanism and liberation struggles which have been part of the continent's history in the 20th century." p. 45.

[18] Jadot Sezirahiga. Interview with Sarah Maldoror, Ecrans d'Afrique, No. 12, 1995, p.6.

[19] Khal Torabully. "Rencontre avec Horria Saihi : Le dur combat pour la liberté (link no longer available, last accessed 2006).

[20] Interview by author, February 1997, FESPACO, Ougadougou.

[21] Alisha Ozeri. Documentary addresses the lives of refugees in Africa, October 29,1996 (link no longer available, last accessed 2006).

[21] Nick Ryan. "Truth under Siege" August 11, 1998.

[22] Network of East-West Women: Celebrating Women (link no longer available, last accessed 2006).

[23] UNESCO [http://www.unesco.org/cpp/english.htm] (last accessed 2006)

[24] Elma Lititia Anani, Alkaly Miriama Keita, Awatef Abdel Rahman. Women and the Mass Media in Africa: Cases Studies of Sierra Leone, the Niger and Egypt the UN Economic Commission for Africa, Addis Ababa, 1981.

[25] I would like to note that Africans of European descent are not included in this essay, which has been the case in general in African Cinema discourse. South African film scholar Keyan Tomaselli questions the assumptions behind this exclusion in "Some Theoretical Perspectives on African Cinema: Culture, Identity and Diaspora", Africa and the Centenary of Cinema.  Paris and Dakar: Présence Africaine, 1995, pp. 105-136.

[25] Werewere Liking. "An African Women Speaks against African Filmmakers," Black Renaissance, fall 1996 pp.170-.

[26] Jadot Sezirahiga. Interview with Sarah Maldoror, Ecrans d'Afrique, No. 12, 1995, p. 6.

[27] Interview by author, February 1997, FESPACO, Ougadougou.

[28] Interview by author, February 1997, FESPACO, Ougadougou.

[29] Mbye Cham. "African Women and Cinema: A Conversation with Anne Mungai." Research in African Literatures, Vol. 25, No. 3, Fall 1994, pp. 93-104.

[30] Sama Emmanuel, Interview with Fanta Nacro. Amina, May 1992, pp. 21-22.

[31] Such as the website, Gender and Women's Studies for Africa's Transformation, among others (link no longer available, last accessed 2006).

Portions of the text are drawn from the Introduction to Sisters of the Screen: Women of Africa on Film Video and Television (Africa World Press/Red Sea Press, 2000).

Quotes for which there are no references are drawn from interviews in Sisters of the Screen: Women of Africa on Film Video and Television (Africa World Press/Red Sea Press, 2000).

I would like to thank Françoise Pfaff for her extensive reading of the essay and her thoughtful comments.