Women and Cinema at ZIFF

Close Up On Bintou by Burkinabe director, Fanta Regina Nacro, has an immense power to keep you glued to the screen. Its well-crafted story is not only entertaining but informative as well. The film portrays the self-elevation, against all odds, of a downtrodden housewife, Bintou, whose only wish is to earn enough money to educate her daughter. The film highlights her frustration with her situation and her husband’s derision at her decision to enter into business, both of which propel her towards triumph. It is a moving film that captures the plight of many women in Africa, and does so in a way that neither paints women as pure victims nor men as categorical tyrants. During the last edition of FESPACO, Africa’s biennial premier film festival held earlier this year in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, the film was awarded a Special Jury Prize.

Over 30 films highlighting women issues were screened during the festival and the response was impressive. The festival provided a real and dynamic space for women to display their artistic work and to raise and discuss their concerns and issues; they turned up in big numbers. Besides screening of films made by women, there were workshops and discussions that sought to establish the visibility of women in cinema, media and the arts. The Zanzibar Film Festival short feature films competition had a total of ten films and Bintou’s tale was the clear forerunner. However, Bintou‘s closest challenger was expected to come from five other short films dubbed the Mama Africa series and produced by M-Net of South Africa, Zimmedia of Zimbabwe and WinStar and ITVS from the United States of America. Mama Africa, a series that was quite popular during the festival, collects for the first time, the beauty, humor, fury, frustration and the spirituality of African womanhood around the continent. Each story is radically different, vibrating with the beat of different countries and cultures of the directors involved in the production of these films.

From the rich Arabic tradition of Tunisia, Mama Africa heads south through an arid Sahelian village, across the basketball courts of Nigeria, via the open spaces of Zimbabwe, to the violent urban sprawl of South Africa. Although diverse in approach, the whole collection is united by a common thread of understanding of what it means to be a woman in Africa. Mama Africa presents an understanding of this world told in motion picture by six remarkable African women filmmakers. The films in the series are One Evening in July from Tunisia directed by Raja Amani, Riches from Zimbabwe directed by Ingrid Sinclair, Close Up on Bintou from Burkina Faso directed by Fanta Regina Nacro, Hang Time from Nigeria that was directed by Ngozi Onwurah, Uno’s World from Namibia directed by Bridget Pickering and Raya from South Africa that was directed by Zulfa Otto-Sallies.

All these films are a veritable testament to the new wave expression of African women filmmakers. “Women were previously depicted as weak characters in the storylines but this is gradually changing as more take up the challenge found in motion picture,” observed Gaston Kabore, an acclaimed Burkinabe film director, producer and writer, who was the chief guest during the Zanzibar Festival.

“Many women filmmakers have attempted to reverse the previously held notions of a weaker and subservient woman,” noted Letebele Masemola-Jones, the program’s production director with African Broadcasting Network. “Characters, especially those in movies written by women, are portrayed in a positive light. Films are not only meant to entertain, but inform, and for women filmmakers this latter purpose is very important.”

While some women filmmakers have made films that were inspired by real life events, others have been made from great literary works of art written by women and fiction informed by the social, economic, religious and political activities. A Female Cabby in Siddi Bel-Abbes from Algeria is a remarkable social commentary that touches on the lives of many women in the continent. In the story, Soumicha, a mother of three children, has to earn a living after the death of her husband who had been the solo breadwinner. She becomes the only woman taxi driver in the city of Siddi Bel-Abbes. As the story develops, we see her working conditions in a job normally reserved for men, in a city where violence rages. Soumicha takes us around the city, introduces us to the many contradictory aspects of this society and acquaints us in the course of her travels with other women who, like herself, are struggling for more freedom.

Riches, one of the movies in Mama Africa series, was inspired by the writer Bessie Head. It follows the flight of a coloured teacher, Molly McBride and her son Peter, from apartheid South Africa to an isolated school in Zimbabwe. She finds life tough and the villagers hostile and conservative. Molly’s clash with the hypocritical headmaster leaves her jobless and in despair, but a simple gesture of friendship from one of the poorest members of the community inspires her to fight back and claim her place within her new society.

Women’s issues take precedent in works by women filmmakers, but they have not shied away from tackling other thematic concerns. “Women filmmakers are sensitive to certain things around us that gain prominence when articulated using this methodology,” noted Kabore. “This kind of sensitivity is necessary in our industry that is growing and trying to find its own identity. We need to bring our own sensitivity to our own stories and women have shown that they have that capability.” The industry is struggling and there are many obstacles that compound film production in Africa. “The question of insufficient funds is a perennial one for African filmmakers and it is more pronounced where women filmmakers are concerned,” added Kabore. “Most have ended up doing projects that are sponsored by Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and international bodies where they don’t have a lot of control in the films.”

The forerunners in the industry have helped set up local and international bodies to help solve the problem of funding. The International Women in Film, Women of the Sun, Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe and others, have been set up to support women filmmakers to raise funds and encourage more women to join the industry at various levels. They also help in the networking, lobbying and organizing forums that will assist women’s participation in the art of telling their own stories. Other organizations like the National Film & Video Fund of South Africa help filmmakers from marginalized groups realize their dreams. These organizations have helped make films that would otherwise never have been made, but industry experts feel that more needs to be done by our various governments to help women filmmakers realize their true potential. However, if the quality and quantity of films made by women being showcased at ZIFF is any indication, things look bright for the future of women’s storytelling on celluloid.