African Women on the big screen, in more ways than one

Lupita Nyong'o at San Diego Comic Con. Image credit Gage Skidmore via Flickr
Lupita Nyong’o at San Diego Comic Con. Image credit Gage Skidmore via Flickr

When it comes to African women on the big screen, the Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o, is currently the signifier for how far black African women have traveled in big budget film. Nyong’o won an Academy Award for her debut film 12 Years a Slave, starred in the reboot of the Star Wars series (The Force Awakens) and her new film, Queen of Katwe, about a chess prodigy in Uganda, recently opened “nationwide” in US commercial cinemas. Basically, Nyong’o has achieved bona fide Hollywood stardom – unprecedented for an African actress. Of Queen of Katwe  Nyong’o has said: “This is a view of Africa told with Africans front and center. It’s their narrative, whereas in most films where you see Africa or the Africans, it’s told from a foreign perspective.”

With credit due to Nyong’o’s individual achievements and the Queen of Katwe’s hype, these may obscure the number of recent, small budget films doing the festival rounds  that give great insight into African women as actors, characters and filmmakers. When women make films about women, at least we know they no longer stand on the sidelines – there are well-developed characters, who the audiences can identify with.

Films made by Africans initially emerged in the 1960s as colonized countries gradually attained independence. Senegalese director and writer Ousmane Sembene (celebrated in a new documentary film) produced the first feature film by an African in 1966, La noire de … The first film by a female director, Kaddu Beykat by Safi Faye, also came from Senegal. West Africa has generally had a very vibrant film-making culture, and works from Algeria and Egypt films have also garnered international attention over years. At Burkina Faso’s renowned Fespaco Film Festival, a woman has never won the award for best film, but the last edition of the festival, in 2013, the runner-up prize for best documentary went to Nadia El Fani from Tunisia for Meme pas mal, and best African diaspora film to Mariette Monpierre from Guadeloupe, for Le bonheur d’Elza. And at the African Movie Academy Awards in Nigeria, Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu won best film in 2009 with From a whisper. Filmmakers from the sub-Saharan region have enjoyed less of the international spotlight, with the exception of a handful of South Africans.

From a selection of films shown at the African Film Festival, Cologne, which this year focused on African women in cinema, there was no particular typecast in the films by female directors. Tunisian filmmaker Leyla Bouzid’s first feature film A peine j’ouvre les yeux (2015), has toured several film festivals and won the awards at the Venice Days of the Venice Film Festival, as well as, as best fiction film at the Dubai International Film Festival. It revolves around 18 year old Farrah, a rebellious young woman who would rather perform subversive rock music and be critical of the regime of the Ben Ali, than accept her admission to medical school. And although Farah is pressured by her family, society and the regime, she dares to dream, has her first sexual experiences, and pushes boundaries like any other teenager.

As I Open My Eyes (2015)

Bouzid noted that Young Tunisians, Egyptians, Moroccans identified with Farrah: “‘That’s us, that’s how we are’, they said”. As she told U.S. website Fusion: “It’s important that they see that young Arab people are exactly the same, like anywhere else. They have hopes, they have desires, they want to be free, they want to express sexuality.”

W.a.k.a (2013) by Cameroonian filmmaker Francoise Ellong, is another courageous film. It tells the story of a young mother, who turns to sex work to fend for herself and her son. While the film over-explains at times and the characters are perhaps a bit too polished for the milieu they work in, it nevertheless draws you in and manages to tell the story of the main character as she strives to separate her two lives. W.a.k.a breaks the taboos and highlights the issue of prostitution in a way that makes it more accessible and digestible, than for instance, the Congolese film Viva Riva!, which is deserving of strong praise, but delves deeply into Kinshasa’s crime scene and does not make for easy viewing. We see the lighter side of life in short films like Soko Sonko from Ekwa Msangis, as it pokes fun at “male and female roles” – will the father, who would rather be at a football match make it through the jungle of hairdressers in time for his daughter’s first day at school?

A welcome offering from Southern Africa is Sara Blecher’s film, Ayanda (2015). Set in Johannesburg, it revolves around a young woman who decides to revamp the auto-mechanic shop she inherits from her father. Blecher manages to balance light-hearted romance, family dynamics and the struggle of the youth to gain a foothold in modern-day South Africa. Blecher herself compared the film to Juno, the comic drama — set in the American Midwest — about a suburban teenager coping with an unplanned pregnancy. But critics say that Ayanda falls short of dealing with the deeper emotional aspects of the story. However, the work caught the attention of acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th) and is now being distributed in the US by her company.

Ayanda (2015)

Diversifying the image of Africa on the screen is of course not limited to African women, but as Kenyan filmmaker Judy Kibinge (Something Necessary, 2013) puts it, the film industry on the continent is still young and “women aren’t a rare species.” New technology has made it easier to produce home-made or low-budget films and for filmmakers to distribute their content independently. This means that many young people are trying their hand at the craft that many Africans traditionally had less access to – and African women are no exception.

Filmmaking however remains a difficult terrain says Kibinge. It’s become easier to make films, in the age of Netflix, but actually making money from the work remains a huge problem. Through her company Docubox, Kibinge now supports young documentary filmmakers by running workshops, finding funds and providing a platform for them.

“Every film”, she says, “is still a labor of love by the filmmaker.”

Sella Oneko

Sella Oneko is a German-Kenyan freelance journalist based in Cologne.

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©Africa is a Country, 2016