8 March 2018

African Women Filmmakers Break Down Barriers and Challenge Taboos

Photo: Deutsche Welle
Benin documentary filmmaker Giovannia Atodjinou-Zinsou.

Female filmmakers in Africa face many hurdles, from sexual harassment to the belief that women have no place in the movie industry. That isn't stopping them from telling women's stories on film.

In September 2017, the Hollywood film industry was rocked by sexual abuse allegations against American film mogul Harvey Weinstein. It triggered the 'Me Too' movement, where women in many countries of the world used the hashtag #MeToo to highlight sexual abuse in the film industry, and elsewhere.

In Africa, the Me Too movement failed to take off. But this doesn't mean that sexual abuse doesn't exist on the continent. It just isn't spoken about publicly, says Benin documentary filmmaker Giovannia Atodjinou-Zinsou (pictured above).

"Even when you suffer, you suffer inside," Atodjinou-Zinsou told DW. "It's rare to see women who will go and say: 'Excuse me, I was raped'. Even the simple act of declaring it to the police, even when you know who your aggressor is, is already a problem because there's a feeling of shame, of embarrassment."

Sexual abuse rife in Africa's film industry

A report released by a South African group, Sisters Working in Film and Television, found that just under two-thirds of the South African women they surveyed had been non-consensually coerced or touched at work.

Yolande Welimoum, a 27-year-old filmmaker from Cameroon, says she's regularly experienced unwanted advances from men when she's made films.

There will always be one [man] on the prowl that will tell you: 'These are the conditions for this film,'" sighed Welimoum, speaking in Senegal where she was presenting her film, Heritage, at a festival devoted to women's topics, Films Femmes Afrique (Films Women Africa).

"I've been approached by several directors who want to flirt with you, go out with you and when you refuse, you won't be part of their project," she said.

Welimoum told DW that she wouldn't let this stop her from making films that she cares about because she knows her worth. "I studied cinematography and I know that, despite the obstacles, I will make it," she said.

The obstacles are many. One common hurdle, says Atodjinou-Zinsou, the filmmaker from Benin, is the assumption that women have no place in Africa's film industry.

"People say it's a man's job and that it's the men who can stay late on a film set, it's the guys who can travel to go shoot, it's the men who can stay and edit when it's too late," she said. "You're told that it's not a woman's job: women must do a job that allows them to go and take care of the home."

Giving African women a voice

Atodjinou-Zinsou added that there is simply too much silence surrounding many issues affecting African women, not just sexual abuse: "Women's expression hasn't taken the way it should. It still needs to take off."

Her 13-minute documentary, La Maladie de la Honte, hopes to help change this. It's about obstetric fistulas - a medical condition where prolonged childbirth can rupture a hole between the vagina and the bladder or rectum which can cause a woman to leak urine or feces. The condition is so taboo that it's known as 'the illness of shame' - which is also the title of Atodjinou-Zinsou's film.

Yolande Welimoum's fictional drama, Heritage, is on another little-discussed topic: the ban on Cameroonian women inheriting the family property.

Problematically, films on women's topics by female directors often face double prejudice - meaning that financing such projects is especially difficult. As a result, females in the film industry have to work harder to tell the stories they want, said Rwandan-born filmmaker Marie-Clementine Dusabejambo.

"What men can do, you have to do but also add something more," she said. "In order for people to believe in you, you have to prove it, like twice!"

Dusabejambo was at the festival presenting her 21-minute drama, A Place for Myself about a young albino girl and how she and her mother fight back against discrimination.

At least for the moment, Dusabejambo's hard work has paid off. The festival jury rewarded her with 1 million CFA franc prize ($1,890) for best film, to help her continue telling the stories that matter on the continent.

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