Africa in Motion: Busting the Canon since 2006

by: , Lizelle Bisschoff & Justine Atkinson , October 31, 2018

© Africa in Motion’s core staff at the opening of the festival in 2017


Africa in Motion (AiM) film festival was founded in Edinburgh in 2006, with the specific goal of addressing a gap in screen space and screen time in the UK and further afield. The festival’s founder, South African film scholar Lizelle Bisschoff, wanted to share her knowledge of African cinema and offer to Scottish audiences a new screen experience. She felt that increasingly diverse audiences needed more opportunities to see different stories on the screen. The three authors of this piece are all closely involved with AiM, which has a constantly growing team devoted to addressing issues of race, inclusion and diversity in its organisational structure, through a non-hierarchical participatory programming method that subverts the individualised, White and male-centred curatorial practice prevalent in many international film festivals worldwide. Since 2006, Africa in Motion has been making valiant efforts to bust the canon, both in film and in scholarly work, by offering to screens and academia more insight into African women and their on-screen stories.

The festival celebrated its thirteenth anniversary in 2018 and takes place across Edinburgh and Glasgow towards the end of October each year. In its aim to be inclusive and to expand and diversify its audience, around 30 venues are used annually, including many pop-up screenings in non-cinema venues such as community centres, art spaces, cafés, university venues, libraries, etc. The festival’s core funder is Creative Scotland, the primary supporter for the arts in the country. AiM also receives additional grants and fractional sponsorship from a variety of public organisations, universities, and arts and research councils. The festival has screened close to 500 African films since its inception, reaching audiences totalling around 40,000 people, with many made by female directors.

Women in Africa have historically been underrepresented in film, both behind the camera and in front of it, both on the screen and behind it. Their presence in global cultures is still only minimal. For instance, they are still a marginal part of the barely 1% that African films occupy on UK screens. Likewise, female filmmakers from the continent have not received the attention they deserve in scholarship or in the canon: the history of African cinema is mostly written by men and focuses on the contributions of male filmmakers such as Ousmane Sembene, Djibril Diop Mambéty, Férid Boughedir, Nouri Bouzid, Abderrahmane Sissako and others.

While we do not aim to diminish the importance of the films made by these canonical men, we do intend to question the validity of a canon that systematically oppresses and suppresses the histories of African women and their contributions to historiography. This issue of underrepresentation is consistently addressed in films by African women: history has written African women out of politically, culturally and socially significant moments in the past, even though female directors emphasise in their films that important freedom fighters, entrepreneurs and cultural instigators were very often female.

In this article, we outline the necessity of addressing the canon and its shaping and shape-shifting through the ages, in particular now that the film world has finally accepted the need for a feminist approach to the industry. Focusing on historical and recent case studies of three regions on the African continent — North Africa, Southern Africa, and Francophone West Africa  we paint a fuller and more representative picture of the history of production, representation and curation of these African women’s films.

Before we do that, it is imperative for us to acknowledge our acute awareness of the fact that we are three White women of considerable privilege, talking about African and Black women in cinema, thus taking up a space that should be occupied by a woman, or women, of colour. It is perhaps significant that there are three of us, each specialising in a different aspect of women in film in Africa, as it reveals the vastness of the issue at stake and the many spaces that need to be filled by women of colour working in film industries worldwide.

As academics and film festival organisers, we also acknowledge that our position of privilege is one that we benefit from, as the films we discuss and filmmakers we encounter broaden our horizons and enable us to explore platforms to showcase the films that we know and love. We hope, therefore, that the appreciation that we have for these films and their makers —and the platforms we navigate — will help the films travel more widely and encourage broader audiences to appreciate them and admire their makers’ efforts. Perhaps, as White feminists, we can  — through the films and the messages they give us regarding women of colour — learn to practice our politics in a more self-aware and confident manner, opening our eyes to different views on feminism’s political, social, economic and cultural tasks.

A Queer Banner for the festival in 2018 at the Edinburgh College of Art (one of many venues).


Early Women in African Film History: Tunisia and Egypt

Africa has been largely ignored in global film history. At the same time, as anywhere, African women have been written out of the history books about the cinemas of the continent. This double discrimination against African women seems to have been inherent to historiography from the start, even though women’s work was often central to the very first films coming from Africa.

Some of the first films from countries like Tunisia and Egypt were produced and written by women who then also took the main roles as actresses. However, the titles that dominated the history of early cinema in these countries are attributed to entrepreneurial men, such as Albert Samama Chikly (The Girl from Carthage, Tunisia, 1924) and Stephan Rosti (Laila, Egypt, 1927). This seems to stem from the Western obsession with the auteur rather than acknowledging that filmmaking is, in essence, an enormous team effort, where the writer,  producer and actors are crucial throughout the entire process. Indeed, the fates of Haidee Chikly, who wrote and acted in The Girl from Carthage, and Aziza Amir, who produced and acted in Laila, are symptomatic of countless women being excluded from film historiography globally.

These first films from Northern Africa are women-centred narratives, as is evident from the titles. They were written and produced by women, and both follow female protagonists. The Girl from Carthage (1924) is the story of the impossible love between a poor teacher and a girl, whose father has promised her to the son of a rich sheikh. After the wedding, the young woman decides to flee with her poor beloved, but her husband’s family follows them and kills her lover to safeguard the husband’s honour. In a tragic turn of events, the female protagonist then commits suicide.

Very similarly, the role of an underprivileged woman is the central theme of the first Egyptian film, Laila (1927). Written, produced and acted by Aziza Amir and her own production company, Isis Films, it is one of the first Egyptian films to include the motif of the belly dance. Set in Memphis, an oasis in Upper Egypt, Laila and Ahmed love each other passionately and decide to marry. In their enthusiasm for the future, Laila falls pregnant before the wedding. In the meantime, Ahmed is seduced by a tourist and abandons Laila. When her pregnancy becomes public knowledge, she is also left by the rest of her community and is expelled from the oasis. She ends up in a car accident and sustains severe injuries, which  after she gives birth to her baby  turn out to be fatal.

As such, women’s stories in these early African films, as written and told by women, reveal the problematic and oppressive circumstances to which women fell victim. This is not only true regarding the narratives, but also for the journeys of the films, from production and distribution to exhibition. The active and creative women behind these stories are forgotten except for their roles as enchanting and exotic actresses rather than for their writing of stories that deal with the abhorrent circumstances of their gender. Instead, they are more often seen in films as the embodiment of a nationalist tendency exalting the symbolic role of men as heads of the family and of the nation, and of women as figures whose lives are devoid of meaning except in the service of the man and the nation’s identity, and usually in films by male directors who gain respect and admiration due to their auteur status. Women too often become representative of Mother Africa, in films as well as in ‘critical’ writing on the films, for example, in the work of Roy Armes (2006)  and Ken Harrow (2007), but also Manthia Diawara (1992) and Frank Ukadike (1994 & 2002).

What we aim to show through our work is that women have always been present in the industry as well as on the screen, yet were erased from the film industry as entrepreneurs and creative professionals. This increased of course with the popularity and financial success of the studio systems in various countries, where the financial gain was and remains the privilege of men and male directors, while women’s labour continues to be marginalised and underappreciated. We could consider here, for example, the work of Algerian-born American film editor Thelma Schoonmaker who has worked with director Martin Scorsese for over 50 years, while it is, of course, Scorsese who enjoys international acclaim as a great auteur.

Entrance to AiM’s central venue in Edinburgh, Filmhouse Cinema, 2017.


Waves of Change: The 1960s and onwards

Arguably, one of the most important, transitional periods in film history is the end of the 1960s. With the revolutionary waves of 1968, circumstances for filmmakers changed dramatically, due to the convergence of the Third Cinema movement, the New Arab Cinema manifesto, the first waves of feminism in film studies, and an increasing tendency in the work of post-colonial African filmmakers to be feminist in their Marxist, anti-imperialist stance. The Third Cinema manifesto, entitled ‘Toward a Third Cinema’, was proposed by Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino in 1969, calling for a revolutionary cinema aimed at decolonising oppressed cultures. This raised interest in the urgency of representing liberation struggles on the screen and celebrated guerrilla or underground filmmaking. However, Third Cinema neglected to pay attention to women’s roles in the liberation struggles and women’s stories on screen. This is something proponents of the New Arab Cinema (1967-1968) recognised. Indeed, as New Arab Cinema moved away from the classic melodrama and studio films, making films increasingly in the lived reality of its subjects, the movement also paid much more attention to women and women’s stories, specifically through the roles of women behind the camera, by supporting and collaborating with women writers, producers and directors.

Likewise, postcolonial African cinema revealed a particularly lively strand of feminist filmmaking in francophone West Africa, though the most famous titles were typically directed by men. The interest of some of the most canonised male filmmakers, like Sembene and Mambety, in women’s stories, in their strong presence on the screen and in the way in which female emancipation is inextricably linked to national development, has often been described as a feminist approach in African filmmaking. (see, for example, Murphy 2000 & Dovey 2012) Centralising women, and acknowledging that progress in Africa rests on the progress in women’s social roles, these narratives project the future of Africa as female through a sustained criticism of tyranny and patriarchal cultures.

The development of homegrown cinema in Lusophone Africa (the ex-Portuguese colonies of Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Sao Tome and Principe) is often aligned with Third Cinema, as these countries share the legacy of a harsh colonial reign, extreme poverty and revolutionary movements for independence. (Andrade-Watkins 1999: 178) Film production there was regarded as a powerful tool in the liberation struggles and a vital component in the documentation, education and dissemination of information about the liberation wars. These film documentation efforts, in which women played an active part, were supported by the international community of filmmakers, especially those from the USSR, as the concept of ‘guerrilla filmmaking’ developed out of the socialist and Marxist-inspired ideals of Third Cinema, which they held dear. Indeed, many of the pioneering African filmmakers, including Sembène, Sarah Maldoror and Souleymane Cissé, studied filmmaking in Moscow which undoubtedly contributed to shaping their revolutionary ideologies.

In the 1970s, Guadeloupean-born filmmaker Sarah Maldoror, the wife of the Angolan revolutionary Mario Pinto de Andrade, made a significant contribution to the film industries of Angola and Mozambique. Her films often focus on the role of women in the liberation struggles. Maldoror started her career in filmmaking during the years of African independence wars, so it comes as no surprise that her work displays her deep commitment to the history of the liberation of African peoples. Before her main feature film, Sambizanga (1972), was completed, she made a short film Monangambee (1970) in Algeria. It features an African political activist imprisoned by the Portuguese. Both Monangambee and Sambizanga were adapted from stories by the Angolan novelist Luandino Vieira. Sambizanga is a classic African film that has been widely taught, discussed and analysed by African film historians and scholars, and was central to the development of African cinema. (see, for example, Diawara 1992 & Ukadike 1994) Despite its importance, it is unfortunately very difficult to view, especially in English, with only a couple of 16mm prints of the film available and no digital copy. The film’s title refers to the name of a musseques (ghetto) on the outskirts of Luanda, though it was shot in the People’s Republic of the Congo. Maldoror could not work on location in Angola which was still at the time fighting for its independence.

The film’s story of the disappearance of and search for Domingos Xavier is set 1961. The protagonist, an Angolan construction worker, is arrested by the colonial secret police, tortured and finally killed when he refuses to betray a White comrade who joined the anti-colonial struggle. The narrative then follows the path of Xavier’s wife, Maria, as she goes from village to village with her baby on her back in a frantic search to find him. As the film charts Maria’s journey and her gradual political awakening, it centralises the position of women in times of conflict and war. A similar focus on female experiences permeated other screen stories made by African women at that time.

This is most notably visible in the work of the Senegalese director Safi Faye, who made her debut short, La Passante (1972) in Paris but is generally credited as the first Black female filmmaker from sub-Saharan Africa. Sadly, many of Faye’s films remain largely unseen, and while many scholars mention her work, it is still not readily available for viewing. Her first feature-length film made in Senegal, Kaddu Beykat which appeared in 1975, was produced with funding from the French Ministry of Cooperation. It has been noted as the first commercially distributed feature film directed by a Black woman from sub-Saharan Africa. However, on its release the film was banned in Senegal because of its critique of government agricultural policies.

Faye should be recognised as a pioneer and one of the most significant directors from the region, on a par with her compatriots Ousmane Sembène and Djibril Diop Mambéty. If Sembène is called the Father of African cinema, she really should be known much more widely as the Mother of African cinema. Yet, very few scholars worldwide, other than those specialising in African cinema, are aware of her work.

Faye studied ethnology at the Sorbonne and film at the Louis Lumière Film School in France, eventually gaining a doctorate in ethnology in France. Her initiation into cinema came with acting experiences in a film by French ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch, who at the time worked in West Africa. After her graduation, she has made three feature films, including Kaddu Beykat, Fad’jal (1979), and Mossane (1996), and more than ten documentaries drawing on African cultural, economic and political life. The findings of the ethnology research she did with her ethnic group, the Serer people, inspired Kaddu Beykat and Fad’jal. Faye’s films mostly address a rural milieu and emphasise the central role that women play in traditional village communities. Most of Faye’s films, including the documentaries Selbé et tant d’autres/Selbe: One Among Many (1982) and Testito (1989), as well as the fiction film Mossane place women at the centre of the narrative and focus on the day-to-day realities of women’s lives.

The fact that Faye entered filmmaking through ethnology, anthropology and teaching is indicative of the interdisciplinarity that quite possibly breeds awareness of social roles and related inequalities that many female African filmmakers bring to cinema. According to Melissa Thackway ‘Faye combines women’s concerns and a powerful female voice with her own cultural sensibilities, creating a distinctive and highly personal style that reflects both her dual female and African perspectives’. (2003: 156) This duality is not incongruous in the director’s work but is, in fact, the result of two interrelated perspectives that position her firmly as a female African director highly conscious of the importance of complementary gender roles in African society.

Faye’s Mossane (1996) is a seminal film in the history and development of women’s filmmaking in sub-Saharan Africa. It is Faye’s last film, and unusual as a feature fiction film amongst her oeuvre of mostly ethnographic documentaries and docu-fiction. It was included in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, screened at FESPACO in 1997 and released in France in 1998 but has not been widely seen, especially in the anglophone world. Because of its historical and critical importance, however, it has been widely written about and referenced in African film scholarship (see, for example, Thackway 2002, Ukadike 2002 & Ellerson in Pfaff 2004); its significance within Faye’s career, within histories of African women’s filmmaking and African filmmaking as a whole, securing its place in African film historiography.

The film tells the story of Mossane, a 14-year-old girl coming of age in a Serer village in Senegal. Her name is derived from the Serer word ‘moss’ which means beauty, purity, innocence or virtue. Indeed, Mossane’s beauty is so extraordinary and ethereal that humans, nature and the ancestral spirits of the metaphysical plane are all infatuated with her. Even Mossane’s own brother, Ngor, is enthralled by her beauty. Mossane is in love with a poor student, Fara, who has temporarily returned to the village because of university strikes, but at birth she was promised to Diogoye, a well-to-do young man from the village working in France. Mossane’s mother is insisting on the marriage taking place because of the financial benefits it would bring to the family, and Mossane’s rebellion against the impending wedding results in her tragic fate as she drowns in the river by the village, seemingly preferring death to an unwanted marriage.

The film, then, is broadly about intergenerational conflict, the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship, and the coming-of-age of a young woman who is claiming her own agency and independence from parental control. If read in this way, Mossane could be representative of a young teenage girl anywhere in the world. But while these are universal themes, the film is also set in a specifically African lifeworld, with depictions of traditional rituals, highly metaphorical and proverbial dialogue, and metaphysical and spiritual narrative interlocutions that render it mythical and poetic.

The production of the film started in 1990, but it took six years from shooting to post-production due to a legal battle with the producer that Faye has referenced in numerous interviews. Faye entrusted the financial aspects of the film to a French accountant who, without her knowledge, took over the rights to the film. It took a six-year court battle for Faye to regain the rights, a struggle that left her depressed and emotionally exhausted. She mentioned in an interview with Frank Ukadike: ‘I had to fight a lot to save my last film, Mossane, and now I have no more ideas. I am afraid to make films again’ (2002: 31) — a statement that perhaps explains her absence from the African filmmaking landscape since.

Faye also said that the film was saved by the fact that it was shot in its entirety in 1990 when the main actress was 14-years-old. By the time the legal issues were resolved, and the film finally released, the actress was 20. When Frank Ukadike interviewed Safi Faye about Mossane in 1997 at FESPACO, he asked whether the film had received a cinematic release. After its festival screenings at Cannes and FESPACO, it was released in France in 1998, Trigon in Switzerland organised a commercial run in 1996-7, and Ousmane Sembene’s company distributed the film in Africa. Ukadike attempted to push her about further distribution, but she was evasive and philosophical:

‘Perhaps it is better for me to wait. People can inquire about the film or offer proposals for distribution, but I will exercise some degree of restraint. Remember that I created the story and invented the spirits; nobody can see spirits or represent spirits, so when you show them in a film, maybe the spirit will find a way to bring something good for the future. For me, spirits do not belong to this world, and if they come, heads must bow’. (Faye in Ukadike 2002: 37)

The particularly complex production and distribution histories of Maldoror’s, Faye’s and others’ work were part of the impetus behind the Africa’s Lost Classics (ALC) project, run by the Africa in Motion (AiM) film festival. Through our experience of attempting to screen some of these important but often never-seen films, we became dedicated to a revision of the canon—if there is such a thing—of African cinema, addressing gaps and ignorance inherent to a neglected history. Festivals serve several purposes, one of which is to open audiences’ minds and eyes to the long legacy of the new films they watch in the festive atmosphere. AiM, therefore, takes on a crucial position on the UK’s festivals circuit with its intention to address lacunas on our screens.

Nollywood Night at Africa in Motion 2018. From left to right: Director/producer Tope Oshin, director Blessing Egbe, actress Funlola Aofiyebi-Raimi.


Africa’s Lost Classics: Giving African Women Filmmakers the Visibility They Deserve

Africa in Motion film festival reflects the diversity in society and culture, opening up the world to audiences and garnering insight into different, more challenging types of storytelling. Since 2006, AiM has, therefore, been dedicated not only to showcasing the best of contemporary African films but has also always focused on women’s films and screening historically important films that reveal the development of African cinema more broadly. The 2017-2018 Africa’s Lost Classics (ALC) project, managed by Africa in Motion, was a crucial part of this effort, as it consolidated more than a decade of work to open eyes and minds to African cinema, with a specific focus on women’s films.

The ALC reflects our interest in addressing the canon and rewriting history to respect and appreciate the work women have done in African cinema, both on the screen and behind it, as well as in critical writing. While we acknowledge and celebrate the efforts of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation and its devotion to restoration, so far, its catalogue consists of the canonical work only by male filmmakers, including, for example, Ousmane Sembène (Black Girl), Djibril Diop Mambéty (Touki Bouki), and Shadi Abdel Salam (Al-Mummia: The Night of Counting the Years). Although we are fully aware of the necessity of restoring these films before they get lost in the archives, with our project we hope to go beyond the canon and show a more exciting and unique history of film through our focus on women’s work.

So far, we have restored, subtitled and digitised three essential women’s films. We would call them feminist films, because of their resolute female point of view and focus on women’s rights and stories. This term, however, might not be applied to all the films by their makers and other critics, due to the contentious history of the development of feminism on the African continent, sometimes regarded as a ‘Western’ invention. The three films are Fatma 75 (1976) from Tunisia, directed by Selma Baccar, Ingrid Sinclair’s Zimbabwean film Flame (1996) and the above-mentioned Mossane by Safi Faye. Fatma 75 in many ways responds to history’s demands for naming trailblazers; it is the first feature-length film by a woman from North Africa or the Maghreb. So does Flame as the first film made in post-independence Zimbabwe that addresses the role of female freedom fighters in the Rhodesian Bush War, serving as an essential tribute to female guerrilla fighters. Mossane, on the other hand, is important not for being the first but for being a defining piece of female fictional filmmaking from Western Africa.

After what at times was a challenging search, the films were located in different archives across the African continent and in France. The three filmmakers were contacted and asked for the rights to work on the films, and all three opted to work on the films themselves, with trusted technicians: Fatma 75 was restored, subtitled and digitised in Tunisia by the Gammarth Studios in close collaboration with 74-year old Selma Baccar; Mossane was subtitled and restored at Titra Studio in Paris, under the supervision of 75-year-old Safi Faye; and Flame was digitised in South Africa at the Refinery Post Production facility in Johannesburg. These early films created shockwaves and were banned, censored or simply disappeared. In spite or precisely because of the disappearance or neglect of these films, they entered African film history with a mythological status: they are films everyone talks about, but very few have seen. We have already briefly discussed Mossane, but what about the other two films? How were they made? Why were all three titles regarded as controversial? What follows are our stories of these films and how we made them available to the larger public.

Fatma 75 has its own very particular story of becoming banned and lost after it was first passed by the Tunisian censor and received funding from the state. Officially, the film was not exhibited due to a sequence in which the filmmaker records a sexual education lesson at a secondary school in Tunisia, where two French instructors dryly educate their students on the reproductive system of men and women, in a professional manner. However, because of Tunisia’s contemporary liberties which allowed for the predominance of sensuous narratives in its cinema, it is much more likely that the film was banned because of its engagement with historically significant feminist activists and political, anti-establishment voices that were given time and space in the film. Whatever the case, the film was not shown in Tunisia until 2006 but did make its way out of the country and was screened once in the Netherlands, at a feminist film festival organised by the Cinemien Feministisch Filmkollektief (Cinemien Feminist Film Collective). It, therefore, has existed only with Dutch subtitles for a long time.

When Stefanie Van de Peer, whose mother tongue is Dutch, visited Selma Baccar in Tunis in 2012, she was able to see the film in the company of the filmmaker, from a DVD in poor condition, with Dutch subtitles, gifted to the filmmaker by the Cinemien Feminist Film Collective. With the film very often being mentioned in academic work on Tunisian cinema, but never being discussed in any detail because of its unavailability, Stefanie managed to establish a relationship with the film and with the director. This eventually led to the restoration and the film’s new life with English subtitles, travelling along the film festival circuit around the world. Renewed interest in the film has been immense and international, with the London Feminist Film Festival, for example, opening their 2018 festival with Fatma 75.

When we attempted to screen Mossane in the early years of the Africa in Motion Film Festival around 2006, Faye told us that she entrusted the single surviving English-subtitled 35mm print of the film to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and that she does not allow this print to travel. At the time, the only way that we were able to view the film (apart from this inaccessible print), was through a French-subtitled DVD released by the Médiathèque des Trois Mondes in Paris. In conversation with the filmmaker, we then discovered that the original Beta was located in Germany, which we shipped to Titra Film in Paris, where Faye assisted with the technical updating of the film as well as its subtitling, creating a high-quality ProRes version of the film. At the time of writing, this version has been screened or was due to screen at Africa in Motion in Scotland, BFI Southbank in London and the Zanzibar International Film Festival in Tanzania.

Like other African films by women, Flame suffered from censorship in the sense that it was, upon its release in Zimbabwe, confiscated by the police because the male veterans rejected the narrative of female independence fighters suffering sexual abuse and rape at the hands of their male comrades. The official history of the country’s fight for independence and the nationalist narrative were perceived as much more important than the stories of women’s suffering, wellbeing and contribution. The reputation of the guerrilla fighters was not to be tarnished. The fact that the film was made by a White filmmaker and White producer likewise did not sit well with its Zimbabwean audience. Discourses of nationalist pride and personal testimony clashed amongst the doubts about authenticity and representation of African women.

Richard Chirongwe, the then-Deputy Secretary general of the War Veterans Association of Zimbabwe, said: ‘If this film is not stopped, it will give the wrong picture to people. The rape scene detracts from the lofty goals of the struggle for independence. What should have been emphasised was the rape and torture of civilians by the White Rhodesian soldiers’. (California Newsreel)

However, filmmaker Ingrid Sinclair herself emphasises that she used first-person interviews and testimonies by female guerrilla fighters to phrase dialogue and narrative in the film. Her primary sources were female ex-combatants, one of whom later said: ‘I was raped and that is the truth. A society which denies the truth cannot develop or move forward. Saying the truth out loud is a kind of therapy and should be accepted’. (California Newsreel) After a worldwide campaign to return the film to the producers, the 16mm version was stored in South Africa and is now, through the work of producer Simon Bright and his contacts at the Refinery in Johannesburg, available on DCP (digital cinema package) and touring the world once more.

In addition to the restorations of these films, and their new lives on the festival circuit, ALC also devoted time to the creation of educational resources for teachers of primary and secondary education, contributing to the diversification of the curriculum and encouraging confidence in teachers to address politically complex issues such as the representation of Africa on screen and issues of race relationships in the UK. ALC and AiM also curated an extensive exhibition and an accompanying symposium on the history of African cinema through the ages, again highlighting the powerful contributions of women through a focus on films such as Women with Open Eyes (Anne Laure Folly, Togo, 1994), Sambizanga, and the first films from the African continent, produced, written and acted by women: La Fille de Carthage by Albert Samama Chikly (Tunisia, 1924) and Laila by Stephan Rosti (Egypt, 1927). June Givanni, one of the pioneers of archiving and exhibiting Pan-African films in the UK, was our keynote speaker at the symposium held during the festival in 2017.

The overall purpose of AiM and the Africa’s Lost Classics project has always been to showcase the very best of African cinema through the ages and to re-educate UK audiences to realise that what they get to see on our cinema screens, that which is curated or selected for them, is only the tip of the iceberg of what is made. There are films that very seldom reach our screens. As such, audiences are emancipated to realise that the canon is only an inappropriately hierarchical representation of the tip of that iceberg. We need to try harder to pay more attention to the realities of what exists and how we are able to force the canon aside to get a much better, deeper and rounded representation of how African women have created some of the best, most challenging and innovative films. Our efforts to restore them to their due glory are only the start of what needs to be done.

The World Cinema Foundation is doing great work with their commitment to restoring 50 African films, but it is crucially important to ensure that women are included at the root of the process of safeguarding the past of African cinema, so that the future can be confident and explore and find inspiration from powerful women from the past. Addressing, rupturing and rewriting the canon is such an important process, and we need to include African women from the get-go. We also need to recognise the voices that are there and learn to listen to and see them for what they are: African women have their stories as well, and they have been told.

As international audiences we have not had the chance to see them or to really listen. Representation remains an issue of privilege and position, and this leads us to also bring into perspective our positions as White feminists: is our feminism inclusive enough? The #MeToo movement has its roots in African American activism, and we need to acknowledge that. It is not known widely enough that African American social activist Tarana Burke began using the phrase ‘Me Too’ as early as 2006, to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual abuse and assault in society. New strategies need to be implemented to ensure that women’s narratives are included in the canon, and methods of curation and exhibition can play a key role in creating an inclusive and representative film sector, as this next section will explore.

Screening of De Voortrekkers (South Africa, 1916), the Lost Classics programme in 2017.


Participatory Programming: Towards a New Curatorial Practice

Despite decades of discussions around inclusivity and representation of women and those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds within the film industry, statistics show that this has only remained as rhetoric. A recent BFI Diversity report showed that shockingly only 16% of people working in film are women; this includes all sectors from production to exhibition and distribution. In terms of racial on-screen representation, the same report found that from a sample of 1,172 films shown between 2006 and 2016 in the UK ‘only 13% featured one Black actor in a leading role and 59% of UK films did not feature a single Black actor in any named character role’. (BFI Yearbook 2016)

This data shows a systemic problem, and we need to question the mechanisms that ensure some artists are celebrated while others are marginalised. It is the same hegemonic system dominated by the White male that pervades our society that also, of course, impacts the film world. It calls for these exclusionary processes to be structurally challenged within the film world, and for strategies to be implemented to ensure that a variety of backgrounds are made to feel represented.

According to English art critic John Berger (1972), the way we create and view art is affected by our experience, our beliefs and what we choose to see. So, the lens through which we all view things is influenced by the context for our understanding. This can include gender, ethnic and racial differences. (Berger 1972: 10) The lens through which we view is also shaped through our understanding of our past. In the Western world, we are prevented from fully comprehending what we see, as we are only shown a select history told by the bourgeoisie, the colonisers and mostly through the eyes of the White man who selects and shapes the cultural world. This affects not only the way we see ourselves but also our view of others and offers a misinformed perception of the world. The film canon reflects this and, therefore, needs to be questioned to make space for new narratives. It is, thus, necessary to challenge structural norms and create space for a new curatorial approach, which questions paradigms and encourages new forms of film exhibition and distribution.

As we mentioned before, our position is as White women academics working as curators for the Africa in Motion Film Festival in Scotland. We are aware of the cultural space we occupy in the art world, and also in particular in an African film festival circuit. African American feminist and activist Audre Lorde states that ‘as White women ignore their built-in privilege of whiteness and define woman in terms of their own experience alone, then women of colour become ‘other’, the outsider whose experience and tradition is too alien to comprehend’. (Lorde 1984: 117) Lorde asserts that White women also need to be conscious of difference and that this needs to be taken into account in feminist theory. This seems like an obvious assumption, but the structure of Western society is built on male patriarchy and White privilege which is reflected within the film industry so that White women still hold a dominant position, and artists and curators continue to assume a position of universality. We endeavour to remain conscious of our White privilege in the spaces we occupy within the festival, thinking about the decision-making roles we take, how our positionality informs our film selection and how we can create space for non-White voices within the organisation.

Typically, curatorial practice is driven by a single individual, someone who imposes their view on a programme of film or art. These positions are predominantly held by White men who assume the right to programme on behalf of all. This power of the curator should not be underestimated. (Obrist 2009) Each curator is responsible for deciding what is included and what is left out of exhibition: they act as mediators for how this is understood and position themselves within the selection of a piece of work. (Obrist 2015) However, this individualistic practice reflects the neo-liberal, patriarchal system, through which the White and/or White male gaze is thought to be universal.

To challenge this White male-centred curatorial positioning, we realised that a new method is needed to override these narrow methods of film selection. Within Africa in Motion, we developed a participatory programming method which takes a non-hierarchical approach to curation. Using this method, as an organisation, we identify the communities we want to reach, for example, women or BAME and we include them within the film selection and exhibition. By including these marginalised groups in the selection of film we remove barriers and hierarchies of power that restrict the participation of these groups through the normal individual-centred style of curation.

Within Africa in Motion, the curatorial approach has naturally gravitated towards a White feminist and BAME practice. We did not deliberately set out to be an all-female led initiative, and perhaps this says something about women working for smaller scale organisations in film and the arts more generally. But the fact that we as women have always prioritised and centralised female voices has undoubtedly significantly influenced our curatorial practice. Within Africa in Motion 40% of all the films shown at the festival, over the last 13 years, have been directed by women. This has been a consistent and conscious decision in a male-dominated film world, to make space for more female-driven African narratives on screen. We work using a participatory programming model, which means that we do not have an artistic director, but rather we are a collective of White and BAME women who work collaboratively to ensure that African female centred narratives are shown on screen, while also being aware of our own individual positionality and identity politics.

This results in a diverse programme, as often the events curated through participatory programming are linked to the identity or reflect the interests of their curators. For example, one event programmed by a young Kenyan woman in 2016 focused on colourism and showed a selection of short films exploring Black female beauty. The discussion centred around the need to feel proud and comfortable in being a Black woman along with pointing to the challenges African women may face. Other events have drawn on the curator’s heritage, as, for example, another 2016 event titled ‘The Journey of Antonio’ curated by a young Black woman who drew inspiration from her grandfather’s journey from Portugal to Mozambique during the period of liberation in Mozambique. This event included a retelling by her of his journey followed by a screening of The Murmuring Coast (Margarida Cardoso, Mozambique/Portugal, 2004). This participatory approach to curation also influenced the ALC project.

The collaborative process of selecting the lost classics to feature in the five UK-based African film festivals came about through concerted discussion amongst programmers from all the involved festivals. Not imposed by us as ‘experts’, the long list of films was based on years of research and input from various partners (individuals, academics, as well as independent organisations). Also, some of the lost classics, specifically those made by women, like Women with Open Eyes, Fatma 75 and Flame were selected for screening by the organisations we work with, such as the Glendale Women’s Cafe in Glasgow and the Glasgow Women’s Library. These spaces encourage involvement on the part of the audiences, in that they are invited to discuss the film in groups, usually guided by a moderator experienced in collective debates and safe space development.

Screening at the Africa and Caribbean Centre 2015.



African film history shows us that we need to continue to bust the canon of male privilege: the canon of historiography as well as the canon of academic criticism and exhibition of African cinema. If women’s contributions and stories continue to be marginalised and neglected, in Africa and elsewhere, the narratives and histories we preserve for future generations will continue to be one-sided, partial and incomplete. While we certainly need to question who makes films and who produces and writes them, we also need to look at which films are being preserved and who decides on which classics deserve to be restored. We also need to ensure that what is offered to audiences on the screen is a reflection of these (and other) concerns: equality, inclusivity, and most of all, positionality. Fatma 75, Mossane and Flame are just three women’s films from Africa that now have a better chance at being seen around the world and included in the discourse around the role of women in the history of the film industry, as we finally are able to confront age-old inequalities in the industry.

Through our participatory curatorial approach, we are fragmenting the gaze through which we select films. We are taking a non-hierarchical approach, ensuring that we are not assuming universality and are acknowledging our positioning as White and BAME women. By doing this, we attempt to ensure that there is space for a wide range of cultural groups within the film selection process in the festival. This has changed what has been shown, and to whom. We argue that if more institutions were to adopt this approach, it would open up space for a wider range of diverse people to be included in film selection and exhibition, in particular women and people of colour. There is an urgent need for redressing the canon and cinema’s curatorial practices. The recognition of our positions of privilege and power can act as the first step in achieving this goal.


Andrade-Watkins, Claire (1999), ‘Portuguese African Cinema: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, 1969-1993’, in Kenneth W. Harrow (ed), African Cinema: Postcolonial and Feminist Readings, Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, pp. 132-147.

Armes, Roy (2006), African Filmmaking: North and South of the Sahara, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Berger, John (1972), Ways of Seeing, London: Penguin Books.

British Film Institute (2016), ‘Diversity Standard’, British Film Institute,11 May 2016,  (last accessed 18 September 2018).

California Newsreel, ‘Flame: notes for Viewing the Film’, available online: (last accessed 18 September 2018).

Diawara, Manthia (1992), African Cinema: Politics & Culture, Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Dovey, Lindiwe (2012), ‘New Looks: The Rise of African Women Filmmakers’, in Feminist Africa, Vol. 16, pp. 18-36.

Ellerson, Beti (2004), ‘Africa Through a Woman’s Eyes: Safi Faye’s Cinema’, in Francoise Pfaff (ed.), Focus on African Films. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, pp. 185-202.

Harrow, Ken (2007), Postcolonial African Cinema: From Political Engagement to Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Lorde, Audre (1984), ‘Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference’, in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, pp. 114-123.

Murphy, David (2000), Sembene: Imagining Alternatives in Film and Fiction, Oxford: James Currey.

Obrist, Hans Ulrich (2015), Ways of Curating, London: Penguin Books.

Obrist, Hans Ulrich (2009), A Brief History of Curating, London: Penguin Books.

Thackway, Melissa (2003), Africa Shoots Back: Alternative Perspectives in Sub-Saharan Francophone African Film, Oxford: James Currey.

Ukadike, Frank (1994), Black African Cinema, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ukadike, Frank (2002), Questioning African Cinema: Conversations with Filmmakers, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Download article


Feeling inspired by MAI? Dedicated to intersectional gender politics in visual culture? Want to keep your feminist imagination on fire? MAI newsletter will help refresh your zeal for feminism with first-hand news on our new content. 

Subscribe below to stay up-to-date.

* We'll never share your email address with any third parties.


The team of MAI supporters and contributors is always expanding. We’re honoured to have a specialist collective of editors, whose enthusiasm & talent gave birth to MAI.

However, to turn our MAI dream into reality, we also relied on assistance from high-quality experts in web design, development and photography. Here we’d like to acknowledge their hard work and commitment to the feminist cause. Our feminist ‘thank you’ goes to:

Dots+Circles – a digital agency determined to make a difference, who’ve designed and built our MAI website. Their continuous support became a digital catalyst to our idealistic project.
Guy Martin – an award-winning and widely published British photographer who’s kindly agreed to share his images with our readers

Chandler Jernigan – a talented young American photographer whose portraits hugely enriched the visuals of MAI website
Matt Gillespie – a gifted professional British photographer who with no hesitation gave us permission to use some of his work
Julia Carbonell – an emerging Spanish photographer whose sharp outlook at contemporary women grasped our feminist attention
Ana Pedreira – a self-taught Portuguese photographer whose imagery from women protests beams with feminist aura
And other photographers whose images have been reproduced here: Cezanne Ali, Les Anderson, Mike Wilson, Annie Spratt, Cristian Newman, Peter Hershey