As part of our ongoing effort to celebrate diversity and women filmmakers, today’s post looks at Africa and its impact on cinema. You can find a wealth of amazing female filmmakers of Africa (editors, actors, writers, etc.) spanning the continent, so to make today’s list manageable, I’ll just be looking at five directors, from different countries. I hope to do more in the future! Without further ado, let’s explore these groundbreaking directors and how they explore culture, politics, and gender through film.
Safi Faye (Senegal)
I thought I’d best start with a true pioneer. Safi Faye made history as the first Sub-Saharan African woman to direct a commercial film, Kaddu Beykat (1975). Her films focus on everyday stories reflecting her background, a PhD in ethnology. Kaddu Beykat, for example, follows the daily lives of people dealing with drought in a Senegalese village. As a woman, Faye struggled to find funding and control distribution, despite critical acclaim. She only made one more feature film, Mossane (1990), which uses mythology to tell the story of a beautiful young woman coming-of-age in a rural village. Despite a limited output, Faye made beautiful films and paved the way for women filmmakers in Africa.
Kaouther Ben Hania (Tunisia)
If her name sounds very familiar, it’s probably because you heard it at the Oscars. Her most recent film, The Man Who Sold His Skin (2020), earned a nomination for Best International Feature Film. The chilling satire tells the story of a Syrian refuge who agrees to have his back tattooed as an art piece for ritzy gallery. Real-world events inspired the film, and Kaouther Ben Hania masterfully shot it despite COVID limitations. Ben Hania is no stranger to intense dramas. Her 2017 film, Beauty and the Dogs, tells the story of a Tunisian woman who seeks justice after a sexual assault, and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. An accomplished filmmaker with topical films, Ben Hania will certainly be back at the Oscars.
Jenna Cato Bass (South Africa)
A young and promising writer-director, Bass embraces fantasy, science fiction, and experimentalism. Her 2017 film, High Fantasy, follows four friends who mysteriously swap bodies during a camping trip. This forces them to examine issues of identity, gender, ethnicity, and privilege. Bass shot the film using cellphones and reality-TV style editing to make a modern examination of deep-rooted problems. Her latest film, Flatland (2019), unpacks the Western genre by focusing on female characters. Variety called it “a feminist milestone for a national cinema where genre film in particular has hitherto been a boys’ game.” Still, Bass’s films seem to divide critics, which I take as a sign of their relevance.
Rosine Mfetgo Mbakam (Cameroon)
Though based in Belgium, Mbakam’s work remains deeply rooted in her home country and the black diaspora. For example, her documentary The Two Faces of a Bamiléké Woman (2016), captures her homecoming and relationship with her mother, contrasting their very different but deeply connected lives. She explains: “African cinema is colonized by other forms of cinema. It is important for me to free myself from all this to find a form that is fair to the people I film.” Her latest documentary, Delphine’s Prayers (2021), follows a young Cameroonian woman and her experiences with immigration and sex work. Like all her films, it gives her subjects compassion and strength.
Genevieve Nnaji (Nigeria)
Our last entry began her career as a popular actor in Nollywood (Nigeria’s bustling film industry). She made history, however, when her directorial debut, Lionheart (2018), became the first Netflix original film produced in Nigeria as well as the first Nigerian film submitted to the Oscars. When they disqualified her film as foreign language entry (as the majority of the dialogue is English), she clapped back: “We did not choose who colonised us.” Still, Lionheart (in which she also stars) received strong reviews and will doubtless bolster her already impressive career in filmmaking.
I hope you enjoyed this list and learned more about female filmmakers of Africa. Be sure to check out one of their films! You might also enjoy learning more about women in world cinema in one of our other blog posts.