You are interested in women in cinema, how did that desire come to you?
I have a Ph.D. in African Studies with a sub-specialization in African Cinema Studies and Women Studies. As a feminist I have always been interested in critically engaging women's issues, and academically I wanted to make a critical inquiry into African women's experiences through the medium of the moving image. I found this medium to be especially compelling in that filmmakers are able to use cinema to deal with a complexity of issues in their society as well as a pedagogical tool and a means to build awareness. This inquiry led to my interest in framing an African Women Cinema Studies, which encompasses research in historiography and spectatorship and also as activist-to promote their work and provide a forum for discussion. Spectatorship and advocacy are of particular interest because I would like to see African Women Cinema Studies discourse go beyond the classroom and conferences, but also out to the general public who may find these kinds of issues of interest. Thus I define "African women in cinema" as a concept-which includes theory and practice.
Do you think women in this domain are given their rightful place?
It is important to understand women's overall place in the social, political and cultural structures in Africa. Then look at the place that cinema holds in African societies. One may notice an increasing visibility of women in all echelons of the African cinematic infrastructure, not only behind or in front of the camera but also behind the scenes. To cite Sarah Maldoror: "Women must be everywhere. They must be in the images, behind the camera, in the editing room and involved in every stage of the making of a film. They must be the ones to talk about their problems..."
What will you especially keep from your discussions with women in cinema?
I have gotten a great deal from the conversations with the many women over the past fifteen years. The notion of women's voices as an "alternative discourse", proposed by Anne-Laure Folly-Reimann (Togo), for example, has become a leitmotiv for my research and writing. With the changes in technology and new tools for communication many more women have the possibility of promoting themselves and their films. Nonetheless, there are things that remain. One may have expected a generational shift of attitudes and ideas. Yet some of the reflections around the dual experiences as mother and filmmaker resonate in the same way. Moreover, there are young women today who view themselves as a filmmaker (period), rather than as a "woman filmmaker", a similar reaction by Safi Faye several decades before.
What were the objectives and expectations of your discussions with them?
I wanted to gather experiences from women throughout the continent in all areas of cinema: directors, producers, actors, critics, and organizers as a collective body, to hear their voices, to allow them to speak about how they interpret their image and visualize their societies. I had some surprises along the way. Some women gave very personal responses that I never expected nor would I have asked the questions that invoked them. Overall, I have received genuine interest and support, as they realize the importance of researching and archiving history.
You are a writer and a filmmaker who centralize your theme essentially on women and cinema. In your career have you confronted any of these difficulties?
My main difficulty is the lack of time. The time to write, think, research, mull over ideas. Having said that, I would emphasize my very different position, living in the West, working both as an academic and independent scholar. Not to minimize the difficultly, but the few film productions that I have done have been well received, perhaps principally because of the nature of the subject. As an academic, writing is part of the job, which does not mean that one may always find a publisher. On the other hand, the African Women in Cinema Blog is a very effective means to publish my interviews and critical analysis-as I have been able to touch a diverse readership and attract their interest. And as I stated earlier about the advances in technology, I have really benefited from being totally wired and connected as it has given me a great deal of visibility and has allowed me to do a tremendous amount of networking. But yes, I have had difficulties, though with each success story and less successful endeavor that is told to me-I understand the importance of perseverance and self-confidence.
Your book "Sisters of the Screen" was published in 1999, followed in 2003 by a documentary of the same name. What was the process from a written to visual work? Was it simply a need to change the means of communication?
I received a Rockefeller Humanities Fellowship (a postdoctoral research grant) for this project. The interviews were filmed with the intention of producing a documentary and drawing from the interviews to publish a written document. So the book and film are visual and written "documents" of the same research project. I had hoped to have a French version of the book, as was the case for the film, but as you know, some projects don't always see the light of day. And in terms of the difference in release dates between the book and the film-finding the time and funding to do so. Also, before producing the documentary I was executive producer and host of a 27-episode series that was broadcast on the public access community television network throughout the United States. This experience was essential in preparing me for the documentary project.
In 2008, you launched the Center for Study and Research of African Women in Cinema. Why such an initiative?
Ah, the desires of a scholar! Wanting to continue to update and document the experiences of African women in cinema, but realizing the generally fixed state and linearity of the book and film-in hard copy, I followed the trend of new media and social networking to continue the project, which provided the means to continually update information. Understanding the importance of a global database available to anybody, anywhere, I wanted to provide an online resource. I launched the Center for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema, as a virtual environment in which cultural producers, scholars, students, and the general public may research information relating to African women in cinema: filmmakers, actors, producers, and all film professionals. As social media and video sharing have become central features of the Internet, the Center extends to include the African Women in Cinema Blog, and a presence on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, Vimeo and Dailymotion.
A special message for an African woman working in the cinema domain?
Remember the wisdom of your foremothers, listen humbly to the experiences of your elders and learn from their history.
Interview by Sitou Ayité