I recently watched Beater Gardeler’s FLOCKING and was blown away. The storyline, which centres around rape and the silence surrounding it, is very powerful as it portrays the pain and shame associated with rape, and then ultimately, the resilience of women. Conversation with Gardeler at the International Images Film Festival (IIFF) afterwards was enlightening as she spoke about the rise of a movement of Swedish female filmmakers telling those stories society would much rather sweep under the carpet. I have had similar experiences when watching other international films, including THE JOURNEY TO HER SMILE, a film by Indian filmmaker, Sucheta Phule. In it, she dares to tackle child sexual abuse, a subject her community prefers to turn a blind eye to. She even goes on to question child safety in educational institutions. These films, by women, open the doors for rigorous discussions about issues directly affecting women.
Internationally, women are finding their voices in film, and telling their own stories. And we need more of that on the continent, and mostly in Zimbabwe.
Africa taking the international scene by storm
Recently, Africa has taken the international film industry by storm. Actors and stories of African origin have been accepted into that sacred place, Hollywood, and this has been a long time coming. HALF OF A YELLOW SUN , an adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s book of the same title, took the film industry by storm. Directed by Nigerian Biyi Bandele, it features an array of actors of African origin such as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Genevive Nnjaji and Hakeem Kae-Kazim. Lupita Nyong’o was the first black African woman to win an Oscar and only in the 84th year of the Academy Awards did this become possible.
Zimbabweans have also found space in this rising growth of African narratives. Actors like Arnold Chirisa have managed to find a place in Hollywood, while Danai Gurira has become a household name in film, television and theatre. As an actress and playwright she, is putting Zimbabwe on the map.
However, progress remains limited.
The challenges of women’s film making in Zimbabwe
A movement of African women filmmakers has started on the continent and this includes critical women’s voices like those of Judy Keene (Kenya), Tope Oshin Ogun (Nigeria) and many others who are challenging the status quo; in the process, finding support and audience in their respective countries, and the Diaspora. Women’s movements on the continent have begun to realise that film is an important vehicle for their voices and have created forums such as the African Women in Film Forum (AWIFF). This platform, founded by the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) aims to create conversation on how women film makers can contribute towards efforts to foster gender equality and social justice.
Unfortunately, the revolution has not quite found its way to Zimbabwe. Even with iconic figures such as Tsitsi Dangarembga, Rumbi Katedza and Nakai Matema, the vacuum has not been filled. This is not for lack of skills and training, however; Zimbabwe Film and Television School of Southern Africa (ZIFTESSA) is producing female graduates. A lot of young women have come home with film degrees from international universities only to find that the industry has no use for them. Usually, they opt to leave the country and go where their skills are appreciated.
Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe was created to address the underrepresentation of women in the industries, and festivals like IIFF and the Women’s Art Festival (WAFEST) are providing space to celebrate women in film, and expose local audiences to the power of women-centred narratives.
Still, these efforts tend to feel lonely and isolated.
Women’s representation by women themselves
Additionally, the local industry tends to be divorced from women’s issues such as sexual violence, exclusion form economic and political spaces and the safety of girls, with stories often promoting stereotypes of women. These stories lean towards portraying women as victims or as the villains trying to destroy other women; or as being who are always in need of men to change their world. As a result, these films conveniently ignore the versatility and strength of women. This is dangerous for every woman in Zimbabwe.
Women have to dig into the archives to come up with films like PERETERA MANETA (2005) and SHARING DAY (2008) (add links) to see films made by women to tell their own stories and challenge the one-dimensional characters in male-authored narratives. These films show the suffering, but also the endurance and the power to change the situations, of women and remain relevant to women’s struggles more than a decade after they were made.
Film is about telling stories and any effort to develop it should take into consideration the voices of women. The African woman is an important subject as her struggles and triumphs are unique. And sadly, this has often led to her story being appropriated by male filmmakers. When men tell such stories, their ideas of women and feminism prevail; even for the well-intentioned male, research and empathy cannot substitute experience. As such, women’s stories need to be authored by women themselves. While there has been great uproar about the appropriation of African stories by western industries, I believe there should be even greater noise around the appropriation of women’s stories by men.
There is, therefore, a great and urgent need for women who are motivated by the passion to challenge the negative narrative around women to tell and share these stories. Our women’s movement needs to recognise the potential of audio-visual narratives and begin to campaign for more women to claim this critical space. By showcasing positive images of Zimbabwean women and highlighting their struggles, we can move a long way in building their strength. Also, the young voices who are struggling to break into the industry need support and there is need for mechanisms that will pave a way for mentoring and skills transfer. Training is necessary and so are women filmmakers who have the women’s agenda at heart. In addition, women in other sectors also need to realise the importance of space for film and the need to fight for it.
Like any other male dominated sphere, only a full-scale invasion will open up this space for women.
This piece has been published as part of a series promoting the voices of young Zimbabwean feminists, in partnership with HOLAAfrica!, a pan-African queer womanist platform, Her Zimbabwe, an initiative that nurtures young women’s digital activism, and Urgent Action Fund – Africa, a pan-African feminist fund. Follow them on Twitter: @HOLAAfrica, @herzimbabwe, @UAFAfrica.
Photograph is courtesy Fungai Machirori.