In the 50 years that Africa’s top film festival has been running, women have always watched male directors walk off with the Golden Stallion of Yennenga award, named for a legendary warrior princess.
“There’s discrimination in the cinema and in television, just like in other aspects of life,” said Alimata Salemembere, a pioneer of TV broadcasting in Burkina Faso.
“There’s no explanation, but there are people who take the liberty of discriminating against women just because they think their role is to stay at home,” Salemembere added.
Back in 1969, Salemembere headed the organizing committee of the very first FESPACO — the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou — which takes place every two years in Ouagadougou.
This year, 20 films are in the running for the so-called “African Oscar” — with the festival also showcasing documentaries, TV series, cartoons, short films and film-school projects. Four of the full-length films have been directed by women, whose low profile in the African movie business has stirred debate in the Burkinabe capital.
“Where are the women?” said South African actress Xolile Tshabalala, who stars in Miraculous Weapons made by Cameroonian director Jean-Pierre Bekolo.
“This is my first FESPACO,” she said at a midweek forum on gender issues.
“When I arrived in Ouagadougou, I strolled around town and I saw the avenue where they’ve put up statues to the FESPACO laureates — nothing but men,” she said.
“Can it be that in 50 years, there hasn’t been a single woman capable of telling a great story to win the FESPACO?” she added.
One of those in the running for this year’s prize is 43-year-old Burkinabe director Apolline Traore, whose movie Desrances, which premiered at the festival on Tuesday, focuses on the courage and wisdom of women in the face of men’s folly.
“Of course there’s a problem. There’s no equality for the craft of a woman director, not just in Africa, but in the world,” she said.
“Being a movie director is a technical task, one for working outdoors, a tough job,” she said. “People still don’t have enough faith in our ability to pursue this career.”
Burkinabe filmmaker and actor Isaka Sawadogo acknowledged the problems facing women in cinema, relating it to the question of traditional roles and education.
“It’s long and hard to make a film. To commit to this profession, you have to be a locomotive, to know how to impose your will,” he said.
“Traditional education doesn’t predispose women to this kind of role, but rather to be a housewife and to bring up the children. For that reason there aren’t many women interested in this job,” he said.
The same was true of the technical side of filmmaking.
“Africa lacks the structures needed to train people,” he said.
For Mouniratou Gouem, a 22-year-old actress and model with a part in a Burkinabe TV series, the main battle she had to overcome was with her family — and stemmed from her religion.
“I come from a very orthodox Muslim family. It is frowned upon to be a model or an actress, because you wear fashionable clothes instead of being covered from head to toe,” she said.
“My grandmother associated these roles with sexual depravity,” she added.
For her, freedom came with getting a job.
“I was able to make my own choices by earning a living, by becoming independent. A boy would not have faced these difficulties,” she said.
This year’s FESPACO was not without allegations of sexual abuse leveled against African filmmakers by actresses encouraged by the #MeToo movement.
“It’s time to speak out,” said French actress Nadege Beausson-Diagne, who told reporters that she was setting up the movement called “ #Memepaspeur (“Not even scared”) to help women speak out in Africa.
She said that violence “is everywhere — against actresses, but also directors, scriptwriters and technicians, who live with harassment, sexual aggression and rape.”
However, for all their struggles, people agree that across Africa, the situation is changing.
“Education and training are important. They make it possible to progress toward parity, more and more,” Salemembere said.
“Little by little, the world will see that we are just as capable as men,” Apolline Traore said, but added that the FESPACO should make awards on merit, not to redress gender discrimination.
“The Stallion must be given to a film because it deserves it, not just because it was directed by a woman,” Traore said.
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