Africa’s top film festival heads to a climax on Saturday after a fierce debate about gender equality and sexual aggression in the continent’s movie industry.
In its half-century of history, the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (Fespaco) has never awarded its top prize to a female director — a fact that faced uncomfortable scrutiny during the week-long event.
“Where are the women?” asked South African actress Xolile Tshabalala, who stars in “Miraculous Weapons” made by Cameroonian director Jean-Pierre Bekolo.
“Can it be that in 50 years, there hasn’t been a single woman capable of telling a great story to win the Fespaco?”
Alimata Salemembere, a pioneer of TV broadcasting in Burkina Faso, who helped launch the very first Fespaco back in 1969, said: “There’s discrimination in the cinema and in television, just like in other aspects of life.”
“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.”
This year, 20 feature-length films are bidding for the top award, the Golden Stallion of Yennenga, four of which have been directed by women.
One of those in the running is 43-year-old Burkinabe director Apolline Traore.
Her film “Desrances”, which premiered on Tuesday, is a tale about the courage and wisdom of women, set against the backdrop of the 2010-11 post-election violence in Ivory Coast.
Highly applauded, it won a special prize on Friday awarded by the Burkina National Assembly and city of Ouagadougou.
“Of course there’s a problem” in gender equality for directors, she said.
“There’s no equality for the craft of a woman director, not just in Africa, but in the world,” she said.
But Traore said that recognition had to be made on merit, not as a token gesture in the fight against discrimination.
Fellow 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.”
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 says.
“My grandmother associated these roles with sexual depravity.”
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.
Touched by #MeToo scandal –
The 2019 Fespaco was also marked by allegations of sexual abuse levelled against African filmmakers by actresses encouraged by the #MeToo movement.
“It’s time to speak out,” said French actress Nadege Beausson-Diagne, who told AFP that she was setting up the movement called #Memepaspeur (“Not even scared”) to help women speak out in Africa.
Violence “is everywhere — against actresses but also directors, scriptwriters and technicians, who live with harassment, sexual aggression and rape,” she said, adding that she had twice been assaulted during film shoots in Africa.
An online petition was launched urging Fespaco to exclude a TV series from the competition after an actress accused its director of assault. The director, reached by AFP, refused to comment.
Other front-runners for the Golden Stallion turn a bright spotlight on social problems in contemporary Africa.
They include a Burkinabe film, “Duga,” a satire on traditional chiefs, religious leaders and bureaucrats, and “Resolution,” an Ivorian film about wife beating, both of which joined “Desrances” on Friday for special awards.
Two Tunisian films also stand out — “Regarde-moi” (Look at Me), about a man who develops a relationship with the autistic child he had abandoned, and “Fatwa,” about a father who discovers that his dead son had been a jihadist.
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