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A celebration of Africa’s women filmmakers fittingly follows on Kathryn Bigelow breaching a formidable all-male preserve

Who celebrated when Kathryn Bigelow won the Academy Award for best director? I did. Not because I had seen The Hurt Locker. It hadn’t been released in South Africa yet.
I was delighted because, after 80 years of Academy Awards, a woman had finally won the ultimate prize.

It was a long time coming. A brief history of women filmmakers goes something like this: the first narrative film made by a woman was La Fée aux Choux (1896), in which filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché appears dressed as a man; a few decades later the odd woman breaks into Hollywood but, thanks to stringent codes and taboos about storytelling, just like the 18th-century female writer, she’s forced to sneak coded feminist messages past the noses of studio bosses.

The late Sixties saw women forming their own film networks of alternative filmmakers in a bid to resist the patriarchal viewpoint of traditional cinema.

Bringing the story closer to home, the first African woman director to be internationally known was Senegalese Safi Faye (A Letter to the Village,1975).

Now, 35 years later, the Women of the Sun Film Festival, the first film festival in South Africa to show exclusively the work of African women filmmakers, will be launched in Johannesburg this week. The bulk of the films—10 documentaries, six features and nine short films—are by emerging talents who will be at the festival.

Alongside it, the Goethe-Institut will host an international event in which more than 25 women in film, including directors, producers, festival programmers and distributors, will take part in a three-day seminar to share experiences and to network with some of the hottest new filmmakers in Africa.

Opening the festival is Hawa Essuman’s Soul Boy. Shot in Kibera, Nairobi’s biggest slum, Essuman’s first feature tells the story of Abila, a 14-year-old boy on the hunt for his father’s lost soul. The film is the result of a German alternative production company, One Fine Day Films, teaming up with Kenyan producers Ginger Ink to develop work by aspiring moviemakers in the country. Soul Boy was made on a minimal budget and produced by German director Tom Tywker (Perfume and Run Lola Run).

Djamila Sahraoui’s Barakat! also tells the story of a search, this time by a young woman in Algeria whose husband, an outspoken journalist, is kidnapped by fundamentalists. It’s ultimately a portrait of postcolonial Algeria and the lost dreams of a revolution gone wrong. As the two female protagonists journey through rough terrain under constant threat from bands of militia, they discover not only patriarchy in several manifestations but also that, where there are people, there is potentially love.

No festival of African women filmmakers would be complete without Fanta Régina Nacro, a legend of African cinema. Three of her films are included in the line-up: her feature, Night of Truth, and two shorts, Konate’s Gift and A Close-Up on Bintou.

All About Darfur, Sudanese documentary filmmaker Tagreed Elsanhouri’s directorial debut, is told through a series of intimate conversations with ordinary people in Khartoum who share their views on the devastation of the country and visions for a brighter future. The film makes a refreshing change from depressing news coverage of Darfur’s mangled conflict.

Two of the festival’s documentaries, both visually breathtaking, profile the personalities of people in the world of fine art. Award-winning film Ngwenya the Crocodile, by Isabel Noronha, features the life and works of a Mozambican painter Cinema & TV as he takes us on a journey through Mozambique’s past and present.

South African director Catherine Meyburgh’s Kentridge and Dumas in Conversation stays in the present with a conversation between two of the art world’s greats, talking about and demystifying their work.

Apart from the obvious issue of equal opportunities, does it matter that women are woefully under-represented in key creative roles in the industry, particularly in feature production?

Herein lies some kind of answer. Women have a substantial body of work in documentary and experimental film but struggle to get recognition, and certainly Bigelowtype recognition, in the commercial world of features.

Women filmmakers clearly have a vision and voice that is distinct and perhaps, historically, have had more opportunities to explore such representation in independent film.

That’s all about to change with the evolution of new-media platforms. The commercial world as we know it is programmed to bust apart as the demand for diverse content for video on demand begins to soar.

Let us not forget that women make up a large proportion of these audiences. It’s really important that women filmmakers are positioned at the centre of these developments, not only shaping the stories that are told but also engaging with fresh buying power and creating new audiences for women’s cinema.

The Women of the Sun Film Festival, showcasing the work of 23 African Women film directors, takes place at the Bioscope Independent cinema in Johannesburg this week from September 3 to 9. For details visit www.womenofthesun.org.za or www.thebioscope.co.za

Anita Khanna is a writer and producer based in Johannesburg

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