Senegalese filmmaker and ethnographer Safi Faye is most noted for centering her work on the experiences of the everyday. Born of the Serer people, a farming community that lives largely apart from some of the country’s larger cultural groups, Faye has a vested interest in telling stories that detail the lives of people cameras often refuse to see.
Faye’s films, specifically Kaddu Beykat (The Voice of the Peasant) (1975) and Fad’jal (1979), take a close look at the daily lives of villagers, placing their experiences in the context of the larger political and social conversations of the time. Faye uses her ethnographer’s eye to produce docudramas that place women at the centre of the narrative.
She uses the camera as a research tool, training it on her subjects and letting the story unfold as it will. Describing her film making process, Faye has said: “Even though I may write a script for my films, I basically leave people free to express themselves in front of a camera and I listen. My films are collective works in which everybody takes an active part.”
This observer-collaborator approach is what helped Faye to infuse Kaddu Beykat, her first feature-length film, with such meaning and emotion.
The final result is a film about the struggles of Serer farmers after the introduction of peanut monoculture and the socioeconomic and political questions they faced, expressed in their own words, which makes the film a powerful witness to the Senegalese government’s neglect of the peasantry.
The film was received favourably by audiences at Cannes but it was banned by the government of Senegal because of its critical views.
The banning ran counter to Faye’s principles — she had made it clear that her audience was in Senegal. She said she made her films “first of all, for Africans, for African people — those who know what Africa is and those who don’t know, although they think they do. And then for the rest.”
The question of being able to see the film still lingers in the air during discussions about Faye’s films. After all the hard work she and her contemporaries (such as Sarah Maldoror, who was making films from the diaspora in the 1970s) put into raising funds to produce their films, it seems there were not enough left over for proper marketing and distribution. Although exposure at film festivals is important and appreciated, the caveat remains that the work reaches a limited audience.
Even Mossane (1997), a film about the little moments in a girl’s journey to womanhood, was not widely distributed. It was a deeply personal project, which required so much financial and emotional investment that Faye was hesitant about distributing the film overseas.
[A scene from Mossane, a film about a girl’s journey to womanhood]
When an American interviewer pressed her to consider reaching out to partners who could distribute the film, Faye said: “I say, let Mossane have its own way. I can’t say I want this or want that but I can’t continue to suffer. I believe that, after six years of uncertainty, the time has now come for me to reap the fruits of my labour. For me, in my head, Mossane is done and you don’t know how happy I am.”
Be that as it may, the failure of Faye’s hard work to reach the maximum number of people raises questions about other stakeholders’ investment in the African film industry. Whose responsibility is it to make sure Faye’s work is seen?
Certainly, films made by African women have not received the same attention and have not been as widely distributed as those made by men. Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki was restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, and the films of Ousmane Sembène, also a Sere and a prominent filmmaker in the 1960s and 1970s (he is hailed as the father of African cinema), are available in university libraries and even on YouTube.
But Faye’s films are seldom seen. Instead, her work is preserved in interviews and in the work of academics such as Lizelle Bisschoff and Françoise Pfaff, who write about her in academic papers covering feminism and filmmaking in Africa. For a woman whose work helped to shape Senegalese cinema, who worked in the distinctive dramatic ethnographic style that best communicated the people’s stories, Faye’s work is not as accessible as it should be.
Critics and audiences note the defining womancentric feminist narratives in Faye’s work but she resists this categorisation. For her, womanhood is immaterial. She has said
in interviews that being a woman who made films did not make her special.
Talking to Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike, the author of Black African Cinema, Faye quipped that “women cannot live alone in Africa. Women live in a community and I cannot eliminate the community. This is a reflection on me. I cannot live without my people. I cannot separate out an individual. But this is typical of African cultures.”
Faye makes it clear that her motivations have little to do with advancing any explicit womanist or feminist agenda, and she is not trying to say anything about the abilities of women as filmmakers. She is a woman who makes films about the space she occupies in the world. It is as simple as that.
Her films are imbued with a sensibility that deeply affects all who see them. The film becomes separate from its director once it is out in the world, doing its own work and relaying messages way beyond what may have been intended initially.
Knowing this makes it all the more concerning that it is so difficult to see Faye’s films. As a pioneer in the film industry, her story should be told more widely and not just be the preserve of select scholars and individuals who have obscure interests.
But this is the nature of all creative work — it takes on a life of its own once it is out in the world. And some works have longer, louder and fuller lives than others, for reasons that need to change for the benefit of a richer cinematic archive.