Monday, November 19, 2012

Film Africa: Filming Sensitive Issues

Dancing on the Edge

I had some serious issues with the Filming Sensitive Issues event held at the BFI as part of the recent Film Africa festival.  

I walked in to see a panel of three white women (one of them turned out to be mixed race, but she appeared white).  I immediately had a problem with this.  There are many Black people filming in Africa right now, at this moment, and I am sure some of them are filming sensitive issues.  So I question the composition of the panel.  

Two of the filmmakers had made a film about LGBT activists in Uganda.  I'm not going to say much about this right now.  

The other white woman, Karen Boswall, had made a documentary in Mozambique entitled Dancing on the Edge, about health workers educating people in local communities in order to prevent the spread of HIV.  So this was a real conflict for the woman who was the central figure in the documentary - she was an HIV+ health worker who was participating in the ritual. 

Dancing on the Edge showed girls taking part in a traditional initiation ceremony.  They had to take a vow that they would always sexually satisfy their husbands and never refuse to do so.  This goes directly against the health initiative to encourage people to use condoms.  They also vowed to submit if their husbands decided to beat them.  Thus, the initiation instructed them on how to be a good woman. 

One thing I found very offensive was that Boswall said the ancestors had required women to take these vows - this is what the locals told her.  I had a problem with this because it is the duty of the ancestors to protect their descendants (although not all ancestors are protective).  If your ancestors are telling you to submit to beatings, they are not doing their job.  However, there was no analysis of this from the filmmaker.  

It has rightly been pointed out to me that religion and spirituality are often used to manipulate and control people, as depicted, for example, in Ousmane Sembene's film Moolaade.  Therefore, it is entirely likely that the ancestors are being slandered in this instance. 

The film depicted many girls and young women taking part in the ritual.  In a lengthy sequence, they are topless.  So we see this sea of breasts - again, with no explanation or analysis.  There is no voiceover to place this in context. 

One thing I found particularly disturbing was that many of these girls were very young - far too young to have breasts - in fact, they literally looked like little boys.  I question why children so young were participating in an initiation ritual.  

Another problem I had with this event was that Boswall was surprised at how many people had asked her about female genital mutilation (FGM) in connection with her film.  It is obvious that, in an African context, any discussion of female initiation ceremonies will include reference to FGM, but Boswall did not seem to understand this.  Nor was she aware of Moolaade.  I have a problem with someone who knows so little about African film, or indeed African culture, having her work included in this festival.  

Boswall was well-meaning.  She said she was disappointed that her film was unlikely to bring about change, and she plans to make fiction films rather than documentaries in future.  

Some useful reflections came out of the event, as the filmmakers involved were very candid about the effects of their work on African communities.  I shall say more about this in future. 

Although the BFI screens the excellent African Odysseys film series on a monthly basis, I was very disappointed by this offering from Film Africa. 


Anonymous said...

Sadly I didn't attendf this screening but I do feel your points are rather valid.

I would contact Film Africa with them either via the website; Twitter @filmafrica & Facebook page.

Zhana21 said...

Thanks very much for your comment

Zhana21 said...

They have a reputation for not responding to feedback.