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  • African Women and the Documentary: Storytelling, Visualizing History, from the Personal to the Political1
  • Beti Ellerson (bio)

The practice of storytelling, of relating actuality, the real, of recounting history, the personal, the social, the political, are all features of the screen culture in which African women have evolved in myriad ways as stakeholders in the cultural production of their society and world. Telling stories through documentary in particular has been a dominant mode among African women, perhaps out of a genuine interest in addressing the pressing issues in their societies and relating stories that would otherwise not be told. Their filmmaking practice is indicative of the diversity of themes they address, using eclectic approaches, autobiographical, experimental, hybrid, consciousness-raising, sociopolitical, as well as within translocal and transnational spaces—some going beyond the cultural references of the filmmakers. This article brings together current trends and tendencies incorporating African women who span the globe, utilizing diverse languages, reflecting a plurality of experiences, histories, cultures, and geographies.

African Women’s Documentary Filmmaking Practices as Intangible Cultural Heritage

African women film documentarians are making an invaluable contribution to Africa’s intangible cultural heritage, an observation that scholar Bertrand Cabedoche remarks in his research on documentary cinema in sub-Saharan Africa. 2 The notion of documentary filmmaking practice by African women as intangible culture heritage is worthy of broader exploration, especially in light of the prevalence of this genre in African women’s cultural production.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), cultural heritage does not end at monuments and [End Page 223] collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge, and skills to produce traditional crafts. 3 The above-mentioned practices, all of which African women documentarians incorporate in their work, are visual evidence of their role as cultural agents and the vital function they play as cultural producers. Hence, the preservation of these traditions and expressions through documentation via the moving image is essential.

Two pioneering African women, Cameroonian Thérèse Sita-Bella and Efua Theodora Sutherland of Ghana, used the moving image to document historical events of their respective societies. Trailblazing journalist Thérèse Sita-Bella entered this domain even before most of the male filmmakers recognized today as pioneers. She produced Tam Tam à Paris in 1963, a thirty-minute film documenting the National Dance Company of Cameroon during its tour in Paris. In 1969, the film was featured at the first edition of the emblematic Panfrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO). Similarly, renowned playwright Efua Sutherland stepped into African cinema history with the 1967 production of Araba: The Village Story. The film was produced for the US television network ABC to document the successful Atwia Experimental Community Theatre Project, universally known as a groundbreaking model for the Theatre for Development. 4 Both foremothers in African cinema, though having only produced one film each, their documentation of African culture and experiences is indicative of the practices of many African women. Some women enter cinema as a primary career, while others use the filmmaking as a medium of expression in their work in other fields.

UNESCO further observes that an understanding of the intangible cultural heritage of different communities helps with intercultural dialogue, and encourages mutual respect for other ways of life. 5 African women’s documentary work is increasingly visible on the international film festival circuit and cultural venues worldwide, indicative of both the growing global interest in sharing cultures through the moving image and the evolution in dialogic exchanges that these visual documents invoke. While all categories and genres are represented at most of these venues, the predominance of documentary work by African women makers is evidence of their significant contribution to this genre.

UNESCO also emphasizes that the importance of intangible cultural heritage is not the cultural manifestation itself, but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next. 6 In this regard, the first generation of African...


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pp. 223-239
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