- The Two Faces of a Bamiléké Woman and Chez Jolie Coiffure
At a double screening in Seattle of Chez Jolie Coiffure (2018) and The Two Faces of a Bamiléké Woman (2016), filmmaker Rosine Mbakam fielded an awkward, if well-intentioned, question. Is the poetic voice in The Two Faces uniquely hers? Or is there just something inherently poetic about “the Cameroonian people?” Mbakam’s answer was both kind and disingenuous. “I don’t know where it comes from,” she replied. “I just write what is in my heart.”
It is no surprise that audiences look for ethnography in Mbakam’s films. As Mbakam herself put it in a question-and-answer session following the Seattle screening, stories of Cameroonian womanhood are virtually unknown to international film audiences. And for audiences in Cameroon, the films can be a surprising entrée into the mysteries of life as a migrant, especially a migrant woman. Both films, moreover, are styled as filmic ethnography. Chez Jolie Coiffure is shot in the venerable tradition of observational cinema, long a hallmark of visual anthropology. The Two Faces uses the essay-film format to explore the rituals—everyday and extraordinary— that make up a cultural life.
The desire for a filmic passport to “the Cameroonian people” is clearly misplaced, but the instinct to mine Mbakam’s films for big themes and insights about the social world of Cameroonian women today is not. The question of what, exactly, Chez Jolie Coiffure and The Two Faces are the ethnographies of, and the expert craftsmanship with which Mbakam puts them together, undermine her claims to naiveté. The films are very different, but both are unusually sophisticated looks into the worlds of their subjects, masterfully constructed by a filmmaker with a deft and sophisticated knowledge of cinema and how it works.
The Two Faces of a Bamiléké Woman, Mbakam’s first feature-length film, is the most accessible for general audiences—certainly for undergraduate classes in African, gender, or migration-and-diaspora studies. The premise is straightforward. After leaving Cameroon to study film in Belgium, she returns to her mother’s house with her white European husband and their first child in tow. Mbakam becomes participant-observer in a world that is familiar from her childhood but alien to her as an adult. Her mother is the main subject and frequent interviewee, but Mbakam also moves through the worlds of the women that surround her mother—at the market, [End Page 133] in the neighborhood, and most powerfully, at her financial cooperative, the tontine. Mbakam herself is always powerfully present through handheld, first-person camerawork; by physically appearing at times before the camera; in voiceover, off-camera conversations, and interview questions; or by proxy, through shots of her child. What the camera captures is the stuff of many “village ethnographies”: the rituals of naming and bathing a newborn, healing a new mother, marking a death, and preserving the memories of the deceased. But for Mbakam, this is the ethnography of a cultural life largely missed. A network of women, for example, helped her mother through childbirth; when Mbakam herself gives birth in Belgium, she is alone with her husband. When her breastmilk will not flow, no one has ideas for what to do next. The film becomes the vehicle through which she connects with the lives from which she was separated in Europe, including, in a sense, her own.
The Two Faces’ brilliance as ethnography is that it does not fall into easy romanticism about what life for Mbakam might have been. Whatever she may have missed when she left Yaoundé, what she left behind was often painful. She experiences that pain physically when her mother rubs her with a steaming cloth, enacting the postpartum bathing procedures meant to help new mothers heal. She sees it in the stoic expressions of women in the photographs her mother keeps and hears it in the stories of arranged teen marriages and polygamous households in which spouses do not get along. Filmmaking becomes the...