African Politics, Reflected Through Women’s Bodies

in 11th Luxor African Film Festival

by Veronika Zakonjšek

For the 11th year, Luxor African Film Festival (LAFF) has brought a diverse selection of African films to this ancient city, filled with breath-taking historical sights, yet to this very day without its own film theatre where local people could discover the wonders of the seventh art throughout the entire year. Eager to spend a week getting immersed in visual stories from different parts of the continent, the screenings were often packed, with people of all generations gathering at Luxor Cultural Palace, searching to escape into imaginative worlds of narrative African Cinema(s).

Primarily focusing on the up-and-coming directors still finding their footing inside the international film community, the program was bursting with fresh perspectives and ideas. Yet at the core of the festival’s relatively young identity, we could also sense a feeling of hope and anticipation towards connecting the continent still suffering from emotional separation between North African and Sub-Saharan countries; rebuilding their severed relationships, scattered and separated by language and colonial boundaries through the art of cinema. The 10 feature titles from 10 different countries in the narrative section, was a compelling ride through audio-visual stories, revealing important social issues and reflecting on the countries’ specific traditions, histories and cultures.

Despite all the titles being the works of male directors, a distinct thematic thread defines the majority of them: that of gender inequality and women’s position in African society. To quote a Nigerian director Judy Kibinge: “As my film language slowly and painfully formed, I realised how modern African patriarchy was reducing traditionally strong womenfolk to second-class citizens, maintaining oppressive cultural practices whilst simultaneously stripping away the respect and esteem that past generations had accorded us.” It’s an issue the directors of this year’s Narrative Competition Program fully recognized and addressed, which is a welcome effort, yet still one done from a male (however well-intentioned) perspective.

Such shortcoming is to be found in an otherwise enlightened and progressive Zambian film Maria Kristu; The Buumba Story (Paul. S. Wilo, 2021), about a teenager rebelling against the world of religious brainwashing, misogyny and gender inequality. 16-year-old Buumba, portrayed by a naturally talented newcomer, is searching for her creative, societal and sexual freedom in rural Zambia where a woman’s place is still believed to be beside her husband. Where virginity is perceived to be woman’s highest virtue and where the restrictive and heavily indoctrinated dogmas of Maria Kristu Church represent the village’s highest authority. Men, arrogant and domineering, perceive their wives as property, but so do the female preachers of the Church, oppressively inspecting young women’s intactness, deciding their fate by either arranging their marriages or condemning them to exile, humiliation and lifelong stigma. Yet Buumba trying to defy the rigidly imposed gender norms by seeking a different path for herself doesn’t necessarily offer enough substance for a feature: the film quickly overruns its time and loses its primary focus with side stories that never lead anywhere. By only marginally touching upon topics such as reproductive health, protected sex, genital inspection, domestic violence and women’s social exile in case of marital disobedience, the film leaves many stones unturned and lots to be desired, thus wasting its opportunity to explore the tightly controlled repression practiced on women’s bodies in a deeper, more substantial way. Filmed in “guerrilla conditions” and without any funds, it’s hard to compare its technical quality to anything else we’ve seen, but the film still fell short in commanding the basics of cinematic language, particularly when it came to lighting and filming indoors; there, the actors’ faces simply disappeared into the background, with the entire sequences being swallowed into darkness.

Similarly lacking in its cinematic execution was The Agreement (L’Accord, 2022) by Lea Malle Frank Thierry. Set in the director’s native Cameroon, the film tries to tackle major subjects such as gentrification, increasing class divide, unequal access to education and gender inequality, further exemplified by the central story of a girl that has been drugged and raped at her boyfriend’s party. But the film tries to undertake too many problems at once, falling into a trap of setting up a narrative filled with one-dimensional dichotomies of rich vs. poor, city vs. slums, men vs. women and bad vs. good, where people lack any depth or subjectivity. The Agreement tries too hard to make a point by presenting all the social, economic and gender inequalities of an unspecified Cameroonian city, but at the expense of the African people it portrays, towards whom the film never builds any empathy. This includes the girl whose rape it is trying to problematize, as it hardly bothers presenting the emotional or physical distress that would normally follow such a tragic and deeply damaging event. Her rape is thus used as a means to an end: thoughtlessly taken advantage of for a moralizing tale about rich exploiting the poor, to the extent of mistreating and traumatizing their bodies.

However, I believe there are multiple definitions and realities of poverty, gender relations and family dynamics, where not all who were victimised by centuries of economic exploitations and generational traumas, turned into lifelong victims or lost their sympathy towards their peoples. Indeed, The Gravedigger’s Wife (2021) by Somalian director Khadar Ayderus Ahmed was by far the most aesthetically accomplished film we’ve seen, but it was also a remarkable example of a film that built its characters with dignity and compassion. Still dealing with common subjects of African cinema, such as modernity vs. rurality, poverty and class struggle, these topics are approached with humanity that fully embraces the family relations inside the story: including the storyline of a dying mother, whose husband and young son are trying to gather enough money to cover her routine kidney operation. There are moments of real tenderness and love among them that, despite her poor health, show us the fleeting remains of a society where women were once cherished and respected beyond their reproductive functions: as human beings, life companions and loving, yet strict mothers.

Similarly, a Tunisian dramedy Communion (Néjib Belkadhi, 2021), slightly indirectly deals with women issues in a corona-infected, quarantined Tunis. The city’s streets are empty and abandoned; people, anxious and afraid, are locked in their apartments. Sarah works with people whose situation deteriorated due to lockdown: after all, this has been a time when domestic abuse cases went through the roof, and when escaping from abusive relationship has become harder than ever before. Yet her situation at home doesn’t seem any easier, as her husband Qais who suffers from an undefined mental illness, finds himself without his medicine. His health starts to crumble in what is portrayed as somewhat too comical decline into madness, when she discovers she’s pregnant. It’s a subtle side-story, yet a bold one, as the film immediately offers the possibility of abortion, which feels like a “natural” solution in the circumstances of a world as we know it seemingly coming to an end. But there are other reasons smartly layered underneath: does she even want a child who could inherit her husband’s mental illness?

It’s been a week full of enriching cinema experiences, but one thing remains clear: African Cinema(s) remain criminally underfunded, and seems either forced to kneel in the dust, begging the Western world for a fistful of dollars to afford a proper crew and equipment, or be left to their own guerrilla devices that can hardly compete with foreign productions. But hopefully initiatives, such as Luxor’s own The Factory, dedicated to providing rising female talents a platform for workshops, pitchings, networking and international funds, will gradually build grounds for a prosperous and thriving African cinematic landscape.

Veronika Zakonjšek
Edited by Rita Di Santo