By Beti Ellerson at the International Images Film Festival for Women (IIFF), Harare, Zimbabwe on November 2022 . As part of the festival events, Bisschoff presented her research on women in African cinema during a master class.
What was your experience with Africa and the moving image while growing up in South Africa and in what ways did that influence you?
I grew up in South Africa during the apartheid years, I was born in 1976. My youth was a crucial time of changes in South Africa – It was during the 1980s that the international anti-apartheid movements really gained momentum, there was more and more pressure from inside and outside of the country, which culminated in the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and the first democratic elections in 1994. The elections actually took place less than a month before I turned 18 so I was just too young to vote. So I think of myself as part of a generation of South Africans who grew up during a very specific period in the history of the country: I am a white Afrikaans-speaking South African who grew up in the era of apartheid but very much towards the end of it. When I started to develop my own political consciousness as a young teenager, things have already started to change drastically. Because of apartheid I had limited exposure to the moving image internationally, there was severe censorship that controlled what we could see on our television and cinema screens. With culture in general, such as music and progressive art, we were very isolated in terms of the access we had. But much like elsewhere Hollywood dominated the screens and those were the images that I was exposed to. In terms of local production, the subsidy scheme that was run at the time heavily favoured Afrikaans films, which resulted in a large number of films of quite poor quality, films which supported the nationalist ideologies of the apartheid government, and which were not critical at all and completely ignored the socio-cultural and –economic realities of the time. There were slapstick comedies for example, and films which romanticised the brutal and destabilising border war South Africa was waging at the time against its neighbouring countries. I remember seeing some of these films too.
However I also remember in particular the Afrikaans films of director Jans Rautenbach, who is now an elderly man and lives in the rural Karoo area of South Africa where he runs a guesthouse and various charitable projects to uplift the community around him. He made films in the late 1960s and early 1970s that engaged critically with what was going on in the country, films that warned the Afrikaners of the untenable nature of apartheid. His films were not overtly political to the extent that they would be banned, although he had many run-ins with the censors. He made a beautiful film called Katrina, for example, which is about a light-skinned girl of mixed-race who “pretends” to be white. It is a poignant film which ends in tragedy, showing the severe pain and displacement caused by the country’s ridiculous racial classification system of the time. Mr Rautenbach told me in an interview that when he met Nelson Mandela in the 1990s, Mandela told him that he saw Katrina while in prison, and “it gave me hope”.
So when I started my research on African cinema, these early memories of his work that I saw as a teenager started coming back. I was really keen to revisit his work and also to think about how somebody like him would be framed within the discourse of African cinema as a whole. South African cinema before the end of apartheid is generally excluded from the discourse of African cinema. But films such as those from Jans Rautenbach are part of the history of African cinema, they are not European so where else do they belong? Now in post-apartheid South Africa, the country is being reintegrated into the rest of the continent, not only culturally, but also economically and politically.
What inspired your research on women in African cinema?
I have an undergraduate background in feminist studies, although more in literature than in film, and I did a postgraduate degree in South Africa in audiovisual production. So for my Masters and PhD studies I wanted to combine my interest in feminist studies and my work in the audiovisual and the moving image. I also wanted to do something that was relevant to my identity as a South African, and upon my return to South Africa to be able to contribute something to knowledge production in the country. So I decided to do research on African cinema, something which I knew very little about at the time that I made the decision! Of course, growing up in apartheid South Africa I had no access to the amazing African films that were produced in West Africa, for example.
Initially I planned to work on Francophone West African cinema exclusively because of the very important representations of women that we have seen in the work of Ousmane Sembene and other West African directors who have created some really progressive views of women in African societies. I did my Masters thesis on gender representation of the works of Sembene, looking at a selection of work from his corpus, and that developed into wanting to work on women in African cinema. Then I went to the FESPACO film festival for the first time in 2005 and there was an important contingent of South African films, the grand prize that year went to the South African film Drum by Zola Maseko. It was also around that time that Tsotsi won the Oscar for best foreign film, and as a result there was a growing of awareness of post-apartheid South African cinema. The fact that Drum won the grand prize at FESPACO, which is historically a Francophone dominated festival, was quite significant, and I began to think about expanding my geographic scope to include South Africa as well. This then further developed into a broader regional focus on Southern Africa because I wanted to include films such as Sambizanga by Sarah Maldoror, set during the Angolan liberation struggle, and also Zimbabwean director Tsitsi Dangarembga’s work. I knew very little about the work of female directors in Africa when I decided to work on this subject, certainly it was a discovery when I started reading your work. Sisters of the Screen: Women of Africa on Film, Video and Television was the first book that I ordered when I commenced with my research, and reading those interviews was a process of discovery of how many women are working in the industry, what they do, the themes of their work. That was really the start of the research that I embarked on for my PhD.
Your approach? Theoretical framework?
I have always been interested in framing my work within an African ontology and epistemology. I have been careful not to transpose Western theoretical frameworks onto an analysis of African cultural products. This has been done before and still is. I made it quite clear in my thesis that I wanted to look at African theorists and philosophers and use their approaches to analyze African films. Postcolonial theory and the disruption of binaries, and the work of scholars such as Kwame Anthony Appiah and Achilles Mbembe have informed my work a lot. Postcolonial theory really offered a useful framework for my work and I thought that Sembene’s work in particular was very suitable to view within a postcolonial analytical framework. African feminism has also informed my work a lot. I have read African feminist scholar Obioma Nnaemeka’s work extensively and think her work is very appropriate to apply to the work of African women filmmakers. Nigerian feminist writer Amina Mama’s work has inspired me as well, and also the work of Gayatri Spivak, as a third world feminist and postcolonial theorist, especially her theories on the subaltern. In my thesis I looked at the work of female filmmakers and wanted to discover how they tell their stories, how their voices become part of African filmmaking.
Your methodology and findings?
I worked with a large corpus of films and at times I felt slightly overwhelmed by the number of films, which you can continuously add to because more films are being made all the time! I was cautious because I did not want my dissertation to become an encyclopedia of African women’s films which just lists an endless number of films. I initially thought to follow a geographical approach but in the end I opted for a thematic approach. What was useful in working within a thematic approach was that it allowed me to look in a comparative way at women’s films from West Africa and Southern Africa. I discovered different themes that bring the films together and this allowed me to find similarities and differences between them, which within a geographical approach would have been more limiting. As in your own work, what I essentially was trying to do was to look for an idea of a feminist aesthetic or a feminine aesthetic within African women’s films. There are fine nuances of differences in terms of how you would define those but primarily I looked at what is a female sensibility in film, can you identify it, what does it look like, what is a feminist aesthetic, and what is a female aesthetic within African filmmaking? Those were the sorts of questions that I wanted to address in my thesis. In terms of my findings, very simply I would say that my conclusion was that you have to think about a plurality and multiplicity of approaches within female filmmaking in Africa.
There is also a complexity around the use of the term feminist, which I have discovered through interviews with female African directors, and which you have probably come across as well. Often there is a resistance to the label of “feminist”. Female African filmmakers do not necessarily want to be known as feminist and do not necessarily position themselves as feminist filmmakers. And so to put that label on women’s work as a film theorist would be slightly arrogant. I also found differences between younger directors who are actually more conscious of and outspoken about gender in their work versus older women, such as Senegalese director Safi Faye. When I heard her speak at the Cambridge African film festival in 2005 she made it clear that she does not want to be known as a female or feminist filmmaker, she wants to be known simply as a storyteller. I could gather from her discussion that her label as the first black woman from sub-Saharan Africa to direct a film, has been both a blessing and a burden for her.
In short, the films that I was interested in looking at in my thesis would fall into the category of awareness-raising, political and educational films. These are fiction and documentary films that want to say something significant and important about the role of women in African societies, and not only to reflect on the present but also to present a vision for progress and change for the future. I wanted it to be clear in my thesis that those were the type of films that I was interested in looking at, and in the corpus of work I selected I could see that there were commonalities of approaches among Francophone West African and Southern African women’s filmmaking.
White South African women are generally not included in African women in cinema discourse, but rather are located within a western positionality. How did you contextualised them and their work in your research and study and what are your reflections on this ambiguous assignment of white South African women? Where do white South African women fit into the discourse on African women in cinema?
There were three white women who made films in South Africa during apartheid, English-speaking director Elaine Proctor, Mozambican-born Helena Nogueira of Portuguese origin, and the Afrikaans director Katinka Heyns. It is significant that they all chose to use female protagonists who are central to their filmic narratives. Their films were not only critical of gender inequality and patriarchy, but also of the political situation in South Africa at the time. Helena Nogueira, for example, made a film, Quest for Love, in 1988 that was very provocative and controversial for its time. It featured two of South Africa’s most beloved Afrikaans actresses, she made them lesbian lovers and placed them in a fictional African country called Mozania, strongly referencing Mozambique, and she critiqued South Africa’s political situation with its bordering countries. One of the women is a political journalist and the other is a marine biologist. The film was banned in South Africa at the time. The work of Katinka Heyns also deals with women’s issues and some of her work is quite strongly feminist. Elaine Proctor also made critical anti-apartheid films such as On the Wire and Friends, about a group of politically engaged students. These were the only three women, all white, who made fiction feature films in South Africa until the 2000s. It was only then that the fourth female director and the first black South African woman to make a feature fiction film emerged: Maganthrie Pillay, of Indian heritage, who released a feature film, 34 South, in 2005. Now of course there is a proliferation of women making fiction and documentary films in South Africa.
For me it was important to think of these pioneering South African female directors not only in the context of South African cinema but also within Africa cinema as a whole. I was inspired by your work in Sisters of the Screen where you included women from the African diaspora. I want to open up this category of “female African directors” even further and also include white women. I wanted to be inclusive and look at the history of this filmmaking strand as being part of not only the country but also the continent and thus I made a deliberate decision to include the work of these directors. I see them very much as African filmmakers who had something important to say about the socio-political circumstances of the time and who created provocative cinematic representations that challenged the status quo and wanted to show progressive political views in terms of gender and other areas, including race.
When you look at the discourse on African women in cinema there is still a separation of white women in Africa. They continue to be assigned to or work within a western framework, nonetheless. While there may be a discussion within cinema about white South African women as you are doing, when you talk about representation of the African women—body, sexuality—the discussion is framed around black African or North African women. Not even women of Indian and Malaysia descent. They are not yet part of the discourse. They join in the discourse, they study or teach or do films about black women. But within the context of “African women filmmakers” they are invisible. In talking about analyses of the body, screening of works at festivals, in academic courses, this appears to be the case. When you put a face on Africa—there is the general tendency to talk about black Africa. Do you see this changing as questions of plurality, multiple identities emerge?
There might be a justification for that in most of sub-Saharan Africa, because of the tiny white minorities that remain in these countries, but not in South Africa, exactly because of that diversity that you just described. For example, apart from the white women who work in the creative industries in South Africa, there is also a loose affiliation of Muslim women of Indian and Malaysian descent who work as filmmakers in the Bo Kaap in Cape Town, and who situate their work within an Islamic worldview. Their work prompted me to read Islamic feminist theory, and in particular the work of progressive Muslim scholars, of which there is a group working at the University of Cape Town. The Islamic context they work in is very different from the Arab world, North Africa and the Middle East, and is very particular to a South African Muslim identity. These women’s films are very much part of the multiplicity of female voices in South Africa, and should be recognised as well.
But I still go back to the question of where is the place for non-indigenous South African women—and here I am including Indian and Malaysian descent, in the broader discourse on African women in cinema?
I have attempted in my work to open up this category of African women’s films to include the work of white women and women of Indian and Malaysian descent. As I mentioned in relation to the work of Jans Rautenbach, these films are not European or Asian so in my mind they belong within the category of African cinema, which, of course, should always be thought of as hugely diverse and plural.
As white South African women have their place in African cinema discourse, I do not see the same tendency in discourses in European cinema for Euro-Africans to have a parallel place. They are assigned African identities in Europe, or Black British identities in the case of the UK, they continue to be assigned an African Diasporan identity. Or we can take a South African film where the white woman is protagonist, and her body will be viewed within a broader western, Mulveyan “white male gaze”. When a white woman is in Africa she will be assigned a western code of representation.
In South Africa there is an immense fusion of cultures when the country opened up after the end of apartheid and I regard myself as a part of this movement. There are certainly groups and individual white South Africans who actively want to integrate with African culture and who strive to be part of what it means to be South African in the full, diverse sense of the word. And I think that this happening, although there are of course other white South Africans who resist this. Afrikaans culture, for instance, have strong affinities with Europe. There is quite a strong cultural connection between Holland and South Africa because of the language. In fact, some Afrikaans musicians and writers are quite well known in Holland, and the other way around, and there are many collaborations between Afrikaans and Dutch artists.
I imagine that there are white South Africans, in particular Afrikaners, who see themselves as Europeans. My father, for example, calls himself Afro-European, so he embraces both parts of his identity, his European heritage as well as his South African-ness. So you will find different approaches to and configurations of white South African identity.
Our discussion makes me think of something interesting in terms of my own identity quest. I think this all has to do with the history of power struggles and power imbalances in South Africa how you place your identity within such a complex history. Growing up as an Afrikaner during apartheid, I am now very keen to integrate into African culture, not only South African culture, but also into the rich diversity of cultures on the whole of the continent. For me, my research and other work, for example the Africa in Motion film festival that I founded in Edinburgh, is as much a personal project as a professional career path. It has been very important to me to integrate into African culture, to learn more about the cultures that I did not have access to while growing up. We did not learn about African histories and cultures in school, and where we did, it was very much framed within apartheid ideologies of white supremacy. Even at university as an undergraduate student in Johannesburg what we studied in terms of philosophy and literature was dominated by European Enlightenment thinkers. We were not exposed to African cultures and histories while growing up in apartheid South Africa, so reconnecting with this has been very important to me.
In a different way, a black person born in Britain may want to have a connection with Africa, and the parallel to that would be for me to want to connect with European culture, but in fact I want to do the opposite. For me as a white person with European ancestry growing up in South Africa, I do not feel any affinity with Europe. You see for instance African Americans and British-born people of African descent visiting Africa to reconnect with something that they have lost and with their place of origin. But for me I do not have any desire to know where I come from in Germany.
But does that not come from a place of privilege. These same British-born people of African descent often do not have that same choice, even if they wanted to completely integrate into British culture—to identify with British history.
I agree with you! It has to do with a place of privilege and the history of imperialism and colonisation. I grew up as a white person in South Africa because of European colonisation in Africa, people of African descent grew up in Britain, America or the Caribbean also because of colonisation, imperialism and indeed also slavery.
You founded and directed the Africa in Motion (AiM) Film Festival in Edinburgh. What inspired you to create the festival?
I started planning it in 2005 simultaneously with the start of my PhD studies. I wanted to do something practical to make African cinema more accessible to the general public, and I did not want my work to be confined to the academic realm only. Over the past six years the festival has grown steadily and has gone from strength to strength. Africa in Motion has finally grown up and I have now handed over the directorship of the festival to Isabel Moura Mendes, an arts practitioner of Cape Verdean descent, who I am confident will take AiM to its next level of growth.
You future projects, plans?
I am currently a postdoctoral research fellow in the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh, researching the rise of East African cinema. Through programming Africa in Motion I became aware of the exciting developments in contemporary East African cinemas, so I decided to focus my next research project on this region. I am also teaching African popular culture at the University of Edinburgh, and recently my research interests have broadened somewhat to include other forms of contemporary cultural and artistic expression in Africa, beyond film. For example, I would love to work on areas such as contemporary African fashion, and African street art and graffiti. At the moment I am obsessed with the work of Senegalese fashion designer Oumou Sy!
I am also currently working as head researcher on a documentary series on the history of African cinema, commissioned by South African broadcaster MNet.
And, of course, I would really love to move back to South Africa in the not-too-distant future!