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If we don't tell our own stories, nobody will

Kristin Palitza
To cite this article: Kristin Palitza (2006) If we don't tell our own stories, nobody will, Agenda,
20:69, 152-157
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Published online: 27 Apr 2011.

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Date: 06 June 2016, At: 03:43

Downloaded by [University of Stellenbosch] at 03:43 06 June 2016

If we dont tell our own stories, nobody will

Agenda editor Kristin Palitza spoke to three African women filmmakers about gender-stereotyping
in film and their own standing in a male-dominated industry. Their films, which all investigate
womens lives and womens rights, were shown at the 27th Durban International Film Festival in
South Africa, in June of this year.

The film industry, in Africa and globally, has largely

remained a mens industry. Films are directed by
men, produced by men and told from a mens
perspective. Women actors remain in the shadow of
their male counterparts and are restricted to
traditional roles of mother, wife, lover or prostitute.
The close observer can, however, detect some
cautious yet significant change. Although in the
strong minority, a new guard of women
filmmakers is slowly making their way into the
public mind, and their work gains well-deserved
exposure. In contrast to what the industry refers to
as dominant cinema, they describe the world
with different eyes and tell its stories from a fresh
perspective a womens perspective.
Three members of this new generation of
women filmmakers are South African Zulfah OttoSallies as well as Zimbabweans Tsitsi Dangarembga
and Dorothy Meck. Their films scrutinise the
meaning of womanhood, investigate patriarchal
social constructs, closely look at gender roles and,
with that, shed a different light on what it means to
be a woman.

of a young mother beginning to understand the

pains and responsibilities of motherhood when
she gives birth to a baby-girl in prison.
Womanhood is also the theme of Tsitsi
Dangarembgas film Growing Stronger, which tells
the story of Tendayi Westerhof, model and exwife of the former coach of the Zimbabwean
national football team. Thendayi stunned the
nation by becoming the first public figure to







Dangarembga is also the author of award-winning

novel Nervous Conditions that questions identity
as a social construct and inferiority of women after
independence in Southern Africa.
Another investigation of female identity is
Dorothy Mecks Tanyaradzwa, which takes the
viewer on a young womens journey towards
survival. The film deals with patriarchal and
oppressive structures, communication between
parents and children, husbands and wives, and
gendered treatment of girls and young women.
The script was originally written by Mecks
male co-director, Tawanda Gunda. But when Meck

Zulfah Otto-Sallies feature film Dont Touch

read how Gunda portrayed women as dependent,

investigates a young womans rebellion against

lazy human beings, she knew the script had to be

authority figures. When 16-year-old Layla finds out

rewritten from a female perspective. She

that her father has married a second wife under


Muslim law, she feels betrayed by his actions and,

character, from the bad girl into the heroine of

for the first time, questions patriarchal structures.

the film a woman who fights for her rights

Otto-Sallies also produced the film Raya, the story

while viewing the mens actions rather critically.


AGENDA 69 2006






Kristin Palitza: As a female African filmmaker,

what are you hoping to achieve through your
Zulfah Otto-Sallies: I want to tell stories from a
female perspective. Most of my films deal with
relationships, e.g. mother-daughter relations, a
probe into the generation gap, how things differ
from generation to generation, from grandmother
to mother to daughter.

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Dorothy Meck: I want to portray women as real

women, as important entities in society. I want to
get the message across that women should not
be looked down upon. Women are often victims
of their circumstances.
Tsitsi Dangarembga: I am hoping to tell some
good stories in a visually interesting and groundbreaking way.
Zulfah Otto-Sallies

KP: Do you see yourself as a womens rights


remains a problem throughout the world, and, in

Africa, it is harder to secure funding for women

TD: Yes. It is unavoidable when you want to tell

and their films.

stories that are important to you as a woman. The

inevitable question is: Why are you narrating this?

DM: Its very complicated. Its hard to get credibility,

to be taken seriously and even harder to get

ZS: I see myself very much as one who fights for the
voice of women, particularly in my own community,
a Muslim community. I work towards the
empowerment of young women to tell their own

funding. Womens films are not much supported.

TD: I cant generalise. I am sure each woman has
a different experience.

stories and to find their own creative voices. If that is

KP: What is the percentage of women

what womens rights activists do, I guess I am one.

filmmakers in your country?

DM: I think I am, because I manage to convince

ZS: In South Africa, probably five percent of the

people. People ended up sympathising with

feature filmmakers are women, but many new

Tanyaradzwa instead of sidelining her.

female voices are making documentaries.

TD: I dont have figures. But looking around, there

KP: What does it mean to be a woman

are a lot of women making shorts, documentaries

filmmaker in the African film industry?

and video features in Zimbabwe.

ZS: The African film industry has few womens

DM: Right now, the only other woman filmmaker

voices. In this way, it is hard for women

in Zimbabwe I know is Tsitsi Dangarembga. Many

filmmakers with few role models and little

filmmakers have left the country, but I want to

opportunity to get their voices heard. Funding

make it here.

If we dont tell our own stories, nobody will



KP: How has the role of African women

filmmakers changed over the last 20 years?
ZS: Very little has changed. Women remain in the
minority, and not a lot of serious thought or action
is taken to ensure that we have a focus on the
female gaze in our feature films.
DM: Yet, women are becoming very determined
to induce change in the film industry.
TD: I wouldnt know. My suspicion is that the role

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of any filmmaker is to make a film that reaches

and engages people, and one that tells an
important story.
KP: What, if anything, unites the work of
women directors? Are there particular stylistic
or narrative strategies?
TD: I dont think so. Competition for scarce
Tsitsi Dangarembga

resources, also for recognition in an essentially

mens world, causes a lot of lack of cooperation.

KP: What needs to be done to give women

filmmakers better entry into the film industry?

That is why I am thankful for WFOZ. I find

sisterhood is important. I need a support group
where I can get inspiration and support.

TD: Womens film organisations need to be

supported. We have the Women Filmmakers of
Zimbabwe (WFOZ) organisation, but it has
received negligible support from donor agencies
and government. Yet, our product is good. We
deliver within budget and schedule. We also boast
some of the most highly trained and experienced
women in the film industry in Zimbabwe, yet
male-run organisations with lesser track records
than ours scoop the funding. Sometimes, this is
also the case with agencies who specifically say
that they are promoting women!
ZS: Policies will go a long way to secure more
films made by women, and gender affirmative
action will be welcomed.
DM: We need financial and moral support from
government, the corporate sector and even from
our families.


AGENDA 69 2006

ZS: Perhaps it is not so much style or narrative

structure but the way women view the world. For
example, ask a man and a woman to direct a sex
scene, and we will see that their perceptions are
very different.
DM: Women filmmakers need to speak with one
voice and support each other rather than work in
isolation. But thats a wish for the future.
KP: Who are your role models?
ZS: My mother for her hard work, honesty and
allowing me to dream.
DM: My pastor, a very strong woman who taught
me perseverance.
TD: I admire self-determined women with big
hearts who achieve in whatever sphere they are


in, be it running a rural kindergarten, a class of

young adults, a business or a country, or be it
making a revolution or cake or film or sculpture.
KP: How does your film speak to womens
TD: By representing the truth, as I see it. Im
talking about my work collectively here.
DM: Tanyaradzwa is a story of self-discovery and

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survival and demanding ones human rights.

ZS: My film highlights issues that women struggle
with but also focuses on how we as women can
be our worst enemy.
KP: What other womens stories have you told?
DM: I have done a documentary on women and
martial law in Southern Africa that closely
investigates inheritance laws and relationships
Dorothy Meck

between wives and husbands.

ZS: I have produced a short film, Raya, as well as

DM: Most women are portrayed as disempowered

a documentary, Through the eyes of my daughter.

human beings, prostitutes, witches, victims, virgins

TD: Several.

or mothers. We need to change this and tell real

stories, our own stories.

KP: What womens rights themes still need to

be addressed?

TD: How many African films do African people get

to see? Few. There are other classes of motion

TD: Everything! We learn by going over things

picture that are not film, such as television dramas

again and again in novel, interesting ways.

and series, but even there, living in Zimbabwe and

ZS: The theme of ordinary women in Africa who

not benefiting from a DSTV [satellite television] that

are the warriors and backbone of strength and

is much too expensive for me, I dont get to see

survival under strenuous conditions.

anything I could be bothered to comment on.

DM: Ultimately, we need to address all womens

rights within society.

KP: Has the role of women in film changed

within the past decade?

KP: How are women portrayed in African film?

TD: I doubt it. WFOZ is working on it and is

What are their dominant roles?

meeting a lot of resistance. It is easier for a

woman to make a film that supports the

ZS: Most films portray women as the object of

patriarchal status quo than to make a progressive

desire, with a few exceptions where women are

and/or interrogating film with respect to women.

shown as strong thinking characters.

However, in Zimbabwe, we are lucky that WFOZ

If we dont tell our own stories, nobody will



organises the International Images Film Festival

one would have to see if that corresponded to the

for Women (IIFF) each year in November. We

reality on the ground.

screen woman-centred films and do, by this

action, have the good fortune of often seeing

KP: What influences you as a woman filmmaker?

some masterly films about phenomenal women.

ZS: The strength of the women in my community
DM: It is a journey, but things are changing.
Women realise that it is time to stand up for

who against all odds and misconceptions develop

their own voice to be the best they can be.

themselves and change who they are. If we dont

tell our own stories, nobody will.

TD: The great films I see. Most recently,

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Sometimes in April by Raoul Peck and Ryna, a

ZS: Change has occurred, but a lot still needs to

Swiss-Romanian co-production, which we will be

be done to get women to see themselves move

screening at IIFF this year.

beyond the self-image of being a victim.

KP: Are women in African film portrayed
differently from women in film in the North?
ZS: I do see women portrayed almost in the same
way. I have three categories that I refer too

DM: I am influenced by where I am coming from

from a cold, male-dominated business world. It
forced me to be independent, strong and stand up
for myself.
KP: Do women filmmakers depict the world
differently from dominant cinema?

First, the woman as the object of desire. Second,

the woman that suffers and is abused. And third,
the woman as the victim of her circumstances.
Whether in the North, Africa or Hollywood, the
portrayal falls more or less in one of the
categories. Few films stand out as portraying

ZS: Women filmmakers perceive the world through

their eyes, and their perception is definitely not the
one portrayed in dominant cinema.
DM: Yes, I agree, women have a different way of
looking at the world.

women of strength, women in control or who take

control of their lives, or women who do not use
the armoury of sex to entice.

TD: I should hope so, but not necessarily. Also, I

think there are men who do not depict the world in
the same way as dominant cinema.

DM: There is a lot of stereotyping in Hollywood as

well. At some point, I wish we could get to the
stage where we can portray women as strong

KP: How do political, historical and cultural

factors shape your work?

individuals. We need to make real movies based

on real life.
TD: I would really like to be commissioned to do
some research on that. I imagine one would have
to classify films according to filmmakers and then
see whether they are comparable. Off the top of
my head, I would guess that the peculiar social
history of Africa influences the way in which
African women are portrayed in film. And so one
might be able to make some predictions. But then,


AGENDA 69 2006

TD: As they shape my experience and relationship

with the world.
ZS: Living in South Africa, we are shaped by the
legacy of our past, politics, slave history and the
loss of culture, and this always becomes a point of
reference in my work.
DM: My films are not political. But they closely
look at cultural norms and how they can be

KP: Why are still many films with a womens

sexism have on viewers?

rights perspective made by men or from a

male perspective?

ZS: The more times we see gender-stereotyping

and sexism, the more it gets instilled into our sub-

ZS: Men form part of dominant cinema and have

conscious mind and becomes reinforced and

easier access to the boys club where the voices


are already heard. Women are still the silent,

DM: Continuous gender-stereotyping is very

destructive and a setback to womens rights.

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TD: I think they lead to expectations. One has to

then have a very strong argument to convince the
viewer, and the funder for that matter, to engage
with an issue that does not correspond to this

voiceless ones without clubs. They are rarely

taken seriously.
TD: I think it is easier for men to access the
necessary resources. We would probably be
surprised at how many women out there wanted
to make a good film about women from their point
of view but are not empowered to do so.
DM: Many women dont have confidence

KP: Is there a lobby to counteract stereotyping

because of their gendered upbringing. Men are

of women in film in Africa?

still talking on our behalf and tell our stories. Its

time we rise up and speak for ourselves.

ZS: It is almost non-existent, but having more

female filmmakers will start making lobbying an

KP: How much do you consider the audience

active term.

when making a movie?

DM: I am yet to see it.

TD: A lot. After all, I want to engage the audience.
TD: Not that I know of beyond WFOZ.

Then again, I am the first audience. I have to enjoy

the film, too, or be gripped by it in some way.

KP: How effective do you think movies can be

in changing perspectives on womens rights
and their roles in society?

ZS: I tell stories that I think an audience can

identify with. Therefore, audience is an important
consideration when making a film.

ZS: Movies are exceptionally powerful since

DM: I do think quite strongly about the audience.

people relate to what they see. So, yes, it can

Films are nothing without the audience. But I

change perspectives.

dont target any specific audience. My films are

DM: Film is a very effective means of

meant for everyone.

communication. People quickly get the message.

They identify with the characters, and this can
change them. I can see film changing the world.
TD: Very effective. The more of them are out
there, the more they are distributed, the more the
change will take effect. This is why these kind of

Note: The filmmakers were interviewed separately, either

movies do not get made!

during face-to-face conversations or via email.

If we dont tell our own stories, nobody will



KP: What impact do gender-stereotyping and