Women Filmmakers of the African and Asian Diaspora: Decolonizing the Gaze, Locating Subjectivity and With Open Eyes: Women and African Cinema
Reviewed by Judith Mayne
Judith Mayne, is Professor of French and Women’s Studies at The Ohio State University.
Prior to the development of feminist film studies in the early to mid 1970s, most discussions of “women and film” meant discussions of actresses in film. Although early, ground-breaking works like Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape (New York: Holt, 1974) and Marjorie Rosen’s Popcorn Venus (New York: Coward McCann and Geoghegan, 1973) did concentrate on women’s roles on screen in Hollywood, it was not long before feminists began nothing less than a total re-evaluation of what it means to speak about “women and film” in the first place. Most feminists saw much to criticize in the auteurist approach to film, the dominant critical approach of the 1960s, where the film director—virtually always male—is seen as the most important creative and artistic force in the creation of a film’s aesthetic vision. The limitations of auteurism could be read in a variety of ways. Some feminist critics began a process of excavation, looking to reclaim those women directors whose work had been ignored either in film history or film criticism or both. Other feminist critics looked at the work that tended to be described as “women’s work” in the film industry—fashion design, cutting and editing, and—to a certain extent—screenwriting. Still other feminist critics were less interested in women’s actual contributions to the film medium and more concerned to understand how the dynamics of cinematic representation depended upon very precise notions of gender difference.
However different the approaches associated with feminist theories of film as they have developed from the mid-1970s to the present, they have tended, until quite recently, to assume the omnipresence and universality of Hollywood cinema. Now this makes a certain kind of sense, for Hollywood has defined and continues to define most of the cinematic practices that define what the cinema means for most viewers. Yet there is a way in which critics, by making Hollywood the measure of all cinematic production, turn it into more of monolithic institution than it is. In other words, by ignoring the vast array of cinematic production that takes place far beyond Hollywood, both geographically and metaphorically, film critics—feminist and otherwise—affirm what is ultimately a very narrow range of concerns.
The two volumes under review here contribute both to the documentation of alternative cinemas and to the conceptualization of feminism and film in ways that go far beyond Hollywood. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s Women Filmmakers of the African and Asian Diaspora surveys the careers of women filmmakers working in the US and Great Britain through their diasporic heritages of tradition and displacement. Kenneth Harrow’s edited volume, With Open Eyes, takes its title from Anne Laure Folly’s 1993 film, [End Page 238] Femmes aux yeux ouverts, and offers a wide range of essays that explore not only African women filmmakers but also the representation of women in films by African male directors and in films about Africa by directors from Europe and the US.
Foster’s book is organized as a survey of the careers of six women directors—Zeinabu irene Davis, Ngozi Onwurah, Julie Dash, Pratibha Parmar, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Mira Nair. While the women differ in their cultural identities and in their approaches to filmmaking, Foster sees nonetheless a connection between them in terms of the similar processes of the revision and reconceptualization that characterize their work. Most importantly, these directors are united in their pursuit, as the subtitle of the book has it, of a “decolonization of the gaze.” This decolonization works on several levels. Those familiar with feminist psychoanalytic film theory recognize the mantra of the “male gaze” as one of the key concepts in the understanding of cinema as shaped and defined by the power of the look, one based almost exclusively on male authority. From the vantage point of feminist film theory, it is important for women filmmakers to devise strategies whereby women can look back (at the camera, at the viewer) or look differently (say, in reciprocal rather than dominating fashion). But almost without exception, feminist film theorists have tended to privilege certain kinds of cinema as providing alternatives for women—avant-garde, experimental, and usually made by white women of North America or Europe. Foster is thus seeking not only to draw attention to works by black and Asian women of the diaspora, but also to suggest that their works offer stunning examples of cinematic style, invention, and experimentation. In other words, there are many ways to redefine the cinematic gaze.
Of the filmmakers discussed in Foster’s book, only Trinh T. Minh-ha and Julie Dash have already received extensive critical attention. Therefore insofar as Davis, Onwurah, Parmar, and Nair are concerned, Foster is breaking ground. There is much to be said for Foster’s approach to these directors, for in situating them in relationship to each other she is able to draw a number of insightful parallels concerning, in particular, the function of tradition and revision. Foster is full of praise for the films that are discussed, and while it is refreshing to see such a celebration of women’s filmmaking, there are moments when one would like some indication of controversy or debate. Ngozi Onwurah’s film The Body Beautiful, for example, has been both praised and criticized for its display of the female body, and some discussion of the terms of this debate would have been appreciated.
In a final chapter, Foster provides a survey of the works of many other women directors, ranging from Camille Billops to Safi Faye. All in all, Foster’s book provides thoughtful and detailed readings of the works of the women directors who, in different ways, are creating new kinds of cinema. Certainly one is left with questions at the conclusion of Foster’s book, particularly concerning how the differences between the six filmmakers selected for close study are as significant as their similarities. But that such questions emerge is a sign of the book’s success.
Implicit throughout Foster’s book is a question that has haunted feminist work on film throughout its history—who are the “women” in “women [End Page 239] and film”? That question also informs the essays and bibliographies that comprise the special issue of Matatu, edited by Kenneth Harrow, on women and African cinema. To speak of African cinema in any kind of general sense is as difficult as it is to speak of the diasporic filmmakers Foster studies as a unified group. Hence it is no surprise that many of the contributors to Harrow’s volume question what it means to speak of women and African cinema in the first place. Two essays in the volume are concerned with women directors who are not African but who portray Africa in their work: Trinh T. Minh-ha’s film about Senegal, Reassemblage, receives a thorough reading by Stephen A. Zacks in which the filmmaker’s assumptions are queried in a very productive way, and Claire Denis’s autobiographical film Chocolat is analyzed in terms of the desire for otherness by William A. Vincent. While many of the contributors to the volume note the difficulties that African women face in becoming accomplished filmmakers, some of the most insightful essays in the volume are those that discuss and analyze the works of women directors like Assia Djebar (in an excellent essay by Mildred Mortimer), Anne-Laure Folly and Flora M’mbugu-Schelling (in editor Harrow’s very provocative contribution to the volume). Other essays in the volume treat the representation of women in films by male directors and the thematics of gender in African cinema.
Nancy J. Schmidt’s essay (with a very useful filmography), a review and analysis of the issues and problems in researching the careers of African women directors, offers a series of superbly formulated questions that summarize and move forward the analysis of women in African cinema. Sarah Maldoror was at one time considered the “only” African woman film director. But as Schmidt notes, Maldoror is “Guadeloupean by birth, Angolan by marriage and works in Paris” (168). “Is Maldoror an African filmmaker?” Schmidt asks, but then goes on immediately to qualify that question with another, far more reaching question: “More relevant is why some Africans consider her to be an African filmmaker, and what has been her influence on African filmmakers, including women.” In the process of defining African women’s cinema, Schmidt suggests that attention always must be paid to what the terms of definition are, and who is doing the defining.
Perhaps the most useful contribution to the volume is Emilie Ngo-Nguidjol’s annotated bibliography on women in African cinema. The largest sections of her bibliography are devoted to “approaches” and “filmmakers,” but she includes entries on costume designers, make-up artists, and reception as well. In other words, the ways in which women can be understood in relationship to African cinema are vast and varied, and these two recent books offer new and important perspectives on the directions those understandings have taken and will take in the future.
Women Filmmakers of the African and Asian Diaspora: Decolonizing the Gaze, Locating Subjectivity, by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1997. 177 pp. Illustrated.
With Open Eyes: Women and African Cinema, by Kenneth W. Harrow, ed. Special issue of Matatu: Journal for African Culture and Society 19 (1997): 1-263. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997.
Copyright © 1999 by The Indiana University Press. All rights reserved.