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African female filmmakers converge in Benin

Katrin Gänsler in Cotonou
February 23, 2024

The International Women's Film Festival features 18 films, all made by women.

 A woman wearing a grey dress lays on a bed with a light green sheet as the female camera crew talks to her.
The International Women's Film Festival in Benin features themes that mostly affect womenImage: Katrin Gänsler

The auditorium of the only cinema in the capital of Benin, Cotonou, is filled to capacity. Those who arrive late have to sit on the floor. On this evening, one woman takes center stage: Cornelia Glele.

This is the third time since 2019 that the 26-year-old has organized the Cotonou International Women's Film Festival (FIFF), which runs until February 24. Glele is a journalist, filmmaker and blogger.

She has succeeded in inviting female filmmakers, directors and actors from all over Africa, organizing a competition with 18 films and initiating debates about African productions and the role of women in cinema.

What is remarkable is that women directed all the films which will be screened during the festival. Ten young women were selected from more than 100 applications.

"I didn't know them personally. So they are not friends of mine," Glele told DW to avoid any suspicion of nepotism. She also initiated and managed this project. The highlight was the seven-day shoot in Parakou in northern Benin.

Women sitting on white and orange chairs listen on as one woman addresses them via a microphone.
Female filmmakers and participants of the festival discussed the role of women in filmsImage: Katrin Gänsler

Cinema through the eyes of women

In a residential building in Parakou, dubbing clapperboard number 17 falls. A central and challenging scene is being filmed. A young woman lies on the bed and realizes that she is incontinent as a result of a fistula in the genital area.

Fistula affects around 2 million women worldwide, mainly on the African continent.

In the story, a miscarriage is responsible. The main character, Malaika, endured forced marriage as a minor. Her body was not yet ready for pregnancy. The health consequences are just as fatal as the social stigmatization.

One of the participants is Maimouna Garba, who comes from neighboring Niger. Training opportunities lasting several months like this are rare, and the 24-year-old is delighted. "I'm having an incredibly great time with the other participants that I'll never forget. It's fantastic," Garba told DW.

The 10 young women are responsible for everything themselves. Each of them has written two scenes in the script. They have to handle the locations, props, sound and camera work.

African filmmakers challenge Western narrative

Women's themes at the forefront

Above all, they can tell a story that is important to them from their point of view. It's not always the major crises that dominate from a European perspective. It's actually about everyday experiences.

Garba has already been able to do this in previous film projects in Niger.

"Together with other girls, I was selected to make a documentary about gender-based violence. We dealt with sexualized harassment at school and work," Garba said. "My film was then shown at two festivals."

For Cornelia Glele, however, another aspect is central. Women are not just victims of circumstances but can act for themselves.

"We must finally stop showing the poor girl who one day meets the prince and becomes rich without doing anything herself," the young filmmaker stressed. She regrets that such narratives ended up with the married woman in the kitchen depending on the man to bring the money home.

A young woman a a black T-shirt smiles into the camera.
Maimouna Garba has already produced a film about gender-based violence in NigerImage: Katrin Gänsler

Fighting stereotypes

While making the film "Malaika," Glele noticed how strongly traditional stereotypes are still anchored today. "The first day of training was very difficult. Someone said: I don't pay bills at home. My husband has to do that."

Another stereotype she heard was that the man had no right to set foot in the kitchen. The women filmmakers repeatedly discussed their views for a month and increasingly questioned them.

Angele Marie Hougbelo, Glele's mother, told DW her daughter has long been a champion of women's rights.

"Even at elementary school, she protested when a little girl was teased. At secondary school, she campaigned for sex education right up to her A-levels," said Marie Hougbelo.

A woman wearing a colorful dress and glasses looks into the camera.
Angele Marie Hougbelo, mother of filmmaker Cornelia Glele, said educating girls is key to their independenceImage: Katrin Gänsler

It wasn't easy for her mother back then. "She wasn't at home at all; she was always out and about, even though she was only 17, said Marie Hougbelo. "Sometimes, I was worried and hoped nothing would happen to her. She was out and about in male-dominated areas."

Undeterred by obstacles

Glele once left a company because she was being harassed there. Her steadfastness was particularly evident during the opening ceremony: "It was very emotional. I sometimes wondered how such a young person mobilizes so many others," Glele's mother said proudly.

Marie Hougbelo believes girls need a good education to be financially independent. Cornelia "succeeds in all of this because she is modest and people-oriented," she added.

Glele has already announced that the next FIFF will be held in 2026. Most likely, a bigger hall will be needed by then.

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu