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Female Filmmakers in Africa Take Control of Their Careers

With each new revelation to make headlines since the #MeToo movement first rocked Hollywood in 2017, film and TV industries around the globe have faced their own reckoning about sexual harassment, gender parity and equal opportunities for women both on and off screen.

That debate has had ripple effects across sub-Saharan Africa as well, where women in entertainment have long been underrepresented. Though the continent has not had its Harvey Weinstein moment, and few high-profile cases of men in the creative industries accused of sexual misconduct have made headlines, local bizzers say a shift is nevertheless under way.

“It’s a bit slower, and it’s perhaps having to take a lot more push to make it happen, but there is … a reckoning,” says Lara Preston of the Ladima Foundation, a Cape Town-based non-profit supporting African women working in film. “Across countries, it’s … inspired women to be more proactive and say, ‘We’re sick of this. We’re not taking this anymore.’”

The barriers to success for African women are widespread and endemic, reflecting systemic imbalances that extend far beyond the entertainment industry. Bringing women together to develop strategies to overcome those obstacles is what pushed Themba Bhebhe, who’s in charge of diversity and inclusion at this year’s EFM, to organize a panel discussion at the Berlinale Africa Hub on Feb. 8 focused on efforts to create more opportunities for African women working in film.

Bhebhe says he was inspired by the example of Ava DuVernay and her model of “inclusive network-building” when exploring how the EFM could support initiatives that are “not just depending on those structures which have been exclusive, but also creating new structures which are inclusive.”

One example of that collaborative spirit was set in motion last fall, when the Ladima Foundation launched the A-List, a database of female professionals working below-the-line that was designed to boost opportunities for African women in technical fields.

The initiative highlights concerted efforts to find strength in numbers. “There’s a scarcity mentality in the film industry in Africa, because the resources are so limited,” says Preston. “People feel like they’re fighting for a piece of the pie. But if you work together, you make the pie bigger.”

African women in cinema have had some noticeable successes of late, with Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu’s coming-of-age drama “Rafiki” world premiering in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard last year, and South African helmer Jenna Bass’ “Flatland,” a contemporary Western centered on three women’s search for self-discovery, opening the Panorama section at this year’s Berlinale. Both are notable not only for having women behind the camera, but also for going against the grain of contemporary cinematic depictions of African womanhood. (“Rafiki,” about the budding romance between two teenage girls, was banned in Kenya, where homosexuality is illegal.)

Such representation on the film world’s biggest stages, though, is still the exception, rather than the rule. Despite strides by the likes of Berlin and Toronto, which have consistently pushed diversity to the forefront, Bhebhe notes that transformation needs to extend to sales agents and festival programmers as much as directors and DoPs, so that it’s taking place “at the level of the people making those decisions who are influencing tastes and curating culture.”

Practical challenges abound. South African producer Bongiwe Selane notes that despite a growing interest in African content from foreign buyers, female filmmakers are hamstrung by a lack of infrastructure that allows their talents to blossom. “Projects don’t get to see the light of day, because there aren’t [enough] strong producers to take those projects to the next level,” she says.

Last year European Audiovisual Entrepreneurs, the Intl. Film Festival Rotterdam and the Cape Town Intl. Film Market and Festival announced efforts to redress that shortfall, with a partnership that will offer professional training, project development and networking to African producers. Such moves are necessary to shore up emerging professional networks and deepen the talent pool of African women, while underscoring how the gains made in this post-#MeToo moment are only the beginning.

“More and more women are standing up and taking their space in the industry,” says Preston. “There’s a renewed sense that we’ve got to be in this together. The only way it’s going to change is if we change it.”

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