Wanjiku wa Ngugi, founder and director of the Helsinki African Film Festival which runs from 12-15 May 2011, talks about representations of Africa in Finland, this year’s festival theme “Women’s Voices and Visions”, and future goals for the festival to play a larger cultural role in Finland.
Wanjiku, please talk a bit about yourself and the creation of the Helsinki African Film Festival.
I was born and raised in Kenya. After high school, I attended New York University (NYU) where I studied Sociology and Political Science. It was actually here that I first met Dr. Manthia Diawara, a film-maker and critic, who was also the head of the Institute of African-American Affairs at NYU. I got a job assisting in his office and thus begun my introduction to African films. Growing up in Kenya, all we got to watch were Hollywood films and seeing black people on the big screen was a very rare occasion if ever. Anyway, a few years back I moved to Helsinki and was surprised at the level of misinformation about African people, both in the continent and the Diaspora. Even Finland has not escaped the Hollywood machine and the chronically negative representation of Africa in the News, so information about Africans is largely informed through the same narrow prisms. Hollywood has not exactly done any justice to the story of Africans, as most of their films—I am thinking here of popular films such as The Last King of Scotland or Blood Diamonds for example, are replete with stereotypes about Africa and Africans. And basically this is how HAFF was born—out of this need to deconstruct the depiction of Africa as this Dark Continent that only produces dark images, one-sided stories, and dehumanised people who should be pitied. Africa is not a country; I want to repeat this over and over again! We wanted to show the diversity of this continent, and begin a different conversation, one informed by a more realistic view as told by the Africans themselves.
This is the second edition of the festival, what was the response at its inception in 2010?
Our first film festival held in May last year was a huge success. Even we were pleasantly surprised at the level of interest shown. But in hindsight, we should not have—we should have recognized that people here have over the years been moving away from the usual sorts of politics. Even though the recently held elections may speak otherwise, the truth is that there is indeed much more openness within the Finnish society. It was only a question of creating an opportunity to see a different view of Africa, and people seized it. (I think the government here also recognized this as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs supported this initiative.) Almost all the film screenings were sold out, with some people even sitting on the steps of the cinema. We have also attracted interest from other provinces in Finland as well, so this year some of the films will be traveling to the provincial towns of Kuopio, Oulu, Lahti and Tampere too.
The theme for this year is “Women’s Voices and Visions”. Why the focus on women? How does this focus reflect your own interest and experience as an African, Kenyan woman?
We wanted to not only celebrate women in film but also raise awareness about the African women’s experience, highlight the global economic and political issues that affect them. We also wanted to showcase the diversity of African women, as well as hopefully move away from the tendency to depict African women as weak, voiceless and always as victims. And even though African women, like their counterparts in most parts of the world, have and are still engaged in the struggle for equal rights, they are far from weak, and have been at the forefront of many struggles. For instance, the women who were part of the Mau Mau armed resistance against the British colonial government in Kenya, the women’s role in the Algerian revolution, and most recently women right at the forefront in the Egyptian uprising and pro-democracy movements, and so on.
In the mainstream media, popular films, etc., make African women invisible and this has largely informed how African women are viewed especially in the West. Not long ago I met a journalist who was going to interview me about the African woman’s experience and after some pleasantries, she remarked that she was surprised to meet me as she was under the impression she was coming to interview an African woman. I mean here I was, a black Kenyan woman. How else can anybody see me, except as an African woman—unless she had some preconceived notion about African women? And I have other such examples, but this goes to show how African women have been pigeonholed to fit certain stereotypes.
The festival includes an exciting selection of films. Could you detail the program and talk a bit about the films and filmmakers that are included?
We are showing fifteen films in total, three of which are documentary films. The documentaries showcase women advocating for change albeit in different settings. Sisters in Law, a brilliant film about a judge and prosecutor determined to change the lives of women in Cameroon in the courtroom. There is the film, Taking Root, about Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai’s struggle to plant trees in Kenya and how it became a national political force. We get to see how this eventually evolved into a powerful women’s movement that shook the dictatorial government in Kenya at that time.
Our guest director is Caroline Kamya from Uganda whose debut film Imani highlights class differences in present day Uganda as depicted by three characters in the course of just one day. We also have this year’s FESPACO winner Pegasus, which is a powerful and beautifully shot film about a psychologist investigating a young girl who has been the victim of incest.
We have the compelling drama Barakat! directed by Djamila Sahraoui from Algeria, which chronicles the journey of two women who confront contemporary religious limitations imposed on women. From a Whisper by Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu is another must see film, and a moving tribute to the people who died following the US embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya.
Basically we have put together a cross-section of brilliant films covering different genres from across the continent. One definite highlight is the provocative sci-fi film Les Saignantes, in which two young femme fatales set out to rid a futuristic country of its powerful, corrupt and sexually obsessed men. It’s a completely unique film that is guaranteed to get people talking about Africa—and lots of other things too!
Film festivals at the same time venues for showing films, also serve as conduits for broader cultural initiatives. What are some of the future goals for the festival and other projects that focus on African culture and issues?
In the future we hope to screen more African films as our audience grows and to extend the cooperation with the regional film centres and everyone else interested in African cinema. We will continue to showcase progressive films that show the African people in motion and not in unrealistic and or subservient roles. We hope to incorporate more African art—music and literature. Of course all this is only possible if more funding channels are available, as right now we are producing the festival largely on a volunteer basis.