Film Show 010: Rosine Mbakam
An interview with director Rosine Mbakam, whose new film 'Delphine's Prayers' played at this year's edition of the Sheffield DocFest
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Rosine Mbakam is a Cameroonian director based in Belgium. Her documentaries push back against Western ethnographic documentaries about Africans and provide authentic and intimate portraits of Cameroonian women. Mbakam’s debut feature film The Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman saw her returning to Cameroon for the first time in seven years, filming her mother as she shared personal stories about her life. Her second feature film Chez Jolie Coiffure finds focuses on a hair salon run by Sabine, a Cameroonian woman living in Belgium. We hear stories about immigration and witness the dangers that she and others face, all while white Belgians peer through glass windows, which makes obvious the Cameroonians’ othered presence. Mbakam’s newest film Delphine’s Prayers played at this year’s edition of the Sheffield DocFest and focuses on Delphine. We learn of her rape, her life as a sex worker, and how her escape from a patriarchal society in Cameroon has only left her with survival through means of sexual exploitation. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Mbakam on June 11th, 2021 to discuss her childhood, her films, and the “absurdity of African cinema.”
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello, how has your day been?
Rosine Mbakam: It’s been fine. There’s a lot of sun (laughs).
Did you do anything?
I just worked at home today. There wasn’t anything new!
I wanted to start off by asking about your childhood. I know you were born in Cameroon. When you think about your childhood, what’s one of the happiest memories you can remember?
The happiest memory is just life in my neighborhood. With the retrospective of my work, I saw how art was in life. I was thinking at the time that art was something big and exceptional, that we have to move somewhere else to see art. Now, I see that what brought me to cinema is the way that we were living: art was mixed into the rhythm of daily life. My greatest memories are when I would wake up in my neighborhood and see my neighbors sing and dance—they would do this in the street! I wouldn’t see it as art at the time but I know that it’s art today. I really miss those moments, they were really amazing. In Africa, and in Cameroon especially, art is in the way people are living.
I imagine that in Belgium you’re not going to wake up and see people dancing in the street.
No, no (laughter). I was in Cameroon ten days ago preparing a movie and I was in the street and it was like, yes, it’s the same thing, I can see performances. When we’re living there, we don’t take it seriously because it’s a part of life. When we describe art we do so in the way that the West describes art, but we need to see our culture and our art as it is in our own society.
When was the last time you were in Cameroon before that trip?
The last time was in 2019. I was there to launch Caravane Cinéma, which is a streaming project. I was going back with all the films that I made to all the people I filmed. I brought back my first movie [The Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman] to my mother and all her friends and it was a great experience. We didn’t do it in 2020 and this year because of the pandemic, but I hope that we can go by the end of the year.
How did your mom and her friends respond to seeing the film?
People need to see their culture, even just some faces that look like them. I remember that we went to the tontine with all the women. I went there to show the women the film, and they were like, “Oh my god, it is possible that we can see our story and our faces onscreen!” There was a woman who told me, “Why is it taking so long for us to see our culture? We need to see that!” Sometimes, with young people, I can see how their thoughts are shifting. The young generation are used to seeing European programs and it is disconnected from their own reality. How can you have an impact on something or change something you don’t see? If you don’t see your reality, you cannot change it, you can’t have an impact.
It is a huge problem today with Africa. We think we are knowledgeable but our thoughts produce images that are not our own. We see Asian films and European films but not enough African films. We are open to the world but not enough to our own reality. It’s why I launched my caravan cinema. We need to gain knowledge. If we want a generation that has an impact on their reality, they have to use the knowledge of their reality and connect with it.
I think that’s what I really like about your films. It’s really clear that these women can’t always express how they’re feeling, so with your camera and interviewing, you allow for hidden truths and stories to come out.
It’s important for me. I learned cinema here in Belgium but after that I knew I had to find my own way of doing it. The [typical] way of doing cinema is Westernized. In Cameroon, I am not going to the theater to see someone dance—I can see a performance in the street. I don’t have to take it and put it somewhere and give it the name of “art”; I have to find a way to film it and not destroy the singularity of what I want to make, and that is the way I want to do cinema. I was colonized in the way I was thinking about doing cinema, and now I have to deconstruct that.
My passion for cinema burns when seeing Western cinema. When I was originally thinking about making films, I thought about creating something similar to what I was watching, but that’s not my reality. If I was creating cinema like that, I would be destroying all the things that I want to make. The first thing is that I can’t take a crew with me. I can’t take a crew to my family—my mother would not be comfortable speaking with me. Every time, I have to respect the reality I’m in, respect the authenticity, and be aware of how I can preserve the singularity and purity of what I see. Every time I film someone, I say to myself as a filmmaker, “I don’t want to have power over this person, over the story, over that reality.” I don’t take power. I give freedom to people—for people to be more than what I want to know from them.
That choice came from how the West used to film Africa. When Westerners film Africa, they don’t give African people a choice to be anything other than what Westerners want them to be. Take Raymond Depardon’s Afriques: comment ça va avec la douleur?, where you can see that he came to Africa to talk about poverty. For him, the people that he films are nothing more than poverty. It’s not fair because you have the power in that story. These people have more to tell you but you choose not to tell it. It is a way of doing cinema but, for me, I want to give freedom to people. I want to know about them.
Right, a lot of these films are broader portraits where it’s more observational, and people aren’t even given chances to speak. Like, how can you really know about a culture or people unless you really talk with individuals at length? Your films involve people sharing their experiences, and it’s about stuff you’d never know unless you sat down and really spent time with them.
Yes, spending time with people is something fundamental for me in documentary filmmaking. If you want to know someone you have to spend time with them. You can’t come and make a film in two weeks and say that you know anything. It’s not possible! You’ll only touch the surface, just the superficial parts of the story and nothing deeper. For me, it’s really important because when I film someone or something, I’m not saying, “Oh today I’ll do a film on this theme or subject.” There’s something I question and after that, I will find people that will help me respond.
Can you give me an example of the sort of questions you have?
For example, take my film Chez Jolie Coiffure. When I was at that gallery, I was not comfortable. I asked myself why I wasn’t comfortable—Sabine and the other girls are from my country, and they have the same social base as me, so why am I uncomfortable? I wanted the answer for that, so I said that I wanted to make a film to understand why I was uncomfortable. When I started to make the film, I discovered that I was looking at Sabine by positioning myself from outside the salon and not inside. My position is simple but important. When do you look at someone? Where do you position yourself? When do you begin to start to tell a story? For me, [these questions] are essential in cinema.
If I stay in my position as Rosine Mbakam, who was born in Cameroon, I can’t come here and tell the story of Belgium as if I were a Belgian. It’s not possible, it would be fake. For some filmmakers who go to Africa to do film, they usually talk for the Africans. I cannot talk for my mother; she is able to talk about her story. She has an opinion, and I have to find a position and way for my mother to be comfortable to talk about her story. I cannot share her story, it’s not possible. It is the same way with Sabine and with Delphine.
Something I noticed about Chez Jolie Coiffure and Delphine’s Prayers is that they take place in Belgium and, more specifically, in small interior spaces. Those are the only spaces where these women feel comfortable enough to share their stories. They’re in this confined space. Your mother and everyone else in The Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman, however, can be out in the open because they’re in Cameroon.
Yes, it was evident for me because here in Belgium we are reduced [to being African] and have to hide somewhere. Even me, I have my papers—I’m free—but I feel that I can’t do what I want. If I do something wrong, people will treat me first as an African before knowing that I’m legal here. I have to be careful of what I do because I’m not really free. I feel free when I’m in my house, and by doing those films [Chez Jolie Coiffure and Delphine’s Prayers], I saw that people are more comfortable when they are in their own space—Sabine and Delphine are most comfortable in their house.
I cannot film an African outside their house because they are “in representation” outside. They are in representation of what Belgian or Western society wants them to be. For me, when I am outside, I am in representation—I have to do things well because if not, first they will treat me as African, and we know how that goes. In Cameroon I’m not even thinking about what I’m going to do. I’m not thinking about it! There is a freedom that is in me in Cameroon. Even if I’m not really oppressed, I know that some people used to be treated like that, and even if I don’t have that experience, I have the heritage of it in me.
Are you happy living in Belgium? Would you rather live somewhere else?
(laughs). I’d like to live in Cameroon. But I know that now in Cameroon, I cannot do the cinema I want to do. I don’t have the money. The money is here in the West. This is the absurdity of African cinema: all the African filmmakers, if they want to do film, they have to go to the West. And the West, by having financial power, use that to create this model of African cinema. When you ask for money here, they ask you to capture some subject and not another subject, and the subject that’s important to you is not important to the West. It’s why I created my own production company, Tândor Productions, to preserve that. But it’s difficult to preserve it… it’s a constant fight.
You mentioned earlier that, for the youth in Cameroon, their thoughts are changing. Can you talk more about that? And what sort of things would you like to see change?
For me, the huge thing is that by seeing Western cinema, young people think that there is no creativity in Africa, that the only way to be creative is to go to the West. It’s what I thought when I came here, too! I thought I would learn the way to tell my stories here. When I discovered the way that the West was filming people like me, I was like, this is not me. What was I thinking! How would I learn things about myself from people who don’t even know me! How could they teach me how to tell my story!
I realized I’m the only person who knows the cinema I want to do, I’m the only person who knows how I want to film reality. It was a big revelation when I saw those Western films. I was like, “No, that’s not me. These are not my stories. I don’t recognize myself in these people. There is nothing that represents or characterizes the Africa that I know.” It was the beginning of a big deconstruction to finding my own way. Oh hold on—Delphine is calling me.
[Rosine and Delphine talk on the phone for a few minutes]
The fact you’re still talking with Delphine is nice to know and it makes sense. Given how private and personal the film is, it would be weird to just disappear forever. For Western filmmakers, they’ll go to Africa and then maybe never come back again after filming.
And there are some people who never see the films! These directors are filming them but they don’t get to see the film. They don’t know what they gave. They don’t know how the directors treated their stories. I don’t tell all the people that I film that I’ll be their friend, but I will have the relationship that I have with them in the film. I have to preserve integrity—it has to be the same inside and outside the film. I am friends with Delphine, and have been friends with her for 15 years. Before doing the film, we were friends, and after the film we’re still friends. It’s the same thing with my mother and all the women I filmed. All the women in the tontine saw me as a little girl—I know every face that I filmed. I know that sometimes they carried me when I was young. I have memories of doing something with all of them.
In Delphine’s Prayers, I learned that I want to have my own experiences. When I was raised in Cameroon my parents would tell me that girls like Delphine were not appropriate for me. My parent was saying that without knowing the background of these girls, and [pushing back against that] is essential to seeing more than a superficial story. That’s what Delphine’s Prayers is about. She changed my life and changed my way of seeing people. I also learned to be the woman that I want to be, the filmmaker that I want to be.
What’s the next film that you’re working on?
Right now, I’m in the second step of my journey. I did five films here by confronting myself with the idea of how the West was looking at people like me. Now I’m going back to Cameroon to deconstruct Western colonialism. My next film is about my culpability, my guiltiness. When I came to Belgium 15 years ago, I had the sense that by coming here, my life would change and maybe I would change my family’s life. That was not the case. When I go back to Cameroon I see situations my family members are in and that things haven’t changed.
In questioning my culpability, I discovered the origin of my family members’ situations. It’s not that we didn’t have the capacity to change, it’s because of neocolonialism. My uncle was fired 20 years ago for his job, and he has no job today. He was fired because there was a privatization of some company in Cameroon; the company where he was working was bought by a French company and they fired some people, and my uncle was a part of that. My mother’s home is where she’s been living for 50 years, and now a big American company wants to buy all the land. My mother and other people in the group do not have the power to fight that big company. I want to show that their condition remained not because we don’t have the capacity to change it, but because there is imperialism, there is neocolonialism. It’s not the same as 50 years ago, but it’s still here, just in a different way.
I’m going to my mother’s generation and the young generation. And for every generation, there is a chain of Western colonization that keeps people in the same condition. All the intelligentsia of Africa is here in Europe and they’re serving Europe, not Africa. There’s neocolonialism here also. As a filmmaker, I cannot decide to go to Cameroon and do my films because I would not have money. I have to stay here, and by staying here, I am serving the West, not my country. But I am finding a way to do it differently. It’s why I created my own production company. It’s why I created my own Caravane Cinéma, so I could continue to do things in Cameroon.
I’m really excited to see that, thanks for sharing. I’m wondering, is there anything you wanted to say that we didn’t talk about?
I want to say thank you for just asking to interview me. By interviewing me, you are doing things in different ways. We used to highlight what the West is doing and by interviewing me, you are doing it differently, you are showing that the world is not only the West, that the world is bigger than the West. It’s what’s giving me the strength to do film. I want to show the world and cinema that there is a different type of cinema. You’re showing that there’s a different way of thinking, of living, of doing.
There’s a question I always ask at the end of my interviews: Do you mind sharing one thing you love about yourself?
(laughs). I will say that I have this energy in me where I want to be free from every rule that keeps me from being me. I have it in my mind constantly, that I don’t want to be the mom that my children want me to be, or the mom that my tradition wants me to be. It is similar to the way I film; there is an energy in me where I want to find something pure, that is not influenced by this society. Sometimes I tell myself it’s not possible to reach that (laughter). Like I said, we have a heritage of things, but there’s a conscious and unconscious heritage. Sometimes when I fight with my gut and I say it’s not possible, it’s that energy that keeps me going. I know that when I film someone, I will discover something new, I will discover something that will amaze me. I can see that with my mother and with Delphine, I reached something that ended up being a gift to me. I hope that it makes me a better person (laughs).
I’m now preparing a fiction film in Cameroon. People are asking me, “How can you do that with just your small team?” I just say, “I don’t know the way, but I’ll see.” I’m just saying to myself, “I know that I will see something, I will film something pure and powerful and that will amaze me and other people.” The only thing I know is that I have to prepare myself to preserve all the people I film.
It’s nice hearing about how much you don’t want to conform to these ideas from the West, and it seems like in making your films, and hearing these stories from your mom and Delphine, they’ve helped inspire you to continue doing that.
Yes. People here in Belgium ask me, “How do you want to shoot it? A Neorealism film? Like la Nouvelle Vague?” And I say, “No!” (laughter). It’s just my desire to tell stories. The film that I’m doing, the story would be about my family again. What I know for sure is that with every person I film, they think that art is not something they have. I want to reach that part of them that is art. It’s what I did with my mother, and I will do it with the young generation. We don’t have to think that to be an artist it is to be a lunatic, but it is how the West defines an artist here. You have to be exceptional, because art is exceptional here. But in Africa, art isn’t “exceptional,” it is in life. I want to keep that.
So that means you have two films planned?
I have another film called Prism that is with An van Dienderen and Eléonore Yameogo. In our film we question the filming of Black skin. The camera was not created for Black skin or other skin—the camera was created to only film white skin. The three of us are questioning it in our own different ways. That will come out in September.
You can find more information about Rosine Mbakam, her films, and Tândor Productions at the Tândor Productions website.
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