African women on the silver screen: five films you should see

From Winnie Mandela’s story in her own words, to the female orgasm in Rwanda and hammam tales during the Algerian civil war, here are five films centred on African women’s stories

8 November 2017 // Mutsa Marau

Now in its 7th year, The UK-based festival, Film Africa, curated by the Royal Africa Society, highlights films from across the continent. This year, several films showcasing women in front and behind the lens were shown. Here are five you must check out.

À mon âge je me cache encore pour fumer (“I still hide to smoke”)

Director: Rayhana Obermeyer

Set during the Algerian Civil War, I Still Hide To Smoke takes us back to a day in 1995 which we spend in and around a hammam owned by Fatima (Hiam Abbass). The constant bombings have disrupted the water supply and the hammam is packed with wives, daughters, widows, and children, who pour out their concerns as they wash away the weight of their worlds.

They explore sex, marriage, religious extremism, divorce, and romance. As heavy and intense as this film can get, director Rayhana Obermeyer does a marvellous job of using Samia (Fadila Belkebla), a hopeless romantic, to provide comic relief when needed.

As the day moves on, the film is carried by Meriem (Lina Soualem). She has fallen pregnant out of wedlock and has escaped to the hammam to hide from her brother who wants to kill her. Fatima keeps her hidden until realising the only way to make it through is to seek the help of her customers.

Obermeyer presents the harshness of this reality and challenges the ways we are used to hearing Muslim women talk about their wants, desires and fears. This one day in the hammam serves as a microcosm of the fundamentalist and patriarchal world that lies waiting for the women when the hammam closes and they are forced to leave the walls of their sanctuary.

Corps étranger (“Foreign body”)

Director: Raja Amari


Having fled Tunisia following the Jasmine Revolution, Samia (Sarra Hannachi) is plunged into the Mediterranean Sea as she attempts to make her way to France. Once she arrives, she connects with Imed (Salim Kechiouche), a friend from her past – a past filled with family and political struggles from which she desperately tries to distance herself.

Samia lives her life with an urgency. Through Foreign Body, we remain close to her as she works through her new world, tainted with grief, lust and insecurities, whilst trying to evade her past which continues to haunt her.

We meet Leila (Hiam Abbass), a recent widow who starts off by being Samia’s employer but ends up being an ally as they both try to grasp for control in the new lives in which they’ve found themselves.

Samia has the ability to adapt quickly to her constantly changing environments whilst never fading into the background. In one scene, we see her dance seductively in the centre of the dance floor in Ahmed’s café. Sometimes with a beer. Sometimes alone. Sometimes with a partner. But always in control and on her own terms.


Director: Alain Gomis

Set in Kinshasa, this film centres around Felicité (Véro Tshanda Beya), a proud and independent nightclub singer, single mother and businesswoman. We first meet her singing in a bar and stay with our protagonist as she responds to what life throws at her.

When her son Samo (Gaetan Claudia) gets involved in a dreadful motorcycle accident, Felicitié sets about getting the money to pay for his operation. Unfortunately, the same traits that make Felicité such a captivating character to watch on screen are met with hostility by those around her. In one scene, Samo’s father refuses to contribute to the hospital fees retorting “you wanted to be a strong woman”.

Watching this film, it feels as though Felicité is a prime example of the difficult women Warsan Shire was speaking to when she wrote: “And you tried to change didn’t you? Closed your mouth more, tried to be softer, prettier, less volatile, less awake”.  Thankfully, Felicité doesn’t try to change at all. She wears all her life lessons as an armour as she works to accomplish her mission. She knows exactly who she is, and it’s not her job to comfort us. The honesty it provides makes this film a refreshing watch.

Sacred water

Director: Olivier Jourdain

On Friday nights in Rwanda, people tune into Zirara Zubakwa (‘Happy Couples’) on Flash FM, to listen to Vestine Dusabe. With this as the premise, Sacred Water shares stories about Rwandan sexuality, specifically kunyanza, a traditional sexual practice performed to ensure female ejaculation.

Rarely is female sexual pleasure the focal point in discussions outside of our sisterhoods. So when, upon arriving at a village, Vestine proclaims “Women come here, today is our day, tonight we will be sleeping on top!” she is met with much applause.

Vestine’s truthful and extravagant energy makes her the perfect guide to follow as she travels through Rwanda to discuss the “sacred water”, its mystery, as well as the practice of gukuna – labia elongation – with students and villagers.

For many, sexuality is treated as taboo in Africa (as it is in much of the West) and is a realm dominated by the patriarchy. But it is not the only truth. Vestine and Belgian director Olivier Jourdain give us entry to another world, another vantage point, one in which sexual pleasure is spoken about openly under the skies, in the classrooms, and on the airwaves. The celebration of female desire is ecstasy in itself!


Director: Pascale Lamche

“I was horrified when I realised I had lost my identity…suddenly I was Mandela’s wife” – Winnie Mandela.

As with the majority of social movements, the stories that typically come to be revered, and repeated, are those that highlight the work done by men. We learn that the men were at the forefront and seldom hear the stories of the women, often equally active behind the scenes, enabling such movements to happen.

Before watching this documentary, my knowledge of Winnie Mandela were based on three pieces of information:

  1. She was married to Nelson Mandela
  2. She was a social and political activist (though my knowledge of her activism was limited)
  3. She was embroiled in a series of controversies (again, my knowledge of these was limited).

This version of Winnie Mandela’s story is told mainly by Winnie herself, and her daughter Zindziswa. It is open and frank account of her life from her marriage to Nelson Mandela, to her ANC activism during her husband’s incarceration, and then to the controversies that threatened to discredit and silence her.

Whatever your stance may be on the woman herself, there’s something to be said for director Pascale Lamche presenting a narrative which has Winnie owning and sharing her own story.

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