One of the most effective and underrated ways of understanding African culture is through the medium of film. Movies have acted as a window on culture since their inception, allowing glimpses of reality that are not often seen in other kinds of work. It’s not merely what the films are explicitly about, but the implicit values that they show through their characterization, tone and settings. The films Sisters of the Screen and Sisters in Law shed particular light on the lives of African women in the modern era. These films depict African women in the fields of filmmaking and law, a far cry from the typical images of African women in the media, depicted as living in poverty and being helpless. Sisters of the Screen and Sisters in Law show African women in positions of power, working to build better lives for their families and communities and fighting back against patriarchal male views of how women should act. In this, they are films that are well worth watching and analyzing.
Sisters of the Screen and Sisters in Law are thematically linked in that they both concern the lives of African women who exist in positions of influence, but they have decidedly different focuses and styles. Sisters of the Screen is a documentary focusing on women who work in the African film industry, featuring interviews with noted directors, screenwriters, and actresses across the continent and their perspectives on the industry. The film has a feminist focus, with extra emphasis placed on how women not only need to struggle against the racism, bigotry, and poverty that all African filmmakers must contend with, but also against sexism as well. Indeed, patriarchal attitudes in Africa about how women need to be in charge are major hobbles that women in the film industry face.
The film is directed by Beti Ellerson, with image and sound by Christophe Poulenc. Sisters in Law follows two women jurists from Cameroon, Vera Ngasa and Beatrice Ntuba, who advocate for women in their community who they feel have been oppressed by patriarchal mores and attitudes. The movie follows their struggle to ensure that women receive justice for crimes committed against them, such as rape and domestic violence, and to help extirpate those attitudes from African society. Sisters in Law also concerns the fight the jurists themselves experience from men who feel that women have no place presiding over court cases.
I found both these films fascinating because they show how even powerful women in Africa are constrained by social mores and discrimination. Sisters of the Screen is the weaker of the two films because it has too wide a breadth of subjects, when focusing on one or two would have sufficed. However, the perspectives those women bring on the sexism and bigotry they face from men when it comes to honest depictions of African female life are astounding. Sisters in Law was a standout film because it shows just how systematic misogyny is in African society.
For example, in the film, it’s shown that Kumba, the city where the movie takes place, hasn’t had a domestic violence conviction in nearly twenty years. This is despite the fact that women in the city are routinely being abused and bullied by their husbands. Ngasa’s and Ntuba’s fight for the downtrodden women of Kumba was heartbreaking to watch, particularly their dealings with traumatized victims of male violence. In particular, the film’s focus on the rape of a nine-year old girl was heartbreaking.
Sisters of the Screen and Sisters in Law help in still hope that African women can continue to advance and become true equals in African society. Both films’ focus on powerful women who are fighting for the rights of the downtrodden and the freedom to live their lives makes them fantastic to watch. Ultimately, while African women still have a long way to go, the efforts of women like those in these films will help them get there faster.
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