Safi Faye: Farewell to a pioneering filmmaker
Senegalese filmmaker was the first African woman to make a commercial feature film, Kaddu Beykat, in 1975.
Last Thursday, as filmmakers, curators and cinephiles were travelling to Ouagadougou for the largest historic meeting point of African cinema, FESPACO, social media became a mourning space among the film community in and beyond Senegal. Safi Faye, at times nicknamed the mother of African cinema, had passed away, on Wednesday 22 February at the age of 80 years old, in Paris, where she was based, and will be cremated in her home village of Fadial, the place that would be the subject of her second feature length film, Fad’Jal, in 1979, a love letter to this Serer village in southern Senegal, whose name means ‘The person who works is happy’.
Safi Faye was one of the few women in the early filmmaking period that followed the independence of African countries in the 1960s. The first film by an African woman filmmaker has been attributed to Thérèse Sita-Bella (1933-2006), from Cameroon, who made the documentary film Tam Tam à Paris in 1963. Another pioneering woman from the period, who left us in 2020, was Sarah Maldoror, of Guadeloupean heritage, but with a large film production in the African continent, starting from Monangambé in 1969, in Algeria.
Safi Faye’s film production started in the early 1970s, with the short film La Passante (The Passerby), in 1972, followed by Kaddu Beykat (The Voice of the Peasant, often translated as Letter from my Village), which would become the first film by an African woman filmmaker to be commercially distributed. This was followed by a prolific film career, featuring Fadj’Jal (1979); Goos Nanu (The Harvest is in), in that same year; Man, sa yaay (I, your Mother), in 1980; As women see it (1980); Les âmes au soleil (Souls under the Sun), in 1982; Selbe et tant d’autres (Sebe and So Many Others), in 1983; Trois ans 5 mois (Three years, five months), in 1983; Ambassades nourricières (Culinary Embassies), in 1984; Racines noires (Black Roots), in 1985; Elsie Haas, femme peintre et cineaste d’Haiti (Elsie Haas, Haitian Woman Painter and Filmmaker), in 1985; Tesito, in 1989; and her latest renown feature length film, Mossane (1996).
She will always be remembered as a revolutionary filmmaker for her focus on African beauty, on women’s agency and subjectivity, as well as on everyday rural Senegal, its cultural, political and economic life shaped by a postcolonial context. Her films are often in between the aesthetics of fiction and non-fiction, offering a new vision of her own space, its living cultural heritage, through the voices of those who inhabit it. She has won multiple awards in prestigious film festivals all over the world, including FESPACO (The Panafrican Festival of Film and Television in Ouagadougou), the Berlin International Film Festival, FIFEF (Festival International du Film d’Expression Française) and was the first woman to ever be selected to the Cannes Film Festival, in 1979, and screened again after four decades, in 2018.
Despite her prolific film career, her work was rarely seen in the continent, due to the historic marginalisation and challenging distribution of African cinema. It was often through festivals that she was claimed as a pioneering filmmaker who used the film medium to tell her own stories, and was thus an inspiring figure for the younger generation of Senegalese and African filmmakers.
It was actually in the context of a festival that she initiated her film career. In 1966, she met Jean Rouch in the Premier Festival Mondial des Arts Nègres, a pan-African cultural festival of black arts just six years after the independence of Senegal, that sought to relocate the country in the world map through a celebration of culture. During this emblematic historic moment, this encounter with the French filmmaker would lead to her first film experience as an actress in Jean Rouch’s film Petit à Petit (1968). She then left her teaching career to pursue studies abroad, completing Filmmaking at Louis Lumière Film School, in Paris, in 1972, when she made La Passante, and a PhD in Ethnology in La Sorbonne, also in Paris, in 1979. She then moved to Berlin to study video production and worked as a guest lecturer at the Free University of Berlin. This was followed by another degree in Ethnology in 1988, a discipline that would shape her filmmaking approach, where the camera was often used as a tool for ethnographic research, with stories emerging from within the community, through an observational style and empathetic gaze.
Tributes and retrospectives to her work have been numerous across the world, including the Journées Cinématographiques de Cartague in Tunisia, in 2015; the Créteil Women’s Film Festival in France, in 2010; more recently in Senegal, in Saint-Louis Docs’, a documentary film festival in the northern Senegalese city of Saint-Louis, in 2017; and the latest Festival Films Femmes Afrique in Dakar 2022, whose theme was ‘Women Creators of the Future’.
The participation in Saint-Louis Doc’s 2017 was arguably one of the last times in which the renowned filmmaker honoured the Senegalese audience with her presence. Safi Faye was awarded the Grand Prix d’Honneur, a recognition of her role as one of the first black African women in the history of cinema. The programme included a masterclass, as well as a selection of her films, including Kaddu Beykat, Fad’Jal and Mossane.
On Friday 24 February, the festival organisers of Saint-Louis Docs’ would share a public Facebook post acknowledging such precious participation: “SAFI FAYE, how fortunate and what an honour to meet you and pay tribute to you in Senegal, in your presence, in Saint-Louis in 2017. We are not ready to forget our very long and fascinating conversations. Your time in Saint-Louis to introduce your films has deeply shaped everyone who was able to meet you during those days… Thank you so much again for the trust. May you reset in peace, dear Safi Faye”. By the time of the Festival Films Femmes Afrique last March 2022, whose tribute consisted of the film screening of Kaddu Beykat, in conversation with two leading Senegalese film critics, Baba Diop, former president of the Panafrican Federation of African Cinema (FACC), and the current president, Fatou Kiné Séne, Safi Faye was already feeling too aged to participate, even though she was in Senegal then. Martine Ndiaye, festival director, stressed nonetheless the importance of showing her work, as a memory duty and in order to inspire the ‘women creators of the future’, as their festival theme in 2022 suggested. This was reinforced by Fatou Kiné Séne, who stated: “She has inspired many contemporary filmmakers. She is the first Senegalese woman filmmaker, but afterwards there have been many that have followed, like Khady and Mariama Sylla, Khardiata Poye and today, Angèle Diabang, and many other younger filmmakers, Fama Reyana Sow, among others. It is a pleasure to see that in Senegalese cinema, women find their place well.”
During the discussion following the film, Baba Diop, who had published an extensive article on her in the Senciné issue ‘Le cinéma au féminin’ in 2018, started the discussion by reminding that the film had been censored: “The film you will see is a film that has been censored. The reason for that being that the film gave voice to peasants and back in the day, in the 1970s, peasants were detested, because they could not pay their taxes. Safi Faye, as a Serer person, could not understand how Senghor [also Serer], the President back then, could allow his government to treat Serer peasants that way.” Stressing what was so revolutionary about her work, particularly, as a woman filmmaker, he continued: “Safi Faye has a strong personality. One had to be courageous back in the days to want to make cinema and push the boundaries that were occupied by men. There were no women making cinema back then… She showed that it was possible for women too to make cinema”.
Similarly, Fatou Kandé Senghor invoked pioneering filmmaker, Sarah Maldoror’s famous quote: “As Sarah Maldoror used to say, ‘to make a film is to take a position’.” In Safi Faye’s films, Safi takes a position. And as Ousmane William Mbaye said, at a time when everyone was filming the urban city – that is, Dakar and surrounding areas – she preferred to film the rural world – that rural world where she is from.
She introduces part of herself in her films. This is what makes Baba Diop refer to her as “a filmmaker of territory”, and an illustrative example of “engaged cinema”. The film took place in the recently opened Complexe Cinématographique Sembène Ousmane, in a screening room named after her, Safi Faye, with a photo at the top of it, in its entrance.
In the United Kingdom, Safi Faye’s ground-breaking film career has also been recently celebrated in two different events. The first one of these was the Special Focus on Safi Faye, in the Royal Anthropological Institute Film Festival in Bristol, in 2019, with the screening of Fad’Jal, preceded by a film introduction and followed by a discussion with the audience, and her latest fiction film, Mossane, an ode to young women’s beauty, and intimate relations between mothers and daughters and female friendships, which also closed with a film discussion involving various researchers, filmmakers and curators in the UK. This curatorial choice within the context of a festival with a focus on anthropology was an invitation to challenge genre boundaries, with a unique empathetic style at the intersection between documentary and fiction.
Fad’Jal was also curated as part of a more recent film season at The Barbican, in London, Other Modernisms, Other Futures: Global Arts Cinema 1960-80. The film was curated as “a seminal work of post-colonial cinema, highlighting the conflictual, interconnected relationship between the histories of France and Senegal”, and was discussed as an invitation to look back in order to think about the future.
May her work continue to be remembered and celebrated. Rest in peace, Safi Faye.