Women with Open Eyes 1994
Anne-Laure Folly / Togo 1994 / 52 minutes / DVD
Women with Open Eyes is a documentary from Togo that covers the lives and struggles of contemporary African women in Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal and Benin. In seven chapters the film lets the women talk about pertinent issues that they are facing in their daily lives. They speak about female circumcision, forced marriage, HIV/AIDS, freedom of speech, securing the survival of the family and their role in the economy and politics. The film illustrates that despite being giving little voice in major decisions, African women are as concerned about self-determination, economic equality and the stifling limitations of traditions as women elsewhere in the world.
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Africa in Motion Festival | Glendale Women’s Cafe, Glasgow | 19 Sept 2017
Watch Africa Film festival | Butetown Community Centre, Wales | 30 Oct 2017
Melbourne International Film Festival | Melbourne, Australia | 12 aug 2018
CLIP 1: This opening sequence explains the title of the film though a poem that says a woman should not have her eyes open. The film of course claims the opposite. Likewise, this opening describes the traditional role of African women and indicates that the film will contradict this.
CLIP 2: This sequence illustrates the section of the film entitled “Economy”. The women showcase their skills on the market as shopkeepers and as pragmatic people that deal with problems head-on.
Anne-Laure Folly (*1954) is a documentary filmmaker and international human rights lawyer from Togo. Despite not obtaining a formal film education, she is one of Africa’s finest directors. Inspired by French-Guadeloupe filmmaker Sarah Maldoror and Senegalese director Safi Faye, Folly focusses on documentaries about socio-political issues in Africa. For Women with Open Eyes she received the Silver Medal at the 1994 Monte Carlo Television Festival.
Historical & cultural context
Considering Anne-Laure Folly’s background as international rights lawyer, it is interesting to discuss Women with Open Eyes in the light of its international African approach. The film deals with issues occurring in different cultures across the continent and features women from four West African countries. Jumping from one to another without necessarily emphasising which country the women on screen are from, the film does not concentrate on contextualising each woman’s story in her respective national identity. As such, the film is not weighed down by detail, trying to set apart one country from the other, but rather presents a unified narrative of women from across various countries dealing with the same or similar issues. Folly’s film claims an African cultural perception, crucial to understanding these problematic issues within their cultural context.
Some topics dealt within the film, such as female circumcision (or female genital mutilation - FGM), have of course been debated at length on an international level. However, in an interview with Beti Ellerson Folly suggests, that unlike other cultures Africans had failed to diffuse their own values and ideas that might help to contextualise and eventually combat these issues. While others were doing the talking, Africans themselves had little voice. She expands:
‘There is a widespread attitude that if you do not express yourself, if you have nothing to say, then you do not exist. […] I think we [Africans] are a bit lost in our international discourse. We no longer exist. Now we must say something.’ (Folly in Ellerson 2000: 95-96)
On an international scale, socio-political issues have the tendency to be dealt with in a discourse of Western superiority. Topics such as FGM are being treated as issues of culture and tradition, rather than health and safety. But Women with Open Eyes could not be further from that. By amplifying African voices from all sides of the spectrum Folly offers a perspective in which these issues are understood within an internal African logic. She shows African women speaking about African problems, offering African solutions.
The film opens with a poem:
A good woman should obey her husband at all times,
A good woman should not know how to read,
A good woman's eyes should not be open.
Yet, the women featured in Folly’s film have their eyes wide open. By addressing the issues of the film they break taboos. They speak about sex and its health implications, and openly criticise cultural traditions. It is exceptional though, that their critique is not a demand to abandon traditions, as tradition also harbours a precious cultural memory and a rich legacy of knowledge and spirituality. Rather the goal is to reassess traditional practices and concerns in the light of new problems and new knowledge. For African feminists, cultural pride and a commitment to evolution are not mutually exclusive.
Today women have become much more visible in African politics, where they have set new global precedents in terms of their number and – perhaps more arguably – in terms of their impact on public policy agendas. African feminism has been able to highlight the key role gender plays in African underdevelopment, for example by challenging the male bias in development work. Films such as Women with Open Eyes show ways in which women engage in a gendered dialogue about socio-political issues. African American feminist Alice Walker said of the film:
‘It takes courage to see the true condition of women in the world and to speak out about it. Courage and a strong stomach. The women in this film possess the necessary radical vision that neither romanticizes nor renders remote the obvious consequences of female enslavement.’ (California Newsreel)
African feminists reject the one-size-fits-all approach of Western feminism and development work when solving the problems African women face. Renouncing western ideologies and emphasising pan-African views, African feminism is anti-colonial at its core. It stems just as much from the rejection of Western feminism as from the liberation struggles and independence wars across the continent. During those times many women chose nationalism over feminism, but soon realised that women were hit hardest by the economic, social and political struggles the newly established African nations were facing. Hence many women’s organisations were started during the 1980s and women are occupying new roles within society.
There are many contemporary films highlighting the visibility of women in African societies. Two films that come to mind are Theresa Traore Dahlberg’s Ouaga Girls, a documentary focusing on a group of young women who are training to become car mechanics in Burkina Faso, and Emilia Stålhammar’s short film Cycologic about Ugandan city planner turned bicycle activist Amanda Ngabirano. Another example is Leyla Bouzid’s As I Open My Eyes, which tells the story of young Tunisian musician Farah Kallel, who is caught between artistic cultural criticism and oppressive police brutality. As she opens her eyes to the reality of the new circumstances in Tunisia after the Arab Spring, she becomes a woman with open eyes.
Ahikire, Josephine: ‘African feminism in context: Reflections on the legitimation battles, victories and reversals.’ Feminist Africa, Issue 19 (2014): Pan-Africanism and Feminism: 7-23.
Arndt, Susan: ‘Perspectives on African Feminism: Defining and Classifying African-Feminist Literatures.’ Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity, No. 54 (2002), pp. 31-44.
Savory, Elaine: ‘Review: African Women’s Voices on Film’ NWSA Journal, Vol 9, No 1, Spring 1997: 99-106.
Thackway, Melissa: Africa shoots back: Alternative perspectives in sub-Saharan francophone African film. Oxford: James Currey; Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2003.
Women with Open Eyes. California Newsreel: http://newsreel.org/nav/title.asp?tc=CN0030