In Her Own Words: Rosine Mbakam – AFS Presents Three Documentaries by the Acclaimed Director this December

(Still from Rosine Mbakam’s Two Faces of a Bamiléké Woman. Courtesy Icarus Film)

Starting December 7, AFS presents a special series of three award-winning documentaries by Cameroonian Belgian-based filmmaker Rosine Mbakam, who NPR recently described as “…the filmmaker reinventing how African women are portrayed in movies.” Her films capture intimate accounts of African women’s lives in Belgium and in her home city of Yaoundé, Cameroon including the three we’ll be screening: TWO FACES OF A BAMILÉKÉ WOMAN (December 7), Mbakam’s autobiographical account of a trip home to Cameroon to visit her mother; and her most recent feature, DELPHINE’S PRAYERS (December 15), the story of a west African immigrant woman in Belgium who spent most of her life in prostitution; and CHEZ JOLIE COIFFEUR (December 12), a revealing verité portrait of a Cameroonian beauty salon in Belgium and its proprietor. Rosine Mbakam will join us for a virtual Q&A following the screening of CHEZ JOLIE COIFFEUR.

The immediacy of Mbakam’s camera image and her utterly unique approach to perspective has quickly propelled her into a rising global auteur. Her films have been New York Times Critic’s Picks and won awards around the world, and earlier this year, she was celebrated with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For a closer look, we’d like to share an excerpt from an interview with Mbakam in her own words, which appeared on MoMA’s blog, post: notes on art in a global context this past July. You can read the full interview here.

Rosine Mbakam, in Her Own Words
Excerpt from MoMA’s blog, post: notes on art in a global context
July 9, 2021

Delphine’s Prayers

2021. Courtesy Icarus Film

Excerpt from MoMA’s blog, post: notes on art in a global context:

Delphine’s Prayers is the first film I shot after film school, but it’s being released as my third feature. I met Delphine twelve years ago when I came to Europe to study cinema. We were connected by a mutual acquaintance as fellow Cameroonians who had recently arrived in Brussels, and we became friends. After five years at INSAS (Institut national supérieur des arts du spectacle et des techniques de diffusion de la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles), she introduced me to Sabine, who became the subject of Chez Jolie Coiffure (2019), when I became interested in making a film in the shopping center nearby. As I was preparing to shoot Chez Jolie Coiffure, Delphine asked me to make a film about her first. I was a little bit surprised, telling her, “You are my friend. I don’t want to make a film about your life.” But she replied, “You don’t know anything about my life.” Two days later, we began filming, and she started telling me her story.

Chez Jolie Coiffure

2018. Courtesy Icarus Film

Excerpt from MoMA’s blog, post: notes on art in a global context:

“In film school, you learn that you have to know the story you want to tell, that you have to go through all kinds of preparations in order to make a film. But experience has shown me that sometimes, you have to abandon preparations and take what life gives you. And that’s what I experienced with Delphine. Had I waited and gone through the motions of planning before starting, had I been there with a crew, I would not have the same story. I would not have this spontaneous outpouring. And the film is also the film of the moment—of that moment in particular, when Delphine was moved to speak about what she had been through—and not a later date in accordance with a production schedule. I had to respect the moment. I hope one senses that in the film.

As African filmmakers studying in Belgium, we are taught Western cinema. I’ve had to deconstruct this to find my own cinema, because the way cinema is made in the West is not my way of doing cinema. It’s not the same reality. If I take the Western approach to making movies, I will destroy the singularity of the story that I want to film. I have to find, each time, the right way of filming the situation, story, or subject at hand. We even joked about it: Delphine asks me if I’m ready, if I have my “carnet de bord,” my logbook. And at the start of the film, she is the one directing me to sit next to her—rather than me occupying this other kind of position behind the camera. The mise-en-scène mirrors our friendship. It was similar with Sabine. She asked me in the first scene to enter the salon, to physically be a part of her world with my camera, not to film it from the outside. Sabine knows her space better than I do, she knows her story better than I do . . . and, as a filmmaker, I have to respect that. If I want to tell Sabine’s story, or Delphine’s story, I have to respect their gaze and what they have asked me to do.

I filmed Delphine at home for ten days. It wasn’t really a question of directing. Delphine knew exactly what she wanted to tell me and the way in which she wanted to say it. Throughout, I questioned my own role and place. I didn’t want to assert power over her story; I wanted to just be silent and listen, and to ensure that she was comfortable. Quickly, the bed became the focal point of our sessions. That was the place of confidence for her, where she was at ease and sheltered from the outside world— not least from her husband and children, who were on the other side of the apartment. Usually, we say that the director has the final word, but with Delphine, after ten days, the shoot ended as suddenly as it had started. One day I showed up with my camera, we talked for a little bit, and she told me that she’d said everything there was to say. No planning, the film shoot was over.

I did a first edit in 2015 and it wasn’t right. At that time, I was carrying around a kind of rage, born of my situation here, by my experience as a lone Black filmmaker in the film school, and I edited that film with my anger. I can say that. And it was not the story of Delphine, but rather the story of my bitterness. But that is not the kind of work I want to make, and so I set the footage aside and started working on a project about my mother, which would become Two Faces of a Bamiléké Woman (2016). It was only in 2019 that I felt I was ready to edit the film. The experience of Chez Jolie Coiffure and Two Faces gave me the maturity to see Delphine’s story in the right way. When I started the editing, the choice of sequences and the process was really simple because the moment was right. I was no longer seeing Delphine through my lived experiences, but just seeing her as she was and is and . . . and everything was evident to me and to the editor. After editing, I asked Delphine to come and watch the film, and she saw it and told me, “I want people to see it now.” For me, this was a huge relief as I wanted to respect her voice and testimony.”