Open City Documentary Festival

Experiments In Liberating The Frame: Rosine Mbakam’s Confessional Cinema: an essay by Chrystel Oloukoï

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The outstretched hand of a Black woman tentatively reaches for that of another in the dark: finding it as much as being found by it. This scene, which opens Rosine Mbakam’s short, Les Portes du passé (2013), illuminates a cinematic ethics anchored in mutual touch as a site of radical unknowing, vulnerability as possibility. 

Across an extensive filmography, between Belgium and Cameroon, Rosine Mbakam documents the inherent multiplicity of Black women’s experiences of dislocation in migration, and their attempts to weave ties that bind as well as unbind from specific communities, attachments and obligations. The dexterity of Sabine’s solitary hands, sewing and braiding in a Brussels hair salon in Chez Jolie Coiffure (2018) echoes the collective hands of women at work in the director’s village in Cameroon in The Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman (2016). In scenes evocative of Flora M’mbugu-Schelling’s These Hands (1992), an experimental meditation on women’s labour in Dar es Salaam’s quarry mines, Mbakam’s voiceover insists on the hands that held her —grounding, guiding, but also inflicting hurt and forms of carceral discipline— in a world sutured by colonial patriarchy. Rosine Mbakam mobilises nonfiction cinema to grapple with the worlds Black women’s hands create, in the small interstices of inherited silences and legacies of visual and narrative dispossession.

There is something counterintuitive to such harnessing of the documentary genre. Non-fiction, in the shape of travelogues, newsreels, ethnographic films and so forth, was instrumental to the (re)production and circulation of a colonial gaze. Aside from iconoclasts like Moustapha Alassane, early African filmmakers took a cautious stance towards the genre altogether, engaging it mostly in the context of commissions by governments and private organisations. Rather, they embraced fiction with fervour, as a recuperative gesture towards suppressed African epistemologies, and as a tool to fashion new imaginations and futures. Though incredibly heterogeneous, the work of these filmmakers blurred rigid boundaries between fact and fiction. They coalesced around a dedication to the sociopolitical realm and a passionate refusal of a colonial literalism of the image. Yet, such work was often reduced to its alleged documentary value as Jean-Marie Teno recalls, conscripting filmmakers to the role of “native informants”. 

In this context, making non-fiction the terrain of a reckoning with the violent histories of the camera in relation to West African women is a bold enterprise. It is one that Rosine Mbakam resolutely undertakes, joining a small yet formally diverse cohort of African women documentarians such as Katy Lena Ndiaye, Rama Thiaw, Rokhaya Marieme Balde, Chloé Aïcha Boro and  Amina Abdoulaye Mamani, to name a few. 

A tendency to lay bare her constant negotiations of proximity and distance with interlocutors —a process usually relegated offscreen— singularises Mbakam’s approach. With disarming sincerity, she tarries with the relations of power embedded in the act of filmmaking. The difficulty of narration, portrayed as a kind of protracted birth, takes centre stage, rather than its outcome: the deceptively bound and fixed story. Mbakam takes on the mantle of documenting without the arrogance of documentation.

The early short films give insights into the filmmaker’s shifting formal and thematic commitments. You Will be My Ally (2012) reenacts an archetypal scene for many Black immigrants: the airport immigration control, subverted with elements of vodun. Les Portes du passé (2013) imbues narrative with a contagious power. White women in various professional spheres —a news TV station, a nursing home, a public administration— suddenly start ventriloquizing, in the first person, the stories and concerns of Rwandan women refugees in Brussels. There is a sharp ambivalence to the discordant and frankly disturbing polyphony established. It feels equal parts commentary on the unequal weight of words across the racial divide, and on the possibility and limits of empathy.

Some of the spirit of these early shorts find its way into Prism (2021), a recent collaborative documentary with Eléonore Yameogo and An van. Dienderen that takes the process and mechanics of filmmaking from backstage to onscreen. It opens with a voice heard over a dark screen stating, “Maybe the film can start like this.” Organised as a loose conversation, each filmmaker tells, by turn, a specific piece of the racial determinism embedded in the history and technology of the camera. Mbakam’s segment tackles classical paintings of Black women such as the 1800 Portrait of a Negro Woman; INSAS, her former Belgian film school; as well as footage from Senegal found in the personal archive of her white in-laws. In a powerful moment, she goes back to Marina (2006), a presumably unreleased film in which a Black woman narrates being assaulted. Displaying a short excerpt, Mbakam describes Marina as her “first film character”, and grapples with her own practices of representation, and the extent to which the predicament of shifting colonial ways of seeing finds no easy resolution in a mere shift to Black directors.

Contrasting with her shorts and collaborative work, Mbakam’s feature-length documentaries evidence a move towards formal austerity. Stripped of its fineries, the space of non-fiction dramatises anew the predicament of harnessing the camera towards potentially liberatory ends. The Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman (2016) stages a series of intimate intergenerational encounters between her son, herself and her estranged mother in rural Cameroon, as she returns from years of exile in Europe. The chorus of voices and places in this first feature give way to the singular location of Sabine’s hair salon in Chez Jolie Coiffure (2018), in the Brussels immigrant neighbourhood of Matonge. Sabine still exerts some kind of gravitational pull as caretaker, confidant and resource for many. This contrasts with the singular, isolated voice of Delphine’s Prayers (2021), ensconced in her room, filling most of the cinematic space. There is something both deeply ethnographic and anti-ethnographic in this single-location cinematic confessional, pushed to its limits in Delphine’s Prayers, but somewhat present across Mbakam’s oeuvre.

The spectre of the confessional is inextricable from the liberal humanist myth of a sovereign, contractual individual. This is the individual often placed at the centre of strategies for decolonizing the image. Documentarian Katy Lena Ndiaye calls for films in which “people are subjects, not objects; absolutely subjects”. In a kindred attempt, Mbakam yields her own directorial authority to interlocutors tasked with or demanding to recuperate visual and narrative sovereignty. Delphine’s Prayers, for instance, was the first feature Mbakam worked on, at the request of Delphine herself, but released as her third. It was filmed over the course of ten days, without a crew. It is an experiment in taking ownership of the means of mediation. Powerful silences and refusals punctuate Delphine and Rosine’s encounters, as the storyteller abruptly declares “that’s enough for today” and the camera lingers for a brief instant on the space she just deserted. Delphine shouts directions and assists the filmmaker in framing and adjusting her camera. As Yasmina Price brilliantly articulates, “although oppositional and counter-hegemonic cinematic practices have insurmountable limitations, they still offer at least a reckoning”. Far from merely a theatre of wills, Delphine’s Prayers make visible in its forceful yet constantly ruptured speech and in the open-ended address of the prayer, the deeply dialogical and contradictory labour of narration.

“Rosine!” The name is called multiple times across films, in tones that connote fondness, familiarity, irritation or questioning. The phatic language and gestures of interlocutors force Mbakam’s quiet directorial presence to not remain offscreen. People interpellate her as a daughter, a friend and a director. “Film them” intimates Sabine to Rosine, as white onlookers pass in front of her window shop, with an attitude suggestive of a history of human zoos in Europe. “Don’t film me” insists a customer of Sabine’s hair salon, as Rosine diligently reorients her camera. In rare moments, the filmmaker puts herself on display more openly: as her mother’s hands massage her belly, a post-birth ritual she wasn’t able to undergo during her years of estrangement from Cameroon; as she poses among a gathering of women, assembled for the tontine, a form of mutual aid; or, as she lets Delphine braid her hair in the closing section of Delphine’s Prayers (2021). Mbakam’s cinematic practice is one of shared exposure. Few moments compare to the vulnerability of tilting one’s head to braiding hands. Trusting corporeal stances, such as Delphine laying on her bed or standing above Rosine’s head, evoke scholar and performance artist ​​Ra Malika Imhotep’s reconfiguring of black feminism as an “experiment in supine possibilities”, an invitation to face crisis “belly up”, not “head on”. 

Eschewing camera movement, Rosine Mbakam’s directorial language sits in a similar posture. In Cameroon or in Belgium, Mbakam directs a tender gaze on the interior and social lives of West African women. Via a mostly static camera, seemingly negligently posed, she is careful to exhaust most possible angles in the tight, exiguous sites populating her work. It gives for claustrophobic atmospheres, fleshing out the forms of entrapment experienced by these women —in the form of marriages, arranged or entered as means of escape, as well as the specific temporal limbo of illegalized status in Europe. Yet, the table of the hair salon illustrates the dense, intimate public sphere these confined rooms support: full of hair products, opened soda cans and nondescript plastic bags, lacking free space but always able to accommodate more. Open from 9am to 8pm, Sabine’s salon is more of a meeting place than a business, as customers, friends and acquaintances come and go throughout the day to gossip, find information or job opportunities, request help, sing, or just spend time. Customers are captive audiences of the entire worlds of exchanges taking place literally above their head. 

Mbakam’s subjects dwell in liminal spaces, marked by the constant breaching of enclosures. Her careful compositions mark thresholds, door frames, walls and windows; placing the camera as but one framing device amidst several forms of capture. Yet, mobile interlocutors enact their own acts of (de)composition as they move in and out of the frame, roam around, leave and return. At times, they sit patiently —almost indulging her— as we witness Rosine framing them, trying to find the right distance or angle, further laying bare filmmaking as a process. Of particular significance are moments when Mâ Brêh, Sabine or Delphine become absorbed in silent and intimate acts of self-fashioning and care of the body, such as rubbing painful body parts, applying make-up or fixing eyelashes; or, conversely, lose composure altogether, submerged in the emotions unleashed by their acts of remembrance. 

If documentaries gesture at truth, in Mbakam’s work it lives, not in images, nor in the stories laid bare, but in duration, and the commitment to look at, listen to, and spend time with individuals often ignored, used as reserves of labour, service, care or anthropological curiosity. The radical promiscuity of the hair salon in Chez Jolie Coiffure (2018) means that dialogue is constantly disrupted, requiring patience and willingness towards slow unfoldings and abandoned threads, rather than the seduction and rush of the story form. The rhythms of braiding dictate patterns of speech, as topics of discussion shift in relation to a series of interruptions, encounters, and accidents. Mbakam offers fleeting glimpses into the mundane gravity of small talk, against the deceptive exhaustion of the police file or the ethnographic monograph. Departures are punctuated not with “goodbye” but “later” (“ok, après”), momentary ruptures in hyphenated conversations. Nothing guarantees the integrity of such unfinished connections. A police raid in the mall, targeting undocumented migrants, quickly undermines the precarious promises of a “later”. Differently but with no less narrative fragmentation, Delphine’s Prayers also gestures at duration and deep listening as an ethical disposition. She narrates a succession of harrowing experiences growing up in Cameroon and later immigrating to Belgium in fits and starts. With the imperiousness of the dispossessed, Delphine demands to be listened to, at her own pace. “Nobody will stop this story from being told. Not as long as I’m the pilot of this plane, it will not crash… If it is struck by lightning, hands and feet will grow on it, and wings…” Storytelling emerges as a site where the desire for something akin to self-possession is engaged, yet not adjudicated. Rosine Mbakam’s cinema offers no easy guarantees, only sincere attempts. Indeed, there is no liberated camera, only negotiations and acts of faith towards liberatory horizons.

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Chrystel Oloukoi is a researcher, freelance film critic and curator, broadly interested in experimental cinema, queer cinema and Black continental and diasporic cinema. They are the co-curator of Monangambee, a nomadic panafrican microcinema in Lagos and a 2021-2022 curatorial intern at Canyon Cinema.