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Beti Ellerson


"We Want To Tell Our Stories"

Beti Ellerson on Africa women in cinema

BY Agnes Amondi

Sep 22, 2022, 10:57 AM

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Beti Ellerson
We continue to bring you stories from the International Images Film Festival for Women.

If there is one name you shouldn’t miss out on when it comes to African women in film, it is that of Beti Ellerson. She might be from the diaspora but her work and travels to the continent demonstrate her expertise in the subject.

Beti is an independent researcher and activist who’s made it her business to study Africa Women in Cinema and has an extensive body of work to show for it. She even established the Centre for Study and Research of African Women in Cinema which only goes to show her dedication to sharing her knowledge and keeping the conversation going. 

We caught up with Beti and talked about her involvement with the IIFF and her work in African cinema.

How did you get into the African cinema space?

B.E: I taught on the faculty at several universities from the mid-1990s to the mid-2010s, notably Howard University in Washington DC, where I received a PhD in African Studies and completed my post-doctoral research. It is during the post-doctoral fellowship that I began my journey in the study and research of African women in cinema. 

I engaged in film studies - film history, analysis & criticism - during which I focused on African Cinema - where I developed my film activism by engaging with the local Public Access TV station, DCTV. 

My initial interest was to acquire skills in video techniques to visually document my academic research and I ended up learning the entire TV production process which prepared me to produce and host my own show, Reels of Colour and later on, the documentary film, Sisters of the Screen, African Women in the Cinema, which was released in 2002 and here I am continuing on this journey.

What do you find appealing about African women in film?

B.E: I am not a film buff, per se. It was through my interest in African cinema, both academically and through activism, that I developed a keener interest in the world of cinema as a site of critical inquiry. My interest in the intersection of African cinema, women’s studies and womanism as a conceptual framework drew me to my very specific focus on African women in cinema.

You’ve been involved and even awarded at the International Images Film Festival for Women, what are your reflections on it?

B.E: I was part of the jury at the 2011 edition of the IIFF. I was impressed with the quality of the film selection, the level of professionalism and the organization done by the festival. I was also inspired by the inclusion of so many stakeholders who were integral to the promotion of culture and women’s empowerment in Zimbabwe.  

I was privy to the behind-the-scenes activities and I continue to give kudos to these amazing women in their capacity to pull off such a feat, with so little means, which shows what African women can do as a result of perseverance, determination and firmness of purpose, bravo!

During the event, I received The Distinguished Woman of African Cinema Award which is presented to a woman of African descent anywhere in the world who has made and continues to make a significant contribution to the African film industry. It was quite an honour and I continue to be humbled by this recognition of my work.

The need for African women to tell their own stories, hence such festivals, is one of the themes your research highlights. Tell us more.

B.E: Absolutely. African women asserting their own agency, claiming their voice, and telling their own history have been recurrent “themes” in terms of addressing the issues and matters of concern that are fundamental to their cinematic vision and filmmaking practice. 

African women are increasingly visible in animation cinema and are taking full advantage of web-based and transmedia storytelling and actually include these themes in their work. 

Also, the subjects they talk about - the effects of colonization, reconciliation, African cultural heritage, identity, rural sustainability, migration, literacy and girls’ education, women’s health and bodily integrity, and women’s empowerment - have remained consistent over the years even though contemporary stories that are being told reflect the realities of the time with stories on mental health, gender-based violence and coping with COVID among others.  

What’s the impact of such festivals on women in the African film industry?

B.E: Well, I have been to many festivals in Africa and beyond and a vital role of the film festival is the potential to showcase and promote the works of African women, provide an environment for networking, as well to facilitate the professionalization of their experiences as film practitioners. As is evident with the IIFF, African women are leading the way in this regard.

From a participant and researcher's point of view, how have things evolved over the years?

B.E: Well, since technology is more accessible, we are seeing more women filmmakers in the area of the moving image. The global focus on gender parity in the media has also contributed to empowering women to advance into filmmaking as directors and the technical areas which have long been the purview of men.

Is film the ultimate game-changer for African women?

B.E: African women change makers have long engaged with the media as a clarion call for change, whether through the moving image, print, or radio. These forms of media have been the vehicle for awareness building, women’s empowerment and literacy and health education, to name a few. I am not sure that I would attribute everything to film. 

However, I would venture to say that in the past two decades, the ubiquity of new technologies and social media has been the ultimate game-changer for African women who, of course, have access to these technologies to get their message across to an audience beyond the gatekeepers of information and knowledge production.