patterns for progress

Cameroon needs a fresh perspective in terms of thinking, says filmmaker Rosine Mbakam

By Eva Sauphie

Posted on June 9, 2023 15:00

 © Rosine Mbakam
Rosine Mbakam

Cameroonian director Rosine Mbakam’s feature film, ‘Mambar Pierrette‘, is the story of a seamstress and isolated mother in a sensitive neighbourhood of Douala. This beautiful film about the precarious condition of women in crisis-stricken Cameroonian society was presented at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes.

In following the story of this courageous woman and her clients, whose living conditions are just as precarious, the filmmaker reveals the failings of Cameroonian society and an economic system that has been severely hit by the Anglophone crisis.

Women play an important role in your work. What do you want to say about their living conditions in Cameroonian society?

I just wanted to tell different stories; stories that I saw very little of on television when I was younger. The kind of stories I lived through in my family, and through members of my family, who were everyday heroes.

You dont often see that image of Africa or Cameroon. I wanted to show this strength, which carried me every day but was never visible in the cinema or on television.

You set up your camera in Douala, in a difficult and violent neighbourhood inspired by your childhood in Mvog-Ada, Yaoundé. Have things changed over the past 20 years?

Its a rough neighbourhood in Yaoundé. It was even more extreme when I was growing up in the 1990s. Despite the violence, a lot of artists lived there and still do, in difficult conditions. Thats what makes this area so special.

Theres also a high level of delinquency, which is a sign of the precarious conditions, but its not specific to the area. It reflects the general state of insecurity engulfing the country. People are completely self-directed. Even if there is no work, they try to find it, they create it themselves, and this often involves delinquency.

You shed light on the specifically female informal economy, notably through the tontine system, which is structured but fragile because women investors are not protected. Is access to rights and protection for women workers progressing in Cameroon, as is the case in Côte dIvoire with the recent creation of a union for women workers?

Not really. Theres still a very strong adherence to the traditional culture here, which is having to contend with a new form of modernisation that is struggling to take hold. People have tried to defend their right to social security, for example, but its difficult to build a model that comes from outside. If things are put in place with regard to women workersrights, they need to be based on peoples daily lives and customs.

If we import a system from the West or from Europe, it wont work because it will always seem foreign and it wont reassure people.

I cant see my mother or my aunts taking their money and putting it in a bank. They trust their girlfriends. Because its a system that emanates from their reality, that isnt imported. Yet we want to reproduce the Western systems we see in films. This is the conflict we are facing.

This is apparent in the film when Pierrette wants to make an appointment with social services to get support in the absence of her childrens father, and those around her dont understand her choice. Is this a generational issue?

Exactly, I wanted to show this generational conflict. Each generation brings something of its own. Although our aunts and mothers pass on values to us, we have to make our own choices and chart our own course. And that often comes up against the values weve inherited, so theres always a form of resistance.

Tradition dictates that we reproduce what has been handed down to us. But we are different people from our elders, and we live in completely different contexts.

This conflict is handled with a great deal of love and freedom. I was generally able to make my own choices, and I was always impressed by the autonomy I was given.

Mothers are not (always) judgmental. They tell us what they think of our decisions, but leave us free to make our own choices. I wanted to show that freedom, where nothing is imposed, which is something we lack in todays society.

This is a rare representation of African society, where we tend to see very firm matriarchal figures…

No, thats not the case! Im against these strict representations. African culture and tradition are perceived as something very rigid, and imposed on everyone. Thats not my experience. My relationship with my mother, who grew up in a very traditional culture, never made me feel the weight of tradition.

On the contrary, I felt that she was a woman who wanted to pass on to me what was important to her while allowing me the freedom to be who I am.

You show the sisterhood that exists between mothers, wives, and aunts, despite the hardships. And that makes the film very tender.

I wanted to show this solidarity between women that we tend to trivialise. Were used to highlighting great things, even in cinema, emphasising great deeds. But it’s the little things, the small everyday actions that transform lives.

Pierrette manages to buy school books for her children thanks to a loan from a tontine and an aunt who gives her a little money, and so on. All this contributes to the understated complexity of the characters.

There is an authority figure in the film, the social worker, who embodies the weight of tradition and patriarchy even though she is a woman. What did you want to say through this character?

Theres a good reason why I dont show her face. She could just as easily have been a man. She embodies the rigidity of a society that always ends up closing the doors on us, oppressing us and imposing a framework on us.

I wanted that society to be faceless because you can transpose it anywhere and relate to it. We also expect women to show solidarity, but thats not always the case. I wanted to show that nuance.

Pierrette often rails against the situation in the country. How do you view the economic, Anglophone, and security crises in Cameroon which has been ruled by the same head of state for over 40 years?

I hope there will be a breath of fresh air. The country needs it. I hope that this change will come about, especially in terms of thinking. Politics doesnt change peoples conditions or their thinking. As a director, when I make a film, its so that people can see themselves and think in terms of their own reality. Once we have this freedom to think, well be able to do anything.

All creation and invention start with a thought. But when that thinking is chained to a reality that is not your own, it cant get a hold on our daily lives. If young Cameroonians start to think for themselves, they will be able to do anything, politically, socially, at every level.

There is enormous creativity in Cameroon. I filmed with my family, with people who had never made a film before, and to see the quality of their performance is impressive.

I wanted to show the extent to which we, as Cameroonians but also as Africans, have incredible personal resources that we havent yet fully explored. I hope that the film will inspire young people to rediscover this confidence, and give us all an opportunity to continue to really build on our own strengths, our own culture and our own identity, and not on a borrowed culture.

At a time when civil society is being muzzled, do you believe in art and culture as a means of influencing society and thinking?

Thats what underpins my passion for cinema, which was initially fuelled by Western images. I need to deconstruct that and reconnect it with my own reality so that I can make films that question and perhaps even enrich that reality, to improve society. For me, thats how a revolution starts when we start thinking for ourselves.

The whole of Africa thinks in terms of the West. We believe that well-being lies elsewhere. Its nothing more than an economic question. If there was an economic balance in Cameroon and more broadly in Africa, Im not sure there would be such a wave of immigration.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.