Fulbright Scholar: CSU Professor to Study Women Filmmakers in Africa

NOTE: This profile originally appeared in the June 2008 edition of Impact, CSU's faculty-staff publication.

Language professor Cécile Accilien is a voracious scholar of women’s issues and evolving roles in French-speaking Africa and the African diaspora.

A recent Fulbright awardee, she will use her grant in 2008-2009 to focus on this interest in the heart of West Africa.

During a yearlong American literature teaching assignment at Burkina Faso’s Ouagadougou University, she plans to research regional filmmaking, interview pioneering women in the field and publish her findings in a paper or monograph.

The project follows an analysis of novels and films depicting marriage’s effect on women in their respective societies in her 2008 book Rethinking Marriage in Francophone African and Caribbean Literatures.

Instead of women “on screen” or “in the story,” Accilien’s next endeavor focuses on them behind the camera — as contemporary storytellers — displaying their cultures, and significantly their women subjects, with depth and substance.

Cecile Accilien“I want to document the obstacles, successes and the social impact their films are having,” said Accilien, right, a 2006 finalist for CSU’s Faculty Research and Scholarship Award.

Independent filmmaking has developed over the past four decades of  postcolonial transformation in Africa.

For women, the field is rife with gender-rooted challenges. But some, including Burkina Faso’s Fanta Regina Nacro, have staked a claim in this revolution.

Nacro’s “Bintou” (2001), about a woman who endures abuse from her husband for using her housekeeping money to pay for her daughter’s education, has earned more than 20 prizes at international festivals.

Accilien met Nacro, 45, and countryman-colleague Gaston Kabore at the Oxford International Film Festival at Miami (Ohio) University in March 2007. Kabore, 55, has produced several films and recently opened a school for future cinema and television producers and directors. Accilien plans to revisit both in their home country and interview some of their contemporaries.

A likely setting for the meetings will be February’s Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO).

The biannual event showcases African and African diaspora filmmaking of various genres from documentaries and short films to full-length comedies and dramas. The government-sponsored affair also has shaped the country’s reputation as the African capital of motion pictures.

“Even with limited economic resources, the Burkina Faso government invests significantly in filmmaking as a means for education,” Accilien said. “In societies with low literacy rates (21.8 percent in Burkina Faso), filmmakers play a vital role as modern storytellers.”

Such filmmaking also counteracts Africa’s commercial cinema excess of Hollywood and Bollyhood (India) imports.

Since joining CSU in 2005, Accilien has imported African films to the university. Through a recent technology grant, she acquired several videos for instruction, including selections now faculty-staff accessible in the Schwob Library.

One of the films, Sembene Ousmane’s “Faat Kine,” was the foundation for Accilien’s recent May-session “Understanding Non-Western Culture” course.

Ousmane (1923-2007), one of Africa’s pioneering and most-respected filmmakers, depicts a single mother in Senegal who overcomes sexism and other obstacles to succeed in the private sector.

Accilien said the film, illustrating the evolving societal roles of Senegalese women, serves as an ideal point of reference for Western viewers including students she’s encountered with such misconceptions as thinking Africa is a single nation and that most people there live primitively and under oppression. “African films like these are invaluable for teaching Western students to better understand the cultural diversity throughout Africa and to realize that the day-to-day issues that people throughout the continent deal with are often similar to their own.”

Born in Haiti and raised in New Jersey, Accilien will make her second trip to Africa as she also plans to visit Mali and Ghana. In 2005, she attended the Summer Institute on African Cinema in Dakar, Senegal on a National Endowment for the Humanities grant.

The Fulbright Program, sponsored by the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, sends 800 U.S. faculty and professionals abroad each year in an exchange of knowledge, skills, ideas and mutual understanding.