Considered the first woman filmmaker of sub-Saharan Africa, Safi Faye remains one of the few active black African women directors. Born in Dakar, Faye?s family belongs to the Serer ethnic group, and comes from Fad?jal, the village upon which she would base her fourth film.
Trained as an educator, Faye was introduced to filmmaking by Jean Rouch, the ethnographic filmmaker credited with the term cinema verit? and known for films that Fatimah Tobing Rony, in her book The Third Eye, describes as ?increasingly self-reflexive and collaborative cinema? that ?gets beyond scientific voyeurism.? Rouch and Faye met in 1966, while Faye was working as an official hostess for the 1966 Dakar Festival of Negro Arts. Her first entry into the cinema was not as a filmmaker, but as an actress. She appeared in Rouch?s film Little by Little. The filmmaker encouraged Faye to pursue her interest in ethnographic film, and she did so in 1972, traveling to Paris to study both filmmaking and ethnology.
Her first film, The Passerby, in which she stars, was made while Faye was still a film student. The film is a critique of the Safi Faye neocolonialist introduction of agricultural monoculture?shifting farming from varied crops of use to the community to a single crop for export. As Sheila Petty states, this film, as well as Fad?jal ?attempts to bring a feminist consciousness to African film by revealing rather than glossing over, certain structures or uses of structures that continue to deny women equality.?
Using money earned from her first film, Faye shot her first feature-length docudrama with a budget of only $20,000, Kaddu Beykat. The film was completed three years later, and garnered international attention and awards. As Fran?oise Pfaff states, the film was ?literally meant to give a voice to Senegalese peasants,? and like Fad?jal, to ?condemn the precariousness of [a] base on the whims of peanut monoculture.? But rather than focus solely on the role of foreign markets in the oppression of African people, the film also critiques the role of the Senegalese government. As Faye noted in the Guardian, ?It is all too easy and convenient to place the blame for Africa?s present ills uniquely on the past or on outside forces.?
One of her best-known films is the documentary Selb? One among Others produced in 1982. This film was part of a unique and innovative program funded by UNICEF. Several filmmakers were chosen to direct films documenting the everyday experiences of women in different countries. Faye focused on her native Senegal, and Selb? Diout, a 39-year-old woman struggling in a village for the survival of herself and her children. Selb?, whose husband has left the community for a job in the city, is only one of many women who are the sole providers for their families. With no jobs and no viable incomes, the women work endlessly making and selling goods, foraging for food, and tending small subsistence plots of land.
Faye?s international reputation is defined not only by her vision, but also by her style, for she brought to African ethnographic film the perspective not of the ?outsider? observing the exotic, but that of a member of the culture. Her method is participatory and as she herself states: ?I do not work singlehandedly, but rather through and with people. I go to talk to farmers in their village, we discuss their problems and I take notes. Even though I may write a script for my films, I basically leave the peasants free to express themselves in front of a camera and I listen. My films are collective works in which everybody takes an active part.??FRANCES K. GATEWARD