Al’leessi…An African Actress

2004
Distributed by Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, New York, NY 10013; 212-925-0606
Producer n/a
Directed by Rahmatou Keita
DVD, color and b&, 69 min.
Sr. High - Adult
Women's Studies, Film Studies, Post-Colonial Studies


Reviewed by Oksana Dykyj, Head, Visual Media Resources, Concordia University, Montreal

Recommended   
 
Date Entered: 3/2/2006

It is often imprudent to make absolute claims about being first without proper context or clarification because it sets up a situation where those assertions can be shot down. The first frame of the film presents a written statement claiming that besides Egypt, Niger is the first African country to produce movies, Mustapha Alassan is the first African film director, and Zalika Souley the first professional actress. Since there is no context as to the claim being in reference to pre or post colonial periods, feature length or short, animation or live action, documentary or fiction, independently funded or funded through foreign sources, picked up for distribution or not, it is difficult to simply accept this claim without bringing into the equation the work of such individuals as Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, whom many historians deem to be the first African director. Sembene’s first short, Borom Saret (1963) is considered the first film made by an African on a fictional subject to be distributed outside Africa while Alassan’s first short was a documentary, Aoure (1962). Thus, without completely dismissing the introduction, it is worth noting that the main subject of this documentary revolves around film pioneers in Niger. With so little information available on this subject, does it really matter who was the first apple and who the first orange?

Al’leessi…An African Actress is a film that splits into several facets: a portrait of a woman who had once been an actress in movies, a history of the filmmaking industry in Niger, and a social history of women in Niger. There also appears to be a constant tugging within the film as to whether it is primarily about a woman who just happened to work as an actress at one point in her life, or about the actress and how she ultimately sublimated her life.

Born in 1947, Zalika Souley is shown in her current environment, living on the outskirts of Niger’s capital, Niamey, without running water or electricity and pinching pennies at the market. She cooks for several young children assumed to be hers. She reminisces about her life before, during, and after her acting career of “more than 10 films” and has no regrets other than having wasted all the money she made. Industry contemporaries interject their views about Nigerien filmmaking in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. Alassan, Moustapha Diop, Bakabe Mahamane discuss issues such as Souley’s acting style being one which was mostly about improvisation, or her strong-willed personality which led to her walking off before the end of production.

Her decision to act in films was basically on a lark when she was asked if she wanted to be in a movie, and her parents beat her as this was not a proper profession. When she first started working she felt as if she was playing games, riding horses as a cowboy with a gun. The film in question is a 34 minute cowboy movie called Retour d’un aventurier (1966). It’s interesting to note that many pioneering Hollywood actresses from the silent period also felt that their work was somehow not really work initially but play-acting. It was all in the spirit of being pioneers. Souley’s story is both pioneering and local but also on a personal level, universal. There is a similarity with American actress Madge Bellamy, the now nearly forgotten Hollywood silent and early sound star. They were both unconventional, impulsive, intuitive and hard to handle. Both did not think about the future and spent their money foolishly. One kept walking out on her films, the other walked out on her contract and both ended up in abject poverty. At least Zalika Souley is now being remembered in this documentary even though we are told at the end that she has moved abroad to work as a maid.

In Niger women’s roles were simple caricatures and Souley played her share of bad girls, drunkards, prostitutes and killers. This translated to her having a hard time finding a husband as apparently her on-screen roles were being confused with her off-screen personality in a strict and traditional Muslim culture. Souley talks about how a woman could not even utter her husband’s name or look him in the eyes for fear of being disrespectful and immodest at a time when she was portraying prostitutes on the screen. She was certainly not respected in her country until 1990 after she was awarded a medal in Tunisia for her contribution to African cinema.

This documentary will surely be used as a reference work on the history of filmmaking in Niger. While it offers invaluable information about the difficulties in establishing a national cinema in regards to the financing aspects and vis-a vis the profit-making television industry, it also falls short as a correct reference work on the history of those films. Although speakers are identified with a tag, archival film clips are not. The context is usually clear enough to follow and look up in the end credits, but viewers should not be expected to have to do that. It’s not always evident in the credits either, particularly if there are 3 films by the same director. Including the years in which the films were made would also have served historical research more efficiently. Finally, we are told by Souley that she made more than 10 films yet only 6 are included in the credits as sources for the films clips. Were the others lost, or was the filmmaker unable to obtain rights to them? Or alternately, did Souley confuse the amount of work she actually did? From a historical and archival standpoint, this is an important issue that the filmmaker does not deal with.