Canary Wharf Screen: 30%, Women and Politics in Sierra Leone

Canary Wharf Screen Part III: 30%, Women and Politics in Sierra Leone

Our Specially Curated Season for Art of The Underground’s Canary Wharf Screen is now in Phase III: Future. Each week, we interview one of our filmmakers about their film and their involvement in the programme.

This week, we speak to Anna Cady, director of 30%, Women and Politics in Sierra Leone (2012). Anna is a contemporary UK-based artist, who often makes work with people who are not visual artists and their work becomes a conversation between the artist, the collaborator and the audience. She works with a variety of media, including short film, pinhole and digital photography, drawing and text.

Whistling, kidnapping and a bottle of Tipp-Ex all feature in this animated documentary, which brings to life the experiences of three powerful women in post-conflict Sierra Leone. The story of the ten-year battle to achieve fair representation for women – a 30% quota – in the governance of Sierra Leone, as well as the violence and corruption they face, is told with passion by Barbara, Salamatu and Bernadette, three extraordinary women from diverse backgrounds.

The film moves effortlessly between Em Cooper’s exquisite oil-painted animation and live-action video, transforming issues of gender and politics into compelling and thought-provoking viewing.

Our programme manager Elhum Shakerifar interviewed Anna about the film and her work as a director.

> How did you come to the subject of women and politics in Sierra Leone, and why did painting and film feel like the best combination to tell the women’s stories?

When I saw the call out for submissions to make a film about women and politics in Sierra Leone I imagined that if I were to make a straight documentary it might only appeal to a limited audience, by that I mean people who were already engaged with the subject in relation to women’s issues and, or African politics. I was determined to make a film that would target a wider audience. I had seen Em Cooper’s oil painted animation at the Royal College of Art and been captivated by both her technique and creativity. In a country like Sierra Leone which has recently been ravaged by such a brutal civil war, and knowing a little about the road blocks which women face within political life in this country as well as in Africa I could see that animation would give a vehicle for the stories we could not film. By combining animation with live action as we have done it has enabled the viewer to get a better sense of the women, their lives and the country itself. Another point that Em pointed out, which I think is really relevant, is that in utilising such a labour intensive technique to animate their stories we are proving how important this subject and what they have to say about their experiences, are to us.

> Could you tell us a little about the process of how the film came together?

Em Cooper was the director of animation and Tessa Lewin the Executive Producer from Real World Films. Pathways for Women’s Empowerment played a central role in helping us to make the film.

This was a really challenging film to make. We had 5 days filming in Sierra Leone (which was a very short time as none of us had been there before) and then on our return Em had to begin animating before I had even viewed the footage. We had regular phone calls where we planned her next bit of animation whilst I worked on the live action. I only had 40days of time to pay her for animation and as she was only able to do between 2-5 seconds a day we were up against it.

We were commissioned to make the film (we won the commission in an open competition) using the research that Hussai Abdullah had done for Pathways. So the women were chosen by her, and the subject – Women in Politics in Sierra Leone – was a given. When we went to Sierra Leone the women were in the process of fighting to get 30% representation for women passed as a bill in parliament. The idea behind the Real World films is to show the strength of women, and the difficulties they face, but not to portray them as victims.

Before we left the UK we had already formed the idea about the women making a journey to meet for a meal to discuss the bill they were (still are) trying to put through parliament. We also knew we wanted the film to begin with a reference to the eleven year civil war. There was a big discussion amongst the researchers at Pathways about how much we should talk about the war, but for such a short film there was no way we could really spend too long on it. Using animation and sound to reveal and remind the audience what it is to suffer that kind of war was essential for an understanding of the women’s place in the country.

We worked there with Jenny Cuffe who is an experienced interviewer and very knowledgable about African politics, so she was able to draw out the women to tell their stories without the need to include her voice in the film. Jenny is an award winning freelance journalist who works with BBC radio 4 – she reports for File on Four and other programmes.

Deciding what role animation was going to play in the film was clearly important. Early on we decided that it would be almost totally utilised to tell the stories for which there could be no live action footage. So when Bernadette began to tell us the whistling story we knew immediately that it was a brilliant way to introduce nearly all the challenges women and girls face in Sierra Leone. eg. Secret Societies, illiteracy, patriarchy, violence, freedom of speech…

Here are the words of Bernadette’s story:

“My grandmother, she was the head of the Secret Society. So in the house that we are dwelling in there we had a secret Society Shrine and we should not whistle in that house and therefore you know our grandmother would always tell us not to whistle.

So sometimes when I am whistling in the house my grandmother would drive me out and sometimes she would run after me with a cane you know that I am abominating her society by whistling in the house and that I would be evoking evil spirits.

So even my mother you know she was a traditionalist, she never went to school and therefore, all of these things you know – a woman should not whistle, a woman should be subservient, she should not argue with her husband…But then to some men also it’s like challenging them when a woman whistles, it’s like taking onto yourself male qualities – that I am strong, that I am this… You know I just whistle – I like whistling – So sometimes people ask me ‘Oh you are a man? And I say Why? Because women should not whistle….”

> Have Bernadette and the other women you filmed with seen the film? What is their situation today?

When the film was finished and I sent a copy out to the women I was devastated not to hear back from them for a long time. Somehow I expected them to be as enthusiastic as I was. But of course they were busy with the election and the film came too late for them to incorporate it into their struggle. This year however, the women have begun once again to fight for the Bill and I am thrilled that they asked for 100 copies of the film to use in their fight. Watching the film online is really not a possibility in Sierra Leone. Internet connection and electricity is really only reliable in the capital, Freetown, so we could communicate with Bernadette in parliament when she had time, but we have never been able to contact Salamatu again. We know that she did not gain a seat in the election.

Bernadette was re-elected and became the Minority Party leader though she has been facing troubles within her party. And Barbara has married and moved to Ivory Coast but remains in touch with and supports the cause.

> Birds Eye View is a platform that spotlights women directors – what advice would you give to women starting out in film?

I feel a bit nervous about presuming to advise others when I don’t really consider myself to be a director. As a visual artist who has come to be making films without any formal training, I see my role very much as a creative collaborator and perhaps this is no bad thing? So coming from my point of view and my limited experience in this role I would say that to work with the right team and to really listen to what they have to contribute is essential. The film world is a pretty tough place to be, I guess my advice would be – integrity is what matters in the long run, and if you don’t truly believe in what you are doing people will see through you and at least if you hold onto what is true then when the going gets tough you know you’ve done what you could as well as you could.

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