Beryl Magoko: The voice of the voiceless

Interview by journalist Cynthia Matuszewski (email:

Image © Cynthia Matuszewski

In autumn 2010, Beryl Magoko started working on her diploma film (Kampala University Film Class) on the sensitive issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) in her home village in Kuria/Kenya. She talked to proponents and opponents of the deeply entrenched tradition: young girls, elderly women, circumcisers, and a number of activists. Up to July 2013, The Cut has been screened at 15 international festivals in Africa, Europe, and the USA and has received five awards.

How did you get the idea to become a film-maker?
Beryl Magoko: This came late in life. When I finished primary school I wanted to be a journalist, but the school was too expensive. So I had to study graphic design first. After I finished my graphic design school my sister and brother sponsored my tuition fees for Kampala University.
During the studies we were expected to make television and stuff like that. But I developed more passion for documentary. Where I come from, women are just like objects. They don’t have anything to say. They have to stand some pain, because they are women. They are told that their place is in the kitchen. I love documentary film because it is the voice of the voiceless. I want to represent African women. I want to tell their story.

Your first documentary film is about FGM?
Beryl Magoko: Yes. I wanted to tell the story of circumcision since I was a child and still when I was grown up. But I didn’t know how to do that. And I realised that I was not content to just write an article.

Does your personal story relate to this aim?
Beryl Magoko: Yes, I am circumcised, like most women in my home. At the age of 11 I had to accept what happened to me. I accepted it and looked into the future. There are still so many girls who believe circumcising is the only way to survive in life. They think it is the only way to get a husband and the only way to get respect. Once they are circumcised they get married.

Image © Cynthia Matuszewski

What difficulties did you face making your film The Cut?
Beryl Magoko: First I thought it would be easy, because it was my village where we were filming and because the people knew me. But it was not easy. You can’t discuss the theme openly. It took me five weeks to find people who were willing to talk. They said: `Oh it is a good idea, come tomorrow at eleven’. When I came at eleven, they said: `Oh, I have to work, can you come at four?’ Or they asked `Can you give me money?’ Or they said ask the father for permission, and he said ask the girl, and so on. But finally I had 20 people.

How did you manage to film the circumcision?
Beryl Magoko: I never do something against the will of the people. When they say stop, I stopped filming. The whole circumcising lasts two or three weeks. Every day I went alone to the field. In time they got used to me. In the field a lot of girls were sitting in a line and got circumcised, the elders were controlling. Some said to me: `Give us money then you can film’. But some other elders said: `Do your work, don’t worry what the others say’. Some parents were very aggressive; they covered their girls and said `We don’t want, we don’t want’. Some people got really angry. I never did anything against their will. So I had to turn the camera on – off, on – off.

In Kenya, FGM is forbidden by law since 2011. What is the situation like in reality?
Beryl Magoko: I think the law is like a sentence written in a book somewhere. It is just a thing that is there but not fulfilled. Actually there is no politician talking about FGM. The locals say: The law is not for us, it is only for protecting the rich. But the poor have to continue circumcision. A majority wants their girls to be circumcised. The whole family has to suffer if a girl is not circumcised. They become outcast. For example a girl who is not circumcised is not allowed to fetch water from the river. The boys call the girl names or push her around when she goes to get the school bus. Nowadays women who are not circumcised are often well educated. But when they get married the family of the husband tortures them in many different ways. The pressure is very high. Some families circumcise the women while she gives birth to her child.

What about the young men. Do they really know what happens to the girls they want to get married?
Beryl Magoko: I think they know that the girls are circumcised. But I don’t think that they know exactly what that means. When I was showing my film in Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso, the men who were sitting in the audience suffered. The men cried. Later they told me: `We know about circumcision, but we don’t know that it is done like this’.
I think to see the film is one thing. But you also need additional information. Telling people ‘circumcision is not good’ is not enough. You have to inform them about the reasons why it is not good. And you have to show them alternatives. I can’t do this alone. It is not a one-woman job. We need a group of people. It takes years and days to change something. It is a long way. But I am sure if you start talking to people they are going to react.

Image © Cynthia Matuszewski

What are your aims for the next few years?
Beryl Magoko: I want to make a film about the so called ‘Daughters in law’. These are young women who get married to an older woman who has no male inheritor. So the younger woman has the duty to bear a boy, whose father is one of the male relatives. These women have no rights and their reputation is very low.

The Cut will celebrate its UK Premiere at the London Feminist Film Festival on Sunday 24 November 2013 at 3.30pm in our BODY POLITICS screening. We will be joined by Elizabeth Gezahegn-King (Africa Programme Manager at FORWARD, a charity campaigning to stop FGM) and other panellists for a discussion after the film which will be chaired by Hannah Pool.