LFFF had the happy fortune to be invited to the screening and panel discussion of Theresa Traore Dahlberg’s Ouaga Girls On 13 May. Our partners in film crime, Last Frame Film Club organized this event in collaboration with Women of Colour Film Club, at the CentrE17 in Walthamstow. The film, which LFFF was proud to present in our 2017 programme, documents the story of a group of women in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso who are all training to become car mechanics. As we see them progress in their studies, the women tell about all aspects of their lives, from the domestic to the classroom, from their social life and their relationships, to their careers as prospective car mechanics. Filmed in the run-up to the 2016 Burkinabé presidential elections, the audience subtly receives information about changing political and social lives in Burkina Faso from news reports and radio broadcasts in the background.
Afterwards, a panel discussion was held with filmmaker and script writer Laura Kirwan-Ashman and historian and educator Alinta Sara, moderated by WOC Film Club founder Aurelia Yussuf. Kirwan-Ashman spoke of her experience writing and directing short fiction films. She remarked on how interesting it was to see a documentary that is shot and edited as if it were a fiction film, and how her own forays into filmmaking started in a supportive environment of friends being creative and having fun together, similar to the female friendships shown in the film.
Yussuf related the casual depiction of the classroom to her own professional life in education. She particularly noted the nuance with which school life was portrayed, from the subtle undermining of the male teacher by the female students, to the fears that home life might infringe on the possibility to finish the course. It’s a nuance that is often lost in films about Black women, where school is often portrayed as the site of exclusion, bullying, or racism.
One aspect of the film that both the panel and the audience returned to during the discussion was the relief at having found a film that portrays Black womanhood in all its camaraderie and joy. The friendly classroom setting where women are free to support each other is a refreshing change from the usual way Black female bodies are treated in both fiction and documentary, especially those that (try to) appeal to a white Western audience. Despite this, the film never shies away from portraying the tougher parts of the women’s lives, such as poor sexual health education, inequality in the workplace, and the death of a school staff member. The difference is simply that viewers are not just left with an unsettled feeling that Black womanhood is intrinsically tragic or tough.
Ouaga Girls is an important counter-narrative to the normative ways Black women are portrayed on-screen, and it is a testament to Dahlberg’s talent as a director that by making a few artistic choices, her debut feature feels intimate and uplifting, when the subject matter lends itself particularly easily to depressing stereotypes. She is certainly a director to keep an eye on, and I can’t wait to see her next film, the Ambassador’s Wife, which is also set in Ouagadougou.
Altogether both the film and the event itself showcased the importance of spaces to explore, encounter, and develop oneself with others. Having a film club that allows us to watch these films in a community space, on an affordable budget, in a friendly setting with people from artistic, activist, and academic backgrounds as well as people who are not familiar with any of these areas is exactly what film needs right now.
Last Frame Film Club is based in Walthamstow, and hosts film screenings, masterclasses, and workshops around socially engaged films. Their next event is the UK premiere of Land of the Free on 7 June.
Women of Colour Film Club aims to showcase, discuss, and celebrate films about women of colour.
This Article was written by Pippa Sterk.
Pippa Sterk, LFFF Coordinator and Programmer, is a London-based writer from the Netherlands. She has an MA in Sociology from Goldsmiths and a BA in Film Studies from Sussex University. She writes articles about media and activism, with a particular focus on LGBT+ film, and she is currently working on her first novel.