Safi Faye

Safi Faye (born 1943), the Senegalese filmmaker and ethnologist who made her home in Paris, was the best-known woman filmmaker in sub-Saharan Africa.

Safi Faye was born in 1943 in Fad Jal, Senegal, a village south of Dakar, where she made the ethnographic films that brought her international acclaim. She was educated in Senegal, where she obtained her teacher's certificate at Rufisque normal school. Faye was teaching in Dakar in 1966 when she met Jean Rouch, the foremost French ethnographic filmmaker and father of cinema verité, at FESTAC, the World Black and African Festival of Arts and Cultures. Subsequently she played a role in Rouch's Petit à Petit (1969), and with Rouch's encouragement she studied ethnology at the University of Paris, first earning a diploma in 1977 and then a doctorate in 1979 based on research on the religion of the Serer, her own ethnic group. While in Paris she attended the Louis Lumière Film School and in 1979-1980 she studied video production in Berlin.


Ethnographic Filmmaking

Faye's documentary films on Senegal were related to her training as an ethnologist. She was interested in showing the real problems of people's daily lives from their perspective, an advantage she had as a member of the society she filmed. Although she included some fictional events in her documentary films, such as the love story in Kaddu Beykat, she did not find this contradictory since the fiction was grounded in reality and was typical of the society.

Faye made her first films in France. Revanche (Revenge; 1973), made collectively with other students in Paris, is about a madman who wants to climb the Pont Neuf, a bridge in Paris. She acted in her second film, La Passant (The Passerby; 1972-1975), about an African woman in France, which reflects in part the solitude she felt in Paris at that time. This film has a soundtrack of music and poetry, but no dialogue.

Kaddu Beykat (Peasant Letter; 1975), the first ethnographic film Faye made in Senegal, brought her international attention through film awards at FIFEF (Festival International du Film d'Expression Française), FESPACO (Festival Panafricain du Cinéma d'Ouagadougou), and the Berlin Film Festival and through receipt of the Georges Sadoul Prize in France. It remained her most widely reviewed and analyzed film. Kaddu Beykat, a feature-length film made in black and white, is about Fad Jal, her natal village in Senegal. It follows the slow pace of Serer life, providing an overview of such topics as agriculture, family structure, domestic life, children's games, social gatherings, the migration of young people, and comparisons between the abundance of the past and the scarcity of the present. To investigate economic problems Faye suggested topics for discussion to which the villagers responded, thus providing a discourse between Faye and the villagers reflecting both their views. A fictional love story provides the "organization" for the ethnographic information.

Fad Jal (1979), a feature-length film, and Goob Na Nu (The Harvest Is In; 1979), both in color, also are about Faye's natal village. While Goob Na Nu focuses on agricultural issues, Fad Jal is about life-cycle rituals, especially those of birth and death, which are part of the village's history. It includes reenactments of the past and shows what has been lost due to labor migration and other changes in post-independence Senegal. Faye's three Senegalese documentaries were made in the Serer language.


Other Films

After 1980 Faye's documentary and feature films were on diverse topics and had diverse sponsorship. For example, the United Nations produced Les ames au soleil (Souls Under the Sun; 1980) about the difficult lives of women and children in rural Senegal, with a focus on health and education, while UNICEF sponsored Selbe et tant d'autres (One and So Many Others; 1982) about the daily life of a Senegalese village woman whose husband has gone to work in town. In contrast, Ambassades nourriciers (Cultural Embassies; 1984), made for French television, is about Chinese, Indian, Hungarian, and other ethnic restaurants in Paris and includes interviews with their owners. Man Sa Yay (I Your Mother; 1980), made for German television, combines fiction and documentary in depicting an African student's adjustment to studying at a polytechnic university in West Berlin. The student expresses many of his feelings in letters to his mother. Faye's later fiction film, Mossane (1991), about a beautiful girl betrothed at birth who is in love with a student her own age, was coproduced by television stations in France, Germany, and Great Britain.

Safi Faye was acknowledged as one of the most accomplished women filmmakers in sub-Saharan Africa. However, because she lived and worked in Europe, far more Europeans have seen her films than have Senegalese and other Africans.


Further Reading on Safi Faye

Safi Faye has not yet been the subject of a book. Most interviews with Faye and reviews and analyses of her work have been written in French. The most comprehensive discussion in English of her training and analysis of her work is by Françoise Pfaff in Twenty-five Black African Filmmakers (1988). Brief biographical information and a list of her films appear in Keith Shiri's Directory of African Film-Makers and Films (1992).

Martin, Michael T. Cinemas of the Black Diaspora Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995.