Financially limited, but overflowing with cultural richness, African cinema is less frequently present at international festivals than productions from most other regions of the world, a notion that may speak to our erroneous preconceptions of the continent and the stories we expect to see in their films.
Since the market for foreign language features in the U.S. and other countries is strapped, collecting laurels and receiving critical acclaim are crucial to an international film’s prospects outside of its home country. Fewer African films at the festival level translates into less opportunities for audiences to access them, creating a widespread artistic blind spot.
To that point, if you are like most western viewers, even those with an acquired personal interest for global filmmaking, you’ve probably never seen a film from Niger, a landlocked nation in West Africa with a long storytelling tradition both on and off screen—even if it’s still largely undiscovered abroad. However, that could soon change given that this year the country submitted its first-ever Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film: The Wedding Ring, about a woman who returns to her hometown from Europe in hopes of having a traditional marriage ceremony with the man she loves.
Journalist turned moviemaker, Rahmatou Keïta, is the woman behind this landmark accomplishment that’s decisively opening doors and garnering visibility for Nigerien cinema in Hollywood. The Wedding Ring is based on her previous short “The Golden Ring,” which tells the same story in more economical fashion.
Like her characters in The Wedding Ring, the director comes from a long lineage of African aristocrats for whom ingrained traditions are the basis of their ancient societies. “I wanted to pay tribute to those cultures that are so generous, so peaceful,” she told MovieMaker during a lengthy conversation in Los Angeles, where she found herself this fall on behalf of her movie’s Oscar campaign. Matriarchal in nature, their philosophy has no room for violence against women and is ruled by a compassionate moral code.
Conveyed with a keen eye for color and composition, these values contradict the images of Africa popularized in the West by news media and foreign creators forcing their gaze on the continent. “I come from a culture and a country where we love beauty. People there are very beautiful, the clothing is very beautiful, and hairdressing is like creating sculptures.”
The Wedding Ring’s lead actress, Magaajyia Silberfeld, embodied that gracious strength and affinity for beauty as Tiyaa. The young performer of Nigerien descent was born and raised in France and trained in California, but her ties to her African motherland remain strong. Silberfeld was also part of the original short, and outspokenly advocates for African women to embrace their unique physical traits with pride, rather than seeking validation in Eurocentric ideals of what is desirable.
A highly regarded figure in African cinema, Keïta’s filmmaking career originated from the pleasure of appreciating the art form, rather than any film-specific training. “I’ve never been in a cinema school. I learned cinema from going to the theater,” she said.
As a student she pursued degrees in philosophy and linguistics, and eventually made her way to French television as a reporter. Yet, the urge to tell stories pushed her toward documentary shorts, eventually graduating to long-form content. Long before she made history with her fiction debut, The Wedding Ring, Keïta directed another historically relevant film, 2003’s Alleessi… an African Actress, a non-fiction testament to work by the pioneers of African cinema, who, she points out, were from Niger.
Keïta explained that Niger was one of the first African countries to develop its own film industry, which flourished during the 1960s and ’70s before drying up in the early ’80s. Her documentary focuses on Nigerien actress Zalika Souley, known to be one of the first professional African actresses, and director Moustapha Alassane, whose name has been mostly ignored in cinema history despite being one of Senegalese auteur Ousmane Sembène’s contemporaries of similar prominence.
“I don’t know if I’ve saved the history of my country, but I know that I wish to tell the stories that nobody knows,” said Keïta about her intentions with both the documentary and her latest drama. Unfortunately, she believes most of the classic Nigerien films she watched growing up have now disappeared, due to a lack of efforts to preserve them. Curiously, as she noted, the first films made in her country were Westerns, because they were the first American productions to arrive. Nigerien filmmakers would make Africa-set adventures and name their heroes using actors’ names like Steve McQueen and Gary Cooper.
The artistic hiatus between Alleessi… and The Wedding Ring was not deliberate for Keïta. Several years into her tireless mission to finance her follow-up, she decide to scrape money together to make the short that would serve as a proof of concept and hopefully get the larger project off the ground. But even after the considerable success of “The Golden Ring,” the financial prospects for its feature version were dim.
Keïta applied to countless European funds and any grants that those countries offer as cultural partnerships with Africa, but was rejected by all of them. Keïta believes, to an extent, it is Europe’s duty to help revive African art since they suppressed it through centuries of colonialism and political destabilization. “Maybe they feel guilty, but it’s part of their responsibility, because they contributed to destroying our cultures and our language,” she said.
Keïta took a hard look at her work and though she liked her screenplay, she was aware that a multitude of countries, who speak different languages with different cultures, had dismissed her work. She was about to give up on The Wedding Ring when she learn that President Bouteflika of Algeria, one of Niger’s neighboring nations, was organizing a Pan-African Art Festival, and as part of it, his government would select four documentary features and four fiction features and help finance them. “He said he wanted all the countries in Africa to understand that images are important,” said Keïta.
Unanimously selected as one of the eight, The Wedding Ring was finally on the road to production. What Keïta learned from this experience was that European jurors likely didn’t understand what she was trying to express, while in Africa they understood it wholeheartedly. She approached a dozen more countries in the continent to get more resources and eventually Uganda, Congo-Brazzaville, Morocco, Rwanda, and her own country, Niger, supported the project, leading The Wedding Ring to being entirely financed with African money.
“It’s the Africans who will pay for their own films and their own stories,” she noted. “I’m proud of that. I believe for the first time, a film has all of these countries helping make it. It’s very important, and I’m happy that the film is having success, so that they see the work I did thanks to the funds they provided. I hope they will continue to support African films, because I have more films to make. Now I am praying that I have the time to visit all these countries that helped us to show them the film.”
Lacking an established film industry in Niger, Keïta had to rent equipment from another neighbor, Burkina Faso, a country with a more developed entertainment infrastructure. Burkinabe crew were also on set to help, as well as two French technicians. Bringing gear and other materials from Burkina Faso was much more cost-effective for the small production than importing it from Europe. With a tiny budget and an ambitious plan, Keïta and her team shot The Wedding Ring in three weeks, as opposed to her initial (and expensive) 10-weeks plan. Shot on location, with extreme temperatures being the norm, The Wedding Ring is the cinematic manifestation of Keïta’s perseverance and resolve.
Enthusiastically, Keïta, stated her hopes for the film to find an American distributor so that audiences here can experience an African story about an amicable people with its own treasures to share. In that regard, she is also thrilled that a film like Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther exists and has enjoyed such massive success, as she considers it a splendid interpretation of African culture from an African-American perspective. It’s her wish that such interest soon extends to stories from the continent with the same goal of highlighting its long overlooked greatness. MM
The Wedding Ring is Niger’s first ever Oscar Entry for Best Foreign Language Film.