Niger’s leading female writer / director Rahmatou Keita is currently working on two films, Wanna Kumal (The Wedding Ring) and I Have a Dream. The first is a fiction feature film in which she hopes to cast African American singing sensation Lauryn Hyll. I Have a Dream is a documentary on the return of democracy in Niger. The films are produced by Keita’s Sonrhay Empire Productions.
Al’leessi… an African Actress, a documentary feature produced by Keita in 2004, is her first feature length film. The word al’leessi means “fate or destiny’ in Songhoy (or Sonrhay) a language spoken in West African countries like Niger, Mali and Benin. It relates the story of the pioneers of African cinema through the first professional actress of the continent. The 69-minute documentary, shot on 35mm, has been distributed in France by Unzero Films.
It has won several awards including: Audience Award – Black Movie Geneva (2004); Best Documentary – Montreal’s Film Festival Vues d’Afrique (2004); Best Documentary – FIFAI 2005; Sojourner Truth Award – Festival de Cannes 2005; and African Achievement Award – Festival de Cannes 2005.
Keita studied philosophy and linguistics in France and has produced 10 documentaries for television and four under Sonrhay Empire Productions. She also writes a television series Femmes d’Afrique (Women from Africa).
Says Keita: “When I was a little girl cinema was like magic in Niger. In Lakuruusu, my neighborhood, the Queen of Sheba and Cleopatra, who were African queens, were portrayed as white women. They looked like Gina Lollobrigida and Liz Taylor.
“In those days cinema was about white men who were portrayed as having somewhat of a divine nature. Images had such power that we did not doubt what we saw on screen, until the day African actors appeared on the screen. The African women were not vamps and the men were unlike any of the Hollywood stars we were used to watching. They were ordinary people with a normal tan and normal features. People were shocked.’
Keita says women and men in film in Africa have the same problems but there are very few women in the industry.
Born in Niamey, Niger, Keita is a daughter of the Sahel (the grasslands south of the Sahara). She is Fulaani, Songhoy and Mandingo. As she puts it, she is “of the true essence of the Sahel’. With her dreams of becoming a writer and a movie director in mind, Keita first worked as a journalist. From 1987 to 1993 she worked on French and international television stations and was the first African journalist (including the diaspora) to appear on French television.
She was also the first to get the most coveted 7 d’Or Award. Actually she received two – for the television magazine’s team L’assiette Anglaise on the French television channel Antenne 2 in 1988 and 1989.
In 1993 she decided to spend more time on her true passions: writing and directing. She wrote SDF, sans domiciles fixe, (Lattes 1993), a book about the homeless in France. She has since been involved in documentary films.
Sonrhay Empire Productions is based in Niamey and has been established for 12 years. Her country Niger is credited as the first in Africa (outside Egypt) “to build a cinema industry.