Last fall, we spoke to Cameroonian filmmaker Rosine Mbakam about the U.S. premiere of her documentaries The Two Faces of A Bamileke Woman and Chez Jolie Coiffure. Now, we catch up to hear how the pandemic has upended — and reinvented — her new projects.
How do you make a documentary in Cameroon when you're stuck in Belgium because of the pandemic?
That's the dilemma that faced Rosine Mbakam in March.
When lockdown started, Rosine Mbakam was preparing to fly from Belgium to Cameroon to film a project commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University. The film would be part of a new Cinetracts series inspired by the 1968 cinematic project of the same name.
In its original incarnation of Cinetracts, a group of French filmmakers — including Jean Luc-Godard and Chris Marker — created documentary shorts in response to the social and political turmoil that unfolded in the streets of Paris during the May '68 protests.
For the new installation, Mbakam was one of 20 filmmakers granted a residency with the Wexner Center to provide a nuanced perspective from a significant corner of the world. She chose her home country.
Before she could embark on her trip, COVID-19 forced her to stay put in her Brussels apartment, along with her husband and two young sons. And she still had to submit her contribution to the new Cinetracts by the June deadline.
"I was like, 'What is in my environment now that can make a story, a film?" she says.
Then, she received a call from a friend who works at a local hospital. Mbakam says her friend expressed anger at a video recently released by the hospital, featuring health workers encouraging people to stay home and stop the spread of the coronavirus.
"But there were no African or Black people in that video," says Mbakam. "And it is not possible to go to a hospital here in Belgium without seeing Black people."
So she decided to dedicate her Cinetracts submission to raising visibility of Belgium's Black and African health workers — what their life was like before the pandemic, how their work had changed in the face of COVID-19, how racism plays a role in their everyday life.
She interviewed 20 people over Skype. Some shared stories of being attacked, both verbally and physically, by patients they were trying to help. Others considered leaving medicine altogether, saying the abuse and discrimination prevented them from caring for the sick.
"I discovered that the real virus in our society is social inequality and racism," says Mbakam. "And it's the biggest virus that we usually don't take care of."
The two-minute film for Cinetracts '20 will premiere virtually on October 8. But given the amount of stories she encountered, the filmmaker says she plans to expand her footage into a larger project down the road.
In the meantime, she is also turning her attention back to the first documentary she worked on after completing film school in Belgium. Filmed in late 2014 and early 2015, Les prières de Delphine, follows a young Cameroonian sex worker named Delphine who marries a man three times her age in order to migrate to Belgium.
"In the film, I'm talking about sexual colonization and how Delphine is trying to be free from that by questioning the two systems and two societies," says Mbakam. "The society in Cameroon that puts young women in that position to be exposed to that kind of relationship, and also how Europe continues to dominate and hold power over Africa."
Mbakam hopes to finish post-production on Delphine's story in the coming months. She says the documentary is her third project — following The Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman and Chez Jolie Coiffure — in which she consciously examines her own lens as a Cameroonian director.
"When I first came to film school here in Belgium, I was dominated by Western cinema. And in that school they were telling me that all the things I did [as a filmmaker] in Cameroon had no place there, no importance," she recalls. "But I still film people in Cameroon, and now in that film I question my gaze as a filmmaker."
One of those people she filmed, for Two Faces, was her mother — who fell ill during the course of the pandemic, but not from COVID-19. She suffered a case of malaria, much to Mbakam's concern, but recovered over the summer.
And thankfully, Mbakam says life is somewhat returning to normal in Brussels now. The stricter phases of lockdown have ended, and her children are off to school during the day, giving her time to refocus on filmmaking.
"People were saying that after the pandemic, there would be a new world and everything will not be like it was before," she notes. "It will not be a new world when we do not attack social inequality and racism. It's not a virus that can change the world and our ways to see each other, our mentality. It's bigger than a virus, and we have to question that."