The Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman

The Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman
by Rosine Mbakam

Icarus Films, Brooklyn, NY, 2019
76 minutes, col. French; Bamileke / English subtitles
DVD, $348.00
Distributor’s website: http://icarusfilms.com.

Reviewed by
Michael Mosher
January 2020

I admit, my idea of the contemporary urban African woman is imprinted by Ousmane Sembene’s Faat Kiné (2000), an inspiring tale of a self-made businesswoman in Dakar who overcame many personal obstacles to own a successful gas station and put her children through school. The viewer gets another view of a life in The Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman, the 2016 film by Rosine Mbakam. At age 34, after seven years in Belgium studying, and with her white European husband, Mbakam brought her young son back to Cameroon to visit her mother.

In her village Tonga and then the capital city Youndé, elderly aunts and others prepare bright yellow koki and recall the horrors and atrocities of the colonialists at the end of France’s control. They talk of men, husbands current and past—one has married the son of her husband by another wife—but much of their rich conversation gets lost in the white subtitles over light backgrounds of complex groundcover, pale pavement or a silvery cooking pot; too-light subtitles have diminished other fine Icarus Films, too. In the house, mother and daughter examine a suitcase of documents owned by her late father, whom the mother still mourns. There’s still the matter of financial compensation for the angry ex-fiancé to whom Mbakam was betrothed by the families at age eight, whom Mbakam jilted in her flight to study in Europe.

Upon daughter’s request, mother slaps Mbakam with scalding washcloths, as she would have right after the baby’s birth had it been in Cameroon. The filmmaker stands, cowering at the heat, in nice black underwear, her gym-toned torso evidence of a very different middle-class lifestyle in Europe. The little boy charms his grandmother by learning to say “I love you, grandma” in Bamileke, and peacefully snoozing beside her in his grandfather’s marriage bed. Little girls in the neighborhood, slightly older, seem to exclude the big-haired, café-au-lait lad from climbing upon a tire with them.

Since her mother had only seen one film in her life, many years before with a lot of gunplay in it, Rosine projected for the mature local ladies, another film—Sembene’s 1966 Black Girl, a story of a Senegalese maid working for a French couple in Antibes.  The village ladies may be thinking: But your life must be more like the white wife than the servant! It is rewarding that Mbakam brings great African cinema home with her to share, as she in turn contributes a memorable documentary of the Africa she knows in the process.