Cinema. Irreducible Women.

 In the film ‘Nanny’, Nikyatu Jusu’s debut horror explores the dark side of the American dream. ‘Hawa’ by Maimouna Doucouré tells all about the world of adolescents without pity. Two films that represent the new wave of contemporary Afro-descendant cinema.

‘Nanny’ by director Nikyatu Jusu is the first horror film to win the prestigious Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, confirming the potential of films that use the genre to tackle political and social issues in an unprecedented way. In this case, the director, born in New York to Sierra Leonean parents, mixes horror and social drama to reveal the dark side of the American dream.

Aisha, masterfully played by Anna Diop, works as a babysitter in a wealthy New York family. The woman is saving up to bring her son Lamine from Senegal, from a relationship with a married man whom she then abandoned. As in Sembène Ousmane’s masterpiece, La Noire de…, which appears here in filigree, what initially seems like a good job opportunity slowly transforms into a relationship of first psychological and then economic exploitation. While the ambiguities of her employers emerge, Aisha is haunted by disturbing dreams and visions that throw her into a state of anguish and insecurity.
The woman can’t breathe, she feels suffocated by a system that turns out to be increasingly classist and racist. It is then that the siren Mami Wata and the spider Anansi, two figures of traditional African folklore, burst into her life as signs of premonition and alarm and then guide her in the painful process of self-determination and awareness.
They are supernatural presences that become resistance and rebellion against a capitalist system that systematically exploits immigrant and African-American women by throwing them on the margins of society or at worst into a mental hospital. The film, says the director, is a dark but hopeful love letter addressed to all mothers who have been systematically excluded from the American dream.

Water and memory
The story of the film originates from the experience of her own mother who, forced to work as a maid to support the family, sacrificed her creative and artistic potential. And the theme of motherhood is strong in all its nuances and contradictions.
Aisha forms a strong bond with Rose, the rich little girl she babysits. With her, she shares chebu yapp, a traditional Senegalese dish but also the adventures of the spider Anansi. She teaches her French while she has to settle for short phone calls with her son Lamine.
Rose’s mother, Amy, is forced to go out drinking on Friday nights with her male colleagues in order to advance her career and to endure the constant betrayals of her photographer husband. And it is precisely the realism of the characters and the strong political reading of American society that allows the supernatural dimension to break into history without falling into banal folklore.

Nanny director Nikyatu Jusu (Photo: Sundance Film Festival)

Mami Wata and Anansi are contemporary reinterpretations of tradition. They appear in a children’s picture book or in a postmodernist painting. The horror element slowly creeps into the hyper-modern spaces of the house where Aisha works. The water springs from the walls, it floods her dreams. Source of life, death and rebirth, water is also a memory of trafficking. Water that attracts and can kill as well as save.
But the horrific element also manifests itself in the reportage photographs of the girl’s father who travels the world immortalizing riots in the suburbs, clashes with the police and corners of Africa while his career wife, increasingly neurotically worried about her daughter, systematically forgets to pay Aisha. But it’s not just the images that fill the story with tension.
A stratified sound fabric (music, silence but also the chatter of Harlem, where Wolof is spoken) helps to create a complex narrative that incorporates political denunciation and refined psychological investigation.‘Nanny’ is a remarkable debut for a director who is not afraid to denounce the racism present in academic and cinematic circles where black women are often forced to shoot social dramas due to a lack of big budgets. Nikyatu Jusu’s new project will be the adaptation of her short, Suicide by Sunlight, a story of black vampires who can run in the sunlight because they are protected by melanin.
And in the future, she foresees nothing less than a remake of Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’.

Bittersweet comedy
‘Hawa’, on the other hand, is the new film by Maimouna Doucouré who, after the controversy sparked by her first feature film ‘Mignonnes’, chooses a bittersweet comedy to once again tell the story of the world of adolescents. Hawa (Sania Halifa) is a fifteen-year-old albino of African origin who lives alone with her grandmother Maminata (Oumou Sangaré) who, although seriously ill, still works.
Grumpy and always ready to attack, Hawa scans the world through her thick glasses and darts through her streets on her scooter.She works as a cashier in a small neighbourhood grocery store but dreams of being adopted by Michelle Obama.

When she learns that her heroine will be in Paris to present her latest book, she sets off on a mad dash to meet her and fulfil her wish. Like her, in all training trips along the way, she will meet obstacles and opponents but also singular helpers such as the singer Yseult, the astronaut Pesquet and above all the very shy friend Erwann. A painful journey that will end with the acceptance of reality and with a tribute to one’s African roots. The story is not convincing and is guilty of naivety but the film has the merit of describing an outsider without pity or rhetorical overtones. And behind the patina of the Frank Capra comedy one can glimpse the same desperate desire to be accepted as Amy, who in ‘Mignonnes’ rebelled against the traditions of her own family and her father’s polygamy by choosing to be part of a dance, grew willing to do anything to win a contest. The director is preparing her third film, an ambitious biopic about Josephine Baker produced by Studio Canals. There are common traits in the films of these two ambitious young directors who look at their African origins from the right distance and use the genre, be it horror or comedy, to tell of powerful and indomitable female characters and tackle crucial issues such as cultural alienation and capitalist exploitation. (Open Photo: Anna Diop stars in Nanny. (Photo: Sundance Film Festival).

Simona Cella


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