By Elsa Sichrovsky
Source : Rahmatou Keïta
Do you know what Niger’s first entry at the Academy Awards was? It was Rahmatou Keïta’s 2016 film The Wedding Ring (Zin’naariyâ!), and it was entered in 2018. It follows the adventures of an aristocratic young woman named Tiyaa (starring director Rahmatou Keïta’s daughter, Magaajyia Silberfeld) as she struggles to readjust to life in her village in the Sultanate of Zinder after studying at university in France. Although she is returning as an educated woman who has had the luxury of seeing the world outside of her village, her life is frustrated with the pain of waiting as her suitor in France has yet to make a formal offer of marriage.
She seeks the advice of a wise man, who tells her she should get the foreign symbol of marriage, a plain gold wedding ring, by the eve of the new moon. While she waits, she has time to rediscover the rituals and stories of her native culture, and the love stories of the women around her. The film celebrates the experiences of women in love as they navigate the cultural and familial complexities of Sahelian traditional culture.
The Wedding Ring echoes director Rahmatou Keïta’s own life story. She too is a descendant of multiple empires: Sundiata Keïta (Mandigo Empire), Askia Mohammed (Songhoy Empire), and the Fulaani’s kingdoms of Macina. Just like her heroine, she studied philosophy and linguistics in Paris. After graduating, Keita made sure she didn’t just stand out only for being the first African journalist on French television. Her work with the television magazine L’assiette anglaise won two prestigious 7 d’or awards in 1988 and 1989. She also directed a 26-episode TV series, Women of Africa (Femmes d’Afrique), which was broadcasted throughout the Africa.
Rahmatou Keïta yearned to continue the tradition of storytelling from the griots in the Sahel. She wanted to bring the richness of Sahelian culture to the world. In 1993, she decided to pursue her true passion: film writing and cinema. Her first documentary feature film, An African Actress (Al’lèèssi…, 2004), described the struggle of those who first built the African film industry. The film won Best Documentary Award at Montreal and FIFAI (International Film Festival of Africa and the Islands) and the Sojourner Truth Award at the Cannes Film Festival, which brought her into the international cinema industry’s spotlight.
The British Blacklist praised the film’s artistry and presentation of Niger, “The cinematography is quite beautiful and adds to the modern feel of the story, whilst presenting the Republic of Niger in such a way that it might just make your list of places to visit one day.” Rahamtou Keita clearly succeeded in her mission, as overturning stereotypes about her nation was one of the driving motivations behind her art. “Through The Wedding Ring, I wanted to show that there are happy people in Africa, beyond the dark images of economic poverty and terrorism…Material wealth isn’t always necessary to be happy,” she says.
Through her film The Wedding Ring, Rahmatou Keïta strives to show her nation’s beauty to the world. “We are nations to whom dialogue and research of harmony are of the utmost importance for us, and we cultivate inner and exterior beauty and elegance.” Rahmatou Keïta took the time to pay painstaking detail to the decor and costumes in her film. She employs henna, dyes, and facial scarring to showcase the artistic and creative beauty of traditional Sahelian culture: “I want to pay tribute to beauty, to age-long and sumptuous architecture and costumes”. She even uses clothes from her grandmother and realia from her family, such as a calabash.
Rather than reinforcing the popular image of African women as victims or powerless figures in the background, The Wedding Ring portrays socially active, assertive women who mirror the positive role models Rahamtou Keita had growing up. “The women in Africa are fiercely independent and strong. My grandmother had caravans and traded gold and fabrics, she left with her employees on the backs of camels from the Niger Sahara to Arabia and even sometimes in China on business purpose. I grew up seeing such women.”
Yet even with such a beautiful vision of cultural celebration, Rahmatou Keïta’s script initially failed to attract sponsors from European countries. In despair, Rahmatou Keïta was about to discard her script when she learned during FESPACO 2009 that Algeria was planning to sponsor four feature films. To her shock and delight, the judges were awed by her script, and she was awarded funding for film production. Her confidence boosted by this success, she was able to enlist the help of film industries in other African countries such as Congo, Rwanda, Morocco, and Uganda.
Having been raised in a culture that idolized Western film, Rahamtou Keïta believe passionatelythat Africa must develop its own film industry in order to tell its own unique stories. To put her people on the screen is to give them power and confidence. “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.” Rahmatou Keïta continues to be passionate about promoting African culture and language on an international scale. She founded ASPAC (Pan African Association of Culture)and with friends founded Sonrhay Empire Productions, which seeks to produce films that give a voice to marginalized communities in Africa.
Wells Bring Hope shares Rahmatou Keïta’s vision of bringing Niger’s beauty to the world. By empowering women and girls to educate themselves and their children, Wells Bring Hope is building a future Niger where women and girls have the means to express themselves and create art that celebrates their stories. Join Wells Bring Hope in tackling, and breaking down, the economic and cultural barriers that keep Nigerien women and girls from becoming their best selves. So much of Niger’s beauty and wonder awaits to be unlocked!
Watch the trailer for The Wedding Ring here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50uN8xn6fJE
 Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou