Baby Mamas director: 'I'm tired of images that don't celebrate me as an African'

Channel24 correspondent Rozanne Els attended the premiere of South African film Baby Mamas at the New York African Festvial where the cast and director held a post-screening Q&A session. 

New York – Applause and cheers follow the packed New York premiere of director Stephina Zwane’s new film, Baby Mamas. “What a wonderful story!” “Thank you for making such a beautiful film.” The congratulations flow until a man raises his hand to ask a question that, in a short few seconds, illustrates why the African Film Festival has become a vital event in the culture capital of the world.

This Africa, the man asks Zwane, actress Thembisa Mdoda, and Zwane’s business partner, actress Salamina Mosese at the post-screening Q&A session, why is it so pretty? 

Zwane answers in a calm and measured tone and talks about Africa’s diversity. How 54 states and millions of people can most certainly not be the same or have the same experiences. But within her answer is a worry that resonates; that not showing more of Africa’s differences, economic and otherwise, leaves dangerous, ignorant perceptions about Africa and Africans unchallenged. 

Baby Mamas follows the daily lives of four (middle class) friends, played by Mosese, Mdoda, Dineo Ranaka and Kay Smith, as two of them struggle with the challenges that face single mothers, another finds out she’s pregnant, and the other grapples with the fallout of an abusive relationship. Zwane and Mosese’s company, Sorele Media, produced the film.


After the Q&A is done and the last person trails out of the theatre, Zwane says the man’s question is not a new one. “Why do they only show the pretty South Africa? The middle class?” There's a huge danger in portraying only one side of the story, she says. African filmmakers are gradually taking control of African stories that, for many years, were told by a majority of Western and white filmmakers. “I too have been fed what everybody else has been fed,” she says.

“But our generation is fortunate to have the privilege of being able to tell our story ourselves, so the first thing I'm going to do is tell the other side.” That man in the audience isn’t wrong, but Africa is the idea of diversity come alive. “Yes, it's fine. It exists. It's there,” she says of the visuals and stories about Africa that the world has grown accustomed to seeing on screen, “but there's more to it than lions and giraffes. [This is] a continent that is different and diverse, that has great and growing economies, but also has poverty. There are places that have no running water. There are people who don’t have a roof over their head, but I want those people to know that this is what they can aspire to have,” she says of the film’s four female lead characters.

“It is okay to have running water, it is okay to have a house, it is okay to look pretty and look good and celebrate yourself. I'm tired of images that don't celebrate me as an African, that constantly shows me lacking and struggling. This is not all that we are,” she says fiercely. 

One only needs to look at the festival’s line-up to recognise the truth of Zwane’s words. Baby Mamas’ setting in suburban Johannesburg is in stark contrast with Apolline Traoré’s Borders, the festival’s opening film. While Borders also centers around four strong women, the setting is decidedly different and explores much harsher African realities. It’s a far cry from the lavish lodge Baby Mamas friends visit.

“Our [Sorele Media] first film, Love & Kwaito,” Zwane says, “highlighted child-headed homes, and it was in vernacular, Zulu and Sotho. That is one reality of South Africa and a lot of African countries. What I wanted to depict [in Baby Mamas] was a different reality.”

Later, she speaks about an aerial shot that shows the sprawling mass of roads that run through Johannesburg. When people ask her about it she tells them, "Ja, I wanted to show people that we have roads! We have a highway, guys!" 


As Africans, we need to take control of our narrative, says Zwane. “I want to portray the streets that have no tar, but I also grew up in Johannesburg, in the CBD, where there is tar. There are buildings. There is electricity.”

A different side of Africa is not the only “unusual” part of Zwane’s story. Don’t forget that this is a story with four female leads, she says. During their search for funding, they were repeatedly asked why there needed to be four leads. “Because it needs to be four! The story of the baby mama, or the single mama, of a mother, is manifold. You can’t tell it with just one or two people.” Actually, four doesn’t even begin to cover the myriad of baby mama experiences. 

It’s also important to show women who are smart, beautiful, funny, sassy, and that stand by each other, Zwane says. “These are the women that we know and that we want to see more of.” 


Baby Mamas is now showing in cinemas nationwide.


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