Documentary Filmmaker Yaba Badoe knows how to #MAKEITHAPPEN
24 August 2017
For Women’s Month, we are profiling inspiring women who are making a difference in Africa. We’re bringing you innovators, creatives, entrepreneurs and influencers whose stories of success will inspire you all through August.
The author of The Fish-Man of the Purple Lake, Yaba Badoe is an award-winning Ghanaian-British documentary filmmaker and writer. Her passion is to document women’s lives and tell their stories in a way that allows them to speak for themselves. At the same time, she thinks it crucial to situate her subjects in a social and economic context, so that everyone who watches her films begins to understand the gender regimes that shape and constrain women’s lives in Africa. Her next book, A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars, will be published by Zephyr in September 2017.
What was your first ever job?
My first ever paid job was as a vegetable chopper in the Salad Bar of Trust House Forte in Bournemouth, England.
Being female in Africa means…
You have to be strong, smart and very focused.
Who were your role models growing up?
As a teenager, I was inspired by Miriam Makeba because she was unabashedly African and believed in the dignity and beauty of African people. Closer to home, my remarkable parents Emeritus Professor Emmanuel Augustus Badoe and Mercy Fadoa Badoe instilled pride in our Ghanaian heritage in me, and joy at Ghana’s tremendous potential.
Tell us about your current job and how you got there?
I’m a documentary filmmaker. I’ve made arts and social issue documentaries for the main channels in the UK. In 2009 I started my own production company, Fadoa Films, through with I’ve made award-winning documentaries: The Witches of Gambaga and The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo. Until a week or so ago I was working on a film – No Good Comes from the Mine – for WoMin, an NGO based in South Africa. No Good Comes from the Mine is about the impact of extractive industries on the lives of rural African women. We filmed in KwaZulu Natal and Hoima, Uganda. Unfortunately, because of financial constraints, WoMin has decided to relocate the film’s production to South Africa. All the same, it was an immense privilege meeting so many outstanding, outspoken women. Hearing their testimonies and devising ways in which they could tell their stories on film was an amazing experience, which I cherish.
The highlight of your career so far?
It’s hard to pinpoint a single highlight. Completing The Witches of Gambaga – a documentary about a community of women condemned to live as witches in Northern Ghana in 2010 – was a huge achievement. The film won Best Documentary at the Black International Film Festival that year and was awarded Second Prize in the Documentary section of FESPACO 2011. It was also amazing winning The Reel Sisters Spirit Award for Brilliant Storytelling for The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo in 2015. In 2014 I was nominated for the Distinguished Woman of African Cinema award by the International Images Film Festival for Women (IIFF) in Zimbabwe. What was especially gratifying was that I was nominated for the award alongside Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Lupita N’yongo!
Nevertheless, the experience I relish most was sharing a bottle of wine with Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison. I met her in 2003 when I was asked by BBC 4 to make a film about her life and work. Once the extended interview, which formed the core of the documentary, was over, we went up to the rooftop terrace of SoHo hotel in New York and drank wine in the September sunshine. Unforgettable!
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
Raising money to make documentary films that I really care about and finding publishers for my books. In 2013 my colleagues, Amina Mama, Margo Okazawa-Rey and I raised over $45,000 on the fundraising site, Indiegogo, to complete a film about iconic African writer and feminist, Ama Ata Aidoo. It was amazing to reach our target and then launch the film in 2014 in Ghana with Ama Ata Aidoo in attendance.
What does it mean to be a woman in this industry?
I feel extremely fortunate to have made a living as a woman director of documentaries in film and television. I’ve travelled extensively and worked on social issues and art films that have been watched by audiences around the world. Working in this industry has been very demanding, however, I feel grateful for the many opportunities I’ve had to get close to men and women from very different walks of life – from women rice farmers in the Gambia, Haitian cane-cutters in the Dominican Republic to former British Prime Ministers and Nobel Laureates.
Best piece of advice you’ve received from another woman?
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received was from an older colleague and friend, Florence Akst, who I met while working at the BBC World Service. One day when I was on the phone to her wondering if I’d made the right decision by leaving my permanent job at the BBC to become a freelance filmmaker, Florence said: “Don’t agonize over decisions you’ve made in the past, Yaba. Learn from those decisions, concentrate on the future, and keep moving forward.”