Le Salon du Cinéma au Féminin is a festival aiming to highlight women’s work in cinema. This show which is the initiative of the young Ivorian director Rita Ambeu was held, for the first time, in November 2021 in Côte d’Ivoire. And this year, the Togolese edition is being held for the first time from 17 to 19 November. The festival aims to mobilize cinema professionals to watch films, discuss and train around the films made by women or whose main subject is a woman.
Within the festival’s framework, a competition entitled “Of courts” aims to prioritise creativity in the production of women directors and actresses. It is a competition for short films of 3 minutes maximum produced and/or directed by a woman or whose central character is a woman. A jury has been set up to select the films that can compete.
Among the selected films is a short film titled Mea Culpa, which translates to ‘My Fault’, directed by Estelle Akpaki. Akpaki is a female filmmaker from Togo, and the story features a young girl in her twenties named Isabelle who decides to make her ‘mea culpa’ through a letter addressed to her parents following her rape. The plot suggests that the main character Isabelle is guilty of her rape because she is obsessed with social media networks and everything she posts.
In the sequence, you can see a young woman being assaulted by two young men in an alley. Isabelle admits her guilt for the rape. Voiceover recognizes that rape is a price for her social media obsession. She says: “I wanted to be an influencer; I published provocative videos; yes, I know I’m obsessed with those who follow me; I’ve drawn bad attention to myself.”
As directed, the film promotes rape culture. Rape culture includes any act, word and/or behaviour that minimizes, normalises or encourages rape. This film blames a young woman’s use of social networks for the criminal act committed against her. On top of that, it presents the victim seeking forgiveness and feeling guilty of a crime for which she is not the perpetrator.
This film comes at a time when girls and young women face heightened gendered online violence, and many societies, including here in Togo, use the guise of public morality to police women’s bodies and limit their expression. It is unacceptable that such a film is admitted and given a platform in such a festival without reflection on the impact it will have on many young women and girls in Togo who are already facing threats and are victims of sexual violence.
In Togo, despite the existence of a legal framework that punishes rape, it is still difficult for victims to file a complaint and obtain justice because of the persistence of the rape culture in society and justice systems. Rape is a crime punishable by law, and all people can be victims of rape. Articles 211 to 216 of the Penal Code of 2015 of Togo set out various sanctions for rape as between 5 and 30 years prison sentence and a fine from 2,000,000 to 20,000,000 CFA francs.
Unequal gendered power and patriarchal domination put women and girls at a higher risk, and the available data shows only a glimpse of the problem. According to the EDST III, one-third (32%) of Togolese women have been victims of either physical or sexual violence at least once since they were 15 years old, of which 22% have experienced physical violence, 7% sexual violence as well as physical violence, and 3% sexual violence only. Of the victims of this violence, 37% sought help and 12% told someone without seeking help. This help is sought mainly from family – either their own family (66%) or their husband’s family (35%). Only 7% of the victims sought help from the courts. So the justice system had only been used for 7% of the known cases.
This film will only reinforce this situation and set back the hard-won advances of women’s and feminist rights activists.
It didn’t take long for this violence to be affirmed. Some user comments on Facebook already show what harm such productions are doing. Some of the comments applauded and congratulated the production. Faced with pressure from Togolese feminists and beyond, the publication has been removed from Facebook. Currently, it’s not known if it is Facebook or the promoters that did the removal. However, the film remains in competition until today.
It is not enough to take down the film from social media; we demand festival organisers, promoters and partners withdraw the film from the competition. They must distance themselves from a production that absolves violators of such heinous crimes while blaming victims. A mea culpa in any form should not be attributed to a rape victim. Rape can never be excused.
Whatever angle the filmmaker wanted to take, this cannot, in any case, be a basis for any sociological and/or legal analysis because the mere fact of the statement presupposes the possibility of guilt on the part of the victim serves to silence victims and embolden rapists and rape apologetic culture. Fiction or not. Storytelling, particularly in cinema, remains a powerful medium that can bring about social progress or contribute to regression. Filmmakers and other artists should break society’s silences and not engage in silencing victims.
Not just in Togo but across the continent, girls’ and women’s safety remains a challenge that we continue to demand our societies and government guarantee. We must continue to be vigilant about the content pushed that upholds violence and cultures of impunity. Everyone needs to know that the victim is never guilty of their assault. The aggressor must be answerable. Now more than ever, we need communities that protect the dignity and voice of all girls.
Floriane Acouetey is a Togolese feminist activist, member of the community “les negresses feministes” of Togo. She is also a gender specialist on a project of the Togolese Defense Department.