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63 minutes, 2003, Benin
Director: Idrissou Mora Kpai
Producer / Co-writer: Jean-Marie Teno
in Bariba and French with English subtitles

Si-Gueriki is a documentary where the subject matter seems to discover the filmmaker in contrast to the filmmaker choosing the subject matter. The film was intended as a tribute to his late father, a wasangeri or member of the royal family of the Borgu people of northern Benin, by his son returning after a ten year residence in Europe. In the course of his investigations, Mora Kpai discovers the lives of his mother and sisters which had previously been invisible to him and decides to make a film about them instead. A tension runs through the film between the modern ideas the filmmaker has imbibed in the West and his pride in being the descendant of a wasangeri.

Mora Kpai’s ignorance of women’s lives results from Borgu child-rearing practices. Boys are removed from their mothers at an early age and spend all their time with the men of the tribe. At the same time (around 5 years old) young girls are given away by their birth-mothers to be brought up by a female relative; this is to train them to be subservient members in their husband’s family. Mora Kpai speculates that separation and stoicism is such a pervasive factor in Borgu life because it makes mortality, less painful. But its toll on the living is palpable in the awkwardness and reticence of the mother’s conversations with her son. Indeed the only emotional warmth glimpsed in the film surprisingly is between his mother and her late husband’s fourth co-wife. They reflect humorously on how they discouraged their husband when he became overly uxorious and say they will love each other until death parts them.

Mora Kpai’s mother is the si-gueriki or ‘queen mother’ of the Borgu people. Yet her daily routine of grinding rice and potash show into what low estate this once noble position has fallen in many parts of Africa. The title of ‘queen mother’ is misleading to Westerners since the si-gueriki is most typically not the mother but the aunt, niece or cousin of the king. From Ghana to Swaziland, legendary noblewomen have been praised for their prowess as military leaders. They have had their own palaces, feudal land holdings, retinues and, like the king, even enjoyed sexual freedom. They characteristically resolved disputes especially in the marketplace and in agriculture, two arenas controlled by women in most of Africa. The ‘queen mother’ even could nominate the next king and serve as one of his counselors. As Prof. Beverly J. Stoeltje has written: “A significant number of pre-colonial societies are structured on a dual gender principle, but the changes resulting from colonialization and modernization have weakened the role of female authority considerably.” The Borgu queen mother, like European monarchs today, fills largely a ritual function. In this film, for example, we witness the annual gaani festival over which the si-gueriki presides; she is announced by trumpeters, brightly caparisoned horses and riders pass in review and she accepts the tribute as her subjects prostrate themselves before her.

But modernity is finding its way into the Borgu lands. The filmmaker’s sister, Adama, has divorced her husband and returned with her six children to support herself as a single mother selling cloth in the marketplace. A young woman employed by the government tries to convince the village mothers to send their daughters not just to Koranic school but to the state school where they can receive an education for the 21st century. With the current emphasis on the key role of women in development and on using traditional structures as the basis for progress, the role of the si-gueriki could become reinvigorated if she uses her authority to struggle for women’s schooling, planned parenthood and AIDS education.

We would like to thank Prof. Beverly Stoeltje of Indiana University and Prof. Edna Bay of Emory University for their help in writing these notes.
"The film swings gracefully between compassion for the harshness of daily life, the misery men inflict on women, and nostalgia for a feudal world where knights ride pure-blooded Arabian horses. These two inclinations meet in the admiration the filmmaker has for his mother discovered long after his childhood."
Le Monde
"Quiet, probing, self-deprecating and extremely sensitive. This is the open world of a newly discovered home land, one where the sons’ most important conversations now have to take place with their mothers."
Kenneth Harrow, Michigan State University


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