Volume 3 : Miscellaneous Column

The ‘Family Trope’, Nationalism and Women’s Agency : History and Resistance in Ingrid Sinclair’s Flame

Nandini Dhar


In his monumental book African Cinema : Politics and Culture, Manthia Diawara coins the term ‘social realist’ in relation to certain specific trends within African filmmaking. According to Diawara,
“The films in this category draw on contemporary experiences, and they oppose tradition to modernity, oral to written, agrarian and customary communities to urban and industrialized systems, and subsistence economies to highly productive economies. The filmmakers often use a traditional position to criticize and link certain forms of modernity to neocolonialism and cultural imperialism. From a modernist point of view, they also debunk the attempt to romanticize traditional values as pure and original. The heroes are women, children, and other marginalized groups that are pushed into the shadows by the elites of tradition and modernity” [141].

Dickson Eyoh extends Diawara’s definition of social realist cinema by placing the genre within certain specific historical moments and processes. According to Eyoh,
“In its representations of the relationships between forms of power in society, African social realist cinema advances a sophisticated view of how the forces of institutional and cultural pluralism underscore the postcolonial predicament of African societies. African social realist cinema shares the discourse of radical political economy of the 1970s and early 1980s on the postcolonial experience. It is a discourse whose sensibilities mirrored the transition from the “nationalism of liberation” to the “nationalism of mourning” over the limitations of political decolonization” [113].

According to Eyoh, then, social realist cinema as a genre is predicated upon a problematization of the dominant discourses of African postcolonialism. I would try to show in this paper that in the film Flame (1995) directed by Ingrid Sinclair, the meaning and significance of the social realist genre has been significantly extended by trying to examine ‘postcolonialism’ in African societies as a process which has its roots in the anticolonial struggles and discourses.

Flame, as a film, provides narrative spaces to engage and explore certain processes. Such an exploration, then, initiates certain acts of re-appraisal, which, in our particular context, exposes certain contradictions inherent within the patterns of participation of women within the liberation struggles of Zimbabwe. The importance of Sinclair’s narrative strategy lies in the fact that she provides spaces within which it is possible to analyze the structures of feelings involved in the process.

Flame begins with the icon of a gun neatly tucked under the title-card of the film. The word ‘flame’, therefore, becomes symbolically synonymous with the image of the gun, which would become a consistent and a recurrent trope within the film. Simultaneously, in view of the fact that ‘Flame’ is the taken name of the protagonist of the film, the visual impact of the title card prepares its viewers to the fact that the relationship between the gun and the protagonist is a sustaining one and has to be taken into account at multiple levels. The most obvious connection that the image of a gun can have within the narrative spaces of the film text is with the ideologies of an armed anti-colonial resistance. Therefore, the gun becomes, within the text, a symbol of a marginalized group’s acquisition of power and authority. That is, the recurrent visual reference to the gun performs a ‘de-centering’ task within the narrative. The de-centering takes place at a number of levels—while on the one hand, the assumption of the gun by Florence becomes a marker of a colonized people’s struggle against the colonial powers, it also symbolizes the complex, and in many cases, the uneasy relationship between such categories as gender and class with such struggles and their postcolonial aftermath.

Florence’s postcolonial living conditions become the occasion for the filmmaker’s attempt to reflect back on the anti-colonial liberation struggles in Zimbabwe, the second ‘Chimurenga’. By making Florence the primary agent of the memorialization, Sinclair embarks upon a representative act, which seeks to rewrite the postcolonial national historiography. This strategy lays bare the structures of hierarchy inherent within nationalism as an ideology, as our analysis of the film will show.

The film opens into post-independence Zimbabwe and Florence as a rural working class mother and wife preparing herself for a journey to Harare, the national capital in search of a job. Florence’s journey to Harare will, then, provide within the film a symbolic narrative space, which would allow Sinclair to undertake the task of attempting to re-present within the film a vital part of national history. Again, Florence’s journey is predicated upon her memories of her life as an anti-colonial revolutionary, which would be visually represented in the film through the photograph of Florence and Nyasha as freedom fighters posing in front of the camera with guns.

The centrality of the image of two women with guns defamiliarizes the established social notions of femininity. It places them firmly within a movemental space and exposes their proximity to actual political actions upon which the movement is predicated. By making the women partake a role that is considered to be traditionally and typically masculine, the movement then creates a possibility of initiating a process of the dissolution of the institutionalized gendered division in social role allocations. Simultaneously, it marks a significant deviation from the gender politics of cultural nationalism. The photograph, therefore, provides a point of departure for embarking upon a discussion of the impact of the liberation movement within the women’s lives.

The narrative of Flame as a film text does not simply elaborate lays bare the contradictory and often dialectical relationship which existed within the movement as regards to the gender question. That is, the film tries to lay bare before the spectators the movemental processes, which vacillated between regarding a woman as an independent political agent and an appendage to men.

Colonialism is a historical practice through which certain structures of global difference and inequality are both invented and performed. Nationalism, therefore, becomes a socio-political phenomenon through which resistance to colonialism is enacted out. In a way, nationalist movements then provide a space for projecting popular anti-colonial desires. Sinclair constructs a complex relationship between individual desire to transcend the personal contexts of material deprivation and anti-colonial struggles. Thus, for both Nyasha and Florence, the act of participation within the movement becomes a gateway to the ultimate realization of their dreams. For Nyasha, it is a way to achieve a certain degree of proximity to her ultimate goals of scholarly achievements, and to Florence, the movement almost symbolizes the attainment of her dream of a perfect family unit. Therefore, to both Nyasha and Florence, the desire to participate within the anti-colonial struggle was not prompted by a philosophical-theoretical understanding of colonialism, but rather by the pragmatic desire and imperative to address those aspects of colonialism which proved to be the obstacles to their dreams of individual attainments. Therefore, for Florence, revenge for her father’s arrest becomes the focal point of her joining the movement. Sinclair here engages and initiates a complex analysis of the politics of the anti-colonial liberation struggle and the relationship of the family trope within such a ‘gendered’ nationalist political sphere (See Anne Mac Clinton discussion on the always / already gendered nature of Nationalism)

Much of the visual impact of Flame is predicated upon creating a filmic space depicting Nyasha and Florence’s departure from their respective homes and joining the liberation struggle training camps. That is, participation within the movement in this context involves a separation from the familiar social configuration of familial space. Such a movement then becomes operative in reconfiguring the social gendered division of labor and in defamiliarizing the mainstream discourses of femininity as had been indicated in the photograph of Florence and Nyasha with guns. However, as Sinclair would show such reconfiguration also entails a distinct gender ideology, which bears an indispensable ideological relationship with the politics of nationalism. The almost simultaneous coincidence of the arrest of Florence’s father and her meeting Comrade Danger in a clandestine meeting bears immense symbolic significance in terms of the cinematic narrative considering the fact that her father’s arrest disrupts the spontaneous flow of her familial life, which, then, might be rejuvenated through her potential relationship with Comrade Che. Nationalism, therefore, becomes the site of the rejuvenation of the familial spaces, which has been disrupted by the presence of the colonial state apparatuses. It is also important in another way, that it brings within the film narrative an enactment of ideologies of the new coupledom, which would necessarily lay the foundation of the post liberation struggle society. Disruption of Florence’s familial life in her natal home, therefore, marks the end of one kind of familial ideology, while her desire for coupling with Danger signals the process of the emergence of a nascent one, the ideological-political space of the liberation struggles being the site of its birth.

The film text shows the organizational spaces of the movement were constructed around apparent attempts to deconstruct the familial patterns of space distribution and consequently, certain necessary re-orientation of relationship patterns. Thus, the mutual reference to each other as ‘Comrade’ signifies a process of building up a series of relationships, which were predominantly ideological and necessarily initiated solidarity bonds rather than blood or kinship structures. This is especially important from the point of view of the women who participate within such struggles since it possesses the possibility of releasing them from their relational roles and paves the way for the formation of more political and public bonds. However, Sinclair’s film demonstrates that such a process bears within itself multiple contradictions. The apparent claim to a certain relationship does not necessarily institutionalize the essence of the relationship, and the surface solidarity might in reality, serve to reinforce and even reproduce the societal ideologies of gender stratification.

The presence of two pivotal male characters, Comrade Danger and Comrade Che and their respective relationship with Florence becomes an important breaking point for Sinclair to provide an extensive elaboration of the gender ideologies which shaped these relationships, and, therefore, provides her an opportunity to embark upon a critique of the gender ideologies of the anti-colonial movements which circumscribed these relationships. Even in the cases where she is undertaking performance of active political roles, the woman is considered in relation to her relationship with the man involved, rather than as an autonomous political agent. What is interesting to note in this context that how the film involves interplay of consensus/consent and resistance on Florence’s part, and how the film explores the movement as a progressively developing process involving multiple contradictions.

Florence’s rape by Comrade Che becomes an important aspect of the narrative in this context in that it unfolds before the audience a complex interrelationship between the movemental politics, ideologies of male supremacy and female agency and proves to be an important element in Florence’s movement from relationality to independent identity. . It foregrounds the fact that the participation of the women within the liberation struggle in itself does not automatically eradicate the ideologies of the male supremacy. What is remarkable in this context is that the way Florence chooses to resist against it. Inspite of Nyasha’s indignation, Florence does not report the incident. Sinclair, by not making Florence resort to an unilinear ‘equal rights’ approach complicates the question. A mere reporting of the incident to the organizational leadership would, at best, have led to an exemplary penalty of Che. It would not have eradicated the social basis of the crime or have destabilized the basis of patriarchy, which lies at the root of the incident. Simultaneously, by denying to marry Che, she debunks the possibility of ameliorating the actual act of sexual violation through rape by marriage. The marriage would have legalized the rape, and would have simultaneously legitimized the male ownership of female body, both in terms of his rights to the possession of her labor and sexuality. It is important in this context that Che’s proposal of marriage is marked by an incessant desire to create a family unit within the organizational space.

Interestingly enough, she does not abandon him. For, as a comrade in the same struggle against colonialism, an operative alliance between Che and Florence has to be worked out. Che holds in his hand a photograph of his wife, his life with whom has been ruptured by his joining the liberation army. The woman in the photograph never appear clearly in the audience’s view, whereby, she gets transformed into what Anne McClintock calls ‘the metaphoric limit’ of Che’s political action, a symbolic abstract entity, a marker of familial comfort, a separation from which is necessary in order to facilitate the national liberation from colonialism, or, in other words, to recreate that zone of familial comfort within the national body politic. The movemental space, therefore, becomes an intermediary, transitional phase, which must undertake as one of its implicit aims the collective task of rejuvenating the national family. Therefore, the rejuvenation of the individual families becomes the unit of the process of national rejuvenation. Che’s marriage proposal, therefore, is predicated upon his attempt to replace Florence for his former wife as the metaphoric limit of his political activity. The significance of such an act lies in the fact that Florence represents the new woman, the social birth of whom has been made possible by the unleashing of certain ideological spaces within the liberation movement.

Florence finally arrives at a complex understanding of society and its oppressive systems, which is demonstrated within the film through her subsequent actions. As the squad celebrates the victory, Florence displays in front of the cinema screen the T-shirt in which she and her women comrades had imprinted ‘Power of Women’. The display of the inscription resists the subsumption of the women’s role within the generic rhetoric of the movement. By symbolically pointing out the question of the presence of women within the movement and the role played by them, Florence enters upon a sphere where she enables an extension of the anti-colonial struggle from the sphere of mere nationalist rhetoric towards an indication of the necessity to undertake an anti-patriarchal struggle and combine it with the anti-colonial one.

If the anti-colonial liberation struggle is defined as a political space whose gender politics assumes meaning predominantly through a familial metaphor, then, Flame as a film offers a sustaining critique of it. The family trope, then, as the basis of the dominant national narrative can only achieve its complete maturation through the completion of a coupling. Therefore, Florence and danger’s coupling becomes a synecdoche of the new nation-state, its symbolic-metaphoric limits. The coupling performs another important narrative function. Florence’s coupling with Danger, and not with Che conveys a certain degree of her consensus in the process, which is important for the institutionalization of the narrative. The dimension of the violence, which informed Florence’s relationship with Che, did not allow the formation of that consent as regards to the coupling question. For Florence, the accomplishment of the coupling, signifies the consolidation of the ‘familial’ over the ‘movemental’. The movemental, for Florence, was a temporary phase, which with the resumption of Danger’s taking ‘good care’ of her, must be suspended permanently. The movemental, for Florence, serves as a temporary phase where she must be active in order to produce her own subsequent domestication. Sinclair succeeds to provide an unique critique of the dominant nationalist narrative by providing a social critique predicated on the overlapping categories of class and gender. In the tradition of the social realist genre, Sinclair shows the establishment and institutionalization of the postcolonial state does not guarantee equal access to resources. Just as the nationalist discourse survived on a process of subsumption of Florence’s agency, it has subsumed within itself Danger’s agency without allowing him access to empowerment. The overlapping of class and gender in this context has rendered Florence a double other, which has been achieved in the film by juxtaposing fragmented shots of Florence undertaking manual labor. The appearance of Florence’s laboring body on the screen creates a visual parallel with her body undertaking military labor in liberation war training camps. The juxtaposition of the two creates an ideological semblance as both the nationalist discourse and the postcolonialist state are portrayed as being sustained by her labor. The question of patriarchy complicates the issue of class, for what could have been the potential field for a solidarity bond formation between Florence and Danger, turns into a relationship of dominance. The relationship of dominance is concretized in the screen through the sequence of Danger slapping Florence. The slap provides an important breakthrough, Florence turns her back to the camera, the camera captures her back and simultaneously her departure. The act of turning her back becomes symbolically important, for it signifies a process of the resumption of the resistance. Florence’s departure simultaneously marks the breakdown of the family unit, and, therefore, a beginning of a process of her departure from the familial-domestic values, and the beginning of a new journey. We are brought back to the opening of the film,— Florence initiating a journey towards Harare, the national capital. The camera focuses on Florence arriving at Harare in a truck. The audience is immediately reminded of the sequence of Florence and Nyasha leaving home to join the liberation struggle in a truck. The truck is, therefore, transformed into a symbol of struggle, and the film by making these conscious connections, attempts to reinforce its central message—‘A luta Continua’—the struggle continues.

Flame, as a filmic narrative privileges the contradictions inherent within the social processes, and how such contradictions often emerge bearing inevitable dialectical relationship within the movement itself. Florence’s denial /resistance, within the film, assumes a strategy of her conscious and deliberate self de-feminization. Therefore, the immediate sequence that succeeds the rape is the sequence of Florence’s cutting of her hair. This act of deliberate de-beautification, and a deviation from the societal norms of feminine beauty simultaneously marks the beginning of a process of ideological extension and expansion of the movemental space for Florence and the beginning of a process of her departure from a relational political role to her role as an independent political actor.

**Works Cited: **-

  • Flame Dir. Ingrid Sinclair California Newsreel, 1995
  • Diawara, Manthia. African Cinema : Politics & Culture .Bloomington. Indiana University Press. 1992
  • Eyoh, Dickson. “Social Realist Cinema and Representations of Power in African Nationalist Discourse” Prof. Laura Fair’s Course Packet, HISTORY 516, Summer 2003
  • Steady, Filomina Chioma. “African Feminism : A Worldwide Perspective” Women in Africa and the African Diaspora : A Reader. Eds. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn and Andrea Benton Rushing. Washington, DC. Howard University Press. 1996
  • Ukadike, Nwachukwu Frank. Black African Cinema. Berkeley & Los Angeles. University of California Press. 1994
  • Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature Oxford. Oxford University Press. 1977



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