W.A.K.A. and the International Potential of Films Made in Cameroon

Patricia Bakalack and Alain Bomo Bomo in Fracoise Ellong's W.A.K.A.

After the final screening of W.A.K.A. at the Hollywood Film Festival in Los Angeles, director Françoise Ellong took a moment to educate a mostly American audience on the meaning behind the film’s title. In Cameroon, the literal translation of “waka” means to walk. It’s also a slang word for prostitutes who are thought to be “night walkers.” It’s an apt title for a film about a young woman who resorts to the oldest profession for survival,  but the filmmaker takes it a step further by creating an acronym which strips away the veneer of judgment that would automatically spring to the mind of an average Cameroonian and humanizes the protagonist’s plight. Hence the acronym W.A.K.A.: Woman Acts for her Kid Adam. “I did not want Cameroonians to think it was just a film about sex,” she emphasizes.

Waka: Bruno Henry, Celine Fotso, Saul James and Francoise Ellong

W.A.K.A. is the story of Mathilde (Patricia Bakalack), who loses her job as a waitress when her boss gets wind of her pregnancy. After giving birth, she’s confronted with an unsupportive family and no means of supporting her child. Prostitution is a final resort, but Mathilde’s new career is plagued by a minefield of obstacles; key among them an exploitative and violent pimp named Max (played by seasoned French actor Bruno Henry). Thematically, there’s nothing unique about the story. However, in light of the filmmaker’s goal to appeal to the audience about whom the film reflects, I’d say she’s been pretty successful in steering people away from the kneejerk reaction most Africans would have about the possibility of sympathizing with a prostitute.

Given its success on the international festival circuit, it’s clear that the film’s appeal transcends the local Cameroonian audience – which, according to the filmmaker, has received it enthusiastically. It  has been screened in 16 countries, showcased at over 20 festivals and has picked up a couple of prestigious awards along the way; among them the Special Jury Prize at the 17th African Film Festival of Khouribga in Morocco, and the Dikalo Award for Best First Feature at the Pan African Film Festival of Cannes in France. Not bad for a first feature by a young, female Cameroonian filmmaker with no prior experience filming in Cameroon (Ellong has directed close to a dozen award winning short films in Europe).

Francoise Ellong, Celine Fotso and Constance Ejuma

Constance Ejuma, Francoise Ellong, Celine Fotso and Shyla Meko brandishing the Cameroonian flag at the Hollywood Film Festival.

The Cameroonian industry isn’t on the map in the same way that other sub Saharan filmmaking nations like Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa are, but the country has produced a handful internationally acclaimed talents like Bassek Ba Khobio, documentarian Jean-Marie Teno, Jean-Pierre Dikongue, Jean-Pierre Bekolo of Quartier Mozart fame, Daniel Kamwa and a handful of others (for a bilingual country, it’s interesting to note that this list skews heavily francophone, but that’s a topic for another article). A new crop of filmmakers being trained abroad is recognizing the value of going back home, mining the wealth of stories and talent the country has to offer, and sharing both internationally. Among them are Françoise Ellong, who received her training in France and the UK, and Victor Viyuoh, a University of Southern California film graduate whose film Ninah’s Dowry was successfully making the rounds on the international festival circuit a couple of years ago. But there’s clearly an abundance of untapped talent based in Cameroon, which Ellong is quick to acknowledge.

This naturally raises questions about the logistics of film professionals based abroad collaborating with local talent. With the exception of 4 key crew members and one lead actor, Bruno Henry, the entire cast and crew was made up of local Cameroonian talent. And while Ellong recounts the challenges of working with a local crew with humor, she’s frank about having to adapt to the rhythm of life in the country and letting go of certain expectations she would have of a European crew. “I had to learn to relax, listen and be patient,” she says. The biggest lesson by far was learning to trust that everything would turn out as it should. Production took close to 5 weeks and the crew was shooting until 4 hours prior to Ellong’s return flight to Paris. In the end, her determination to shoot on location in Douala, Cameroon paid off.

W.A.K.A. seems to be coming fairly near the end of its festival run and is destined for a distribution plan that mostly comprises of a few television broadcasts and video on demand (VOD). Ellong, and music composer/screenwriter Saul James are already working on a new project called The North Wing, which is likely to involve some cast members from W.A.K.A.

– Constance Ejuma

Constance Ejuma is an actress and film producer. She’s also a current member of  the African Artists’ Board and spearheaded the launch of this site’s blog. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.