When documentary filmmaker Monique Mbeka Phoba was making her first short fiction film, Sœur Oyo (2014), she came to this conclusion: although quite a lot of cinematographic material was created about the colonial period at the time, this is no longer the case at all in recent decades. Recent films about the Democratic Republic of the Congo are very rare, with Thierry Michel’s documentaries as the one major exception. Being one of only a few people to look back on Belgium’s colonial history raised big questions for Mbeka Phoba. It inspired her to explore colonial issues within the themes of contemporary Belgian films. Her research has led to a masterclass in which Mbeka Phoba questions the taboo surrounding the colonial era.
The Nun’s Story (1959) by Fred Zinnemann, starring Audrey Hepburn, gave her the idea of confronting fiction with fiction for the first time after 20 years of making documentary films. Her short film Sœur Oyo tells the story of Godelive, a ten-year-old Congolese girl living in the colonial Congo in the 1950s. Godelive attends the Catholic boarding school Mbanza-Mboma, the first French-speaking secondary school for Congolese children. The girl becomes westernised, just as her parents wanted her to be. But then the memory of her grandmother turns her life upside down.
Monique Mbeka Phoba’s mother provided the inspiration for the young protagonist. She too was the daughter of an “évolué”: the name often used in the colonial era for Congolese people who had become Europeanised in a process of cultural assimilation. This gave Mbeka Phoba pause for thought: about the colonial era her mother lived in, the nuns in their typical white headdresses, the way these Belgian nuns viewed their students and also the strong bodies of the Congolese men around them.
The result of this reflection process is a masterclass in which she discusses many films. Besides her own film, Sœur Oyo (2014), these films are: De Kunst van het Boomhakken (Jan Vromman, 1993), Africains poids moyens (Daniel Cattier, 2004), Bons baisers de la colonie (Nathalie Borgers, 2011), Nous n’étions pas amis (Marie-Anne Thunissen, 2003), Metis (Maelle Cherpion, Charlotte Manguette en Melissa Quinet, 2015), Betlehem (Servaas Heirman, 1986), A ton vieux cul de nègre (Aurélien Bodinaux, 2012), The Nun’s Story (Fred Zinnemann, 1959), Une saison sèche (Mara Pigeon, 1982).