1on1 with Habibata Ouarme and Jim Donovan (Koromousso, Big Sister)

Premiering at this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Koromousso, Big Sister gives us a peek into the journeys of three women who have undergone Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and are reclaiming their autonomy through reconstructive surgery. Co-directed by Habibata Ouarme and Jim Donovan, is the film features Ouarme as the Big Sister (Koromousso) to these women, having had her own reconstructive surgery years ago. In this 1on1, our writer, Seun Olowo-Ake had the chance to speak with Ouarme and Donovan about speaking from trauma, challenging abuse and helping to change women’s minds.

Seun: Hello, this is Seun Olowo-Ake (SO) for ScreenFish and I’m here with Habibata Ouarme (HO) and Jim Donovan (JD), co-directors of Koromousso, Big Sister. Thank you both for joining me today.

HO: Thank you for having us, today.

JD: Hi.

SO: First of all, congratulations on your film. I really loved it and I’m so glad it’s at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival this year.

SO: Habibata, this is a film that is personal to you, of a traumatic experience that can be difficult to talk about. When did you decide you wanted to make this film?

HO: Oh my God, a long time ago. I had the opportunity to start making this film in 2019 with the NFB [National Film Board]. Why this film? You know, I had FGM [female genital mutilation] when I was 6 years old and when I moved here to Canada, I decided I want to do the surgery because back home, when I was living in Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, I helped the women raise money to get the surgery there, and I didn’t have the opportunity to have my surgery there in Burkina Faso. So, when I moved here, I said, “okay, in Canada, for sure I’m going to have the surgery here. It’s going to be easy.” And then… no. I didn’t get the chance to have the surgery here because they don’t know how it’s done, and they don’t talk about it. It was very hard for me. And then I went to San Francisco to do the surgery, and after that, I was feeling so good in my body and everything was connecting, and I was like “you know what? I have to share my story. I have to tell the good news.” You know? Tell women that ‘there’s something that you can do. You don’t have to stay in pain every day. You can go outside, there’s surgery.’ But the surgery has to be available in Canada for women to do. So that’s why I did this film. To tell everybody that we can have the surgery here in Canada, and Canada has to do better.

SO: Did you ever feel fear in creating this or speaking about this story, because it’s so personal, and how did you overcome that fear?

HO: Yes. First it was about my family. I didn’t want my family to think that it was a fight between me and them. I know that they had to go through this and make me have the FGM because they wanted to fit in the society. My mother had that too, and I don’t think she had the opportunity to talk about it, so I was a little bit nervous about that, even though we had already had the discussion, me and her. But, at the same time, I’m going to explain to her if she asks me. It’s okay. I can explain and we can have a discussion. Other than that, maybe African men who are very comfortable with [FGM], because they don’t want to talk about it. For them, it’s culture and it’s okay, and it has to be done like that, even if they don’t like it and they prefer the way… how can I say this?

Okay, back home – maybe you can understand this – we watch a lot of TV. You know, French TV, American TV, and a lot of men see the white woman as the perfect woman, and they want that. They would not ask a white woman to have FGM so they can fit in. You know? In my mind that makes sense [laughs]. They prefer to marry a woman, have her at home and go outside and have a mistress who didn’t have FGM, so they can have this “balance in their life.” I don’t know if that makes sense.

SO: Yeah, I understand that. It does seem to be a thing of possession, like “I own you now, and you belong to me, and I can keep you in the house.”

HO: Yeah, and the men can go outside and have another mistress. English is not my first language, so I have to first translate from French in my head [laughs].

SO: That’s okay.

SO: Jim, what drew you to this project?

JD: Well, I’ve known Habi since 2014 and at some point, I found out that she was a militant in this space, and through our friendship, I learned more and more about it. I was, at some point in 2018 or 19, coming to the National Film Board with a couple of film ideas with our Producer, Denis McCready, and he kind of gravitated towards this. It was like an item on a list of ideas. And he says, “what’s this?” and I go, “well, my partner has had this journey. There’s gotta be a film here.” He goes, “yeah, I think there is.” And then Habi started working with Denis on research-

HO: Yes

JD: -and we came up with the idea for the film, which initially we didn’t know was going to involve Habi as the big sister to Safieta [one of the women in the film], but that idea came through this brainstorming, that because she had the experience of being repaired, had the reconstruction surgery, she would find someone who was seeking that out in her life and become her guide, her mentor and her big sister. And I became more the guy with the camera, you know, the veteran filmmaker who could help Habi in her first film. So, that’s how I came to it.

SO: Habibata, you say in the film, that this is not about fighting culture – and you’ve alluded to that already – it’s not about fighting culture but about what is not right. Sometimes, especially as Africans, we are expected to take abuse because people say, “it’s part of our culture.” What would you say to those people?

HO: I think women have a lot; we have a lot on our hands. We have so many challenges, especially back home. And FGM is like putting a handicap in a woman’s body, adding something that is heavy that she has to carry. She has to take care of the family; she has to make sure that the name of the family is-

JD: Respected

HO: -respected. So, I would say that it’s a way to not discuss the issue. Saying, “it’s part of our culture,” it’s just- you don’t want to discuss it because maybe if you start talking about it, you’re going to find you have to participate to make the change.

SO: Hmm.

HO: I would also say that culture is something that lifts you. So, if culture makes you unwell or sick, you have to go outside and challenge yourself because you have low self-esteem. So how can you go outside and fight if you don’t like yourself, don’t like your body, you have low self-esteem? So, I would say that. Just let women be great. Let us be who we are.

SO: And the film does talk about how this has to be a collaborative effort, to stop FGM, and you have to take cultural sensibilities into consideration. Jim, did you find that in making this film there had to be sensitivity on your part and how did you navigate that?

JD: I mean, clearly, I’m a white male in a black world, so my journey was about supporting the three women in the film and trying to shut up and listen. And that’s what I did for four years. I’m the guy who knows how to make films, I helped Habi tell her story. I had my own thoughts, and it hurts to see how these women were affected by this practice, so there’s no doubt that I feel something very strongly about this. But I can’t pretend to- I went to Africa for the first time, in Ivory Coast, to visit Habi’s family and to shoot some footage there, and I therefore was learning about the culture and the continent, and I can only be an observer. She is the champion in this equation- and they are, the three women in the film. So, for me it was all about empowerment and being able to stay out of the way as much as possible. In my mind, this practice has no place in the world, like many things in the world right now, so there’s not a lot I can add. The question is, how can I help women whose stories make sense to me be heard? That’s what we did with Koromousso.

SO: Papa Ladjike Diouf, a Psychotherapist, says in the film that women’s bodies are often associated with Satan and seen as entry points for Satan to come in and upset the balance. I think that this is partly why there is shame for women and no education about their bodies, even in communities where female genital cutting isn’t a practice. How do you help a woman who believes that, either consciously or subconsciously, get out of that thinking?

HO: Wow. Education. Education and self-love. I think we have to teach women to love their bodies. I don’t think parents do it often, they don’t tell the girls that ‘what you are is enough, what you do is good, you’re going to do great things, you have to love yourself.’ And I know with Facebook and TikTok and Instagram, and those fake images of surgery and BBL and all that, sometimes it’s very challenging. Because a 14 year old girl goes online and sees all that stuff, she wants to be like somebody, so she starts thinking, ‘maybe I’m not good. I need to change this part of my body; I want to do surgery.’ I think we have to change the narrative by educating young women. Even older women too, so they can teach the younger girls to do the same. You have to love yourself. So, even if you had FGM, what I want is to give women who went through FGM – and other women who don’t love their bodies- a safe space so they can talk about it. Together we can have solutions and we can help each other navigate through this big bang of the internet.

SO: I definitely think your film does that because even as I was watching, there were things I was learning that I didn’t know about. I grew up in Africa too, so I’ve been learning as I get older more and more about myself and my own body as well.

SO: My final question for you both is what is your purpose for this film? What do you want it to do for people who see it?

JD: You want me to go first?

HO: I’ll let you go, yeah.

JD: Well, my dream- I think our common purpose is that our first idea is to reach the diaspora around the world and start to have the conversation. There are many films about this subject, but this one is very personal, and it’s also about change and female empowerment. We’re hoping it can reach the people that could then turn around and effect change in their home countries because a lot of the people in the diaspora contribute economically to their families back home and have lots of influence on education, like Habi was saying, and culture. And of course, my dream would be for it to actually make it to the shores of the continent and to be seen in the countries that practice FGM, that they would also maybe have a conversation-

HO: Mmh

JD: -and see what these women are doing and hear them. That would be the purpose for me.

HO: And also, to give hope. Give hope saying there’s something we can do. We can create safe spaces, of course, but we can also give women a choice. If there’s a surgery that can help, we have to talk about it. We have to say, “you have this option.” And if the person decides that she doesn’t want this surgery, after being in a safe place and talking about it, that’s fine. But she needs to have the option and decide what she wants to do at the end of that. So, I hope in the future, we’re going to have that kind of safe space where you can go to any hospital, or a place, and talk to somebody who will treat you as a human, not put you in a ‘oh it’s culture, it’s from Africa’. I think when we fight for women’s rights, we don’t just fight for women in America, we fight for all women all over the world. So, we have to see that.

SO: Thank you so much. I loved this conversation. Thank you for joining to me today, and all the best at the festival, I hope you have a good time.

HO: Thank you so much. Maybe we’ll see you there.

SO: Yes, I will try and show up.

JD: Thank you. This has been a great conversation.

For more information about Koromousso, Big Sister or the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, click here.

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