Fresh out of art school, Theresa Traoré Dahlberg is already making a name for herself within the art world and with ground-breaking films about women in West African countries like Senegal and Burkina Faso, where she spent a part of her childhood. Taxi Sister lets us follow the daily struggle of being a female taxi driver in Dakar in Senegal, while Ouaga Girls – which was nominated for the Dragon Award Best Nordic Documentary at Gothenburg Film Festival this year and screened in festivals all over the world – portrays the lives of a group of students at a girls-only school for car mechanics in Ouagadouguou, Burkina Faso.
Investigating power structures, gender norms and expectations, these documentary films stand out because of their humanizing approach and Theresa makes a point of trying to show us multifaceted people in their everyday life. It makes for essential viewing.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to either work in a candy factory [laughs] or work at the UN. Or be a photographer.
So you had those thoughts already as a child. What inspired you to make the documentaries you’ve made?
When hearing the word “documentary”, a lot of people relate it to stating the facts and one, absolute truth, which I would never claim. I have been more interested in addressing complex and existential issues that anyone can relate to.
When I was studying experimental 16 mm film in New York, the world of film opened up for me, and I realised the possibilities to address subjects in your own way. I am inspired by choices and the possibility of choices.
I have always felt an urge to capture time in pictures. I don’t know if it has anything to do with death or an awareness of how memories fade. A lot of times it has helped me to be present in situations and not just feel like a spectator or observer from another planet.
You are currently showing your latest documentary Ouaga Girls and you have re- ceived some great reviews. How would you describe the film?
It is about a class in a girls’ school for car mechanics and it’s about growing up – a coming of age story. It’s a film about friendships and choices in life. It mixes laughter with depth, and the soundtrack comes from my dad’s old recordings from the 70s.
What was it like screening it for the first time?
I was nervous, but after having lived with this film for a long time I guess it was time for it to take on a life of its own. I feel like I’ve screened it for the first time a lot of times though: screening it the first time on a big screen at a film festival and then screening it for the first time in Burkina Faso with the girls and the class. Then screening it for the opening in Sweden, which was the first time my friends and family here – who have been very close to the project – could finally see what I’ve been doing for all these years.
I read that you originally didn’t like the title Ouaga Girls. Was it like that?
[Laughs] No it wasn’t really… It was more that at that time I wanted the film to be called Du Courage, which is an expression that I think fits very well with the film because “du courage”, it’s an expression, in Burkina Faso at least, that is used a lot, as encouragement, it’s like “good luck” or ”keep it up”.
I like that: “du courage”.
Once I had chosen it, watching the film [I realized] they actually say it in the film several times. So I felt like that was the perfect name for the film, but since the film was intended for international release, the title was too hard to pronounce and to understand. And we had already started working with Ouaga Girls so we continued using it.
Most of your documentaries focus on women that go against the flow.
…or with the flow sometimes [laughs]. [My graduation film] The Ambassador’s Wife was the opposite… But the films all show women addressing set structures in different ways, in their everyday lives.
There aren’t many women taxi drivers in Senegal, right?
Exactly, there were 15000 men and about 10-15 women then. [The women] had their own company called Taxi Sisters, I thought it sounded very inspiring.
There is a scene in the film where someone runs his car into the taxi intentionally… [laughs].
Yes. That’s one of many times someone tried to point out to her that she shouldn’t do what she was doing. I found it interesting to see what motivates her, where she finds her strength, with her family, friends, in her everyday life.
And she’s proud of her profession and she feels she’s broken traditional norms.
Yes, it’s an active choice and she’s really proud. That’s the difference with [the women in] Ouaga Girls who did not necessarily make an active choice, as grown-ups, to be pioneers.
But is it common that women educate themselves to be car mechanics, as they do in Ouaga Girls?
No, this is a school where dropouts from the public school get a second chance to have an education, and eventually a job. It’s a school started as a feminist initiative. In the class I follow there are, for example: a teenage mother, girls with family or economic problems, and those who have lost their parents. What was interesting to me was to film in school, but also outside of school, at home, and in the nightlife. These are all different spaces with different social rules and expectations of them as girls.
Ouaga Girls is shot in Burkina Faso where your father is from. What was it like to film in a country that you have a personal connection to, while also having your life in Sweden, where things are totally different?
I grew up between Öland and Ouaga. I lived in Ouaga when I was a teenager, so when filming girls in about the same age in Ouaga today it added a dimension to it and brought back a lot of teenage memories. But of course I always felt that I missed everything that was happening in Ouaga when I was in Sweden, I constantly wanted to be in two places at the same time. But I am also aware of the privilege to be able to move between countries.
Is it important to you to work with women?
Yeah, it was especially important to me when filming Ouaga Girls. It was important to work with a Burkinabe and Swedish team as well. I was working with Iga and Sophie, as photographers, and Blanche and Aristide on sound. Margareta and Alexandra edited. I didn’t only work with them only because they are women but because they are the best within their field [laughs].
What women have inspired you?
My mum but also grandma. She has twelve children, and she is still full of life. I have also been inspired by filmmakers and artists like Chantal Akerman, Marguerite Duras, Mia Engberg, Lina Selander, Petra Bauer, and writers like Roxanne Gay, Sara Ahmed, bell hooks – the list is long. Women in their eighties seem to get along well with me.
What makes you happy?
A lot of things. Sleep, cheese, being with family and friends.
What does the future look like?
My sculptures will be exhibited this winter and I am also part of a collaboration project with Tensta Konsthall. 1 November The Ambassador’s Wife starts screening on cinemas in Sweden. Ouaga Girls will be launched in cinemas in France, Burkina, South Africa, Holland, Belgium and England, starting in January. That’s all I know for now. I’m going to go into the cave, my studio, again. After next spring I’m gonna be very much in my cave… quiet.