REVIEW: Black Girl Revisited; Sembene's "Faat-Kine" Spry and Political Return
by Scott Foundas
(indieWIRE/ 03.28.01) — What is, one wonders, the image that readily springs to most moviegoers’ minds at the association of the words “African” and “cinema”? Is it the bushman N!xau, perched at the edge of the world, about to dispose of the menacing Coca-Cola bottle from Jamie Uys‘ hit Botswanan comedy “The Gods Must Be Crazy“? Is it an army of Zulu warriors clashing with the British in any of cinema’s umpteen filmizations of that infamous episode? Or rather, is it of one of the dozens of (mostly) Western depictions, notable and otherwise, instructing about the horrors of apartheid in measured tones of self-satisfying liberal outrage?
For better or worse (and, almost certainly, the latter), our cinematic visions of Africa have been almost entirely limited to visions of South Africa, and non-native gloss-overs at that (with the notable exception of Uys). And yet there is Ousmane Sembene — the French-West-African novelist, activist and filmmaker widely regarded as the father of modern African cinema — who has been steadily at work for four decades now, producing eight features and a series of shorts. Taken together, the body of work might constitute the closest that landlocked cineastes have gotten to the “real” Africa, were the films themselves not so exceedingly difficult to see.
That said, Sembene’s newest film, “Faat-Kine” (which premiered internationally last year and belatedly reaches the U.S. this week at New York’s Film Forum), is unquestionably among the spryest, nimblest of films constructed by a near octogenarian (Sembene is 78 this year). It tells the story of the title character (Venus Seye), a gas-station manager in present-day Senegal, who has arrived at a crossroads in her middle age. Spurned on by the planning of a graduation party for her two high school children, and the accompanying realization that she is ill-equipped financially to provide for their desired post-grad European travel and study, Faat-Kine reevaluates her own life of dreams deferred and achievement denied. She was a student once too, with aspirations of becoming a lawyer, but all that changed after an affair with the charismatic, married professor Gaye landed her shamed, pregnant, and expelled from school.
Boubacar Omar Payane, the father of Faat-Kine’s second illegitimate child (son Djib) wooed and romanced her at the same time he was slowly siphoning away her life savings, landing himself in prison by the time their son was born. The sense is that Faat-Kine has been punished more for the indelicacies and indiscretions of others (namely, of the men in her life) than for her own. And as such, Sembene contextualizes her as but one of a long succession of African women exploited by callow, vainglorious men — a line that includes Faat-Kine’s own mother (Mame Ndoumbie Diop), whose ravaged torso bears the scars of the burns she suffered while protecting Faat-Kine from her own father.
With “Faat-Kine,” Sembene has created a sophisticated character piece — only occasionally undone by jagged bits of narrative exposition (long a Sembene handicap) — in which the urbanization and ill-apportioned affluence of post-colonial Senegal are correlated to the brazen self-interest and dueling internal ideologies of the characters. To an extent, the film suggests Sembene’s “Black Girl” (1966) revisited — older, wiser, wearier, and with the corrupt, would-be husbands of Faat-Kine standing in for the gluttonous white Europeans of earlier Sembene.
Faat-Kine has achieved a modicum of independence and financial stability in her life that would have been unthinkable for “Black Girl'”s tragic Diouana, but like her cinematic predecessor, she craves something greater from life, which she indignantly believes has been denied her. Likewise, Faat-Kine’s children, though they dutifully and unwaveringly love and support their mother, display an even bolder sense of self-entitlement, which is ultimately viewed by Sembene as the greatest social symbol of the schism between “colonials” and what he calls “new Africans.” And, in no short measure, “Faat-Kine” skewers this desire to be a “new African” as much as — or more than — such earlier Sembene works as “Xala” (1975) and “Camp Thiaroye” (1988) assailed an aspiration to European-ness.
At times, “Faat-Kine” treads thematic water — it indulges in a panoply of pet Sembene devices, from the conflagration of Muslim and Christian religious practices to the gleeful caricaturing of pompous bourgeois types, without adding much new to the discussion. But those concerns exist on the periphery of “Faat-Kine,” which at its heart is the most intimate, human work Sembene has done, preferring a richness of personal detail to political diatribe and evoking, from Venus Seye, one of the most deeply felt pieces of acting in the Sembene canon.
Like “Xala” before it, “Faat-Kine” is so packed with nuggets of activity, bursting out of the edges of Sembene’s frame, that the film overpowers with the sense that it is giving us the “real” Dakar (and, in turn, the “real” Africa), in all its loosely-hinged splendor. Likewise, Sembene’s prior features (of which I have seen six) are suffused, to the point of polemics, with conveying the palpable social realities of their particular settings. It is a notion that has been rather blithely accepted over time, largely because there has been so little to compare with Sembene, and largely because Sembene’s films have been among the most difficult of all films to view and re-view.
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So, it is particularly noteworthy that Film Forum, in addition to offering “Faat-Kine,” will be presenting a nearly complete Sembene retrospective — minus only the documentary “L’Empire Sonhrai” (1963) and the short “Niaye” (1964) — on its revival screen from April 6-26. It is the first such retrospective in the U.S. to feature all new 35mm prints of Sembene’s films, culled together by New Yorker Films following an exhaustive global search for the original elements. And, since New Yorker has announced no immediate plans to make these films available on video or DVD, the Film Forum’s series is a truly unmissable event for anyone interested in the work of a unique and fearlessly, tirelessly political filmmaker. For it is in political terms, for what his films tell us about the paradoxes and vicissitudes of what it means to be African, that Sembene’s films are most valuable.
As a technician, Sembene is more awkward and nearly all the early films are somewhat set back by a comic stiffness, and a suspicious approach to performance that uncomfortably trots the line between lampoon and some sort of indigenous expressiveness. His debut feature, “Black Girl,” is particularly undone by a terminally imitative Nouvelle Vague technique that seeks, most awkwardly, to turn this otherwise deeply pained study of a young Senagalese woman, dehumanized by the French couple for whom she comes to work as a maid, into some kind of amateur “Breathless.” Despite its strengths — the defining of character through action, the exceptional performance by the amateur actress Mbissine Therese Diop — the film remains Sembene’s best known work mainly by virtue of its being the first internationally distributed African film.
Much better, actually, is the short film “Borom Sarret” (1964), made by Sembene just after returning to Africa from the Moscow Film School. In its brisk 20 minutes, it invests the shell of a neorealistic ditty — a wagon driver who loses his sole source of income — with a spattering of ideas that would later develop into major Sembene themes: namely, the rifts between tradition and modernity, village and city life, cultural preservation and self-preservation.
An advance, “Mandabi” (1968) is a razory satire recounting, in almost Sturges-like mania, the farce that ensues when an impoverished (and slothful) Muslim man seeks to cash a modest money-order and rapidly becomes stymied by a Rube Goldberg succession of bureaucratic red-tape and duplicitous hangers-on. More impressive, and even further removed from the Euro-chic of “Black Girl,” is “Emitai” (1971), which takes a horrible bit of history — the cold-blooded slaughter by the French colonial army of a village of Diola tribes people — and takes from it a major examination of myth, fetishism and the eternal conflict between scientific and religious ways of explaining the world.
Two of the three films that follow –“Xala” and “Camp Thiaroye”– are as close as Sembene has come to masterpiece (the intervening film, “Ceddo” (1978), which I have not seen, is also said to be meritorious), and together they bookend his most thorough investigation of the deep-set contradictions that pave the modern history of Senegal. The first is the director’s most bilious, hilarious attack on the self-inflicted shame of Africans trying to be Europeans, and on the tendency for progress to be equated with an abandonment of local custom. And here, in the story of a corrupt, polygamous businessman-bureaucrat struck impotent by a curse whose very existence is an affront to the man’s pained efforts to be European, Sembene’s scornful eye is cast not upon a foreign strain of reproachable behavior, but rather a Senagalese one. The film is a wonderful topsy-turviness, invoking a hustling-bustling post-Independence Senegal in which the inmates have overtaken the asylum and quickly become its fiercest sentries.
Made over a decade later, but set some 30 years before “Xala,” “Camp Thiaroye” is a sequel of sorts to “Emitai,” following a troupe of French-appropriated African soldiers, some of Diola origin, as they are detained in a “transit camp” for repatriated infantrymen in the waning days of World War II. Co-written and directed with fellow Senegalese filmmaker Thierno Faty Sow, it is Sembene’s greatest synthesis of form and content, taking another disreputable historical episode and deeply personalizing it with heroic-flawed characters, lyrical, frame-within-frame compositions and intimate-epic scope. The protagonist, Sergeant Major Diatta (the superb Ibrahima Sane, who also appears in “Faat-Kine”), is a European-educated African with a greater English proficiency than most French, a disposition towards classical music and a white French wife waiting for him at home. All of which makes him a subject of much consternation to the French, to the Africans and, in subtly shaded ways, to himself. He is one of Sembene’s sharpest creations — a deeply humanistic symbol for all that must be reckoned, culturally, socially, historically, by Africans.
Only “Guelwaar” (1992) misses the mark. A bit of business about the way a bureaucratic error nearly leads to the eruption of a religious war, it is the only one of Sembene’s films in which the politicizing can be said to feel perfunctory and pedantic. It is nominally about the loss of tradition and the blurring of the distinction between blacks and whites. It poses a number of the same questions as “Emitai,” but with less conviction. And while the focus on family drama does make for some of the most naturalistic, unmannered performances Sembene has yet allowed, it is a small, somewhat trite film, made to feel even more so by the relative triumph of “Faat-Kine.”
[Scott Foundas is a new contributing critic to indieWIRE.]