Another election approaches. Early indications suggest that once again a candidate may ascend to the White House in history-making fashion. And of course there are those on the political outskirts who murmur that our current president will never relinquish power. Before you dismiss that as racist paranoia, let us remember how often lefties indulged in the same dictatorial predictions when George W. Bush was poised to leave office. It was ludicrous then (Dubya couldn’t get out of D.C. fast enough) as it is now.
So then it is interesting to watch Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s new documentary “Incorruptible” about the 2012 elections in the west African nation of Senegal. Despite the muscularity of the Nigerian film industry, Senegal always holds a special place in my mind in terms of African cinema; after all Senegal gave us Ousmane Sembene, the “father of African film”. The director of “Incorruptible” (initially titled “An African Spring” for reasons that shall shortly become obvious) is not Senegalese, but this is her third documentary involving Senegal and its people (her first was a profile on Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour who briefly appears in “Incorruptible”). Her familiarity with the country pays dividends and elevates the piece from being just another tale of civic dysfunction on the African continent.
Much about “Incorruptible” immediately sounds and feels familiar. President Abdoulaye Wade is running for re-election. The problem is he seeks a third term that their constitution bars him from having. Wade’s indifference to rule of law is his modus operandi. Senegal is poor and debt ridden but Wade enjoys an opulent lifestyle. He has given away land in extralegal fashion and dissent is violently put down.
I’ve watched many profiles on men like Wade, but what’s unique about his presentation in the documentary is that he comes off as much a deluded old man living in a bubble of sycophancy as a bloodthirsty Machiavelli. Chai Vasarhelyi includes some harrowing footage of Wade’s police clashing with pro-democracy protestors. At one point they yank away a woman talking to the international press about Wade’s failure to help Senegal, while the cameras record their aggression. The brazenness is stunning.
There are a dozen candidates running against Wade, but the real threat is Macky Sall, Wade’s one-time prime minister and political comrade who now opposes his dictatorship (shades of Julius Caesar and Brutus). And there is also a pro-democracy movement called Y’en A Marre (which translates to “Enough is Enough”). The group’s co-founder is hip hop artist Omar “Thia T” Touré who is also an eloquent spokesman for the disgruntled citizenry.
Omar Touré also voices a key distinction that separates “Incorruptible” form other stories of African despotism. He tells us that Senegal, unlike many nations on the troubled continent, has no long history of civil war and bloodshed. Instead, Senegal is a country that prefers and reveres dialogue. Perhaps Wade thought he could charm and bully his way into a third term because Senegal is a stranger to prolonged violence? Hard to say. But the description of the Senegalese character provides depth and bespeaks Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s intimate knowledge of the country and her skill as a documentarian.
As the election looms and Wade pulls out every desperate and dirty trick he can muster (from buying the support of a popular religious leader to employing thugs to intimidate villagers), “Incorruptible” resembles less and less the story of other African dictators like Qaddafi or Idi Amin, and reminds me of Marshall Curry’s Oscar nominated “Street Fight.” Watch them as a double feature and you’ll have a lot to consider.
Though one has every right to expect horror and bloodshed, the story ends largely peacefully. There is still drama. And wisely, the director chooses to name the film after Omar Touré’s characterization of the movement for democracy: incorruptible. He knows they may have won a significant battle, but not the war.
Brandon Wilson is a writer and director living in Los Angeles. Find him on Twitter at @GeniusBastard