Tag Archives: Senegal

Black Directors Feature #4 – Xala (1975)

XalaDVDXala (1975)
Directed by: Ousmane Sembene
Written by: Ousmane Sembene
Starring: Thierno Leye, Seune Samb, Douta Seck, Younousse Seye, Fatim Diagne, Myriam Niang

There’s a reason why Senegal-born director Ousmane Sembene is often considered to be the father of all African cinema.  With a career spanning five decades, the great Senegalese director paved the way for entire generations of African filmmakers all over the continent.  His influence on the African film scene can be likened to that of John Ford and D.W. Griffith in America, Satyajit Ray in India, and F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang in Germany.  With his breakout hit Black Girl (or La Noire de…) in 1966, Sembene captured the attention of an international audience, something that no African film before it had ever done.  Xala was his fifth major motion picture, coming hot off the heels of hits like Black Girl, Mandabi, and Emitai, his film was a stinging satire about the political and economic climate of his home country.  Filmed in French and Wolof, Xala was unlike any work Sembene had produced to that point.  It had a dry wit to it, and its themes were undeniably biting and had a profound affect on audiences.  The film was entered into an early incarnation of the Moscow International Film Festival, but sadly lost out to films by more established and widely recognized directors (Akira Kurosawa’s incredible Dersu Uzala, Andrzej Wajda’s Oscar-nominated The Promised Land, and Ettore Scola’s We All Loved Each Other So Much).  It would go on to receive a great deal of acclaim in America, receiving positive reviews from the great Roger Ebert and the prestigious New York Times.  After the success of his 1975 hit, Sembene would go on to direct five more films throughout the 1970’s, 80’s, 90’s, and the 2000’s. In 2004, his film Moolaade would become arguably his biggest success with a win at the Cannes film festival and critical acclaim across the world.  This film would prove to be his final film as Ousmane Sembene would pass away in 2007 at the age of 84.  Despite widespread acclaim, Xala and the other films of Ousmane Sembene have been all but forgotten by critics and audiences throughout North America, with the majority of his films being frustratingly difficult to obtain and even then only available in less than stellar quality.

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‘El Hadji’ Aboucader Beye in 1975’s Xala.

Xala takes place in modern day Senegal, and mostly follows a group of wealthy businessmen involved in the chamber of commerce.  Our lead character, “El Hadji” Aboucader Beye (Thierno Leye), is an aging businessman looking to show off his success in an extravagant way.  What better way to impress people than to take his third wife?  By marrying a young woman, Beye looks to show off his vast economic and social successes.  Unfortunately for Aboucader Beye, things aren’t so simple.  While attempting to consummate his new marriage, the aging businessman finds that something isn’t quite right, and that things aren’t working in the ways that they usually do.  Beye comes to find that he has been cursed with xala, which is a crippling case of temporary erectile dysfunction.  He proclaims that his manhood has been taken away from him, and suspects one of his jealous and spiteful older wives of putting the inconvenient curse on him.  El Hadji, as he is known to his colleagues, secretly seeks assistance from the powerful men he surrounds himself with.  He and his colleagues go to great lengths to end the man’s xala once and for all, but their attempts are mostly met with no results.  Frustrated and desperate, he consults a marabout in the city to heal him of his affliction so he can get back to his daily business duties, but soon finds everything about his comfortable life unexpectedly crumbling beneath him.  Beye’s life is changed forever after he exposed for his corruption within the chamber of commerce, and worst of all is still cursed with the dreaded xala.  Will El Hadji be able to turn things around in his once cushy life, or will the negative forces working against him prove too powerful?  Find out in Ousmane Sembene’s classic satirical drama Xala!

I was a little nervous going into Ousmane Sembene’s much heralded Xala, especially since my only previous experience with the director was his excellent final film, Moolaade.  Xala is a much more subtle and politically-motivated film than his final effort was, and I was sure that I was going to struggle to find any enjoyment in the film’s nuanced nature.  I’m happy to report that this absolutely wasn’t the case, and I was able to enjoy much of Xala even without much of an idea of Senegal’s (and Africa as a whole) political and economic climate of the time.  While there’s no doubting the very obvious subtext being told throughout the film, the story itself does stand on its own well enough to be enjoyed by any viewer who is up to the challenge.  The entire idea of a wealthy businessman who seemingly has everything deciding to take a third wife in the form of a beautiful young woman is humorous, and becomes absolutely hilarious when the erectile dysfunction problem comes into play.  Everything he knows is flipped on its head and for the first time in his rather privileged life, Aboucader Beye has been stripped of what makes him feel most powerful, and instead shamed into near submission.  His first and second wives and his daughter being completely opposed to the idea of the third wife adds to Beye’s problems, and ensures that no matter what he tries he isn’t able to get ahead in any sense.  Xala’s main character isn’t likeable even for a second, and it really helps nail home the central ideas of the film, which is the complete and utter incompetence and ineffectiveness of many African governments of the time.  El Hadji benefits greatly from being a corrupt business, taking from those around him and trying to show it off to others in the form of a younger woman, far out of his league.  The satire used throughout is absolutely biting, and does an excellent job at letting the audience know exactly how Ousmane Sembene feels about the people running his country and continent.  The ending of the film is where the film absolutely shines, at once being both hilarious and scathing.  Though it may be a little tough to watch for some, it’s always satisfying to see the wrongdoers getting what they truly deserve, and that is especially true for Sembene’s masterpiece.

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Thierno Leye as Aboucader Beye in Ousmane Sembene’s terrific Xala.

It’s too bad that his films are so tough to track down in our day and age, especially with the advent of the internet.  I sincerely hope that a distributor like the Criterion Collection or Twilight Time will get ahold of his filmography and do it justice in the form of an incredible home video release.  Films like Xala are ripe for rediscovery, and deserve to truly be appreciated in their utmost glory.  Xala is funny and sincere in its over-the-top satirical nature, and even without knowledge of the country’s political climate you can feel the frustration in every moment on screen.  Xala is a film that deserves all the acclaim it’s received over the years, and I hope that my review causes even just one person to discover the films of Ousmane Sembene and others from Africa.  Xala is highly recommended to anybody who can appreciate international films, or enjoys biting and intellectual satire.  

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Black Directors Feature #3 – Touki Bouki (1973)

Touki_Bouki_coverTouki Bouki (1973)
Directed by: Djibril Diop Mambéty
Written by: Djibril Diop Mambéty
Starring: Magaye Niang, Aminata Fall, Ousseynou Diop, Mareme Niang

The next two films in our marathon will very much contrast from our first two American journeys into early blaxploitation.  Instead of the gritty streets of New York City, with undercover police officers, pimps, and drug pushers, we move to the French and Wolof-speaking country of the Republic of Senegal.  Our themes with both Touki Bouki and Xala (the next film in our marathon) are much more political in tone, and the films less action-packed and in-your-face, but just as stylistic and game-changing in their own right.  Our first look at Senegalese cinema comes with Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki, released in 1973.  Though Mambéty may not have been as prolific or even as acclaimed as his contemporary Ousmane Sembene, the influence of Touki Bouki on other black cinema and even Senegalese cinema in general in undeniable, and the film has found a great deal of appreciate in the United States and the rest of the world.  Director Martin Scorsese and his World Cinema Foundation restored the film to its former glory back in 2007, and it has since found its way into the Criterion Collection, a rare feat for a Senegalese (or African in general) film.  The Foundation’s aim is to restore films from areas of the world where cinema has been neglected, in order to raise awareness, appreciation, and understanding for these under-seen masterworks from around the world.  Films from Russia, Mexico, Hong Kong, Brazil, Romania, Turkey, and the Philippines joins Senegal’s Touki Bouki in having the honor of being restored and re-purposed by a loving group of artists at the top of their industry, and thank goodness for them.  Mambéty’s Touki Bouki was initially screened at the prestigious Cannes film festival in 1973, and won the festival’s International Critics Prize from the FIPRESCI (Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique).  On top of being celebrated upon its original release, the film has gone on to become labeled as something of a lost classic.  Director Djibril Diop Mambéty would go on to make a number of films in his home country, but unfortunately would never go on to see the level of success that he saw with the release of Touki Bouki.  He passed away in 1998 at the far too young age of 53, and his films would be mostly ignored by the general public until the World Cinema Foundation stepped in and helped Touki Bouki once again find an international audience.

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Magaye Niang as Mory in Djibril Diop Mambety’s classic Touki Bouki.

Touki Bouki’s story is told in an almost dream-like, not quite linear way. While there is absolutely an overarching story-line throughout the film, the story isn’t exactly the best thing about the film.  Throughout the film, we see Mory (Magaye Niang) and Anta (Mareme Niang) as they meet and talk about ways they can escape to Paris together.  Mory works as a cowherd, and drives a motorcycle with a horned skull proudly displayed between its handlebars.  Both Mory and Anta have been alienated by their lives in Senegal, and no reason but to abandon their responsibilities in their home country and make a break for a relaxed life across the ocean.  With their plans set, both idealistic young people start looking for ways to make money for their voyage.  Eventually, Mory plots to steal the money from a wealthy gay man, and the two young Senegalese idealists are one step closer to freedom.  Unfortunately for both of them, leaving the country proves to be more difficult than expected, both on a physical and mental level.  Will young Mory and Anta throw caution to the wind in order to start new lives abroad, or will the familiarity and comfort of their lives at home in Senegal prove to be too much to leave?  Find out in Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1973 classic, Touki Bouki.

As a young film-goer growing up in an incredible period of time for our access to media of all nations, ages, and content, I’m incredibly thankful to have people like Martin Scorsese and company at the World Cinema Foundation.  The fact that Touki Bouki has seen moderate success in North America decades after its disappearance is incredibly comforting to me, and I hope that organizations such as the WCF will learn from it in the future.  Though Touki Bouki may not be the greatest film I’ve ever seen, nor can I relate with it on more than a base human level, I’m incredibly happy to have seen it.  The film is a beautiful display of the idealistic nature of young people worldwide, and an interesting look at loneliness and a yearning for more.  It features bright and vivid cinematography, and shows off the work of a director who I wish (for slightly selfish reasons) had become more successful throughout his short career.  It may be deliberately paced and something of a drag in its lingering moments, but it more than makes up for it with its odd set-pieces of Mory and Anta driving by motorcycle (and later a very nice car) through the city and countryside, and the nature of its contrasting themes of young life, death, and the desire to take part in something bigger and better.  We see animals people slaughtered by villagers contrasted with the dull everyday city life of young Mory, and while it may be visceral and disturbing at times, it’s undoubtedly compelling and interesting.  The film’s soundtrack is very effective in its sparing use, and the repetition of Josephine Baker’s classic “Paris…Paris” repeated over and over throughout the runtime is both joyful and welcoming, while also being frustrating and grating on the viewer.  It’s clear that the director took a great deal of influence from the French New Wave movement in 1960’s France, and he does his best to make the frantic style his own through the film’s more daring moments.  It’s difficult to write about Touki Bouki on more than a surface level, because the nature of Mambéty’s film is so incredibly personal.  I can’t say I’m an expert on Senegal’s political scene in the 1970’s, nor can I completely relate to the wants and needs of young Senegalese people of the time, but I still managed to get a lot of the film’s central idea and the plot which conveys those ideas.  You can feel the frustration and longing for more throughout the whole film, which is something that most everybody can relate to.

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Mory (Magaye Niang) and Anta (Mareme Niang) riding the famous bull skull motorcycle in 1973’s Touki Bouki.

Touki Bouki is a joyous and incredibly fun example of just how exciting and different world cinema can be.  I’m incredibly thankful for those who saw worth in the movie’s messages and the way in which is gets them across to the viewer, and I hope young people everywhere discover it and appreciate it in their own way.  It’s a beautiful film both literally and thematically, uses subtle, but effective, comedy to push the idealistic story forward, and has a lot to say about both loneliness and the struggles that young people across the world face when trying to find themselves.  It’s bright and colorful, has a fun and catchy (if repetitive) soundtrack, and can be related with on a basic level whether you’re 15 or 75.  Touki Bouki is a film I’m incredibly glad to have seen, and one that I hope finds more and more success as historians analyse and re-appropriate its significance.  Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki is recommended for all.

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