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Borom Sarret, 1966

Abdoulaye Borom Sarret opens to the stark emptiness of a black screen, evocatively filled by the sound of a solemn, mystical tribal chant incanted amid the asynchrony of a blunt, rhythmic beat. The darkness subsequently reveals a high contrast, daylight shot of the impoverished native quarters, cutting to a shot of the supplicant (Ly Abdoulaye) praying for benediction in the foreground with his wife silently toiling in the background, as the pair assiduously perform their disparate (and intrinsically revelatory) rituals at the break of dawn. Retrieving his family's sole possession - the horse Albourah - from a clearing, the unnamed man then leaves to fetch his wooden cart in order to earn a paltry income as a borom sarret, (a derivative of the French term bonhomme charret), a horse-cart driver for hire operating around the native quarters of Dakar, often picking up equally destitute passengers who can only offer an indebted (and indefinite) promise of payment or a wordless, ambiguous handshake in lieu of the fare. Nevertheless, the day seemingly turns auspicious as actual paying customers begin to hire his services - an overloaded delivery of construction concrete blocks and an expectant couple hurrying to the hospital for the birth of their child - begin to replace the destitute early morning commuters (and presumptuous hitchhikers) catching a free ride to the main town square. With earned money in hand, he decides to stop at an intersection in order to enjoy the idyllic morning, eat his meager kola nut lunch, and tend to a persistently squeaking wheel on his cart before being distracted by the uplifting voice of a traditional singer performing on the street. The singer's ancient tales enhearten the borom sarret, evoking images of his ancestral family's nobility and former glory, and in an act of impulsive and negligent pride, magnanimously hands over his entire earnings to the charismatic singer. Now running out of time and anxious to recuperate his lost income, the desperate borom sarret begins to accept a series of desperate and dubious passengers, and soon finds himself driving his outmoded, derelict cart into the modernized - and forbidden - hillside colonial-era community appropriately called the Heights.

Borom Sarat Marking the cinematic debut of Senegalese novelist and Moscow-trained filmmaker Ousmane Sembene - and also representing the earliest film directed by an indigenous filmmaker in sub-Sahara Africa - Borom Sarret is a spare and distilled, yet lucid, innovative, and socially incisive portrait of poverty, marginalization, servility, and exploitation. Filming in high contrast black and white and implementing an asynchronous soundtrack and narrative voice-over (in order to work around equipment limitation), Sembene creates an implicit dichotomy between words and images - between a disenfranchised person's seemingly assertive thoughts and his contradictory, compliant actions - that illustrate the ingrained - and largely self-perpetuated - cultural behavior among the poor and working class that continue to foster social stratification even under the egalitarian ideals of the nation's post-colonial, native sovereignty. Sembene further conveys socio-economic polarization through visually recurring point-of-view shots taken from the exaggerated perspective of an acute angled camera that figuratively reflect class disparity: the disfigured beggar's humble plea for alms as the lazing borom sarret feigns unawareness; the peripheral activity of a crouching shoeshine boy who helplessly allows a customer to leave without paying (as the singer panders to the gullible borom sarret on the street corner); the defeated image of the borom sarret bowing down to reclaim a souvenir medal as the police officer deliberately steps on the article while issuing a ticket. It is this dysfunctional and inextricable entanglement between covetousness and idle ambition, condescension and self-pity, braggadocio and moral defeatism that is ultimately reflected in the transitional shots of the iconic, towering edifice that looms over the road leading away from the native quarters - a delusive symbol of unity and exclusion, self-authority and corruption, empowerment and emasculation.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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Xala, 1975
[The Curse]

LeyeA successful, middle-aged businessman named El Hadj Abdoukader Beye (Thierno Leye) has reached the pinnacle of the economic elite by participating in a native revolt against colonialist authorities and, along with his colleagues, seized control of the chamber of commerce. Despite the newly convened commerce board's altruistic declarations for establishing compassionate socialism, rampant corruption and abuse of power become immediately apparent as the board members are individual handed money-laden briefcases by an inscrutable and reticent Western businessman. Beye uses the jovial atmosphere to remind the board that his marriage ceremony to his third, and significantly younger co-wife, Ngone (Dieynaba Niang), is already in progress (ironically, despite his absence) and extends an invitation for the afternoon wedding reception at his recently purchased third home. On the way to the reception, Beye stops by the home of his first wife, Adja (Seune Samb), in order to prepare for the wedding festivities, and encounters his independent and outspoken university-aged daughter, Rama (Miriam Niang), who expresses her disapproval for her father's third marriage by encouraging her mother to seek a divorce. Beye attempts to justify his actions by appealing to her sense of cultural pride, hypocritically commenting that the practice of polygamy was an ancestral religious practice even before the appearance of colonialists. In order to keep peace within the family and maintain a cordial, social appearance, Adja agrees to accompany Beye along with his second wife, Oumi (Younouss Seye), to the wedding reception, where the two women soon find themselves awkwardly out of place in their co-wife's new marital home, and eager for an expedient excuse to leave. Meanwhile, despite his insistence on their non-necessity, Beye is encouraged by his friends to consume superstitious concoctions in order to ensure a successful wedding night. However, on the following morning, his anxious and interfering new mother-in-law pays a visit only to find that Beye was unable to consummate the marriage. Convinced that his affliction was caused by an unidentified person's xala (curse of sexual impotence), Beye abandons everything in an obsessive search for a cure.

Ousmane Sembene presents a subversive, scathingly funny, and incisive satire on the decadence and hypocrisy of the post-colonial upper class in Xala. Similar to Luis Buñuel's wry and searing indictment of the bourgeoisie in films such as The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Sembene employs sardonic humor, narrative exaggeration, and surrealism to underscore the deliberate and self-imposed segregation and stratification of social classes, and the assumption of colonialist elitism by the emerging native upper class. The board's adoption of French as the official language for conducting national affairs (instead of the native Wolof), Beye's refusal of his mother-in-law's request to perform a traditional wedding day ritual (despite his earlier citation of native customs in rationalizing his polygamy), and his arrogant boast of importing all of his goods from Europe (including his favorite beverage), all reflect the social elite's emulation of Western ideals at the expense of cultural legacy, nationalism, and mutual interdependence in the rebuilding and economic vitality of post-colonial Senegal. Inevitably, it is the consuming universal infection of greed, power, narcissism, and social apathy that proves to be the source of Beye's humiliating and incurable affliction.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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Camp de Thiaroye, 1987

LeyeA historical fiction based on the Thiaroye transit camp massacre in 1944, Ousmane Sembène and Thierno Faty Sow's Camp de Thiaroye dismantles the myth of colonial assimilation to expose ingrained social and cultural mechanisms of racism, exploitation, and privilege. The disconnection is implied in the film's opening image of West African colonial troops (Tirailleurs Sénégalais) disembarking at a port in Dakar wearing donated U.S. army uniforms amid patriotic chants in praise of the republic and Charles de Gaulle, having been sent back by their military leaders with only rags to wear for the homecoming and repatriation. Like their borrowed clothing, their identity within colonial French society is also ambiguous, arbitrarily defined by the immediate and self-serving needs of a myopic republic. Having spent his entire career in the military, commanding officer, Captain Raymond (Jean-Daniel Simon) only sees the men as soldiers in his charge and, in his egalitarian idealism, seems oblivious to the broader implications of his country's transgressions against the colonies (in an early encounter, Raymond's attempt to greet an infantryman, Diatta's [Iprahima Sane] relatives in their native language is met with a brusque handshake, subsequently breaking the news that their ancestral village had been destroyed by French troops acting under Vichy orders in 1942).

In turn, Diatta embodies the myth of altruistic colonial mandate. College educated, fluent in several Western languages, and having achieved a certain degree of assimilation by marrying a French woman, Diatta has seemingly transcended the limitations of his station by being promoted from within the ranks and acting as a liaison between the officers and the native soldiers (primarily due to his ability to speak proper French). But even in his acculturation, Diatta is not immune from the inherent racism and subjugation of colonialism. Housed in a barbed wire-enclosed transit camp along with other infantrymen while officers retreat to more comfortable accommodations at a nearby hotel, served inedible gruel that falls even below the standard of concentration camp food (the meat rations having been set aside for French personnel), and thrown out of a bar in the red light district when the hostess realizes that he is not an American serviceman, Diatta is constantly reminded of his "place" in colonial society.

Perhaps the most emblematic of the tirailleurs' (and more broadly, the indigenous Africans') entrenched marginalization lies in the image of the infantrymen being stripped of their new army khakis for replacement with worn colonial uniforms (their used condition reinforcing the idea of inherited disenfranchisement) - inequitable exchanges that echo the ravaged landscapes left behind by colonialism's cycle of exploited resources. Invoking the image of the U.S. through the donated garments, Sembène and Sow insightfully frame the soldiers' odyssey within the context of individual transformation embodied by the American ideals of equality and racial integration. In a sense, the soldiers' mutiny against the government's unfair wage exchange rates reflects an empowerment and assertion of identity that is paradoxically symbolized by borrowed clothes - an enlightenment and self-awareness realized, not through the donning of new masks, but from the shedding of imposed costumes.

© Acquarello 2008. All rights reserved. First posted on The Auteur's Notebook, 11/26/08.

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