His movies are not very readily available back home (as with all other works of art created by African artists - it is unfortunate how much easier it is to lay my hands on Dan Brown's latest than a novel written by a Gambian author, in the Gambia.) After much searching, I was finally able to get myself a copy of Moolade, his last movie, using the Internets. It was hands down the best African movie I had seen until then. By the end of the movie I was certain his reputation was deserved - the camera work alone would have been enough to make it a masterpiece, even had he not had an engaging plot. It is set in a village, and it is one of the most faithful representations of a village on camera that I have ever seen. You are almost there - it captures the mood and the atmosphere and the lighting perfectly. Again and again the camera takes wide-angle shots over the roof-tops that are almost ethereal, making out of the collection of huts and animals running around a place, replacing the image you always had of a village in your head with something concrete you could actually live in. There are incidental scenes containing so much life they make you wonder whether they were really in the script or were part of footage the director gathered and inserted into the movie. (There is a scene, e.g., with a goat skipping over a rope set in the doorway of one of the village compounds and running off, all shot in absolute silence. Words don't do this scene justice - you must see it for yourself). There is a wordless quality to life in moments like this which are only ever successfully captured in the best films, and this one came as close as any, even given its sparse setting. I liked it so much I saw it again, this time with a couple of friends, and recommended it to everyone I knew. [Note: though the wikipedia article gives a summary of the plot of the film it does not do a very good job - you can find a list of other reviews here.]
I saw a copy of Mandabi, an earlier movie, in our campus library last week and grabbed it with high expectations. Mandabi was made in 1968 (much earlier than Moolade), and was based on one of Sembene's novels. The plot itself is simple: a man living in Senegal receives a money order (a "Mandaa", the equivalent of "Western Union" these days) from his nephew in France. The nephew has gone there to try and make his way in the world, and the money is from his savings working odd jobs. He sends a letter along with the money order, explaining his intentions. It is testament to the amount of detail that is put into Sembene's movies, and well-roundedness of his characters, that the content of this letter alone would have filled up a whole movie. In it the nephew explains that he left Senegal because there were no jobs, and he too wishes to make money and marry a wife and start a family. He tells his Uncle to forget all the fears he may have about him losing his way, out in the wild western world. "Those who come here and lose their way", he says, "do so only by their own choosing". He says not a drop of alcohol has never passed down his throat, and assures his Uncle that he prays regularly, when he gets home from work, and spends the rest of his time going to school. The last part of the letter then explains what is to be done with the money: the greater part of it is to be saved away for him for his return, a smaller fraction is to be divided between his Mother and his Uncle.
The film then follows the developments leading from this, from the Uncle's perspective. His wives (he has two) have somehow managed (by their suggestive behavior including "borrowing" rice from the shop and even buying such luxuries as new bras, on the strength of the Mandaa) to let the whole village know about the money order, and as soon as the news is out all the men in the village begin to make their way to the Uncle's house, to "share in the fortune".
All the members of the village are very poor, as is the Uncle. In Senegambian society a structure has been built over many centuries to support this level of poverty, which many people suffer from. This structure involves sharing with your neighbors and helping them out in tight spots, in return for which they will help you when you need it (which is often, on both sides). This system works great when everyone participating in it is at the same level of poverty (a friend of mine once told me his theory that this is the reason the Gambia has not had any of the poor people's revolts in other countries: this system makes it just bearable, all the time, and ensures that no one becomes so poor they become desperate). However it has the disadvantage that once one person makes an attempt to rise above this they will be pulled back down, because no matter how much money they make, e.g., once they have spread it around helping all their neighbors then it becomes spread too thin, so that whilst the aggregate poverty level has been decreased a little, it is only by a negligible amount. In the movie one of the Uncle's wives puts it aptly - when she is sent to give some of their almost-finished rice to one of the neighbors, she complains to the other wife "If you have 9 beggars and you want to help them all, all you will become is the 10th beggar". Layer on top of this structure the system of manners that have been built over time, and which make it very rude to say a plain "No!" (e.g. back in the Gambia when a beggar asks you for money and you cannot give them any, what you say is "Forgive me until next time") and you will understand just how difficult it is for the Uncle to send people away and tell them he cannot help them. There is also the matter of the Uncle's pride and his need to be socially accepted - the person who shares their fortune is called a good person, and flattered and greeted with smiles everywhere he goes. He becomes very popular. The person who does not becomes as good as an outcast - people call him cruel and selfish. In the course of the film the Uncle in fact gradually makes his way from one of these poles to the other - when he begins to tell people that the money is not his and he cannot give them any they immediately turn against him.
The film would no doubt have come to a hasty conclusion if he had been able to receive the money immediately - he would help those he could help and spend the rest on himself, and becoming poor as they were once more they would leave him alone. But the problems begin the moment he goes to the post office to pick up the money. He does not have any form of valid ID, and the clerk informs him stiffly that he must get one. Thus begins a long and tedious (and ultimately fruitless) journey through the City, during which he gets cheated at every turn, and at one point even beaten up badly. He cannot speak French, does not know the ways of this new and bureaucratic world which is so different from the one he is used to. He must depend on the kindness of strangers, and the services of educated men to do everything for him: from translate his nephew's letter to take photos for an ID card. The people he meets in the government offices he goes to treat him contemptuously - in their fine suits (set against his waramba) he is everything that they have been taught is bad about themselves and have been trying to escape.
As in any Sembene movie (and as in real life) everything is not as clear-cut as the preceding paragraph perhaps gave the impression of. There are many layers here: even whilst the educated office workers he comes into contact with cheat and abuse him there are some who jump to his defence. On the street he gives out charity to a woman who asks - at home he is domineering and treats his wives like children, shouting and threatening to beat them when they step out of line. You begin to feel pity for him, and how unfair it is that "the system" does not treat him equally because he is uneducated, you begin to feel a bitterness against "the system" (a bitterness he himself never shows signs of feeling, interestingly enough - he seems to have accepted that this is the way it is for people like him."People like us", the Imam says when he comes to ask him for money, "should help each other out"). You feel all these things until his older sister (the money-sender's mother) comes visiting from the village. She hits him over the head and calls him foolish. "How could you live here all your life", she asks with scorn, "and not get your papers in order? When I return you better have my money!".
The older sister is atypical of the other women in the film. She pushes him around and treats him like a child, she is sharp-tongued all will brook no nonsense. His wives, on the other hand, run around and do everything they can to satisfy his every whim. But even they are cast as merely people subjugated by a system far more powerful than them (similar to the relationship between their husband and the educated bureaucratic world) - they are accepting of this system, but are portrayed despite this fully as people, with their own dreams. They pick up their husband when he falls, they fight on his behalf when he is outnumbered. When he has descended so far into debt he finds it hard to haul himself out again one of them gives him her only gold necklace to pawn. "Are you sure?", he asks, the only time in the movie he defers completely to her and is gentle, almost submissive. She nods. "But it is yours...", he says, still not taking it, looking sadly at it. "Take it", she replies, "material objects are to cure shame - for they cannot cure death". [The use of language here, as elsewhere is quite elegant and packed with old proverbs, something that will be lost when you cannot speak Wolof and have to use the subtitles].
But as the title suggests, in the end after all it all comes back down to the money order. By the end of the movie it has created a mini economic system of its own - on the promise of its receipt items have been borrowed and lent, and there is a big debt attached to it. In order not to give away the ending I will not discuss how the situation is resolved (or failed to be).
One thing that kept nagging at me as I watched the film was whether someone from outside the cultures it is set in would truly get it - why were all these people asking him for money? Why was he giving it to them, when he did not have enough for himself and it was not even really his? Whilst the concerns it raises are universal, the film itself is set very deeply in the societies it treats and is completely unapologetic about this. This makes sense - any attempt at making some of the scenes easier to comprehend to an outsider would have detracted from the story. One way to deal with this is to attempt to look beneath the scenes themselves - this is the kind of film which bears close watching. The language of the film is Wolof (with some French) - the version I got had English subtitles.
In the end, like any great work of art, the film raises more questions than it answers, and stays in your mind long afterward. I highly recommend it.