I saw Borom Sarret by Ousmane Sembene last night. According to wikipedia it is considered "the first film ever made in Africa by a black African". It takes place in Dakar, Senegal, and is about a horse-and-cart driver trying to eke out a living. It is a short film, barely 20 minutes long, yet in that time it manages to pack in quite a lot of themes.
A black and white film, it opens with a stark view of a shining white mosque building, its profile cutting into the skyline (a beautiful, beautiful shot - and this is Ousmane pre-color). A prayer has just ended, and the cart driver of the film's title gets off his prayer mat, puts on his many jujus and hat, and leaves (his wife coming up first to wish him God's fortune, and give him another juju to wear)1 , leading his horse out onto the dirt road.
He goes off to a busy day at work, transporting an old woman and a pregnant one, an "idiot" who "goes into town every day looking for a job that is never there", mostly not being paid enough for his troubles (if paid at all). But he seems to have gotten used to it all - he speaks of the situation with a resigned air and no bitterness. The film itself is old (it was made in 1966) and while the lack of color subtracts from the full impact of the slums through which the cart driver move with his horse2 and cart, it also fills us with the same tiredness and ennui he must feel, the environment around him becoming part of the background of his thoughts, yet still there (even as the b&w environment comes to fade for us, not distracting but filled with a heavy presence).
Yet he still dreams, despite all this. After he has decided to forego lunch ("I will just eat these kola nuts") he meets a griot in the centre of town. With a crowd gathered about them the griot praises him, reminding him of his ancestors who "were Noble and Kings". The cart driver for a moment is caught up in this narrative, forgetting his hunger and his current station, forgetting the poverty all about him, breathlessly listening to the griot, a wide grin on his face. To keep the griot singing he must give him money - he ends up giving him all the money he has made that day. There is, here, some biting social commentary on how people, even when extremely poor, will spend beyond their means for ostentatious reasons - this is a much-discussed issue back home, but one which is also very prevalent. This cynical reading of the scene is only one interpretation however - what struck me was the commentary it also makes on dreams and the artists who create them (in this case the griot), and this second reading casts Ousmane as anything but cynical. Here we find a man who is so poor he cannot afford to buy food for lunch, yet he will pay money to be given access, if only for a brief time, to the dream world created by the artist. He thinks "look at me now, and what I am - yet how great my ancestors were", and this buoys him up. The griot sings a simple song, keeping to a basic rhythm, sometimes ascending into a high register, then descending into a low one. Much has been written and said about the low literacy rates in West Africa, and the lack of "a reading culture". Yet if books are taken to be a way of conjuring up a dreamspace for readers, there are also other media3 , including the griot oral traditions (which go back a long way) and which are perhaps even more effective.
After the griot scene a man approaches the cart driver with what looks like a dead baby wrapped in a bundle of white cloth, and asks to be taken to the cemetary (one wonders where the baby's mother is, and all the mourners - what is the story of this father who buries his baby alone and without any visible displays of grief?). The cart driver takes him without question. When they arrive at the cemetary they are not allowed inside - the father does not have the correct papers.4 He stands outside with his dead baby (which he placed on the ground when looking for his papers). The cart driver is torn - should he wait? But is it not really his problem now, is it? Should he leave? He is missing valuable custom, and has no money left since he met the griot. Then a man approaches him, and asks to be taken to the "Plateau", the rich part of the City, where cart drivers are not allowed. "I will pay much", the man says, offering a wad of cash. He eyes the cash, and finally agrees to take him, all the while calling on his saints and his God to watch over him.
Everything goes downhill after this - he meets a policeman (who treats him very badly), he loses his cart, the man runs off with his money (driving away in a new car). He walks home cursing his bad fortune, and yet still not able to stop himself from feeling amazement at the high rises in this part of town, the cleanliness, the beautiful paved streets he will never live on. "They are all criminals", he thinks bitterly, "they can read and all they use their reading for is to steal".
The film ends with the cart driver going home, penniless and with nothing to give to his wife. And here we see Ousmane's fascination with women as the silent backbones of West African societies which he is to explore in future films. When the cart driver sits down despondent and utterly defeated, it is his wife who comes to him. "Here, take the baby", she says, "hold it while I go out - for we shall eat today". And she leaves him sitting there wondering how she will pull this off, and the movie cuts to a black screen.
- "God be with you", she tells him, "Remember we have nothing ill to speak of".
- which, incidentally, is the only living thing in the whole film refered to by name (the rather grand "Al Burah").
- One reason Sembene reportedly chose film at the beginning of his career was because he believed it could reach a much wider audience in his homeland.
- the sometimes-ridiculous beaureucratic systems that are left over from colonial days have always been a theme in Ousmane's work. See also: the identity paper problems faced by the protagonist in Mandaabi.