Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 18, 2013

Senegalese portraits in cinema

Filed under: Africa,Film,immigration,imperialism/globalization,slavery — louisproyect @ 8:55 pm

Last Saturday a Facebook friend asked me for my opinions on an article in the December 28, 2012 CP-Africa:

Most African countries could be middle income countries by 2025

By Shanta Devarajan and Wolfgang Fengler

Hardly a week goes by without an African investors’ conference or growth summit. Portuguese professionals are looking for opportunities in Angola. Silicon Valley companies are coming to Kenya to learn about its home-grown ICT revolution. This is not an irrational fad.

Since the turn of the century, Africa’s growth has been robust (averaging 5-6 per cent GDP growth a year), making important contributions to poverty reduction. The current boom is underpinned by sound macro policies and political stability. Unlike in some rich countries, public debt levels in most of Africa are sustainable.

Earlier in the month The Economist ran something in a similar vein titled “Africa’s hopeful economies”.

I plan to write a detailed critique of such claims at some point but only wish that the authors of such shameless propaganda could join some of Senegal’s desperate undocumented workers who risk their lives in small fishing boats over a 7-day voyage to the Canary Islands. On January 23rd the Film Forum in New York will be premiering Moussa Touré’s “The Pirogue”, a powerful narrative directed by someone who could identify with his characters based on this interview:

My father died when I was 14 and as the eldest in the family I had to go out to work. I went to see a friend of my father who was making a film. That was my first job. For my second, I heard a film was being shot with François Truffaut, although I didn’t know who he was, and I went along! I learned very quickly, and started off working in the lighting.

“The Pirogue” is set in a small seaside village that is slowly being drained of its population due to a stagnant economy. Despite the authors cited above, it is doubtful that it would attract a maquila let alone a delegation from Silicon Valley looking for a place to set up a tech support call center.

Unlike a Europe that is in a recession, Senegal’s economic woes are more deeply entrenched and chronic in nature. If you stroll down New York’s avenues, you will see men and women selling counterfeit wristwatches and pocketbooks. Most are from West Africa and Senegal in particular. By the standards of the hapless citizens of the fishing village, these are people who have become fabulously successful even though they are only a step ahead of the cops.

The film begins with preparations for the journey with a fisherman named Baye Laye sizing up the job as captain. There will be 30 passengers, including him. Some are from Senegal and others are from Guinea. For the land-locked Guineans, who do not speak a word of any of Senegal’s languages, there is a sense of dread about the voyage anybody would feel but compounded by the fact that none of them have ever seen the ocean before. One man, a desperate peasant like all the others, is gripped by panic attacks as soon as they venture out to sea. His fellow passengers are compelled to tie him up and put a gag over his mouth to keep order in the rickety boat. Although I have not seen “Life of Pi”, I suspect that “The Pirogue” is the ultimate anti-Pi, forsaking the woozy mysticism of the lavishly funded 3D movie in favor of a kind of neorealist plea for ending the brutal exploitation of Senegal that forced 30,000 of its citizens to take such desperate measures, leaving 6,000 victims of drowning, dehydration, and starvation in the process.

Despite the neorealist aesthetic, “The Pirogue” is beautifully filmed and strengthened by a film score drawing upon Senegalese popular music. At one of the most heart-wrenching scenes of the film, when the boat people begin to realize that they may never reach their destination, they take turns singing songs from their respective ethnic regions.

In the press notes for “The Pirogue”, Touré was asked what he thought when he saw the finished film. His reply:

I wondered how we can live in such a climate. That’s the question the parents back home ask themselves. They know there’s nothing they can do to help their children, that there is no future for them in the country, and there’s no point in trying to hold them back. I also watched my wife cry like I’ve never seen her cry before. I was almost ashamed to have moved her so deeply. In a way, it was a kind of sufferance making this film. I have put all my energy, all my truth and emotions in this film. It was something I had to do.

Put “The Pirogue” on your calendar. It is not only a glimpse into African filmmaking at its most political; it is also a work of art.

Among the wheelbarrow full of DVD’s I received from The Weinstein Company in November was one unheralded French film titled “The Intouchables”. (This decision to retain the French word for “untouchables” strikes me as perverse. Perhaps the Weinstein’s were afraid that it would be confused with the Elliot Ness movie.)

I have to confess that I postponed watching “The Intouchables” as long as I could, even putting in behind Dustin Hoffman’s “Quartet”, a film that I correctly anticipated would be a soporific exercise in the Merchant-Ivory vein. (I gave it my customary 10 minutes worth of attention.) “The Intouchables” was described as an “inspirational” tale about the bonding of a super-rich Frenchman quadriplegic and the impoverished African youth who is hired as his caregiver.

The great Omar Sy in “The Intouchables”

Having had a strong reaction against “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, Julian Schnabel’s film about a paralyzed stroke victim from the French upper class, I worried that “The Intouchables” would be more of the same—an unendurable descent into someone else’s misery.

Nothing prepared me for the sheer energy and ebullience of a “buddy” movie unlike any I have ever seen. From the minute that Driss (Omar Sy), a Senegalese youth from the banlieues, the outskirts of Paris populated largely by poor North African and other non-white immigrants that erupted in riots in 2005, meets Philippe (François Cluzet) in a job interview, the young man demonstrates neither the professional background nor the cloying sympathy for the “victim” that other applicants display. Driss admits to Philippe’s staff that he is there mainly to fulfill his obligation to the unemployment bureau. He has to show up for job interviews or else his benefits are cut off.

Philippe admires the young man’s honesty as well as his rebelliousness, obviously seeing some kind of kindred spirit despite their class differences. Philippe has enjoyed taking risks all his life, including a passion for paragliding that would eventually rob him of the use of his arms and legs. As Philippe’s driver, Driss takes him on a joy ride through Paris’s streets in a Maserati at speeds over 100 miles per hour. When the cops catch up to the two, Driss tells them that they were racing to get to the hospital since Philippe was suffering some kind of seizure. To fool the cops, Philippe manages to get white foam pouring out of his mouth. Afterwards the two men have a big laugh and go out for dinner and drinks.

As Driss, Omar Sy delivers a charismatic performance that helps put the film over the top. It is almost impossible for me to imagine any combination of actor and character that works as well. With a Senegalese father and Mauritanian mother, Sy understands exactly what kind of experience Driss has had in the banlieues since he came from one: Trappes. Despite having moved to Los Angeles to improve his English and further his career, Sy will continue to fulfill his obligations as a French citizen. He told The Independent: “I grew up with [state] family benefits. They gave my parents a big helping hand. Paying taxes is no problem for me. It is a bit like I was paying back a debt.” That’s a real Frenchman, not the loutish Gérard Depardieu.

Quentin Tarantino has claimed that “Django Unchained” has revealed the truth about slavery as if “Gone With the Wind” was Hollywood’s last film on the topic. While it was not a movie, “Roots” had much more of an impact than “Django Unchained” can ever hope to have, as well as reflecting what an African-American author felt about the subject. When it aired on ABC TV in 1977, it became the 3rd highest-rated production in history. Based on the novel by Alex Haley, who co-wrote Malcolm X’s autobiography, the show had a dramatic impact on public opinion. Although Haley had plagiarized sections of the novel “The African” by David Kourlander, who whom he settled out of court for $500,000, most of “Roots” reflects Haley’s 12 year research project on slavery.

While I never watched “Roots”, I have to believe that it is a better introduction to the “peculiar institution” than “Django Unchained”. But despite its obscurity and its general unavailability, the movie that I would recommend to my readers is “Ceddo”, which appeared the same year as “Roots”. Directed by the Senegalese Ousmane Sembene, Africa’s greatest director and arguably one of the world’s as well, it tells the story of how both Islam and Christianity conspired to force slavery on indigenous peoples in the 19th century.

The entire film can be seen on the Internet but only with French subtitles. I am afraid that the only way you will be able to get a copy with English subtitles is to request a copy from a well-stocked video library at a research institution like Columbia University’s. Pirate’s Bay has a bit torrent of the film but I can’t say if it has English subtitles. It is certainly worth a try.

The complete “Ceddo” with French subtitles

The ‘common folk’ of “Ceddo” are the serfs of a small village in 19th century Senegal who are miserably oppressed by organized religion and by their feudal overlords. The clerical structures are much more modest than those found in any feudal society (Islamic services are held on the open ground bounded by pebbles), but the bonds enforced by custom are the same. The ceddo must pay tribute to their King in the form of firewood bundles. An Islamic caste also takes tribute in the form of slaves, who are exchanged for guns or cloth in a general store run by a white man. To round out the microcosm of feudal society, there is a single white Catholic priest who is barely tolerated by the Moslems.

Weary of oppression, a ceddo youth kidnaps the daughter of the king and takes her to an isolated wooded glen near the ocean. She will only be returned after the ruling classes forsake slavery and forced conversion to Islam. Played by amateurs, as is the case in nearly all of Sembene’s films, the villagers, have a simple desire to live as they have always lived.

The film’s most dramatic scenes pit the hostage-taker against aristocrats from the village who come to rescue the princess with rifles in hand. Armed only with a bow and arrow and superior cunning, the ceddo youth vanquishes them one by one. In the course of his courageous resistance, the princess begins to warm to him although he is slow to respond in kind. His memory of oppression remains too strong. In one of the more gripping images of the film, the beautiful princess bathes nude in the ocean while the young commoner stands on the beach glowering at her, bow and arrow in hand. He will not indulge himself in desire as long as his people are in bondage.

In a conflict between the King and the Islamic clergy over how to divide up ceddo tribute, the clergy seize power. Now that they are the new ruling class, they force the village to undergo conversion. One by one, the men’s heads are shaved as they are given new names. The arrogant Imam tells the disconsolate villagers: “You are now Ishmaila”, “You are now Ibraima”, etc. , Whether in Africa or in the New World, cultural assimilation always precedes economic assimilation. Implicit in Sembene’s films is the notion that cultural renewal must precede social and economic transformation.

Born in 1923, his father a fisherman like the captain in “The Pirogue”, Sembene fell in love with movies at an early age after seeing scenes of Jesse Owens’ track victories in Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Nazi documentary Olympics documentary. “For the first time,” he told the LA Times in 1995, “a black honored us by beating whites. . . . It became the film for the young people of my generation.” We can be sure that this was not Riefenstahl’s intention.

Sembene quit high school after punching out a teacher who had hit him first. He then joined the Free French army during World War II. After the war he became a rail worker, participating in an epochal Dakar-Niger railroad strike in 1947-48. After stowing away in a ship to France, he became a longshoreman in Marseilles and a member of the French Communist Party.

In France he started writing fiction in order to depict the reality of modern African life that could best be represented by the African. His first novel “The Black Docker” was published in 1956. But in the early 1960s, Sembene decided to turn his attention to filmmaking (“the people’s night school”) because most Africans were illiterate and could only be reached with this medium. His films would follow the same road as his writing, to offer an alternative to Tarzan movies and garish epics like “Mandingo.” “We have had enough of feathers and tom-toms,” he said.

So he went to Moscow, where he studied at the Gorki Institute under Soviet directors Mark Donskoi and Sergei Gerasimov. This was the time when the USSR was not only offering an economic alternative to developing countries, but a cultural one as well. Indirectly, the Soviet Union became a midwife to modern African cinema.

How sad it is that a great talent such as Ousmane Sembene is neglected while Quentin Tarantino’s grindhouse remake of movies like “Mandingo” get taken seriously by our most prestigious film critics. I agree. We have had enough of feathers and tom-toms. We need class-conscious films about slavery that are rooted in African and American reality. It will probably take a political sea change that will make it possible for works like “Roots” and “Ceddo” to reappear. Until that happens, I am not going to offer tributes to something like “Django Unchained” that offers tributes to nothing but Quentin Tarantino’s inflated ego and Harvey Weinstein’s corporate coffers.

2 Comments »

  1. ”Pirate’s Bay has a bit torrent of the film but I can’t say if it has English subtitles”

    it does.

    Comment by meltr — January 19, 2013 @ 11:33 pm

  2. [...] I would rank it only as a “show” in the wheelchair movie sweepstakes behind the ebullient “The Intouchables” that “placed”. (For more information on win, place and show, Google “horseracing”. I [...]

    Pingback by Porfirio « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — February 11, 2013 @ 9:20 pm


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