Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 11, 2006


Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 6:26 pm

When Ibrahim Dieng (Makhouredia Gueye, an untrained actor that director Ousmane Sembene found working near an airport in Senegal) receives a letter and a money order (mandabi) worth 25,000 francs from his nephew who is working in Paris, he is delighted. All he has to do is cash it and dispense the funds to various family members, with a sizable chunk going to him.

This windfall couldn’t have come at a better time. As someone who hasn’t held a job in four years and who has two wives and seven children to support, he is constantly in debt. His penury does not seem to get in the way of a comfortable life-style, albeit one with limited horizons. As the film starts, Dieng is getting a shave and a haircut in the street in his Dakar neighborhood, which the barber tops off by grooming his nostril hairs. When he returns home, he attacks an enormous lunch of seasoned rice that leaves him groaning and sweating. His wives attend to his comfort by fanning him and washing his feet in cold water. One is reminded of Engels’s observation in “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”:

“The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules… Within the family, he [the husband] is the bourgeois, and the wife represents the proletariat.”

Dieng sets off to the post office to cash the money order and to have somebody read the nephew’s letter (he is completely illiterate.) In his typically acerbic wit, Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene positions a poster of Che Guevara on the desk of the clerk whose job it is to read letters to the illiterate for 50 francs. When Dieng attempts to leave the post office without paying the clerk, he manhandles him at the door, calling him a thief. It turns out that Dieng could not cash the money order without an identity card. He promises to pay the clerk as soon as he has cashed it.

This scene sets the tone for the remainder of the film, which consists of a series of comic mishaps involving Dieng’s futile attempts to get an identity card. He also has to fend off, usually unsuccessfully, attempts by family members and friends to get a piece of his nephew’s fortune. In the streets of Dakar, gaining a modest sum such as 25,000 francs is akin to winning the lottery.

Dakar seems divided between those who are inside and outside the cash economy. Another nephew, who speaks French, dresses in Western clothes and has a white-collar job, writes Dieng a check to tide him over until the money order is cashed. The check presents almost as many problems as the money order and Dieng falls victim to a street hustler outside the bank who “helps” him cash it for a fee of 300 francs.

Ousmane Sembene

Dieng’s world falls through the crack between traditional African society and the new capitalist social relationships that are disintegrating the bonds that kept people together. When “Mandabi” was made in 1968, Senegal was like most African nations trying to adjust to postcolonial norms. It was betwixt and between. Sembene, a Marxist philosophically, almost throws up his hands in this film at the dog-eat-dog world of his beloved country. Everybody is either screwing somebody or being screwed. At the conclusion of the film, Dieng resolves to become a thief and a liar himself since that is the only way to survive. After a postman arrives with another letter from the nephew in Paris, he listens to Dieng’s tale of woe. The postman assures him that they must work to change society, which evokes a puzzled reaction from Dieng. What can they possibly do to change such a rotten society? In a Spring, 1973 interview with Film Quarterly, Sembene was asked, “Are you satisfied with your conclusion to Mandabi?” He replied:

I don’t think I really have to like the ending. It’s only up to me to give the situation. The ending is linked to the evolution of Senegalese society, thus it is as ambiguous. As the postman says, either we will have to bring about certain changes or we will remain corrupt. I don’t know. Do you like the ending?

The next question was about whether an artist should go beyond presenting a picture of corruption and offer a vision of the future. Semembe’s answer was about as precise a statement of the relationship between art and revolution as can be imagined:

The role of the artist is not to say what is good, but to be able to denounce. He must feel the heartbeat of society and be able to create the image society gives to him. He can orient society, he can say it is exaggerating, going overboard, but the power to decide escapes every artist.

I live in a capitalist society and I can’t go any further than the people. Those for change are only a handful, a minority, and we don’t have that Don Quixote attitude that we can transform society. One work cannot instigate change. I don’t think that in history there has been a single revolutionary work that has brought the people to create a revolution. It’s not having read Marx or Lenin that you go out and make a revolution. It’s not after reading Marcuse in America. All the works are just a point of reference in history. And that’s all. Before the end of an act of creation, society usually has already surpassed it.

All that an artist can do is bring the people to the point of having an idea of the thing, an idea in their heads that they share, and that helps. People have killed and died for an idea.

If I understand your criticism, then I’m happy. I had no belief that after people saw “Mandabi,” they would go out and make a revolution. But people liked the film and talked about it, though my government didn’t. They wanted to censor the movie at the point where it said that “Honesty is a crime in Senegal.”

People discussed “Mandabi” in the post office or in the market and decided they were not going to pay out their money like the person in my movie. They reported those trying to victimize them, which led to many arrests. But when they denounced the crooks, they would say it was not the person but the government which was corrupt. And they would say they were going to change the country.

I know my own limits. But through nothing more than just supplying these people with ides, I am participating in their awareness.

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