“Xala” is a Wolof word for sexual impotence, but it might just as well mean political impotence in Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene’s view. This 1975 film is a scathing satire on his nation’s elite personified by the sexual failure of his main character, a corrupt middle-aged businessman who can’t “get it up” for his brand-new third wife, who is younger than the daughter of his first marriage, on their wedding night.
“Xala” lays bare all of Senegal’s class inequality, built on the bogus principles of “African Socialism” and the heavy-handed rule of “Negritude” poet Leopold Senghor, whose name is not mentioned once in the film but whose troubled legacy clearly disgusts the Marxist Sembene.
Before the film’s credits roll across the screen, Sembene establishes the underlying premise. On the day of national independence, the French and the local bourgeoisie are sitting opposite each other around a conference table in the capitol building in Dakar. After the Blacks make a few statements about how a new day of “African socialism” is dawning, the French push attaché cases across the table filled with cash.
One of the recipients is an importer and government deputy named El Hadji Aboucader Beye (Thierno Leye) who is a typical Sembene character, not quite a villain but more of a self-important and ignorant foil to female characters, who always come off as more in touch with the real world. This includes Rama, his college student daughter from his first marriage, who tells him that polygamists are liars. When he challenges her to repeat this charge, she does so and is slapped to the ground for her honesty. El Hadji reminds her that polygamy is part of their national patrimony, as if having multiple wives is the same thing as the right to bear arms or to vote.
Sembene, a Marxist, skewers the pretensions of this peculiar comprador bourgeoisie that has adopted some of his movement’s phraseology, but none of its class principles. When El Hadji meets with senior government officials in a kind of trial over his financial misdeeds (he is an extraordinary crook, not an ordinary one like him), the meeting almost breaks down with mutual recriminations, including the charge of being a “feudalist”. When El Hadji decides to make his case in Wolof, he is accused of being “racist, sectarian and reactionary”. For veterans of the sectarian Marxist left, El Hadji’s trial will certainly be a reminder of things that they have experienced in party purges.
Sembene is equally outraged at the tendency of this upper crust to adopt European habits and values, despite lip-service to African nationalism. El Hadji constantly brags about his European connections and insists on speaking French to his colleagues. So enthralled by the notion of European superiority that he has his chauffeur wash the car and fill the radiator with bottles of Evian kept in the trunk of his Mercedes sedan.
The various wives hold El Hadji in complete contempt. For them, the marriage is simply a means to avoid the grinding poverty of Senegal. For people like El Hadji and his fellow government crooks, the poor are an inconvenient reminder of Senegal’s reality. When a band of lepers and polio victims show up outside his store, he calls the cops to remove them. At the end of the film, they take their vengeance on him.
If his European pretensions are not enough to condemn El Hadji, they are complemented by a foolish belief in witch doctor cures for his impotence. When his chauffeur takes him to a village on the outskirts of Dakar to be cured of Xala, we understand that Senegal’s elite is as hobbled by indigenous superstition as it is by belief in European superiority. There are no Marxist happy endings in Sembene’s films. A hapless victim of thievery and corruption looks incredulously at a postman who urges collective action to change Senegalese society at the conclusion of “Mandabi”. Similarly, “Xala” ends on a note of despair, the only ray of hope perhaps found in El Hadji’s ruin at the hands of creditors and the beggars he has victimized.
The government of Senegal did not like what it saw in “Xala” and forced Sembene to make 11 cuts. Unlike Senghor, Sembene has no interest in romanticizing the past. He has subjected native polytheism as well as Islam to ridicule. This has not been an obstacle to popular acceptance based on the fact that his films are universally revered in Africa.
“Xala” is based on Sembene’s novel of the same name. His career was informed by his participation in the French Communist Party and by his experiences as a writer. The former gave him a keen insight into class relationships, while the latter helped him to approach film-making with a higher level of understanding about plot, character development and other nuances frequently absent in screenwriting.
A short essay on the novel by postcolonial scholar Phoebe Koch reveals the complexity of Sembene’s approach:
Muslim women are often envisioned as playing the role of humble servant to a dominating male figure. While El Hadji certainly orders his wives around, they are by no means the docile and submissive characters of western popular imagination. El Hadji’s second wife, Oumi N’Doye, employs powerful skills of persuasion and mental torture to exact what she wants from her husband. Often, it appears as if El Hadji simply plays the role of economic provider for his three families, enjoying neither the love nor companionship of his wives and children. His eleven children unanimously greet him with hands outstretched, demanding money. The degree of fairness with which El Hadji treats his two families provides a constant source of chagrin for the members of each, and results in his being hounded daily. The extent to which his economic support provides the only link between El Hadji and his dependents becomes clear towards the end of Ousmane’s fable. When El Hadji loses his money, he loses his wives along with it. Only his first wife, perhaps because she herself owns her villa, remains until the end.
Once again I am reminded of the quote from Engels’s “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State” that I incorporated into my review of “Mandabi”:
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.