A Comedy-Drama Set in Modern-Day Senegal

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Great old advertising
copy for Susan Hayward’s 1947 Smash-Up proclaimed: "Filmed
on location–INSIDE A WOMAN’S SOUL!" A similar boast could
be made–and with some seriousness–for Ousmane Sembene’s Faat-Kine.
The comedy-drama set in modern-day Senegal observes special details of an African
female’s life, but you can see Sembene is simultaneously mapping out the
nation-state, tracking psycho-political territory. That "woman’s soul"
metaphor can be used to describe this micro/macro view of Africans–specifically
the 40-year-old Kine, played by Venus Seye. Her participation in postcolonial
independence ("Faat" is an honorific similar to "Aunt")
is both personal and political.

great subject is Africa becoming… Faat-Kine’s story follows what
one woman in Senegal’s current economy has become. The dramatic emphasis
starts with Sembene’s sense of his characters as part of a polity. Among
a family of Senegalese, Kine, her young adult son Djip (Ndiagne Dia), adult
daughter Aby (Mariame Balde) and her own mother Maamy (Mame Ndumbe Diop) represent
different contemporary political perspectives.

Twenty years
earlier, when Kine was a student ready to take exams for a baccalaureate, her
pregnancy (by a philosophy professor) derailed career plans and shamed her family.
In a brief reminiscence Faat-Kine depicts responses that flared up when
personal acts conflicted with patriarchal custom. As in the moving flashbacks
that detailed the protagonist’s history in Sembene’s 1993 Guelwaar,
the scene of Maamy’s self-sacrifice displays class- and gender-based morality.
These historical events–Maamy protecting Kine from her father’s attempt
to punish and scald her–define the depths of female Senegalese empathy.
Years later, the scars that remain on Maamy’s now stiffened back resemble
tree branches (pace Beloved)–a harsh, symbolic illustration of Kine’s
moral position, tracing a family line of her own dutiful feelings springing
from her mother’s sense of necessity. (Sembene boldly cuts from Maamy’s
scars to the infant Aby crying.) After giving up her youthful professional dreams,
Kine, a single mother, invests in work–an alternative method of achieving
personal pride. She becomes part of an affluent and conflicted generation of
Senegalese women, accused of being "women with men’s hearts,"
yet asserting that "today’s women are pillars."

Seeing his
country through its people makes Sembene, in a special sense, Senegal’s
John Ford. Yet he’s less of a mythical poet or landscape artist than an
unsentimental social purveyor. Not many filmmakers since Ford have achieved
a view of their society this specifically temperamental (perhaps Altman, with
his fascination for authentic social quirks). When Kine thinks twice about a
woman who confronts and threatens her (then settles the intrusion with a definitive
confrontation of her own), Sembene shows the spunk and temerity in a culture
not known for such, but that survives and thrives because it is indeed intrepid.
And that’s not to say it is basically peaceful or harmonious. Faat-Kine
finds drama in peoples’ differences and tensions (often comical, occasionally
heartrending). It’s in Sembene’s contrasting of robes and suits, cars
and unpaved roads, local and international types (as when Kine faces off with
another African woman–an obvious European jetsetter). For Sembene, social
history is told by the complicated ways individuals interact.

Venus Seye
isn’t exactly Susan Hayward (Faat-Kine is more dialectical than
melodramatic) but her ladylike finesse, even when face-to-face with an adversary,
is Haywardesque with maturity–elegant, saucy, worried yet pugnacious. She
exudes a grown-up womanly confidence and tenderness. Her personal conflicts
don’t distract from her sense of scruples. Kine’s business and family
clashes allow sharp, piquant perceptions into Senegal’s political and emotional
life. Watching her, we can see an evolving culture’s psychological and
political development. American movies rarely accomplish this (Norma Rae
came close, Erin Brockovich didn’t), because we think of our development
as settled. It isn’t simply a matter of an actress with star power but
of a filmmaker who is able to tap the national pulse. Sembene does it by depicting
Kine’s trade, loans, debts, favors–commerce made dramatic.

This method
of essaying female characters demonstrates Sembene’s clear-eyed scrutiny,
a trait that is of special importance to Third World filmmakers moved to oppose
patriarchal restrictions, though not possible for them all. In Jafar Panahi’s
startling The Circle, the director can only orbit the subject that fascinates
him: partly out of custom, but also because of his impatience with a tradition
that he must approach cautiously. It will help Western understanding of Faat-Kine
(and of Third World cinema) to see Panahi’s aspiration in Sembene’s
accomplishment. How Kine embarks on her own behalf, her own future, is the prime
example for women’s issues that most Iranian filmmakers cannot dare (although
Makhmalbaf, who produced The Day I Became a Woman, always dares).

It may seem
terribly foreign to view a major artist’s work this way, but Sembene
rewards one’s wide perspective. His films are designed for a large-hearted,
openly political appreciation. (This may be one of the reasons–racial indifference
aside–that Sembene’s films are not more popular in the West. Instead
of featuring exoticism, he etches his characterizations with daunting social
acuity.) Observing the woman called Faat-Kine, we see a nation and are urged
to do so, to lift our awareness of Africa and its humane strivings. A nation’s
fate resides in the willing participation of its youth, but also in the banner
held high by elders, the perseverance and integrity of the middle-age generation
now presiding. Sembene sees these differences absolutely plain (as in the political
factions at war in The Camp at Thiaroye, showing at Film Forum April
24-26) but still executes a story that is intimate and full of human ambiguity.

To further
advance that Ford comparison, imagine a film about how Americans might behave
if conscious of their own liberty and responsibility. That may seem an especially
middle-class proposition (something that Americans are loath to admit) but Faat-Kine
is fascinating because it details the difficulty of Kine’s conscientious
personal behavior–as a mother, a daughter, a bawdy friend, a businesswoman,
a citizen. Sembene is neither a spiritualist nor an ordinary realist, but he
has a politically aware artist’s sensitivity for how close to the surface–and
sometimes how contradictory–are personal feelings and communal sentiments.
Because his characters express them in a somewhat expository manner ("We
share the day with you and at night are your queens"), his art escapes
labeling as strictly spiritual or realistic, humanist or political. It’s
some measure of them all, but above all social.

Sembene is a radical artist committed to making a difference in the lives of
his domestic audience, encouraging awareness about their national circumstances.
In the touching fable of his 1968 Mandabi (showing at Film Forum April
18-20) Sembene does a character study of Dieng, a pompous lord like the Brahmin
in Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room. When Dieng receives a money
order that can offset his financial problems, Sembene details a man’s cultural
lassitude uncovering deeper quandaries: What gives an individual identity? Social
worth? Economic value?

national characters come from the land, but not primordially. Political creatures,
their identities and fates are subject to negotiation and the vagaries of tribalism.
The vain businessman who is "unmanned" in Sembene’s 1974 Xala
(showing at Film Forum April 6-8) and the soldiers of the 1971 Emitai
(April 9-11) experience the malaise of social change. Like the heroine in his
first feature, the 1966 Black Girl (April 15-17) who becomes a maid in
Paris and suffers exploitation and discontent (movingly reprised in the letter
sequence of Mandabi), Sembene’s characters proclaim a modern lament.
Dieng, tricked to his lowest point, wails, "Decency is a sin in this country."
His greedy wives first cry, "Are you trying to kill us with hope!"
They are answered by the Sembenian postal clerk who first delivered the fateful
money order: "We’ll change things," he advises. "You, your
wives, your children, me." In 1968 that was prophecy; in Faat-Kine,
it hardly comes to pass, but the drama of change is at the heart of Kine’s
family and country. Consciousness wracks Kine, her children and in a party scene
that also gathers men of different generations; it is the torment of citizens
still puzzled by their country’s fate. Sembene knows what Ford knew: that
for the men, too, it isn’t the land, but politics that makes a soul weary.

March 28-April 10, and the Ousmane Sembene Retrospective, April 6-26, at
Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. (betw. 6th Ave. & Varick St.), 727-8110,



Debased female
portraiture was apparent in MTV’s Icon–the 90-minute paean
to Janet Jackson as an avatar of modern pop. Looking as unnatural as one of
those actual-weight, mail-order porno dolls, Jackson unveiled her new single
after being serenaded by many of the current–and younger–pop acts
imitating her shtick. (Mostly seen in long-shot; was that Pink, Mya or Usher
doing Janet moves or just, as the Broadway show Beatlemania once advertised,
"amazing facsimiles"?) Janet is not a breakthrough multicultural icon.
As the appalling show continued (and bottomed out with a hard-rock act cheering
how "nasty" Janet is), a more suitable title suggested itself: Template.
MTV was promoting Janet for creating the dominant formula for corporate pop.
Throughout the tribute, a scream-track covered up the audience’s befuddlement.
If you listened steadily, the incessant din evoked rotisseried inhabitants from
the lowest depths of hell.