Blu-Ray Review | Three Revolutionary Films by Ousmane Sembène

One of the great filmmakers to emerge from the African continent, Senegal's Ousmane Sembène is also one of the greatest revolutionary masters of the moving image. His films railed against colonialism, capitalism, sexism, racism, and religious hypocrisy, looking at the political situation in his beloved Senegal while examining the global struggle for people's liberation. In Criterion's new box set, Three Revolutionary Films by Ousmane Sembène, three of the filmmaker's era-defining works of the 1970s get tremendous restorations that will bring his work to a wider audience of cinephiles.

While the French fight the Nazis back home during WWII, in colonized Africa they were forcibly conscripting (enslaving?) Africans to fight in their war, while collecting "taxes" in the shape of rice crops, the absence of which caused starvation for a Diola-speaking tribe in Africa under brutal French-colonial rule. 

In Emitaï, these elements create a powder keg of revolutionary fervor led by the women of the village who can no longer take the oppression of their colonizers and the inaction of their men, who prefer to meet in councils and endlessly debate religious protocol rather than stand up to their oppressors. While I think Mandabi (1968) is perhaps a stronger vessel for Sembène's communist political ideas, Emitaï is such a raw howl of anger that it's impossible to ignore. This is the Senegalese filmmaker's Lysistrata, a feminist screed whose magical realism points to the uselessness of clinging to tradition in the face of deadly subjugation. The old gods are dead, we can only rely on ourselves. Tradition won't save you. Faith won't save you. But women will. 

I was struck, having encountered this after seeing This is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection (2019), how much inspiration Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese took from Sembène. Emitaï is filled with righteous fury, an unflinching statement of Senegalese opposition to colonial interference, and the feminine history of cleaning up the messes of both ruthless and useless men.

Sembène's 1975 satire Xala turns a withering eye on Senegal's patriarchal, post-colonial corruption. Based on Sembène's novel of the same name, Xala follows the misadventures of Hadji Beye (Thierno Leye), an ambitious mid-level bureaucrat who, after marrying a much younger third wife, is quite literally stuck impotent and quickly finds himself becoming a town laughingstock. 

Sembène had a special disdain for male arrogance, and that disdain informs the backbone of his work here. As a representative of the local chamber of commerce, Hadji has become embroiled in the same kind of bureaucratic hell that revolutionaries once fought to overthrow. Sembène's contempt for this character is palpable, as he puts him through a Job-like series of trials and humiliations and ends with him literally being stripped and spat upon. 

Of the three films Sembène made during the 1970s, Xala is the only one set during that time period. Rather than turning his ire upon the French colonial forces, Xala criticizes the post-colonial government structures, which Sembène saw as an *ahem* flaccid attempt to enact the kind of African socialism for which he advocated. While the ineptitude of men and their subjugation of women were frequent themes in Sembène's work, Xala is proof that Sembène did not reserve his criticisms for the French colonial power structures that wreaked havoc on his beloved Senegal. Here, he constantly reminds us of the suffering happening in the periphery of the increasingly absurd drama happening at the film's center - keeping the plight of the people in view even as the dignitaries and bureaucrats bicker about the most trivial of disagreements. In Xala, the powers that be in Senegal have lost sight of the revolutionary fervor felt in Emitaï (again, upheld by women in the face of inaction from men), and through Sembène's acerbic lens, that once glittering promise becomes little more than a bitter joke.

For his third and final film of the decade, Sembène looked further back in time than his previous two films to examine a precolonial religious conflict that arises when a princess is kidnapped by Ceddo revolutionaries after her father the king allies with a group of radical Muslims who seek to convert their people to Islam. At the same time, Christian missionaries are exacerbating the conflict by attempting to convert the people to Christianity, creating a veritable witch's brew of religious conflict that threatens to tear the Ceddo people apart.

While Ceddo is set in Senegal's pre-colonial era, the film very much deals with contemporary issues facing the African nation. Senegalese self-determination was a major theme that pulsed through Sembène's work, along with resistance to often violent colonial influences. Here, both the encroachment of Islam and Christianity represent a threat to the Ceddo identity, both violently imposing themselves in an attempt to manipulate and control them. And once again, it is the women who stand up to the oppression, asserting their independence in a world that seeks to bend them to its will, refusing to be defined by anyone's terms but their own.

Despite the heavy subject matter, Sembène's filmmaking is often playful, lampooning the inherent ridiculousness of the religious hypocrisies on display while taking bold formal swings as the film shifts into present day to tie the past to its contemporary effects. It is not a condemnation of the religions themselves as much as the colonial attitudes that support their forcible spread. For Sembène, it is the ability to chart one's own path that made up the backbone of his work - whatever that path may be. He detested colonialism in all its forms and all who sought to wield its power, and in Ceddo , he delivers a full-throated statement of independence that hits like lightning.

Three Revolutionary Films by Ousmane Sembène is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.


Popular Posts