Reviews and notes
makes history as the first black African feature film to be shown commercially in Britain. Not that it's director Ousmane Sembene is a newcomer by any means: he has been around long enough to be known as the father of the African cinema (even though neither he, nor Africa, nor Senegal, which is his country, has made it into the pages of the whimsical new Oxford Companion to the Cinema
Sembene is now in his fifties. He started life as a fisherman on the Casamance coast, then moved to Dakar to work as a plumber, bricklayer and apprentice mechanic.
He published his first novel, Le Docker Noir
in 1955; but in 1960 decided that film was a more effective and immediate way of dealing with the problems of African society. He studied in Moscow under Donskoi and Gerassimov (somewhat improbable tutors in the light of Sembene's later penchant for satirical comedy), since no suitable training was open to him in France; and in 1962 returned to Senegal to make his first short film.
After two more shorts and a feature in French, he determined to film in his own language, Wolof, and with Mandabi
(The Money Order, 1967), discovered his own characteristic style in comic morality.
The freshness and vitality of a film like XALA
(for which, because of its theme, Sembene returns to the French language) have nothing of the primitive about them; and the satire at the expence of Europeanized and colonial atttudes that linger in the new Africans is unspairing. The precredit sequence of XALA
shows the board of the fictitious Senegalese Chamber of Commerce and Industry on the proud day when the Africans take over. Representatives of the former French masters - who now adopt their new position of "advisers" with all the mocking deference of old retainers - hand over the symbols of status: a briefcase apiece, helpfully stuffed with bank notes. The Africans, in their European suits and Mercedes Iimousines, keep reassuring one another how truly African they are.
In proof of it, El Hadji, a successful member of the Chamber, is about to marry his third wife, a move which calls for a certain tact with tough numbers one and two. The worst, however, is to come. On this wedding night, he discovers that he has the Xala, the curse of impotence. He quickly despairs of new-fangled pharmaceutical preparations, and consults witchdoctors and marabouts.
El Hadji spends a fortune, and lets his business go to pieces - which means that the dubious past on which his success has been based, starts to catch up with him. He is voted off the Board of the Chamber (ironically his place is taken by a younger man whom only minutes before we have seen, making his way in the world by picking pockets). Finally, the only way to remove the Xala, he is convinced, is to submit to the humiliations devised by all the human refuse of the town whose removal from the streets he has been advocating, and who now reveal that they are the by-product of: his success story.
Some aspects of the narrative belong to a storytelling traditon strange to the West. The humiliation of the end is horrid and bizarre; the introduction of allegory, and of El Hadji's nemesis in the person of a beggar who out of the blue reveals that years before he has been ruined by the business man's villainy, seems arbitrary to a Western viewer; but the character, the comedy, the satire at the expense of a corrupt and pretentious bourgeoisie is instantly and wickedly effective.
? David Robinson, The Times
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