By Ray Privett
"Park the Mercedes in the shade."
It's a simple line, casually tossed off in Guelwaar, showing tonight as part of Film Forum's Ousmane Sembène retrospective. The Mercedes has rolled up, and out strolls a suave man into the scorching Senegal sun. He has come to be the Big Bureaucratic Peacemaker Who Brings Society Together. You see, the late activist Guelwaar -- one name, like Madonna and Prince -- probably was planted in a Muslim cemetery, though culturally he was Catholic. The family wants Guelwaar dug up then reinterred in a Catholic cemetery. But the Muslim families won't let the heathens desecrate the grave. The situation is as tailor made for the grandstanding bureaucrat as his heavy dark suit.
But first things first. "Park the Mercedes in the shade."
Spoken in French instead of Wolof, the line simultaneously reveals character, maps the social graph, mocks bureaucratic ineptitude, politicizes language and propels the story forward. With its compact and transparent elegance, this is a typically brilliant little moment in Sembène's work. An economical storyteller and prickly satirist who joined the ancestors last June after publishing books for over 50 years and making movies for over 40, Sembène was an enormous figure in the world of cinema -- as enormous, for some, as an entire continent.
Yet he always began at the most local, most human level, from a dockworker in Marseilles facing institutional and personal racism (in the 1956 novel The Black Docker) to a woman in Burkina Faso defending girls against genital mutilation (in the 2004 film Moolaadé). From these situations, Sembène could reveal geopolitical paradoxes, using structural and social metaphor, but the characters and stories always felt fresh and never forced. Diouana, in Black Girl (1966), represents the exploitation of Africans by Europeans on both continents, but her lyrical cadences and delicate movements also reveal her as herself in her own situation, a hopeful young woman who falls to homesickness, heartsickness and just plain sadness.
Released in 1992, Guelwaar is a spellbinding political portrait, murder mystery and social satire, which transforms Guelwaar's death and life-after-death into a scorching work of self-criticism on a society confronting colonial paternalism, brain drain and lack of self-confidence. Some also see the search for Guelwaar's body as a metaphorical search for the legacy of Sékou Touré, the controversial Guinean president who had famously rejected Charles de Gaulle's offer of Post-Independence association with France. A Fidel Castro- or Hugo Chavez-esque figure in his time (his 26-year term ended with heart failure in 1984), Touré was a polarizing president admired across the world for that ferociously independent (and arguably non-pragmatic) stance, but also reviled across the world as a paranoid dictator who tortured and murdered real and suspected rivals in the Abu Ghraib-esque Camp Boiro.
With Guelwaar, Sembène was himself digging up Touré's legacy, demanding reassessment of one of the 20th century's most iconic yet controversial figures, whose legacy casts a multi-hued rainbow including the glory of true independence but also the terror of paranoid dictatorship. Film Forum's retrospective similarly demands reassessment, or at least deeper appreciation for, one of the 20th century's most iconic, and most provocative filmmakers. Sembène's own legacy is a rainbow of satirical insight and structural subtlety, but also of deep skepticism complementing eternal hope and compassion. And we should thank Film Forum, and New Yorker Films, for letting us see Sembène's work again in all its many colors.
Posted at December 10, 2007 5:46 AM
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