Into Africa

Ousmane Sembene, NYC, 10/17/00

Ousmane Sembène, NYC, 10/17/00

The great Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène’s 1992 serio-comic, “Guelwaar” examines the divisions within and pressures from without that plague his country.

“Guelwaar” opens with the report of the suspicious death of Christian leader, political activist (and less than faithful husband) Pierre Henri Thioune (known as Guelwaar, the noble one) and his funeral, halted before it begins when his body goes missing.   The film looks at religion (Guelwaar has been accidentally and disastrously interred in a Muslim cemetery), family, the role of women, politics, poverty and inequality, the residual fallout from colonialism and the ongoing rancid imperialism of the west.  And Sembène’s relentless camera closely observes gloriously patterned  traditional clothing, houses, courtyards, huts, magnificent great-girthed baobab tress–and the peculiar black on black unstructured, western-style suit worn by wannabe Frenchman, Bartélémy, Guelwaar’s elder son.

Just as it inaugurated the first New York African Film Festival“Guelwaar” launches this year’s edition.  Co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and African Film Festival, “Looking Back, Looking Forward: 20 Years of The New York African Film Festival,” will honor the ground-breaking generation of African filmmakers (Sembène died in 2007)  while spotlighting new, younger directors working in narrative and non-fiction forms.

“I make movies with characters who takes responsibility for themselves,” Sembène told documentary filmmaker Christine Delorme.  In her interview, a rare view of the master director, “Ousmane Sembène All At Once” (2008), included in the NYAFF, he discusses the personal: his family of fisherman, his secular and Koranic education, his early trips to France, his work as a longshoreman in Marseilles and his trade union militancy; his work: “Guelwaar” and several of his other films, his novels and painting; and the political: the importance of Africans retaining their indigenous languages (“I speak three Senegalese language, Wolof, Bambara and Pulaar”) and knowing their history (“a nation must have a memory”), the shame of the slave trade, colonialism and the Uncle Toms ruling Africa.

And in a contentious exchange, Sembène chides Delorme, “When Africans don’t understand the west, we’re savages.  When you don’t understand (us), it’s intellectual curiosity.”  But he then slyly praises western innovation, thanking “Monsieur Lumière” for “one of the very best tools to teach our history.”

Moussa Touré’s 1997 film “TGV,” which like “Guelwaar” uses absurdity and comedy to approach serious issues (and has a great soundtrack) closes the NYAFF.

Good-looking, resourceful Rambo with his unflappable assistant Dembo ferry passengers from Dakar, Senegal, to Conakry, Guinea, in TGV, his yellow, blue and white bus, named only partially in jest for France’s high-speed rail system–painted on its side: “faster than TGV, you explode.”  His latest group includes a middle-aged man, off to marry his latest additional wife, a teenager; a woman leaving her beloved husband who has taken a second wife; two competing marabouts; their assistants; a beauty (who ignores Rambo’s obvious interest); a man and his goats; and pot-smoking James.

The travelers encounter bad weather (Rambo passes out gum for the passengers to chew and then plug leaks in the roof), rutted roads, problematic passengers picked up during the journey (the recently fired Finance Minister and his haughty over-dressed and jeweled wife, and a pair of “intellectually curious” French ethnographers studying an ancient king, Aboubakary II, totally unknown to the African passengers) and a revolt by the Bassari (who capture TGV and hang onto the French academics “to get media attention” for their demands).  But they eventually reach Conkary and Rambo loads yet another group, including several women headed to a feminist convention in Dakar and turns TGV around.

The New York African Film Festival will screen at Film Society’s Walter Reade Theater  from April 3-9.   The NYAFF will also run throughout April and May at Columbia University’s Institute of African Studies, Maysles Cinema Institute and BAMcinématek.

Ousmane Sembène, NYC,4/17/90

Ousmane Sembène, NYC, 4/17/90

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