Editor’s Notes: “Third Cinema” was sociopolitical film movement deriving from third world nations during the 1960s and 70s.
Ousmane Sembene has to be, unequivocally, the peak figure of African cinema. His final film before perishing was Moolaadé, a work that has served as the gateway for film buffs to dabble in the films of the one continent nobody seems to have any real extensive cinematic experience in. In my experience as a film lover, I’ve noticed that African cinema is often unconsciously categorized as a fringe curiosity. If one springs up on a year end list, it’s usually made with European money and by Europeans featuring a few locals for the sake of “authenticity”. If not, it’s likely one of maybe a handful of native African films any particular individual has actually seen. This is not entirely unreasonable as African cinema is not exactly abundant in your local video store, and certainly not in US theaters outside of major festivals. Sembene almost single-handedly brought Africa to the big screen for many cinephiles around the globe. For better or worse, he is probably the face of an industry for an entire continent.
Ousmane Sembene has to be, unequivocally, the peak figure of African cinema. His final film before perishing was Moolaadé, a work that has served as the gateway for film buffs to dabble in the films of the one continent nobody seems to have any real extensive cinematic experience in.
Sembene began working in film in the 1960s after studying it in Moscow. After beginning a highly acclaimed writing career, he realized the only way he could speak to the people of his native land was through the visual medium of film. With the 1966 release of Black Girl, Sembene officially entered the world market to international plaudit. It’s his 1975 Xala, a more comedic, but bitterly satirical affair, that I want to focus on here. Hadji is a ruling member of the brand new black government, the overthrow occurring in rather dryly matter-of-fact manner as several black men walk into a meeting of French politicians, remove the items from the mantlepiece they’d placed there, and sitting them outside on the stairs. They then re-enter and simply assume power. Conceived as revolutionary, Sembene’s critique begins abruptly as the Senegalese turn their former French overlords into “the help”. The French men bring them suitcases filled with money as the new ruling party are properly initiated into the revolving door of political office.
Most surprising was the film’s frank sexuality. I’d seen female nudity in African cinema before, but I’d never heard the male genitalia referenced at all, let alone as casually as it is here.
Immediately, Hadji pursues a third wife with his recent endowment of wealth. It’s only later we discover this new wealth was accrued by way of diverting goods meant for the needy and sold for cash. As is always the case with Sembene’s cinema, the women receive the lion’s share of his sympathy. The first wife is resigned to her fate as the forgotten elder wife. Her daughter speaks up on her behalf and bemoans the entire tradition of polygamy before being slapped by her father and told that her brand of revolution isn’t welcome. This brand of sour irony is the lifeblood of the film. The new black government’s grand initiative is “African socialism”, they declare in unison before exiting their headquarters on a literal red carpet. Young men at his third wedding despair at the prevalence of negroes in Spain; one of their chosen vacation destinations. Hadji orders the removal of the “undesirables” from the streets as they are said to harm tourism. This would be silly if it weren’t so depressingly accurate. Despotic rulers of African nations have been siphoning wealth for as long as they’ve been allowed to lead. Dressed up dictatorships make for a pretty face an on ugly regime. Countries like Morocco, Sembene’s birthplace of Senegal, Egypt, Zimbabwe, etc. garner enormous amounts of money from tourism on the back of their destitute citizenry.
Most surprising was the film’s frank sexuality. I’d seen female nudity in African cinema before, but I’d never heard the male genitalia referenced at all, let alone as casually as it is here. The title refers to the curse of impotence that is placed on Hadji. The concept of castration as metaphor is as potent as they come, especially when chiseling away at the entrenched patriarchal delineation of a society. Recently, I’d watched a film from Cameroon titled Muna Moto from the same year that focused much more on the ethics of polygamy vis a vis a sort of Romeo and Juliet doomed romance. That film, while great, wouldn’t qualify as Third Cinema as it is not at all occupied with colonialism, occupation or anything externally political. I bring it up because, if its depiction of the laws and traditions of polygamy in Cameroon are similar to those in Senegal at the time, then Hadji’s castration feels yet more brutally humorous as there is a very standard search for blood on bed sheets following the ever-important deflowering of the virgin bride. Hadji’s greed in taking a third wife and stealing that money is the true source of his xala, which ultimately leads to him being unable to keep his new, young bride and losing his second wife after he loses his wealth. Only his first wife remains, and a daughter forever alienated as her nationalist modernism is at odds with his adherence to the old social order and the corruption of his persona by greed. To sum, allow me to quote Sembene himself: “When one creates one does not think of the world; one thinks of his own country. It is, after all, the African who will ultimately bring change to Africa.”
[notification type=”star”]80/100 ~ GREAT. Xala is a bitterly satirical affair. Ousmane Sembene has to be, unequivocally, the peak figure of African cinema. [/notification]