The New York African Film Festival Begins with Guelwaar

04/03/2013 4:00 AM |

Guelwaar (1992)
Directed by Ousmane Sembène
April 3 at Lincoln Center, opening night of the 20th New York African Film Festival

“Heroes do not interest me. It’s the group which acts,” says Senegalese novelist and filmmaker Ousmane Sembène in the documentary Sembène: The Making of African Cinema (1994). “A man leads, but the group takes action.” Sembène’s films illustrated this thought. His first feature film, and the first-ever sub-Saharan feature, was Black Girl (1966), in which a modern young Senegalese woman withers from isolation as a bourgeois Parisian family’s maid; it paved the way for the WWII-set Emitaï (1971) (named after an angry god), in which a village of Diola tribe members literally sings out in unison against the French colonial soldiers that want to oppress them. The filmmaker took inspiration from his father, who once told Sembène and his brothers that he would never work for a white man. As far as they could remember, he never did.

While preferring to write literature, Sembène—who was born in 1923 and died in 2007—saw cinema as “a kind of shared myth for the public” that could accessibly teach the need for Africa’s freedom from European colonialism and its legacy in both tragic and comic ways. The destructive plot of Ceddo (1977) (the Wolof word for “commoners”), in which the 17th-century title-tribe futilely resists enslavement and forced religious conversion, complements the restorative storyline of Sembène’s last film, Mooladé (2004) (“magical protection”), in which a woman in a Burkina Faso village saves young girls from the religious rite of forced female circumcision. The films’ generously filled, oft-musical group shots, with camerawork dictated by human movement, spoke to Sembène’s belief that people could break any frame attempting to contain them.

This belief underlies Sembène’s film Guelwaar (“The Noble One”), which opens this year’s African Film Festival. (The AFF will also screen Christine Delorme’s documentary “Ousmane Sembène: All at Once” [2008] along with Sembène’s early short film “Borom Sarret” [1963], a Dakar city-symphony narrated by a cart driver over the course of a day.) The film is sparked by news of a body that hasn’t stayed put—the corpse of recently deceased Catholic freedom fighter Pierre Henri Thioune, probably murdered by police, has disappeared from the morgue. A brief investigation reveals that the dead man has actually been buried in the cemetery of a nearby Muslim village, whose elders cry sacrilege at the thought of his excavation.

Neo-colonial police, who arrogantly speak French in front of the Wolof-tongued villagers, stir up holy war between the two sides; meanwhile, flashbacks reveal how Thioune (played by Thierno Ndiaye and inspired by the French-resisting West African leader Samori Ture) believed that all Africans should stand united. He appears giving a public speech decrying reliance on foreign aid, which robs his “assisted people” not just of dignity but also of their free wills. “If you want to kill a proud man, give him what he needs to live every day,” he says, quoting the Senegalese philosopher Kocc Barma. “In the long run you’ve made him a serf.” Another flashback shows him arguing with his wife, Nogoy Marie Thioune (Mame Ndoumbe Diop), about their three grown children. While she feels ashamed that all three do work that makes them social outcasts, he swells with pride that they work and will never beg. The film’s present-day scenes show the children, along with other villagers from both sides, working to bring Catholics and Muslims together against their deceitful leaders rather than against each other; they all come to carry on their father’s legacy.

A joyful Guelwaar scene shows young villagers slicing European sacks of rice and flour open to spill their contents on the ground. The need for an Africa free of First World reliance has been espoused subsequently by many of the continent’s filmmakers, several of whose work will be showing at this year’s AFF. (A personal favorite is the tender Mauritanian Abderrahmane Sissako, often working in Mali, whose October [1992] and Life on Earth [1998] will screen, and whose film Bamako [2006] stages a fictional trial to argue that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund should remove Africa’s debt.) The commonly held view of Ousmane Sembène as Africa’s greatest filmmaker is limited. He should rather be seen as what he was: a starting point.

Thanks to Violet Lucca for research help.