‘The African is, in general, not mature enough for cinema. Cinematographic conventions disrupt him; psychological nuances escape him; rapid images submerge him.” This ludicrous statement was written by the Belgian authorities in the Congo not so long ago, and African cinema has laboured under so many constraints, whether colonial or financial, that it is surprising that it exists at all.
It does, however, thanks largely to Ousmane Sembene, born in Senegal in 1923. He has not made many films, but at least two of them, Xala and Ceddo, deserve to be counted among the best.
Sembene, a distinguished novelist, forsook books for the cinema largely because, as a Marxist, he wanted to reach beyond the French and African elite he despised. A scholarship from the Soviet Union in 1961, when he was nearly 40, led him to study with Donskoy and Gerasimov, and Xala, in particular, was a direct result of both their teaching and his populist motives.
Xala means sexual impotence, and the film, culled from his own novel, is a brilliantly funny, ironic satire about post-colonial Senegal. It upset the government considerably – 11 cuts were made before it was released in Dakar.
The thrust of the plot is that a new black elite has taken power. One of ruling group is the pompous El Hadj Abou Kader, who celebrates by taking a third wife younger than his daughter, but can’t get it up on the wedding night. His efforts to cure himself lead him ever further towards ruin.
No African director has criticised the pretensions and corruption of its rulers more severely than Sembene in Xala, or done it with such quiet hilarity. The ruling classes are contrasted with a group of beggars who represent the people and exact revenge on Kader first by imposing the curse and finally by stripping him and spitting on him to release it. The film explodes the neo-colonialist process as the resplendent elite receive briefcases stuffed with banknotes from white businessmen in the chamber of commerce, and are ushered along a red carpet into Mercs after a speech about “the African path to socialism”. “You’re not a white man,” Kader’s future mother-in-law says when he refuses to participate in the ceremony to ensure the successful deflowering of the bride. “You are neither fish nor fowl.”
The strong depiction of the women is another quality of Xala. “There can be no progress in Africa if women are out of account,” Sembene once wrote. When Kader quarrels with his younger daughter, addressing her in French, she deliberately replies in Wolof. But when he finally gets the point and addresses the chamber of commerce in that language instead of French, he is accused of being “racist, sectarian and reactionary”.
The film spares no one – Kader’s successor in the chamber, for example, is a common pickpocket – but Sembene insists that there is a better future for Africa than this. It is his sense of irony, coupled with anger, that make his work outstanding and perhaps easier to understand than many African films.
Sembene’s The Money Order (1968), about the trials of a man trying to cash a cheque, was the first truly African feature, and Ceddo (1977), which looks at Africa’s chequered past, remains perhaps the most sophisticated. But Xala, made for ordinary Africans and seen by them en masse, is his most successful critique of his own society.