Prior to watching Xala (1975) tonight, I had no idea about Senegalese cinema and little concept about African cinema in general, based off just Timbuktu (2014) and Queen of Katwe (2016). The latter is a Disney production with Dickensian morals and a purposefully uplifting yet humbling message. The former is a slowly unravelling tragedy with a sardonic sense of humour. I found Queen of Katwe very American in its style and cinematography, while Timbuktu brought to mind Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013): a humane meditation on personal and historical where both personal and historical mean death.
Xala provided an experience that was unlike either of my previous encounters with African cinema.
(By the way, Queen of Katwe is set in Uganda, Timbuktu is set in Mauritania, Xala, in Senegal. There are 54 countries in Africa. Nigeria is regarded as the third-largest film producer in the world (!), after India and the United States. There seems to be an issue with distribution of African film outside the continent; then again, a cursory glance at what’s currently playing in my hometowns of Saint Petersburg, Helsinki, and Oxford confirms Hollywood’s domination. There is little from Europe or Asia, and there is nothing from South America, Australia, or Africa.)
Ousmane Sembène, author of Xala, was a Senegalese writer, film director and producer — in that chronological order. Born in Ziguinchor, the second largest city in Senegal, in 1923, Sembène had a life rich with experience. He was a fisherman in Ziguinchor, a labourer in Dakar, a soldier in the French army during the Second World War, a Citroën factory worker in Paris, a Marseilles docker, a Communist and an author. (I cannot help but see a parallel with Jack London.) When he passed away at his home in Dakar in 2007, his legacy was nine features, six novels, three collections of short stories and novellas, three sons, and the title of ‘the father of African film’.
Regarded as one of the leading figures in African postcolonial literature, Sembène turned to cinema in order to reach a wider audience — rather in accordance with Lenin’s saying, ‘of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important’. Lenin was strategically thinking about reaching a society with widespread illiteracy and Sembène’s circumstances were not dissimilar. (According to UNESCO data from 2009, 61% of Senegalese women and 38% of Senegalese men cannot read.)
Sembène studied film-making in Moscow in 1962–1963, and there is a Soviet flavour to his cinematic version of social realism: Xala is about class disparity and the failures of an exploitative capitalist system. Xala is also steeped in local rituals, sounds, and way of life. Differently from the strictly atheist approach of Soviet cinema, the film treats religious practices with the gravitas given to them by its characters. Spiritually, it is a mixture of Islam, Serer beliefs, and misshaped French Humanism.
A film review of Xala will be published in due course, but for now I can say that I have found Senegalese cinema interesting. Interesting, unfamiliar, visceral, and, at times, purposefully grating.
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