Francophone African cinema: A Case Study of Xala (Sembene, 1974)

Regarded as a pioneer of African cinema and the Third cinema pantheon, Sembene’s films in the formative period of African cinema were didactic, realist and radical, thus setting up an aesthetic model of African filmmaking. In terms of Sembene’s filmmaking background, he was regarded as a politically radical filmmaker with a leftist, Marxist view of social change embedded within his works. The lack of filmmaking education in the African continent necessitated the emigration of African filmmakers to European film schools, with Sembene receiving his training in Moscow and providing a Soviet influence to his filmmaking technique. It is therefore crucial to approach his films in reference to Soviet montage filmmaking in addition to Western narrative models and Marxist models.

The film Xala mobilises the binary oppositions of tradition and modernity, displaying an awareness of culture pre-colonisation, during colonization and the resulting consequences. The binary oppositions within the film can be reduced to a level of Manichaean oppositions, displaying the working poor and the clash between the rural locations and the city, both of which are expressed through the presence of the beggars. This adheres to the remembrance phase of Third Cinema, which concerns ‘the predominance of filmic themes such as the clash between the rural and urban life, traditional versus modern value systems, folklore and mythology’ (Gabriel, 1989:32). The binary of tradition and modernity within the film does not simply adhere to these dualistic philosophies, since the film reflects a negative aspect of both pre-colonial tradition and post-colonial and false socialist modernity.

The notion of modernity in the film is expressed and critiqued through false socialism and neo-colonialism, through which the French colonialist regime still exerts control behind the Black African veneer. The film opens with the rhetoric of the people; at the governmental abode, the indigenous Africans evict the members of the colonialist regime, thus rising up and regaining and reclaiming their country for themselves. However, Sembene uses symbolism in order to highlight and reinforce the notion of a false dawn of socialism and independence. After the replacing of the colonial regime, the Senegalese characters are now dressed in Western attire and carry briefcases in their pursuit of attaining a position in the new Euro-centred African bourgeoisie.

The Chambre de Commerce is a key space in determining the time of neo-colonialism in Senegal. The map, placed behind the President’s head, displays an ‘Africa divided into nation states which denies any broader notions of pan-African solidarity’ (Turvey, 1985: 78). The map is thus a symbol of the political European colonial influence, dividing up and drawing the boundaries of Africa into political states without recognition of tribal differences within the area, refuting a Marxist Pan-Africa that Sembene advocates. The Chambre de Commerce is additionally coloured Red, White and Blue and the French character of Dupont-Durand retains a position behind the president, symbolizing the continuing neo-colonial French influence upon Senegalese politics. These filmic codes, concerning the aesthetic of the unity of the enclosed space and the time of neo-colonialism within the works of Sembene, conform to a Third Cinema aesthetic.

As a result of the modernity imposed by colonialism, the aftermath of the postcolonial Senegal affects the notion of national identity, forming hybridization of identity and double consciousness. The identity of the protagonist of Xala, El Hadji, reflects this hybrid identity and state of limbo, since he and his families inhabit ‘the fringe of two worlds…his amulets, Muslim faith, and Mercedes in turn, represent pre-Islamic Africa, Islamic Africa and Westernized Africa’ (Pfaff, 1984:156). The western items of the Mercedes, the Evian Mineral water, which nourishes both El Hadji and his car, and Coca-cola bottles, are symbols of the capitalist’s greed, power, prosperity and wealth. They represent European consumerism, which has been imposed upon and then internalized by the African bourgeoisie, and capitalism as a symbol of modernity for contemporary Africa. However, the removing of El Hadji from his seat of power, due to his curse that has purged him of his wealth and therefore class, ‘stresses the cultural alienation of the Senegalese nouveaux riches whose mercantile greed shows no respect for their ancestors’ sacred beliefs’ (Pfaff, 1984:58). This suggests that, by the African bourgeoisie embracing modernity, they have forgotten the value of their traditional past, betraying their Africanity.     

Through the presence of the marabouts, the film reverts to an adopting of and holding onto the former shamanistic pre-colonial traditions. The presence of these traditions suggests a reflection of the true Africa and a denunciation of the West at a superficial level. However, Sembene critiques the shortcomings of these traditions, by denouncing the marabouts as mercenaries, providing a false hope of curing El-Hajji of his impotence for their own monetary gain. The reflecting of the negative perspectives of the marabout tradition adheres to a searching for an ‘ideological legitimation (reflecting reality in order to reclaim it) (Bartlet, 2000:34), so as to purify the tradition from corruption and re-assure its future in the independent nation. The memory of the pre-colonial tradition is not necessarily posited as resistance to the post- and neo-colonial modernity of the independent Senegal, but as a tradition that needs to be cleansed. 

The concept of ‘ideological legitimation’ can additionally be drawn into the argument concerning the pre-colonial cultural tradition of polygamy. The film Xala critiques the notion of polygamy, since it perpetuates a patriarchal society and hierarchy, and Sembene displays a distinct concern with the importance of the role of women in his films. Polygamy in Xala is denounced as pernicious to the societal fabric that weaves the nation together: the family. By criticising polygamy, Sembene addresses the discourse of gender and equality, in addition to positing a feminist position in terms of the importance of women to a largely patriarchal society. 

The four female characters function in an allegorical manner, since each woman represents different stages of the history of Senegal; El Hadji’s first wife Awa represents pre-colonial traditional Senegal, his second and third wives represent colonial and post-colonial Senegal and his daughter Rama represents the future of the nation. The first wife Awa embodies ‘African traditions even if her environment is no longer purely traditional’ (Pfaff, in Landy, 1984:34), which is explicitly displayed through her traditional Senegalese garb. She is also accepting of the culture of polygamy and her enforced solidarity, due to her submission and loyalty to the protagonist El-Hadji, her continued functioning in the domestic environment and familial duties. She is restricted to the home and the hearth and relies upon traditional religious beliefs, thus rendering her hermetic and impervious to external influence.

The second and third wives of El Hadji mark a different period in Senegalese history, since both of these women belong to a younger generation to Awa and are more polyvalent, interacting with more than one type of culture. El Hadji’s second wife, Oumi, represents the more modern, westernised Senegalese woman, embracing the Western traits of consumerism and capitalism, being dressed in fashionable western attire, jewellery, and wearing a wig. She is more concerned with her appearance of wealth and prosperity and embraces her feminine sexuality in ‘the form of sexual seduction and financial extortion of El Hadji’ (Landy, 1984:34). The figure of Oumi thus exhibits the colonialist values imposed upon the Senegalese nation.

The third wife, N’Gone, is a symbol of neo-colonialism, since she has ‘no identity, no substance, no voice, no language, a symbol of the consequences of cultural impotence’ (Landy, 1984:35).  She is controlled by her mother who advises her as to how she should navigate her life, which adheres to an attempt to re-appropriate African traditions into the marriage. For example, her mother asks El Hadji to sit on the pestle and mortar, since it is a tradition, and she explains to her daughter how she must remain subservient and submissive towards her husband. However, N’Gone remains voiceless, which marks an interesting parallel with the Senegalese working classes who struggle to voice their opinion against neo-colonialism.

The wedding between N’Gone and El Hadji outlines these neo-colonial influences, since the wedding marks a fusion between African and Western wedding traditions. The wedding is reminiscent of a Christian wedding, since N’Gone wears a traditional white veil and dress, highlighting the European-ness of the event and of the African bourgeoisie. The figurines on the apex of the wedding cake reinforce this concept, as both the groom and bride figurines are white skinned, aligning the African bourgeoisie with the neo-colonial French bourgeoisie.

The character of Rama functions as a positive synthesis of the three generations of female characters, thus pertaining to a ‘desirable union of European and African cultures’ (Landy, 1984:35). This highlights the possibility for the existence of a harmonic hybrid identity and culture. Nonetheless, the attaining of this harmonic existence, ingested within the body of Rama, can only be reached through a rebellious, revolutionary and confronting manner, thereby adhering to the third phase of Third Cinema. She is combative against her father’s wishes and preferences, preferring to speak the Senegalese national language of Wolof rather than the official language of French and preferring to drink local water, rather than the imported Evian water. She advocates a divorce between her traditional mother Awa and her polygamous bourgeois father El Hadji, which represents Senegal’s requirement for a divorce from the neo-colonialist influence of France. Rama’s beliefs for the post-independence future of Senegal and of Africa denote a vision of an African utopia, and therefore she symbolizes the potential of Africa.

The use of language in the film Xala retains a crucial role in terms of class codes and social hierarchy. Sembene utilizes both the lingua franca of French and the local language of Wolof in order to clearly determine the class hierarchy. The African bourgeoisie utilize French throughout the film and the working classes converse in Wolof. The working classes are symbolized through the presence of the beggars, who, throughout the film, only converse in Wolof, implying that it is the language of the people. The sequence in which Rama refuses to speak French and only converse in Wolof with her father is mirrored by the protagonist El Hadji within the government when he is due to be removed from his seat of power. El Hadji is not permitted by the members of the Chambre de Commerce to converse in Wolof, and he is castigated in his attempts. The members claim that ‘even insults will be made in the purest of the French tradition’, which implies that the national language of Wolof is primitive and uncivilised. Hence, through the usage of Wolof, El Hadji is displaying a revolutionary tendency and is finally recognising the subjugated peoples of Africa. The language adheres to a Third Cinema aesthetic and marks a Marxist tendency, aligning El-Hadji with the people in an act of liberation from the neo-colonial language. Foucault ‘posits memory as a site of resistance’ (Thackway, 2003:43); therefore, within this context, the memory of the national language of Wolof functions as a resistance to the imposed colonial language of French.       

The presence of the oral tradition in Xala pertains to the remembrance phase and the contested ground between phases, since the audience ‘aided by the process of folklore and mythology, is able to locate a somewhat diluted traditional identity’ (Gabriel, 1989:36).  In Xala, there is a presence on screen of the traditional African griot (a storyteller), a figure that appears as a member of the working class masses within the film, acknowledging the orality of African culture. Sembene thus embraces the traditional African oral culture and the presence of the griot in terms of narrative, thereby rejecting the Western literary narrative construct. The figure of the griot brings the community together by performing stories to a succession of villages in a societal capacity, since ‘oral literature is still very much a part of deep-rooted collective custom, adapted to a communal, largely illiterate, and agriculturally based society’ (Pfaff, 1984:31). This thus aligns the position of the African filmmaker as a modern version of the griot, depicting a social commentary on screen.

In terms of oral literature, Sembene in Xala uses characters and themes that are recognisable and familiar to the indigenous African audiences from African oral traditions and folklore. The theme of male impotence adheres to the folklore tradition and African morality tales, since it functions as a ‘punishment of greed, selfishness, vanity and waste’ (Pfaff, 1984:35). The impotence is the Xala (the curse), which is imposed upon El Hadji by the beggars; the collective societal power that wishes to cleanse the European-ness internalised in El Hadji’s African body and thus the African nation; a symbol of revolution and decolonization of culture. The impotence functions as a satirizing of the neo-colonial bourgeoisie, humiliating and mocking the Africans whitewashed with French cultures and ideologies.

The cure for the impotence is afforded to El Hadji at the finale of the film through the expiatory spitting sequence, in which the beggars each spit upon the naked body of El Hadji. The spitting represents the purification of the body and hence ‘follows the pattern of death and re-birth common to many African oral stories’ (Pfaff, 1984:36). It marks the death of the bourgeois, neo-colonial and focus upon the individuality of El Hadji towards a re-birth into the community. The conflict between the beggars (the community) and El Hadji (the individual) structures the narrative, conforming to the Third Cinema focus upon the collective rather than the individual. The act of spitting reinforces a revolutionary tendency, signalling a new beginning for the Senegalese nation within a Marxist collective spirit.   

In relation to characters, it is not only the beggars conform to the oral and folklore tradition. Sembene borrows ‘elements of the oral ‘trickster’ narrative in which the protagonist is set a range of tasks, which he or she sets out to achieve using deceit and lies’ (Murphy and Williams, 2007:67). The pickpocket represents the clearest example of this trickster narrative, since at the beginning of the film, he is seen stealing the belongings of the on screen griot and, at the finale of the film, he is seen replacing El Hadji in the Chambre de Commerce. This trickster narrative can additionally be regarded as a damning indictment of European capitalism; the pillaging of goods and resources in order to commence their economic ascent.   

The oral nature of the culture, expressed through film, pertains to a refusal to mimic the West, adhering to the concept of Third Cinema, since the cinemas function as a public site of debate. However, the Argentinian manifesto contains ‘a new facet of cinema: the participation of people who, until then, were considered spectators’ (Solanos and Getino, 1969:61). This dialogue with the spectator enhances the level of orality, promoting a dialogue with the audience; an aspect that was possible and prevalent within traditional African oral culture since the audience were able to interact with the figure of the griot. In the film Xala, this orality is manifested in the open ending, which suggests that the spectator should interpret and begin ‘a process of reflection that should continue long after the film has ended’ (Murphy and Williams, 2007:62). The freeze-frame open ending refutes the sense of narrative closure, distancing itself from Western cinematic model and fracturing itself away from the dominant commercial cinema. The political nature of and the plurisignification within the film permit the possibility of openness.

Xala portrays the many layers of the African culture, which have formed over a period of colonisation and decolonisation upon a local, national and continental scale. By means of the film, Sembene hence proposes an African utopia of pan-African solidarity, adhering to a Third Cinema precondition of Marxist internationalism.


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