Thursday, March 06, 2008


2004, Burkina Faso/France, directed by Kollo Sanou

The shadow of Ousmane Sembène is never far from Kollo Sanou's Tasuma, which deals with an elderly man's attempts to get the military pension to which he is entitled by virtue of his long service in the French military. Where Sembène's Camp de Thiaroye examined a bloody event at the end of the Second World War, the culmination of a series of protests by West African veterans of that conflict, Sanou opts, however, for a contemporary setting, and the gentler style of a village comedy.
Despite the pastoral background (and the fact that much of the film's funding comes from France) Sanou is unequivocal about the injustices suffered by his protagonist, Sogo (Mamadou Zerbo), and many of his fellow-soldiers - who've not only been denied their pensions but have suffered the ignominy of being paid far less than their French counterparts for equal service. Whereas the theme may relate to that of Camp de Thiaroye, the plot hews closer to that of Sembène's much earlier Mandabi, chronicling the bureaucratic absurdities of the quest to be paid a pension, with one office after another turning the old soldier away. There's an echo of Sembène, too, in the role of women in the film: they protest when Sogo finds himself cornered by the lack of action on his pension and his own desire to improve life in his village (he's a relative progressive, staunchly opposed to forced marriage, for instance).
The near-constant echoes of Sembène's films have the unfortunate consequence, however, of reminding the viewer that Sanou is a far less assured filmmaker. Where Sembène poses open-ended questions, Sanou simply seems unable to resolve his plotting, and introduces contradictions particularly with the treatment of the Arab trader who has a major role in the action. At times, the film portrays him in a positive light but at other moments he's seen to be unsympathetic, with no great logic to the changes; the film gives no particularly convincing motivation, for example, for the trader's ultimate act of generosity (in some ways, Sogo and his friends are as cavalier with the rules as the French authorities who are the source of so much ire, and the trader pays the price on this occasion). Less excusable than such narrative infelicities - which some might view as evidence of a grounding in the tangential style of oral narrative - are often awkward framings, and what seems to be careless camerawork, in which characters are sliced down the middle or cut off halfway up their faces when they lean forward, unusual in a film from a country with a history of producing strong visual storytellers.

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