Thursday, April 24, 2008


1971, Senegal, directed by Ousmane Sembène

Ousmane Sembène's first historical film, Emitaï focuses on the conscription of African soldiers into the French army during the Second World War, and resistance to that effort in the Casamance region of Senegal (the film was made around Ziguinchor, in Casamance, using many non-professionals). His later Camp de Thiaroye took up the story of soldiers returning from that war, and there's a striking parallel between the conclusions of the films, both of which are partly derived from actual events (the film has links with other entries in Sembène's filmography, with a key actor from La noire de... reappearing as a French officer).

Casamance is a culturally distinct part of Senegal, located south of Gambia and largely cut off from the rest of the country, and Sembène takes great care to depict the unique rhythms of Casamance agricultural life, from fishing to rice planting and coconut gathering, creating a rich portrait of the region (the scenes of tree climbing and field work are carefully integrated with the rest of the film; they don't simply feel like documentary trappings). Rice plays a key part in the film, for the French authorities seek to requisition much of the harvest for the war effort, prompting the villagers to conceal their stock in a beautifully filmed nighttime operation.

Though the tone could not be more different, I was struck by the way in which the idea of the rebellion of one small village against a seemingly omnipotent power has a resonance across cultures: while here the village chafes under French control, French popular mythology has adopted a figure like Astérix, whose village holds out against the Roman army, while a film like Goupi Mains Rouges to some degree dramatises the efforts of one clan to resist any outside interference during wartime (of course, these may also have been responses to the very particular emotions roused by the German occupation and associated accusations of collaboration or complicity).

As in many of Sembène's subsequent films, women represent the greatest source of strength in the African society depicted in Emitaï. They have a critical role in sustaining resistance to the colonial oppressors, and indeed they continue to hold firm after the village's male leaders have begun to discuss compromise; they even assume male cultural roles as needed when the men are either press-ganged or held under threat of force. The scenes of quiet resistance, with the women defiantly sitting in place in the sun, reveal both the women's power and the essential weakness of the colonial regime, reduced to such inhumane tactics. There's also an echo of Rossellini in the scenes where children observe the action, taking in the sometimes brutal attempts to impose control, but for the most part seemingly going about their own parallel business.

It's well known that Sembène turned to the cinema as a means to reach a wider audience, due to low literacy levels in many African countries, with his films consciously conceived as an alternative to Western film production (I don't agree entirely with Sembène's contention, however, that African audiences were served almost exclusively the dregs of the Western film industry (1); the cinema listing information from many West African countries doesn't bear that out, though I accept that he was making a rhetorical point). In the light of his own vision for the cinema, I'm very curious, as a consequence, to know how this film might have prompted a wider discussion about colonialism and African history when screened in Senegal, given the complications of using film as a historical tool, or as a means for historical education.

Whether the film is Emitai or Michael Collins or Gettysburg, it seems to me that the tremendous power of the filmed image, which can sometimes be difficult to dislodge (I recall many articles in the Irish press clarifying that the conclusion of Michael Collins was not necessarily the manner in which Michael Collins met his end), brings a great deal of responsibility if it is to be used as an educational tool. Watching this film in the absence of a wider discussion, I found it hard to disentangle the film's politics from its educational usefulness, though perhaps they are one and the same.

Robert Baum teases out some of the historical issues in Emitaï in his essay in the book Black and White in Color: African History on Screen (2), which to my mind underlines the need to cast Emitai in a wider context: in Baum's account, for instance, the film's depiction of local religious practice reinforces the kinds of visual clichés that we associate with the worst of Hollywood stereotyping (human skulls next to the elders, something that had no basis in local religious practice); that may well have been a reflection of Sembène's own general distrust of organised religion of any kind.

While I do have reservations, then, on the film's usefulness as a historical account, it's a powerful indictment of the petty and large humiliations experienced by the colonised population, and there's no missing the point that French soldiers were no less likely than their German counterparts to misbehave in the name of a uniform and a flag. Indeed, when the film depicts the transition from Pétain to de Gaulle, there's no perceptible difference to the villagers (the film compresses time in this regard, though it's ultimately quite an effective strategy), despite the rhetoric of liberation, and Sembène makes ironic use of the statues erected by France to the memory of African soldiers given French treatment of those same soldiers. It's also a highly unusual depiction of the actions of a collective hero: our attention is focused not on one person - with the exception of one startling closeup in the aftermath of an incident of violence - but rather on the communal defiance of the villagers as a whole.

(1) Film Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3, Spring 1973, pp. 36-42.
(2) Vivian Bickford-Smith and Richard Mendelsohn (eds), Black and White in Color: African History on Screen, Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007.

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