Thursday, March 01, 2007

Selbe: One Among Many

1983, Senegal/Germany, directed by Safi Faye

A short documentary made as part of a series about women in Africa, Selbe: One Among Many focuses on the titular character to represent the realities of women's lives in rural Senegal in the early 1980s (a particularly difficult period, with a serious and extended drought affecting the country). Selbe's husband, like many others from her village, has left in search of work, given that there is almost no income to be derived from agriculture, particularly outside the minimal growing season. In addition to a numbing routine of chores, many of them physically exhausting in themselves, Selbe makes ends meet through an endlessly creative series of stratagems, whether making pottery, selling cigarettes, catching fish and so forth.

Faye's criticism of the Senegalese government, which does nothing to help these peasants, is unspoken but clear; the population is left absolutely to its own devices, and while many women respond with resilience most of the men are simply beaten down by the destruction of their traditional social and economic roles. The film's main weakness is a National Geographic-style voiceover that often seems rather patronising (especially in the English version; in the original, Faye herself delivers the commentary, underlining her roots as an ethnologist), while it's not always clear whether the events shown onscreen are being observed or staged for the camera, or even what time period is covered.

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