On the neo classic steps of Senegal's merchant bank, the regal busts of France’s colonial past are abandoned. Gone but not forgotten by the new socialist elite, the symbolic ornaments aren’t smashed or destroyed by their replacement masters; instead they are delicately picked up and quietly carried away. So begins the coup of Sembène’s political swipe at African bourgeois hypocrisy in the bitingly sardonic adaptation of his 1973 novel Xala. The title infers both the name of an impotence curse in the native Wolof tongue and Sembène’s symbol for the failings of African politics in a post colonial era.
Sembène has been a unique sub Saharan voice in literature and his novels O Pays, mon beau peuple (1957) and Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu (1960) have become international socialist classics with world wide critical acclaim. In 1963, aged 40, Sembèneturned to filmmaking to reach his home audience of largely illiterate and disenfranchised Africans. Having studied film at the Gorki studios in the Soviet Union, and lived in France during the height of the New Wave, Sembène confidently renders the politicised power of Russian montage with the immediecy of French verite`. Yet Sembène’s political observations aren’t didactic, his deliberate sense of irony and farcical examinations of class are as astute as Renoir or Godard.
This is evident in the first order of business for the newly appointed merchant bank members who are each given large amounts of cash in anonymous black briefcases. The red carpet rolls out and escorted cars line the streets; thus the transition to the familiar looking new order of society is complete.The narrative follows one successful businessman, 'El Hadji', (Thierno Leye) who brashly celebrates his new position and wealth by taking a third wife. Everybody has been invited to the reception, including wives one and two. This is the source for some domestic satire because although El Hadji is the head of three households, he finds himself considerably belittled by his spouses and daughters and their conflicting views on money and tradition. After he is unable to satisfy his virgin bride, El Hadji is told he suffers from the xala and his implied emasculation is physically realised. A wedding present of a brand new car, beautifully presented with bows and ribbons remains in pristine condition throughout the film, often suffering longing glances from characters and camera; similar to the new bride, it is a symbol of the country's untouched potential.
Strong female portrayal is a recurring theme for Sembène who says; “as far as I'm concerned Africa is a woman,” in Xala the women are the centre piece of his vision. The impotence of the xala emphasises not only the weakness of man's inabilities but also the beauty of his desired object; for El Hadji it is a woman, for Sembène it's Senegal. Offering a virile form of social status, the female characters in Xala represent various aspects of African culture, past, present and future. The first wife, Adja (Seune Samb), is the martiarch, she dresses in traditional clothing, chews on a stick and reserves the respect and rights of an elder. The younger, fashionable second wife, Oumi (Younouss Seye), depicts an upwardly mobile class movement and relishes material wealth with painted fingernails. Educated modernist daughter, Rama (Myriam Niang), negates the official French language for Wolof and is the clear inspiration to the independent Senegal. El Hadji's xala not only makes him unable to compensate these women, it represents the failure of self serving men to satisfy the needs of their country and their people.
The numerous references and layers to Sembène's narrative mean his style is often overlooked by those critiquing his politics. The cinema verite style of post war Europe is relected in the street level filming of Xala and Sembène shoots with a simple camera style of lingering long shots which slowly absorb the atmosphere of the land and the people. The story unfolds through mise en scene instead of edits which lends itself to a removed appreciation of events with the audience, like the camera, as an impassive guest. Similar to the dry style of another auteur, Robert Altman, the comedy of Xala is always played straight, and gives space for the humour to come through. The absurd pretentions of El Hadjii is summed up perfectly in a shot of the cursed man in a cart, seeking out a rural marabout (a kind of witch doctor), and sweating profusely in his unsuitable Western attire. The paradox at play is that, despite his ambitions, El Hadji is under the spell of his own culture.
Xala's soundtrack expresses Senegal's rich wealth of music, as one of the most prolific and lively musical cultures in West Africa. The heart of the people is represented by a xalam (a rudimentary guitar) sometimes accompanied by a gutteral and angry traditional vocal styling. As a band of peasants including a xalam player, a marabout and an assortment of crippled Senalgese are harrassed by the police and moved along the roads, the two string plucking is a defiant reminder of their presence and their humanity. In contrast El Hadji and the bourgeoisie employ the famous Afro-Cuban sounds of the Star Band for his wedding reception, a cunning comment by Sembène on the bastardised preferences of Westernised Africans.
Xala is Sembène's consice and scathing critique of his home nation, but it is also celebrative of his culture. His filmmaking style developed outside his nation's borders and atuned to an international aesthetic, and while the humour and characterisations will appeal to a global audience, Sembène's vision belongs to Senegal.