A Comedy-Drama Set in Modern-Day Senegal
Great old advertising copy for Susan Hayward's 1947 Smash-Up proclaimed: "Filmed on location?INSIDE A WOMAN'S SOUL!" A similar boast could be made?and with some seriousness?for Ousmane Sembene's Faat-Kine. The comedy-drama set in modern-day Senegal observes special details of an African female's life, but you can see Sembene is simultaneously mapping out the nation-state, tracking psycho-political territory. That "woman's soul" metaphor can be used to describe this micro/macro view of Africans?specifically the 40-year-old Kine, played by Venus Seye. Her participation in postcolonial independence ("Faat" is an honorific similar to "Aunt") is both personal and political.
Sembene's great subject is Africa becoming... Faat-Kine's story follows what one woman in Senegal's current economy has become. The dramatic emphasis starts with Sembene's sense of his characters as part of a polity. Among a family of Senegalese, Kine, her young adult son Djip (Ndiagne Dia), adult daughter Aby (Mariame Balde) and her own mother Maamy (Mame Ndumbe Diop) represent different contemporary political perspectives.
Twenty years earlier, when Kine was a student ready to take exams for a baccalaureate, her pregnancy (by a philosophy professor) derailed career plans and shamed her family. In a brief reminiscence Faat-Kine depicts responses that flared up when personal acts conflicted with patriarchal custom. As in the moving flashbacks that detailed the protagonist's history in Sembene's 1993 Guelwaar, the scene of Maamy's self-sacrifice displays class- and gender-based morality. These historical events?Maamy protecting Kine from her father's attempt to punish and scald her?define the depths of female Senegalese empathy. Years later, the scars that remain on Maamy's now stiffened back resemble tree branches (pace Beloved)?a harsh, symbolic illustration of Kine's moral position, tracing a family line of her own dutiful feelings springing from her mother's sense of necessity. (Sembene boldly cuts from Maamy's scars to the infant Aby crying.) After giving up her youthful professional dreams, Kine, a single mother, invests in work?an alternative method of achieving personal pride. She becomes part of an affluent and conflicted generation of Senegalese women, accused of being "women with men's hearts," yet asserting that "today's women are pillars."
Seeing his country through its people makes Sembene, in a special sense, Senegal's John Ford. Yet he's less of a mythical poet or landscape artist than an unsentimental social purveyor. Not many filmmakers since Ford have achieved a view of their society this specifically temperamental (perhaps Altman, with his fascination for authentic social quirks). When Kine thinks twice about a woman who confronts and threatens her (then settles the intrusion with a definitive confrontation of her own), Sembene shows the spunk and temerity in a culture not known for such, but that survives and thrives because it is indeed intrepid. And that's not to say it is basically peaceful or harmonious. Faat-Kine finds drama in peoples' differences and tensions (often comical, occasionally heartrending). It's in Sembene's contrasting of robes and suits, cars and unpaved roads, local and international types (as when Kine faces off with another African woman?an obvious European jetsetter). For Sembene, social history is told by the complicated ways individuals interact.
Venus Seye isn't exactly Susan Hayward (Faat-Kine is more dialectical than melodramatic) but her ladylike finesse, even when face-to-face with an adversary, is Haywardesque with maturity?elegant, saucy, worried yet pugnacious. She exudes a grown-up womanly confidence and tenderness. Her personal conflicts don't distract from her sense of scruples. Kine's business and family clashes allow sharp, piquant perceptions into Senegal's political and emotional life. Watching her, we can see an evolving culture's psychological and political development. American movies rarely accomplish this (Norma Rae came close, Erin Brockovich didn't), because we think of our development as settled. It isn't simply a matter of an actress with star power but of a filmmaker who is able to tap the national pulse. Sembene does it by depicting Kine's trade, loans, debts, favors?commerce made dramatic.
This method of essaying female characters demonstrates Sembene's clear-eyed scrutiny, a trait that is of special importance to Third World filmmakers moved to oppose patriarchal restrictions, though not possible for them all. In Jafar Panahi's startling The Circle, the director can only orbit the subject that fascinates him: partly out of custom, but also because of his impatience with a tradition that he must approach cautiously. It will help Western understanding of Faat-Kine (and of Third World cinema) to see Panahi's aspiration in Sembene's accomplishment. How Kine embarks on her own behalf, her own future, is the prime example for women's issues that most Iranian filmmakers cannot dare (although Makhmalbaf, who produced The Day I Became a Woman, always dares).
It may seem terribly foreign to view a major artist's work this way, but Sembene rewards one's wide perspective. His films are designed for a large-hearted, openly political appreciation. (This may be one of the reasons?racial indifference aside?that Sembene's films are not more popular in the West. Instead of featuring exoticism, he etches his characterizations with daunting social acuity.) Observing the woman called Faat-Kine, we see a nation and are urged to do so, to lift our awareness of Africa and its humane strivings. A nation's fate resides in the willing participation of its youth, but also in the banner held high by elders, the perseverance and integrity of the middle-age generation now presiding. Sembene sees these differences absolutely plain (as in the political factions at war in The Camp at Thiaroye, showing at Film Forum April 24-26) but still executes a story that is intimate and full of human ambiguity.
To further advance that Ford comparison, imagine a film about how Americans might behave if conscious of their own liberty and responsibility. That may seem an especially middle-class proposition (something that Americans are loath to admit) but Faat-Kine is fascinating because it details the difficulty of Kine's conscientious personal behavior?as a mother, a daughter, a bawdy friend, a businesswoman, a citizen. Sembene is neither a spiritualist nor an ordinary realist, but he has a politically aware artist's sensitivity for how close to the surface?and sometimes how contradictory?are personal feelings and communal sentiments. Because his characters express them in a somewhat expository manner ("We share the day with you and at night are your queens"), his art escapes labeling as strictly spiritual or realistic, humanist or political. It's some measure of them all, but above all social.
Ultimately, Sembene is a radical artist committed to making a difference in the lives of his domestic audience, encouraging awareness about their national circumstances. In the touching fable of his 1968 Mandabi (showing at Film Forum April 18-20) Sembene does a character study of Dieng, a pompous lord like the Brahmin in Satyajit Ray's The Music Room. When Dieng receives a money order that can offset his financial problems, Sembene details a man's cultural lassitude uncovering deeper quandaries: What gives an individual identity? Social worth? Economic value?
Sembene's national characters come from the land, but not primordially. Political creatures, their identities and fates are subject to negotiation and the vagaries of tribalism. The vain businessman who is "unmanned" in Sembene's 1974 Xala (showing at Film Forum April 6-8) and the soldiers of the 1971 Emitai (April 9-11) experience the malaise of social change. Like the heroine in his first feature, the 1966 Black Girl (April 15-17) who becomes a maid in Paris and suffers exploitation and discontent (movingly reprised in the letter sequence of Mandabi), Sembene's characters proclaim a modern lament. Dieng, tricked to his lowest point, wails, "Decency is a sin in this country." His greedy wives first cry, "Are you trying to kill us with hope!" They are answered by the Sembenian postal clerk who first delivered the fateful money order: "We'll change things," he advises. "You, your wives, your children, me." In 1968 that was prophecy; in Faat-Kine, it hardly comes to pass, but the drama of change is at the heart of Kine's family and country. Consciousness wracks Kine, her children and in a party scene that also gathers men of different generations; it is the torment of citizens still puzzled by their country's fate. Sembene knows what Ford knew: that for the men, too, it isn't the land, but politics that makes a soul weary.
Faat-Kine, March 28-April 10, and the Ousmane Sembene Retrospective, April 6-26, at Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. (betw. 6th Ave. & Varick St.), 727-8110, [www.filmforum.com](http://www.filmforum.com).
Debased female portraiture was apparent in MTV's Icon?the 90-minute paean to Janet Jackson as an avatar of modern pop. Looking as unnatural as one of those actual-weight, mail-order porno dolls, Jackson unveiled her new single after being serenaded by many of the current?and younger?pop acts imitating her shtick. (Mostly seen in long-shot; was that Pink, Mya or Usher doing Janet moves or just, as the Broadway show Beatlemania once advertised, "amazing facsimiles"?) Janet is not a breakthrough multicultural icon. As the appalling show continued (and bottomed out with a hard-rock act cheering how "nasty" Janet is), a more suitable title suggested itself: Template. MTV was promoting Janet for creating the dominant formula for corporate pop. Throughout the tribute, a scream-track covered up the audience's befuddlement. If you listened steadily, the incessant din evoked rotisseried inhabitants from the lowest depths of hell.
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