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Film

Masterworks

Remembering author-turned-director Ousmane Sembene

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Published 2/20/2008

When was the last time you saw an African film shelved at your local Blockbuster or Hollywood Video? Uh, The Gods Must Be Crazy doesn't count. Fact is, most Western film fans tend to focus their attention on European and Asian cinema (with glimpses into South America and Bollywood). Even adventurous American cineastes have a hard time recognizing the name Ousmane Sembene, which is a shame because the Senegalese author-turned-director not only brought the realities of post-colonial Africa to the screen, he dared Western audiences to view life from a distinctly African point of view.

Starting tomorrow, the Detroit Film Theatre offers local audiences the opportunity to both appreciate Sembene's work and experience his evolution as a filmmaker. Sembene, it should be noted, died last year at the age of 84.

Though the first film in the series, Xala, was actually the director's fifth feature, it's a terrific introduction to his work, highlighting his ability to mix the personal with the political while exhibiting a biting gift for metaphorical satire.

El Hadji is a corrupt politician who sells rice intended for the poor on the black market so that he can buy himself a third wife. Selfish and proudly "Western" (he drives a Mercedes and drinks only French mineral water), he shows little concern for his despairing family. On his wedding night, however, he discovers he has been struck with xala, the curse of impotence, which leads to a caustically comical quest for a cure.

Black Girl and the short Borom Sarret represent Sembene's first efforts, and demonstrate his early promise. Adapted from his literary work, the shorter film is the stronger of the two, focusing on a poor cart driver and the brutal choices he must make to get through the day. Black Girl is the tragic tale of a naive Senegalese nurse who accompanies her white employers to France only to find herself the victim of petty racism and loneliness. Though the filmmaking is crude and didactic, the emotional effect is undeniable, with an ending that haunts you as deeply as the girl's guilt-stricken employer.

Banned by the Senegalese government for its unflattering portrayal of Islam, Ceddo is a micro-epic about a kidnapped princess and the bloody jockeying that occurs among the heirs to the throne. Linking religious and political oppression, Sembene's primitive filmmaking doesn't jibe with his mythic storytelling, but there's no getting around that this is a terrifically told tale that recalls the thematic scope of Akira Kurosawa.

Moolaade, Sembene's final and most accomplished film, not only demonstrates his growth as a filmmaker (the imagery and music are top-notch) but also his unique ability to tackle difficult subject matter in the unlikeliest of manners.

The subject is female genital mutilation. The tone is lightly comic. A small group of women and girls quietly rebel against the men in their village, using courage and guile to subvert the pain of ritualized circumcision. Push comes to shove and the men, sure of their power, provoke the women to fight back in ways the men never imagined.

The then-81-year-old director turns a potentially incendiary film into a richly entertaining and empathetic "slice of life" tale that applauds the honest heroism of its women. Using professional actors and ordinary villagers, he trades depth of performance for authenticity, capturing the unique nuances of mother-daughter relationships. It's a compelling and life-affirming chronicle of Senegalese feminism ... and a fitting conclusion to an auspicious career.

Xala screens at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 21; Black Girl and Borom Sarret show at 7 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 22; Ceddo shows at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 23; Moolaade screens at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 24. Detroit Film Theatre, inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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