Third Cinema revisited

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Posted by keith1942 on March 1, 2010


From a novel by Ousmane Sembène: screenplay and direction by Ousmane Sembène: Cinematography Georges Caristan: Editing Florence Eymon: Sound El Hadji M’Bow: Production Manager Paulin Soumanou Vieyra. Produced by Société Nationale de Cinématographie, Films Domirev.

116 minutes; 35mm; colour.

Characters (cast in brackets).

El Hadji Abdoukader Beye (Thierno Leye)

An importer-exporter, recently elected to the Senegalese Chamber Of Commerce.

Adja or Awa, his first wife, (Seun Samb).

The embodiment of African traditions. She has a house for her and her children.

Oumi, the second wife, (Younousse Seye).

Younger, more westernised. She also has a house and servants for her and her children.

N’Gone, the third wife, (Dieynaba Dieng).

A young, nubile wife. She has a new house for her and her mother.

Rama, Adja’s daughter, (Miriam Niang).

A young and militant University student.

Gorgui, the Old Beggar, (Douta Seck).

A peasant cheated in the past by El Hadji.

Ahmed, a client of El Hadji, (Moustapha Touré).

Thieli, a pickpocket.

Seigne, a villager in the city to buy goods.

Sevigne-Madu, a village marabout, Mohammedan religious man.

Dupont-Durand, a European businessman or economic advisor.

Ousmane Sembène died in 2007. He was an established writer as well as a filmmaker: and just as he has fought to make films in African languages and cultural forms, so in his writing he aimed at an African expression. The experience of European colonialism and racism fed into his politics, which had a Marxist understanding of classes and the state, and an awareness, like Franz Fanon, of the particularities of racism. These are central to his 1974 film, Xala. The film centres on the problems of a trader and member of the Chamber of Commerce, El Hadji. Taking a third and much younger wife, [as allowed under Islamic law] El Hadji’s pleasures are frustrated by impotence, apparently the result of a curse. The film follows his increasingly desperate efforts to reverse the curse, which also undermines his social and business position.

He, and the Chamber of Commerce, are both depicted as subservient to foreign capital. Thus the continual framing of Dupont-Durand [the representative of the neo-colonial economic power] in the frame behind the president. [The hand behind the throne]. Xala in the film refers not only to El Hadji’s lack of potency in the sexual arena, but also to the lack of potency of his class in the economic field. They buy, sell, cheat and swindle, but they cannot exploit on the level of the neo-colonialists.

The narrative is complex, with a number of apparently minor characters who are key in the development of the action and the film’s comments upon this and the characters. Whilst the film appears to be quite slow, with frequent long-shots, as the narrative develops there are increasing number of very short scenes, which are very important. The style appears familiar, but often [as in the exchange between Rama and her father] it is slightly idiosyncratic and deliberately emphasises the seemingly inconsequential.

In a number of scenes, as in the pre-credit sequence, or as when El Hadji appears to have flashbacks about his sexual humiliation, the dialogue is non-simultaneous, i.e. from elsewhere in the narrative.

The sub-titles do not distinguish between French and Wolof, and the latter is used frequently in the film. In the scene between El Hadji and Rama and at the final Chamber meeting the dialogue refers to this. Elsewhere it can be distinguished if one listens carefully to the soundtrack.

Also, there are as number of commentative songs on the sound track, these are not translated in the subtitles.

In Xala, the contrast between El Hadji’s three wives is important.  Françoise Pfaff interviewed Sembène in 1984; and he commented,

“He [El Hadji] married his first wife before he became somebody. Having improved his economic and social status, he takes a second wife [Oumi], who, so to speak, parallels the second historical stage of his life. His third wife [N’Gone], who is his daughter’s age but without her mentality, is only there for self-satisfaction.”

His daughter, Rama, on the other hand, is

“aggressive and assertive as N’Gone is passive and submissive. She is as articulate in her speech pattern as N’Gone is silent. As an unmarried student with intellectual potential and as a young militant for Africanization. Rama often defies her father by speaking Wolof, knowing that he prefers to use French. … Sembène visually stresses her independence of mind as well as her freedom as a character by presenting her alone in many more shots than the other female characters.”

The women are central to the problem of the narrative, and to the various symbols that add meanings. A key signifier is the map of Africa, seen behind Rama as she defies her father, he himself fronting a map of Africa broken up and partitioned by colonial boundaries. These portrayals of women are expressive of the ant-colonial stance found in Franz Fanon. These films do actually position women within the revolution, and they also raise the contradictory position of women.

Xala displays several formal and stylistic trends that are common in Sembène’s work. Foremost, he privileges African linguistic and stylistic traditions. Hence the use or non-use of Wolof is central to the development of the narrative. Whilst El Hadji is neither redeemed nor converted by the end of the film, his attempt to speak in Wolof at the Chamber of Commerce is both highly poetic and metaphoric. Similarly African or European clothes and accessories provide a continuing commentary on the characters.

It is clearly a factor of the circumstances that Sembène uses the production approach pioneered by Neorealism. He also favours the use of non-professionals to a degree in the film and also actual locations. Many sequences share the same rough and impromptu feel found in Neorealism. However, there is also a powerful overall formal control. Sembène uses variations on the ideas of Sergei Eisenstein on montage and film rhetoric. The mental flashbacks by El Hadji of a sexual humiliation are clearly montage editing. But Sembène is more inclined to use montage in the wider sense, both visually and aurally. The elliptical development of the narrative is thus modelled on Eisenstein’s wider categories of montage. The editing together of scenes, especially the short scenes as with a robbery, produces a constant clash of characters and ideas. Sembène reinforces this by using the type of rhetoric favoured by Eisenstein: clothing and objects both represent characters traits and functions and comment upon these. Thus the ubiquitous briefcases in the Chamber of Commerce are a shorthand symbol for the corrupt bourgeoisie. Among the counter-Africanist symbols is the map that frames Rama in her dispute with her father.

Sembène offered some explanation of the songs in an interview:

“Ghali: There are many songs in the film’s soundtrack which have not been sub-titled.  What do they say?

Sembène: It’s a sort of popular song that I wrote myself in Wolof In one sense, it calls to revolt, to the struggle against injustice, against the powers-that-be, against the leaders of today who, if we do not get rid of them, will tomorrow be trees which are going to overrun the place and have to be cut down.  The songs are tied in with the deeds and gestures that 1 have written.  They did not come from folklore.  I had thought at the start to have them translated, but in the end I gave up the idea because it is unnecessary for a European public.

It is the allegory of a kind of lizard, a lizard who is a bad leader.  When he walks in front and you behind, he kills you while saying you want to murder him.  When you walk as tall as he does, he kills you while saying: “You want to be my equal.” When you walk in front of him he kills you while saying: “You want to profit from my good luck.” The song says we have to think very seriously indeed about these leaders who resemble this animal and get rid of them.  It ends something like this: “Glory to the people, to the people’s rule, to the people’s government, which will not be government by a single individual!”

(Interview published in 1976. It was translated by John H. Downing and appears in Film & Politics in the Third World, edited J Downing, Autonomedia, 1987.)

The film has been screened on Channel Four in the past: and issued on a VHS video. It was then cropped to 1.37:1 ration. This means visual material on the left and right of the screen is missing. This is noticeable in some scenes, as in the family quarrel at Adja’s house.

2 Responses to “Xala”

  1. […] It is best supplemented by the more political treatments found in the films of Ousmane Sembène: Xala is a good place to […]

  2. […] there has not been a rush of investors to support her work. One is reminded of the comment of Osmane Sèmbene, comparing putting a film together as like making up a cigarette out of butt ends in the […]

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