Monday, February 14, 2011

Xala (1975)

Director: Ousmane Sembène
Country: Senegal

Plot: Xala opens with a significant political event that foreshadows the rest of the film: in a moment of triumph and pride, Senegal's white, French rulers are booted out of office by native officials - only to be kept on as advisors*. This contradictory move gives way to the preparations being undertaken for businessman El Hadji's (Thierno Leye) wedding to his third wife. During his lavish reception, he seems content, but trouble arises when he fails to do just that on his wedding night - he is impotent, made so apparently from a xala - a curse. As El Hadji desperately searches for a cure, his reputation and business collapse around him, forcing him to come face-to-face with his own faults.

Thoughts: I truly appreciate a good piece of social satire. When done well, it can reveal fascinating insight into a country or culture's defining characteristics, deliver important critiques and calls for change and be extremely entertaining in the process. Xala fits all of those criteria marvelously. Ousmane Sembène, one of Africa's most beloved and respected filmmakers, adapted his own novel into this darkly funny film that takes dead aim on the African ruling class and their blatant fixation with European culture and lifestyle. All throughout the film, El Hadji and his upper-crust colleagues surround themselves with lingering symbols of whiteness - suits, imported goods ranging from foods to cars, the French language, which they proudly speak instead of Wolof, which is used by other characters (with pride, in some cases). Some African customs are adhered to - but only the ones that suit the men, like the taking-on of multiple wives. While El Hadji subscribes to that practice all too enthusiastically, he is less accommodating to one involving sitting on a mortar and holding a pestle between his legs that will aid his virility - perhaps having something to do with his later misfortunes? In any case, El Hadji is soon humbled by the xala as his wives and colleagues turn their backs on him, and gradually realizes that the solution to his problems won't come from any foreign good or ideal, but rather the customs and beliefs of his native culture.

Xala is populated by a considerable selection of supporting characters beyond El Hadji, each of their stories seeming to carry additional comments on the social conditions around them. In one great scene during El Hadji's wedding, his first two wives sit and talk openly about their feelings of disgust and jealousy surrounding their new, younger rival. Throughout the film, Sembène drops in on a group of impoverished beggars and cripples who wander from one place to another before executing a most delicious revenge on the upper class. One tragi-comic plotline involves a farmer whose money from his meager crops is stolen by a pickpocket. Too ashamed to return to his family and workers empty-handed, he takes refuge in the city while the thief reaps the benefits of his handiwork.

What is truly admirable about Sembène's craft is how he expresses his ideas with bite, cleverness and clarity. The central theme of culture clash is broadcasted perhaps most powerfully in a scene between El Hadji and his daughter in his office. The desk in the middle of the room is just one of the things that separates them: while he wears his suit and tie, she is clad in a bright African outfit of green, yellow, blue and purple - which happens to match a map of Africa on the wall behind her (which I'm sure was no accident). The wall behind El Hadji, on the other hand, is blank. She refuses his offer of water by saying she doesn't drink imported water, to which he proudly replies that he drinks at least two litres of it every day. It is made utterly clear that father and daughter are occupying completely different planes of thought, opinion and culture. She knows without any doubt who she is and where she comes from, whereas he is on shakier ground which crumbles away bit by bit as the film goes on.

Final Words: Xala is one of Sembène's better-known films, and I don't think it'd be going too far to call it a classic of not only his work, but African cinema in general. Those curious to see more films from this side of the world would do well to seek out this intelligent, entertaining statement on cultural allegiance and morality.

*Senegal became officially independent from France in 1960. Whether Xala is a period piece set during that time or not is unclear, though I'd personally guess that Sembène set the film in the (then-)present day and devised his own fictitious, alternate history of Senegal in which to stage his satire.

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