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► Mandabi is available to stream on Mubi.
Hearing of the difficulties faced by the BFI and the Cineteca di Bologna as they attempted to digitise the work of the great filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, Martin Scorsese was prompted to action. “It was like the movie was a prisoner,” says Alain Sembène, the director’s son, recalling how the 35mm negatives of Black Girl (La Noire de…, 1966), his father’s seminal 55-minute debut, were being stored by the film laboratory Eclair in France. “It was stuck in bureaucracy because there were documents my father had not signed. We almost gave up. Then Martin Scorsese wrote a letter saying it was a scandal, and boom, it happened.”
I was speaking to Alain Sembène following the premiere of the restoration of his father’s second film Mandabi at the Lumière Festival in Lyon in 2019. Mandabi – the first feature made in the Wolof language – has been remastered in 4K with StudioCanal’s partners at the French postproduction company VDM, scanned from the original 35mm interpositive. The sound too has been remastered from badly damaged archive footage. At last, the film can be fully appreciated as a crucial work by a master director.
That it took Scorsese’s efforts to kickstart the remastering of the director’s work is an indication of the widespread failure to appreciate Sembène. This may seem an odd statement, given how often he is described as ‘the father of African cinema’. Yet underlying this praise is a suggestion that Sembène’s legitimacy rests on where he made films: it’s time that discussion of Sembène’s work focused on what it is about.
His magnificent 1968 film Mandabi is about the problems that the ageing, unemployed Ibrahima (Makhouredia Gueye) faces when he receives a money order from his nephew in Paris. Black Girl – about the struggles of a young Senegalese woman working as a servant in Paris – was Sembène’s first feature, but Mandabi is the film that marks out the themes of his career: his anti-capitalist, anti-religious concerns, and his clear-sighted probing of issues of class.
The film may attack colonialism but, importantly, it also attacks those citizens who, once the European powers left the continent, did everything in their power to maintain the status quo. In Senegal, this meant retaining French as the official language, even though most Senegalese only spoke Wolof or Arabic, and taking on elements of bureaucracy to ensure that it was nigh on impossible to climb the social ladder.
For all its weighty implications, the beauty of Mandabi is that it looks and feels so simple. The plot follows Ibrahima, an unemployed father of seven, as he tries to cash the money order. He has two wives who dote on him and turn a blind eye to his failings; although life his difficult, he is content. That changes when his nephew sends him a money order for 25,000 CFA francs (about $50). The parable then slowly reveals itself – the arrival of capital from France will ruin his life.
To start with, Ibrahima cannot understand the letter, written as it is in French. Then the post office refuses to accept the money order because he doesn’t have an identity card – which he cannot get because he doesn’t have a birth certificate. Meanwhile, word gets out about the windfall, and friends, neighbours and religious figures come to him asking for donations and loans, while more educated men set out to swindle Ibrahima. Sembène reinforces his critique of capitalism by appearing in the film himself, sitting at a table beneath a Che Guevara poster.
Born to a family of fishermen in the southern Senegalese region of Casamance in 1923, Sembène moved to France after World War II, where he worked as a docker, becoming active in the unions and embracing Marxist philosophy, before a back injury forced him to rest. He used his time to write poetry and prose; his third novel, God’s Bits of Wood (1960), about the difficulties of being an immigrant in France, was a huge hit. Sembène adapted Mandabi from his novella Le Mandat, which was first published in France in 1966, around the time that Black Girl screened at the Cannes Film Festival.
At the First World Festival of Negro Arts, held in Dakar in April 1966, Sembène won a literature prize for Le Mandat and a film prize for Black Girl. André Malraux, author and French minister of culture, was a guest of honour, and offered to arrange for France’s Centre national de la cinématographie to fund his next work. Ironically, given the film’s themes, Sembène took the money and used it, in Mandabi, to reveal Europe’s attempts to manage Africa for its own ends – to show that colonialism persists even when the guns have left, in the history told, and in the cultural and economic heritage that the colonial powers left behind.
One of the reasons that Mandabi was the first feature-length film in Wolof was that colonial administrations had banned natives from filmmaking – simply making the film was a political act. Sembène would argue that cinema enabled him to speak to the illiterate citizens that his novels were about.
All the big targets in Mandabi would remain central to Sembène’s work throughout his career. The criticism of religion would feature right up to his ninth and final film, Moolaadé (2004), which addresses female genital mutilation. Ceddo (1977) was heavily censored in Senegal, according to rumour because of its religious content.
Sembène composed the score for Mandabi himself, with the music choices reflecting the traditions of African music, rather than the fusions popular in America and Cuba at the time. Every choice in the film is packed with such double meaning. Mandabi poses the question: why are Africans treated as second-class citizens, not just abroad but at home, in their own countries? Its clear-sighted urgency remains undimmed today.
Originally published: 9 June 2021