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I continue my exploration of the films on the Criterion Channel and stumbled upon the works of Claire Denis, the stumble eventually turned into a week-long binge on titles related or set in Africa – both pre-colonial and post-colonial.

My first stop was the movie Chocolat released in 1988, taking place in Cameroon, West Africa. The story is told from the perspective of France a young girl living in the country while it was still a possession of France. France befriends Protée, a quiet and diligent house servant who seems to understand and appreciate her childlike aloofness of the situation they are in.

While not specified, the story appears to be set around the late 1950s – just before the independence of Cameroon – and the sense of hostility is palpable. France’s father, Marc, appears to play the part of an administrative official; while his wife Aimee spends the long days while he is away tending to the affairs of the house. For their part, Marc & Aimee have settled well into the idyllic colonial life. They know their stay is uncertain but they have developed love and respect for the land which they live in.

This is highlighted especially through the relationships with their staff who also concede to their authority. This is until one day when a plane crash forces the family to take in a number of strangers whose own opinion in respect of the above delicate arrangement is different to say the least.

It is also worth mentioning that the relationships like many other things (as we now know) may have been undergoing a transition. France seems unaware of her place as a colonial settler; Marc respects and treats the African leaders as he would if they were French; Aimee and her girlfriends take a physical liking to Protée – all of which would be unthinkable had the story been placed only few decades earlier.

The arrival of Luc, a drifter in the plane that unexpectedly lands further accelerates this process of disorder. Luc engages in behavior that is both confrontational and provocative. He picks up on Aimee’s romantic feelings for Protée; showers in Protee’s outdoor bathroom; openly reads literature that denigrates Africans and continually challenges the status quo. Other characters too from the plane openly hurl insults at the servants and doctors much to the consternation of both Marc and Aimee.

The film does not make a reference to either a beginning nor the end of this era but any viewer who is remotely familiar with Africa’s history knows that what could follow is most likely a war and the mass flight of the settler population. The movie flashes back and forth between the past and the present. We are shown a grown up and contemplative France who has returned to Cameroon and has befriended an African, who is in a strange twist an African American who himself has returned to the land of his ancestors in an attempt to reconcile lingering feelings of attachment. Will the white African and the black African be able to see eye to eye, who is more an African? These are some of the questions being asked.

MandabiCoverSigning up for Criterion’s new Criterion Channel looks like it will be worth the not so few dollars that is being charged by the film distributor for access to hundreds of exclusive titles. I expect many arthouse cinema fans to be absolutely thrilled with the transition from blu-ray to streaming, especially for the minimalist cinephile. 

Ousmane Sembene

Ousmane Sembène: Credit: Rainer Binder/ullstein bild via Getty Images

I confess that I had not heard of Ousmane Sembène and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of his work as a writer and director; one who should not go unnoticed considering that he began his career as a lowly immigrant worker on the docks of Marseille. A work-related accident forced him to go on leave and it was during this time that he began to read and develop an interest in storytelling.

Mandabi (in English, money order) then is not his debut film but the first one through which he was able to reach worldwide acclaim. Its dramatization of contemporary issues was hitherto unknown in African cinema. It was also entirely filmed in Wolof – the native language of Senegal after Sembene convinced the movie’s financiers that the most appropriate audience for the film were the Senegalese people.

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Ibrahima Dieng is a respected member of his community, an older man (assumed born in 1900), deeply religious, illiterate yet considered accomplished. He has two wives and seven children, a circumstance of high esteem in that society and he never turns his friends down. His quiet life is suddenly put in disorder by the arrival of a money-order from a nephew working in Paris and the story follows Ibrahima trying to straddle the narrow line between a modern and archaic society.

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The backdrop of this story is especially significant because the period between the 1950s-1970s was of great political upheaval in most of Africa in reference to decolonization but it was also a time when the last vestiges of a formal  economic connection between Europe and its colonies in Africa were still evident. In Mandabi for example, Abdou is the nephew who diligently sends funds home to help support his family. This is not only expected of Abdou as matter of duty but it is apparent that there is a well organized system in place which supports it.

Ibrahima however finds it difficult to follow the procedures to release the funds from the post office which he must do before it is sent back to Paris. He faces before him a series of bureaucratic hurdles which he is unable to overcome without the intervention of other people. At every attempt he is hoodwinked and conned and finds it necessary to use his goodwill to more borrow money and to call in more favors until he is totally discredited by his friends and labelled not only as a person who cannot be trusted but also one who is to be pitied. It’s a modern masterpiece of downward mobility!

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In the above photo a suspicious Ibrahima frantically looks for a studio that can shoot photos for his identity card – one of the requirements needed for releasing the funds – he is wary of both the people and the cost.

One of the themes brought to the forefront in the film is the inability of the character to adapt to the modern world that seems at once to be securely governed by money, law and procedures but is actually constantly under attack by corrupting influences. One is made to ponder, if a God-fearing man of good standing such as Ibrahima is unable to come to terms with the onerous task that is before him how much less so are others.

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Ibrahima is financially ruined in the last scene and disillusioned by the thieving of the supposedly educated members of his society. He vows that he too shall turn to dishonesty for that is the only way in which he can overcome his problems despite his having thought to the contrary all his life.

The story is a sobering reminder of the hardships and challenges of replacing the old with the new; the fine line between apparent order and the total collapse; of the difference between wanting and needing and of the limits of loyalty and betrayal.