The film aficionado’s favorite home-video distribution company, Criterion, is set to release Senegalese author and filmmaker Ousmane Sembeñe’s “Mandabi” to its vast collection of classic cinema. With its satirically authentic glimpse at post-colonial West Africa, “Mandabi” stands as the first film in history to include the Senegalese native language, Wolof. Along with this credit, “Mandabi” was also the first Senegalese film to be renowned internationally. Sembeñe’s wholesomely humorous tale is endowed with abundant messages of anti-colonization, African solidarity and liberation, paving the path for the future of storytelling in his then newborn nation.
Based on a novel by Sembeñe himself, “Mandabi” follows the mal-mannered Ibrahim Dieng (Makhouredia Gueye) as his comfortable life in the impoverished village of Dakar is sprung into chaos in the form of a money order. Sent by his nephew from Paris, Abdou (Mouss Diouf), the 250 francs check was to be cashed and put away for his return, with a small portion left over for his mother. Another was to go to Ibrahim in light of his prolonged unemployment.
The brutal husband of two servant wives — and absent father to seven — finds difficulty cashing the check when the post office clerk asks for Ibrahim’s identification card. Having never received an ID, he meets a similar fate in trying to obtain a card — only this time needing a birth certificate and 30 francs. Having none of these things, Ibrahim swallows his pride and barters with his fellow townsfolk in efforts to cash his nephew’s money before it is sent back to Paris.
Throughout the film, Sembeñe characterizes the ideology of the “loss of African solidarity” seen in early post-colonization. In the first act, he emphasizes the infrastructure of comradery within the traditional community of Dakar. For instance, essential resources like water and rice were routinely shared among households for the betterment of the village. Yet, as news of the money quickly spreads through the village, Ibrahim’s’ wives become swarmed with rotating groups of men, all trying to cajole the women into giving them handouts. “If you help nine in need, you’re sure to be the tenth,” Mety (Ynousse N’Diaye) exclaims to her sister wife as they reject all who come in search of personal gain. Sembeñe furthermore showcases the decline in African solidarity through the numerous swindilngs Ibrahim falls, costing him the little money he had to his name, and ultimately the entirety of his nephew’s money towards the end of the film.
At the wake of his passing on June 9th, 2007, Secretary General of the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI), Seipati Bulane Hopa released a public statement, boasting Sembeñe as a “luminary that lit the torch for ordinary people to walk the path of light.” In the mid 20th century, amidst the rise of African countries having their first tastes of independence, most Pan African filmmakers showed restraint in criticizing the systematic suppression felt from their colonizers. Sembeñe, however, implemented these and other pioneering themes openly in his films. From his chilling depiction of Africa’s poverty in Borom Sarret, to his analysis of African identity being belittled to tokenism in La noire de, Sembeñe consistently set the dawning tone for Pan African self-expression in filmmaking.
In the lexicon of cinema, Ousmane Sembeñe’s work stands as an initial disruption to the Eurocentric gaze which clouded entertainment in newly freed nations. What set him apart from his contemporaries was not only his urge to tell stories of the disenfranchised, but his drive to craft films for African audiences by African artists.
“Mandabi” is set to release February 16 through Criterion.
By Omar Letson