Ousmane Sembene’s CEDDO – Everyone wants a piece of the Africa action

One of the earliest sequences in 1977’s Ceddo involves a barter of men for goods. A man in this 18th-century Senegalese village with a rifle strapped on his shoulder, leads two men, presumably ceddo (outsiders) like a pair of antelopes, to a white trader who happens to barter in you regular stuff like yams, chickens, maize and people. Of course Ousmane Sembene has nothing nice to say about the white man, wasting little time to remind us of his history of slavery and colonialism. Later on, some women barter their rich spoils of the land for some fabric – a moment that feels like an outlier to the thesis of this film.

Is religion worth the life of any man? This seems to be the central question Sembene asks in Ceddo, the final entry in what some have called his resistance trilogy. It started with a look at colonialism in Emitai. Sembene proceeded to satirise the ruling and upper class in the brilliant Xala to scathing aplomb. He caps it off with an examination of the woes of this village that has to contend with Islam cementing itself as its traditional religion is sidelined and Christianity cowers in the corner.

The chief of the village is an Islam convert meaning all others who do not fall in line are relegated to the strata of ceddo, who are basically pariahs. We get the full extent of the standing of the ceddo when the okyeame of the village gathers them for a town meeting and we realise they have to stand with a bundle of sticks on their heads like beasts of burden, basically, because the imam said so. It is this kind of oppression, anchored in a sad irony, that forces some of the ceddo to kidnap the chief’s eldest daughter, Yacine Dior, to force him to meet their demands.

The ceddo want the persecution, looting, enslavement and general inequality to cease – reasonable demands. A rep of ceddo, an elderly man who played in the same pits with the chief as a child, but stands at the chief’s mercy in his old age, also asks that the obligation to be Muslim be abolished. No faith is worth a man’s life, he says to the loud scorn of the imam and his disciples. “Allah forgive us,” they cry out, led by the diminutive imam who just carries this ominous vibe with his beady eyes match his prayer beads. This imam would for sure be on terror watch list today given his open longing for the day when non-Muslims would be killed for not embracing Islam.

Ceddo comprises a lot of sequences like this town square meeting, where two factions meet to hear each other out. We are treated to a lot of colourful dialogue with glorious proverbs thrown around in classic African oral tradition fashion. But Ceddo, unfortunately, doesn’t match the enjoyment factor of the first act during the town square meeting which is beautifully and purposefully staged. Sembene crafts this section of the film with the flair we expect after a film like Xala and he effectively outlines the crux of the film, provides some cultural insight to this community and surprisingly offers some character, for a film which mostly settles for musing on ideas.

The most interesting character I reckon is the chief’s nephew, Madior, who believes he is betrothed to Yacine Dior, till a warrior from another village rides in revealing the chief’s eldest daughter is all but his bride. After a short debate, where Madior unsuccessfully argues his claim to Yacine Dior, he proceeds to renounce Islam and his royal ties, but Sembene doesn’t do much with him after this. He seems to hover in the periphery of the film like a spectre but is the conduit for the more subtle truths this film offers.

Outside Madior, there isn’t much by way of character. You could point to the quiet and graceful Yacine Dior, who has the most definite arch but it becomes more symbolic as the film entrenches itself as an allegory. Indeed, there are very few close-ups, as I recall only Madior and Yacine Dior getting the full attention of Sembene’s camera. Well, our director features in the film and he gives himself a gratuitous close up too, so much so, all that was left a wink in the direction of the audience. But for the most part, we are dealing with medium and wide shots as Sembene wants his audience to focus on the bigger picture.

The core truth in Ceddo, the reason some lives are considered less that dung, is because there is an ongoing conquest and the Africa is the booty. Islam spends a lot of time as the primary antagonist but this religion creeping in from the north is really only trying to get in on the spoils. Going back to the aforementioned sequence in Ceddo, with the white trader, the economic battle appears to have been lost and the locally sanctioned slavery is additionally hard to stomach. Christianity is a defeated force but there is a fantastic surreal sequence that gives insights into the desires of the catholic priest, who envisions a future were Africa is knelt before an altar partaking in the body of Christ. Everybody, not only wants a piece of the action, but wants to dominate it.

Because of my Christian bias, I was inclined to question if there is was any nuance to Sembene’s scorn of all things foreign. But then I look at Ghana; proudly proclaimed a Christian nation, and I say to myself: I see you Ousmane. For one, we never see the catholic priest in Ceddo speak out on the oppression, on the slavery. These foreign influences do not come with a choice. They come with the intent of a land slide, ready to displace all its path. The indigenes are pushed to the wall and are forced to rebel to preserve their culture – what they know to be their identity. Sembene would have it no other way.

There is something lacking Ceddo though, something that makes it less enjoyable than Xala and less incisive than Emitai. The lack of characterisations was not entirely unexpected but it didn’t help. The numerous meetings on either side seem to drum on with the same ideas till I started to feel numb. There are a few duels and “action” sequences that, unfortunately, don’t really hold up – it gets a little laughable at times, I’ll admit. Also, in a world where ISIS and Boko Haram exist, it’s hard to really appreciate Sembene’s representation of shock value given the mass loss of innocence and desensitisation.

Then there’s some of the music, with contributions from Manu Dibango, which I found a little grating, whilst acknowledging the extra layers it provided to the film. I can do both right? The score seems to have some ties with some Blaxploitation era films (don’t take my word for it) and the strings and xylophone percussion that greets us presented a welcome surprise. But in the scenes that evoke the scourge of slavery, when red hot brands seer into the flesh of shackled men and women, there is essentially a Negro spiritual playing and it felt out of place.

But in essence, the spirituals really aren’t out of place given the apparent tie in with the legacy of oppression on the African continent. There is scene later on in Ceddo that evokes the 1977 Roots (which came out a few months before Ceddo) and that classic Kunta-Toby sequence and you get a sense of the angle Sembene is working at, by trying to establish a link between the slaves we see and the ones that labour in cotton fields under the scorching sun and the cracks of unforgiving whips. His musical choices are an attempt to draw some sympathy from the brethren in the diaspora and a reminder that the original sin of slavery as we know it was about much more than the need for labour.

The rough spots notwithstanding, Ceddo remains thoughtful and quite complex on a thematic level. Africa’s is a rich history, albeit a history rich in tragedy. But Sembene once again trumpets with urgency the fact that Mother’s dignity lies in rebellion.

Of course, no one really talks about Ceddo without referencing the ridiculous ban imposed by Senegal’s President at the time, Leopold Senghor; a ban that reeked of obsequiousness and political xala. The supposed reason for the ban was the spelling of the title. The government argued that the title be spelt “Cedo”. But there is more to this. A lot of Sembene’s films are in Wolof and he had been a supporter of efforts to develop a system for the transcription of the Wolof language. President Senghor, on the other hand, was a Serere and in his language, consonants were not doubled. There appeared to be a lot of pettiness at play and I can only imagine Senghor must have been quite salty given the scathing treatment dished out to him in Xala.

By: Delali Adogla-Bessa/delalibessa@yahoo.com/Ghana

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