African Cinema, Film Reviews

FINYE – Oppression lies behind every corner in Souleymane Cissé’s jagged allegory

Souleymane Cissé never strays far from the essence of African cinema in his 1982 film ‘Finye’. A spirit of rebellion is the connective tissue that holds the various layers of the portrait of urban Mali he constructed in his third feature. That spine of resistance is all we have to hold ‘Finye’s’ clunky narrative together.

‘Finye’ wants for some narrative focus. The simplicity that runs through Cissé’s 1987 masterpiece ‘Yeelen’ is sorely missed; where the tragedy of a father and son’s foretold battle is the spry launching pad for his rich cinematic artistry.

In ‘Finye’, our entry is the teenage love affair between two students which traverses class, gender, modernity and even religion. The girl, Batrou, is the daughter of a military officer turned governor of their province whilst the boy, Bah, is an orphan with his roots in the poorest parts of town.

Bah’s main headache is leaping over the hurdle of his final exams; one of the most primal fears that accompany secondary education. Pills are popped for an edge and the paper is sat with confidence. But the school assembly to announce the names of students who passed ends in disappointment for Bah.

Bah’s academic struggles are not black and white. Obviously, opting for a chemical quickening ahead of a major exam isn’t the wisest life choice. But to swim in poverty like Bah does means to swim against the tide of all social structures, education especially. Not many overcome this tide as many in the Third World are aware. The social realism takes a more dramatic turn when the other forces keeping Bah in the fringes come to the fore.

Contrast is a key building block of Cissé’s narrative. The dialectics stem from Bah and Batrou’s relationship which cares little for the levity of young love. The tensions of a nation seem to converge their heads as Batrou’s father’s opposition to Bah becomes an avatar for the state’s intrinsic disdain for the marginalised.

Batrou’s father, Sangare (Balla Keita) is an almost a timeless placeholder for the African politician. He is eager to remove his daughter from the local school and send her to France; a country described as his second home. He bathes in relative luxury in a province dominated by poverty and is considering a fourth wife; a marker of his excesses that brought to mind ‘Xala’. And it will surprise few to know the third act of the film narrows in on Sangare’s abuse of power.

Though integral to the plot, Cissé doesn’t rub the class divide in our face. The inequality is the fabric on which the design of the plot manifests. It’s to do with, among other things, the unfussy way he shows sprinklers giving life to a vibrant garden in the backdrop of scene at Batrou’s home before a cut to Bah’s home and his grandmother breaking her back over a well.

Batrou’s privilege doesn’t translate to polemics. Cissé holds back here because this double as a coming of age film, where our heroine slowly grows into a feisty mouthpiece for the oppressed. We get snippets of student movements and public agitation as the film commits fully to allegory territory towards the final act as it becomes clear Cissé is attacking the ills of military regimes.

Cissé makes a deliberate decision to angle resistance as the salvation of society, much like Ousmane Sembene did time and time again with his art. He also pivots off similar beats like religion, ideas of modernity and tradition as he critiques society. Our director wields this holy nihilism that rips through everything he considers anathema to a functional state. Consider the arc of Bah’s Grandfather, a powerful traditionalist in tune with the spirits, who has a come to Jesus moment and swaps his charms and amulets for a fist in the air when state corruption becomes impossible to ignore.

However, his approach is as clumsy as it is noble. Cissé is falling over himself to show why people power trumps every facet of society but never really meshes message with coherence. The allegory is meaningful but not palatable in the way it ties more narrative strings that it needs together. He operates with thr misplaced urgency of a filmmaker fearing this would be his last ever manifesto.

It’s a worthwhile exercise to ponder over what resistance means within the context of African cinema and how it’s been interpreted by various filmmakers over the years. I lean towards the bleaker viewpoints; like the futility that shroud’s Mory and Anta’s ploys to game the system in ‘Touki Bouki’ right down to Rungano Nyoni’s harrowing portrait of the patriarchy in ‘I am Not a Witch’.

Over here, there is something to be said for the significance of the title “Finye” which translates to the wind. A deeper dive has me wondering if the spirit of rebellion is just that; an actual spirit that permeates through society omnipresent and without form demanding a following with the jealousy of Jehovah himself.

I’m overthinking things, aren’t I? Cissé certainly was, which was why he ignores or is unaware of how effective the domesticity he jettisons in favor of grander ideas are. Consider the dynamic in Batrou’s home where the first whiff of rebellion takes shape in Sangare’s third wife, Agna (Omou Diarra); a young obstinate vivacious woman who I first mistook to be Batrou’s sister.

By far ‘Finye’s’ most layered character, Agna never falls in line, unlike the two seemingly unformed senior wives (resembling prisoners) who call her a slut. More allegorical elements are at play as she makes her own stand against the patriarchy and military regimen with her wit and agency to mixed results that demand audience empathy regardless. It’s almost a coin toss as to whether she’ll have the abusive Sangare eating out of her palm or chasing after her with a gun.

As a testament to how loaded this film is, I can’t overlook the fact it’s also an earnest love story filled with truly beautiful moments of intimacy between Bah and Batrou that defy the turmoil of their existence. The first time we see the two together is a day before the exam and Bah is staggering about all sweaty and high from his ill-advised booster, oblivious to Batrou’s prompts. It sets the tone for their relationship which will offer more lows than highs for the two.

Fittingly, a later drug high plunges us into the surreal where Bah receives visions of tranquil perfection: he and Batrou draped in white with only still waters threatening to disturb the purity of their love. Later in the film, they share a bath, making themselves vulnerable to each other probably for the first time under the watchful eye of Cissé’s camera which evokes a coy tenderness that drips with faux innocence.

The real threat to the love is the director I must say. The lack of a proper resolution for the central relationship has you questioning the point of the carefully crafted moments that centre our young lovers in powerful ways seldom seen on the continent with the magnetic closeups and all.

‘Finye’ let me down somewhat. I had high expectations having seen ‘Yeelen’. Cissé’s single-minded ambition is ultimately an albatross that sinks this screenplay. Deny us coherence, he did. But he remains a stellar presence behind the camera, effortlessly crafting some excellent sequences. My favorite scene sees Bah go into drug trip with some friends after the news of his exam failure. Scored to Bunny Mack’s ‘My Sweetie’, it’s a scene sodden with sensual longing, tearful truths, bliss and the only real piece of freedom we see in the story.

Deny us coherence, he did. But he remains a stellar presence behind the camera, effortlessly crafting some excellent sequences. My favorite scene sees Bah go into drug trip with some friends after the news of his exam failure. Scored to Bunny Mack’s ‘My Sweetie’, it’s a scene sodden with sensual longing, tearful truths, bliss and the only real piece of freedom we see in the story.

Like the languid aura of the drug-fueled commune, ‘Finye’ never feels angry. But we never mistake this for a lack of urgency. At every turn lies a vivid reminder of oppression; students against teachers; wives against abusive husbands, a community against a corrupt state. Yes, this could be a tighter story but it achieves a universality and a resonance with its timeless call to action.