The lacerating guile of Ousmane Sembene and his utter contempt for the African elite-cum-politician remain the most appealing banner of his 1975 masterwork ‘Xala’. As its 45th-anniversary approaches, the only things that keep it from being a beat for beat reflection Africa’s contemporary reality are its allegorical and satirical packaging.
For Sembene, faith in most leaders of African countries was lost right after crossing the threshold of independence. Dancing, jubilation and vibrant traditional garb colour the atmosphere as eight men storm a city’s Chamber of Commerce in freshly Independent Senegal and throw out totems of French imperialism and oppression; like a bust of Napoleon and boots that crushed many bones and spirit alike, whilst chasing out white men who run affairs.
The most telling line as this scene unravels, “our struggle for true independence has finished”, conveys disturbing myopia in the task at hand. It comes as no surprise that in the chilling next scene, a white man commands the security personnel of a sovereign African nation. He orders the soldiers to push back crowds camped in front of the Chamber, stripping them off the privilege of engaging with their own independence.
In Sembene’s eyes, the leaders of our independence struggle forgot the people they claimed to fight for right at the altar. There is a hole in their hearts that is quickly filled with wads of cash from French advisors that double as the first building blocks of Africa’s recolonisation.
But Sembene isn’t interested in the sins of France here. He had already waded in the streams of colonial confrontation to great and tragic effect in ‘Black Girl’ and ‘Emitai’. In ‘Xala’, Sembene was operating with a neo-realist filter that presented the class dynamics in urban Senegal for what felt like the first time.
The film is a double edge sword in that whilst the members of the Chamber of Commerce are stand-ins for the political elite, ‘Xala’ still plays as an effective commentary on corrupt African capitalism and how interwoven it is in our dysfunctional political fabric.
For those who have seen ‘Xala’, and I hope many more take time to watch the full film, which is somehow still on youtube, before finishing this piece, it also features one the most disturbing moments in the history of African cinema crafted as part of a momentous final scene.
I wanted to devote a million words in service to this scene. But on my latest rewatch, a new layer jumped out at me; Sembene’s handling of the women in the lives of our lead character and one of the men who liberates the chamber, businessman El Hadji Aboukader Beye (Thierno Leye).
The basic plot of ‘Xala’, spoilers and all, sees the 50 to 60 something-year-old El Hadji fall from the heights the wave of emancipation took him down into the murky drains ignominy after he is caught selling rice meant for the rural poor on the black market. The corruption was used to finance his luxurious wedding to a third wife.
There is a dexterity to the way Sembene uses El Hadji’s wives as a marker for different generations and layers of African society. Adja, his first and oldest wife represents old Africa; seemingly devoted to tradition, more measured and aware of where she was before her man came along but eerily constrained after being displaced by a second wife and the neglect from the man who vowed to care for her.
The second wife is Oumi; modern, feisty and vain. It is El Hadji’s veneer of wealth that keeps her in check. Oumi emits the vibe of a woman acting 10 years younger than she actually is and she wears a shroud of shrill respectability. She is a marker for the lack of depth we still ascribe to modernity; where we point to high rise buildings and other capitalist and western totems as signs of progress.
There is a lot to glean from Oumi’s dance partner during the El Hadji’s wedding to his third wife; the President of Chamber of Commerce (played by Makhourédia Guèye) who was a sly avatar for Senegal’s President at the time, Léopold Senghor. She hilariously towers over him with her plush hairdo and warm smile but is tamed by power and social capital.
‘Xala’ functioned as a direct satire of the Senghor government, Senegal’s first after independence, and the immoral presence of the Chamber’s President is in conversation with the ills of post-independence African governments.
The president’s fondness of Oumi leans into Sengor’ assimilationist tendencies and I cringe as I think about how Ghana’s current President flirted with making French a compulsory subject in schools and his general affinity for the gaze of the west. Senghor was the antithesis of Sembene, a portrait of crippling compromise who once felt that there was a viable future for French colonies within the confines of French civilisation.
El Hadi’s third wife, deliberately muzzled by Sembene, is an avatar for the future of Africa, at least from the perspective of our leaders because the young bride is a McGuffin intertwined with the heart of the film and the meaning of the title ‘Xala’, which translates as impotence. When El Hadji readies to consummate his marriage, rubbishing some virility rituals and displaying a hypocritical contempt for African culture, he realises he is impotent in what develops to be much more than a private disaster.
El Hadji has been cursed. On a narrative level, it is a mystery which we are eager to unravel. On a metatextual level, Sembene is the one firing the hex; wittily asserting that the existing template for the average African leader will never be able to satisfy the Africans looking to seize the future with their warped sense of potency and overstayed welcomes.
The tensions between El Hadji’s ilk and the youth are foreshadowed when we meet his daughter with Adja, Rama – the most important woman in the story.
I am against father’s third marriage, Mareme Niang’s Rama says to her mother, almost like a protester venting against a President entering a third decade in power. A secondary layer of tension lies between Rama and Adja, who isn’t bold enough to divorce El Hadji because how would she find another husband? “This house is yours and everything in it,” Rama retorts to remind her mother of the power she wields. But Adja frustratingly remains loyal. Yes, she views El Hadji’s new marriage as adversity but she urges patience to her radical daughter.
This bite from Rama sees her at the end of some physical abuse from El Hadji when she hilariously proclaims that all men are “dirty dogs” and “every polygamous man is a liar.” “Take your revolution somewhere else,” El Hadji retorts in what is Sembene’s acknowledgement of the role he carves out for Rama.
“There can be no development in Africa if women are out of account,” Sembene is quoted as saying. We can never divorce these sentiments from the stories he crafts about the African condition.
There is a nuance to the way he acknowledges the unique challenges African women face as he births ideas of revolution from mundane and acts of domesticity like rice farming in ‘Emitai’ or the aforementioned confrontation between Rama and her father.
Tragedy and glory also seem to go hand in hand when you consider the arch of women in his films. Glorious acts of resistance are sometimes interwoven with pain like in the invigorating final frame of ‘Emitai’ as stare death in the face with noblest of convictions. In ‘Black Girl’ joy and sorrow wrestle as our heroine takes her life to free herself from a suffocating neocolonial vortex.
Quietly, one of the most enduring scenes in ‘Xala’ is Rama taking time off university to visit her dad at his office. The theatrics, hyperbole and violence in the earlier scene are replaced with more subtle ticks. There’s the significance of imported water which El Hadji offers her, water that is a marker of his oppression and obscenity as we see a pauper use it to wash corrupt business man’s Mercedes-Benz. It’s a hard pass on the water by Rama and a brilliant cut to a shot that has Rama framed with an outline of the map of Africa behind her like a crown or even a halo on her head.
Rama then proceeds to assert her agency as she pleads her mother’s case; as she pleads Africa’s case. She does so in Senegal’s native Wolof to El Hadji’s annoyance and ends the meeting with the line of the film as she rebuffs an offer of money from her dad who asks if she needs anything. “Just mother’s happiness,” is her simple plea, just Africa’s happiness.
This at once challenges our perception of Adja who is elevated to the status of mother Africa, a tool employed by Sembene in the past and other African filmmakers. It makes here relationship with El Hadji even more tragic because she is doomed to be at his side until he leaves.
As Rama leaves her father’s office, he is on the threshold of disgrace. His virility had been restored after a series of visits to some traditional priests but deceit would drag him back into the pit of impotence. His corruption is also about to blow up in his face as his equally corrupt colleagues expel him from the Chamber of Commerce because his thievery was dragged into the light.
As the coda beckons, the central mystery remains; who cursed El Hadji? And does it really matter? His third and second wives move out but Adja remains by his side. Her longsuffering is her curse. But a hoard of undesirables we see earlier in the film, who represent the marginalised and oppressed, besiege his home. It’s a twist I did not see coming and a welcome overindulgence by Sembene.
Violence is the language of the unheard, it is said. But a lynching would have been too kind for El Hadji. Sembene finds a box beneath the homeless physically challenged beggars to shove El Hadji in. Having lost all his wealth and two wives, El Hadji is offered his manhood back. In this constructed reality, we learn he was cursed by a blind beggar who he essentially defrauded in decades ago.
To become virile again, he is to strip down and be spat upon by the untouchables he oppressed and robbed. El Hadji had already proven to be a man who thinks with his penis but that he agrees to the terms is purely fantastical from Sembene, and a nightmare for any politician forced to sit through it.
‘Xala’ ends with El Hadji a nauseating mess; covered in phlegm and spit as his family watches on in horror. It is as incendiary as it is gloriously repulsive. It is the moment we realise we had underestimated Sembene’s disgust for our leaders.
He does not just declare them impotent. He desires to see their utter humiliation for their failings. But the sense of exhilaration dies down slowly. After all, his coda is a fantasy.
We are left with the bleak sense that our leaders stay on top in reality despite having the xala. Look no further than El Hadji’s successor in the chamber; a pickpocket we see rise to prominence after robbing a whole village of its sustenance.