28 August 2011

Women and Allegory in Sembene's 'Xala'

Allegory places a significant role in the films of Ousmane Sembene. Its presence may in part be accounted for by the allegorical nature of African oral and written literature as well as by Sembene's emphasis on the importance of the link between history, politics and culture. When 'Xala' opens, images of a drummer and a dancer are enlarged into a company of musicians and dancers celebrating the independence of Senegal from its French colonial rulers. White statues are ejected from the Chambrede Commerce, and black men take over, but the reality of post-colonial politics is not far behind.The white men reclaim the statues and depart, only to return instantaneously to deliver brief cases filled with cash to the new black government ministers. Thus, the allegorical treatment is introduced early in the film. And particularly with the obvious equation between the council president and the Senegalese president, Leopold Senghor (whose picture we see), the audience is alerted to read subsequent events in the film in allegorical fashion.

In particular, the four women in the film represent specific stages in Senegalese history as well as specific aspects of the history of sexual oppression. El Hadji's eldest wife, Awa Adja, like the older women in Sembene's novel, God's Bits of Wood, represents the traditional Islamic phase of Senegalese history and the contradictory role of women within that context. According to Francoise Pfaff, 'Awa truly appears as the embodiment of African traditions even if her environment is no longer purely traditional.' Awa also dramatizes how traditional ways are ill-adapted to the exigencies of modern Senegal. Her philosophy is characterized by her most trenchant comment in the film, 'If patience could kill, I'd have been dead long ago.' In the film, Awa expresses submission and resignation to fate. Her dignity is admirable, even to the beggars, although they admonish her that she 'knows nothing of life.' While Sembene's analysis of Awa is sympathetic, he acknowledges that her knowledge of the world is truncated,that her emphasis on religion and conjugal and domestic responsibility does not confront contemporary reality. Her sense of duty and loyalty may have been the mainstay of her existence in the past and necessary for the maintenance of her self-esteem, but they are also the sources of her oppression. Through the character of Awa, Sembene seems to be indicating, like Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks and Cabral in Return to the Source (1973), that the retreat to Africanity is delusory. He does, however, later in the film bring Awa into the present, along with her daughter Rama, to share vicariously in El Hadji's ritual of purification.

El Hadji's second wife, Oumi N'Doye, is more westernized than Awa Adja. Through her, Sembene portrays the further breakdown of traditional customs and the encroachments of western ideology and consumerism. Oumi wears European clothes, wigs, makeup and dark glasses. She reads fashion magazines and follows the lives of movie stars. She feeds her romantic fantasies by reading pulp romances. Her competition with and jealousy of El Hadji's first wife and with his new young wife, N'Gone, makes her peremptory and demanding, her demands taking the form of sexual seduction and financial extortion of El Hadji. If Awa's treatment of El Hadji is submissive and resigned, Oumi's is abusive  and tyrannical. In her tyrannizing of El Hadji, she seems to exemplify the European myth of female domestic tyranny which she seeks to emulate. At the same time, Sembene's portrayal of Oumi as second wife also reenacts the traditional conflict between wives under polygamy and the role of the dominant wife. In this way Sembene explores the failure of superimposing western practices on traditional customs when the anastomosis merely reinforces attitudes detrimental to social relationships. Oumi's and El Hadji's marriage is specialized around the exchange of money and services, representing his harsh judgment of economic conditions and social relations under colonialism and neocolonialism.

While the first two wives are individuated and treated with empathy, in spite of their shortcomings, El Hadji's third wife is barely substantial. Much more a fetishistic object than a person, N'Gone has few lines in the film. Her mother undresses her as if she were a lifeless mannequin. During the wedding celebration she appears more like an advertisement in a bridal magazine, or like the white figure of a bride on the sumptuous wedding decoration examined closely and contemptuously by Oumi N'Doye than as a person. N'Gone is lighter than the other two wives; indeed, each of the wives appears to get lighter. N'Gone is also identified by her photograph on the wall,seen as she is being undressed with her back to the camera, while her mother lectures her on the importance of making one's husband feel dominant, if not be dominant. Two photographs, one of her clothed and one unclothed, are more visible to the audience than N'Gone is herself. In effect, she is a body without a face, as we view her later in bed, and a visage ventriloquized by her mother. Ultimately, she is reduced to the clothing on the broomstick that reappears in the ultimate  scenes of El Hadji's humiliation. She does not take revenge, however,and is presumably unaware of the final act of the drama that has overtaken her. The one symbol of her aspiration to prominence, the car that is to be her wedding present from El Hadji, is never unwrapped. In short, Sembene portrays N'Gone as the result par excellence of neocolonial society, a technical fetish, with no identity, no substance, no voice, no language, a symbol of the consequences of cultural impotence.

But not all the women in the film are stunted. Rama, Adja's eldest daughter, represents the desirable union of European and African cultures. Her room marks the complexity of her interests. It contains a poster of Chaplin and of Amilcar Cabral, books, and the disheveled appearance of an active life. She actively supports the Wolof language as a mark of her identification with the struggle for independence from European culture. When she visits El Hadji in his office, Sembene places her before a map of Senegal, and Rama's outfit conspicuously reproduces the colors of the Senegalese flag. El Hadji later adopts Rama's position regarding the use of the Wolof language in his confrontation with the other ministers. El Hadji asks the ministers' permission to address them in Wolof for his final speech before the Chamber, but permission is denied to him much as he had chastised Rama for speaking to him in Wolof. He is told to speak French. El Hadji's action accentuates changes that have taken place in him that signify positive linkages between Rama and himself. Nevertheless, Rama is not fully developed as a personality as she is in the novel. She is not so much the heroine of the film as a symbol of potential. Indeed,the secretary and clerk who seems to run El Hadji's business is a counterpart to Rama, a figure who is waiting and learning rather than doing and teaching. The final scenes of the film propel the allegory into the speculative realm of the future.

[This essay was extracted from 'Political Allegory and "Engaged Cinema": Sembene's "Xala",' written by Marcia Landy with Ousmane Sembene and originally published in Cinema Journal (vol. 3, no. 23, Spring 1984, pp. 31-46). The complete film 'Xala' with English subs is available for multi-part viewing on YouTube.]

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