Popular narratives, world war, Marxism and Modernism, Khrushchev’s Moscow, African working-class life: a rich education for any artist. Over four decades of film-making, Ousmane Sembene has deployed this formation to extraordinary effect. If he has focused consistently on the social relations of Africa’s distorted development, the sheer breadth of his aesthetic— the disorientating combination of African ritual and modes of speech with expressionist set-pieces, domestic naturalism, epic choreography, social satire, sexual comedy or farce - projects his work on to a broader, more universal canvas. The complexity of his films eschews surface slickness: narrative realism can be undercut by jarring moments of melodrama, flashbacks, non-professional acting; which yet contribute, as in Brecht, to an epic sense. There is no dogmatic closure in Sembene’s work: elements of didacticism are undermined by the revelation of fresh complexities, endings are characteristically freeze frame, the final outcome still unsure. Contested relationships remain open - as in the trickster tales: Brer Rabbit's forerunner Leuk the Hare may get away this time, but that doesn't mean he's safe.
A journalist arrives on the Latin American island of Captiva, where a dictatorial President rules capriciously over a society that seems to consist mainly of males in military uniform, speaking a polyglot language. We learn from a voice-over that the island was first turned into a penal colony by Ecuador in the late nineteenth century, then occupied by the United States from 1899-1920, until it achieved independence and once again became a penal colony. In 1954, the United Nations assumed responsibility for it as an experimental society and it has been independent since 1972. The President is evasive and apparently anxious about the report that the journalist will deliver. At her hotel, she is importuned by a poet, who is exposed as a pickpocket by the ever-present troops. The President's behaviour becomes even more eccentric, and he vehemently denies that there is any torture on the island. A party of troops serenades the journalist before she is unceremoniously bundled off to the prison to witness scenes of punishment. A native woman recites a bizarre fable about a man who is bewitched, drowned and reborn in Europe as a little girl, only to have 'her' husband murder her daughter, at which point the whole continent sinks into the sea.