Latin American Cinema
More Essays by Ela Bittencourt
Djibril Diop Mambéty included children in all his films, yet his work is exquisitely, brazenly adult. Since I saw the Mambéty retrospective at the Olhar de Cinema International Film Festival in Curitiba, Brazil, the context that immediately imposed itself was a Latin American one. Like Mambéty, generations of Brazilian filmmakers have proportioned the country with a vibrant, imaginative, provocative cinema. There is therefore rich cross-pollination when thinking of Mambéty and Glauber Rocha, Mambéty and Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s hilarious, politically incorrect Macunaíma, and finally Mambéty and Marginal Cinema.
Mambéty’s first and most famous feature was Touki Bouki (1973), a riot of a film, in which two university students and lovers, Mory (Magaye Niang) and Anta (Mareme Niang), not finding their place amidst facetious and snobbish student activists, decide to make it big instead by robbing a bank. The film’s clear stance—that marginality has its own radical poetics and action—is closest in spirit to Brazil’s Marginal Cinema. Both are permeated by violence, but unlike the earlier cinema of Glauber Rocha, with which Mambéty shares a keen sense of love for popular culture, including music, this violence isn’t an expression of a class struggle. Instead, it comes as arbitrary, vicious and jarring, as it did in Andrea Tonacci, or in Júlio Bressane’s Killed The Family and Went to the Movies (1969). In Touki Bouki, students who accuse Mory of spying humiliate him by tying a rope around his neck and parading him ashen and disheveled through the city in the back of their truck, with a bull’s skull and husks dangling from his chest.
Touki Bouki features numerous scenes of bloodletting and sacrifice, an animistic connection of spirit and rebirth, which we can sense in one particularly masterful parallel-editing sequence, in which a mother’s rancorous, riotous laughter (from the superb Aminata Fall) is intercut with the blood gushing from a goat’s neck. A macabre image, it conveys a premonition of a foreboding destiny that Anta—who faces her mother’s derision with confusion and horror—is trying to escape. Much as in Rocha’s final scene in Black God, White Devil (1964), from the sertão, or desert-like parched lands, to the ocean, Anta’s escape route, as she is being pursed by her mother’s cackle, is also towards the water, as the waves angrily beat the stony shore.
Given that Brazil and Senegal’s cinemas are historically cinemas of underdevelopment, the figure of a child—a recurrent trope—is not entirely innocent. In de Andrade’s Macunaíma, the main protagonist is born an adult yet infantile. A similar dynamic plays out in Mambéty’s hilarious Le Franc (1994), in which an impoverished musician, Marigo (Dieye Ma), wins an improbably high stake in a national lottery—a win whose irony is compounded by the precipitous devaluation of the Senegalese Franc—only to find that his secretive way of storing his ticket is as much a cause of trouble as it is a key to success.
When we first meet Marigo he is being taunted by his landlady (once more, Aminata Fall) as a good-for-nothing. Again and again the image of older women returns: matriarchal, they are a source of power, but also scorn, reducing young men in stature, reminding them of their pitiful economic and social prospects. Marigo’s fear of his landlady is so great he peers at her through a hole in his door, so as to sneak out unnoticed. And still she gets him, pouring sand over him.
Marigo makes friends with a local midget (Demba Bâ) who sells lottery tickets. Like Macunaíma, Le Franc is very much a fable set partly in an urban setting. We are drawn into the expansiveness of the landscape outside the city—the widen-open shots, against which the small figure of Marigo carrying his self-made instrument, pictured at the edge of the frame, appears like a mythic wanderer. The fable-like aspect is further stressed by the acting and the camerawork: the close-up on Aminata’s mouth as she yells makes her a belligerent oracle, and the exaggerated, Chaplinesque movements and gestures of Marigo can be slapsticky one minute, larger-than-life the next. Mambéty further emphasizes the clown association, by dressing Marigo in a bowler hat, the mark of Beckettian misfits, and pants, too short and held way up by suspenders, making him look like he’s outgrown his suit, or simply never learned to wear it properly. In this contrast between the overpowering older woman and the midget, who like Shakespearean jester is wise beyond his stature, Marigo is more of a village idiot—we see in him the picture of abject misery, but also failed attempts at streetwise cunning, and even greed, thus standing at some distance from his dilemmas, and his outsized hopes.
The wondrous paradox of Marigo’s figure is that we never expect him to win anything. Yet he does. He glues the ticket to his door, behind the image of an important activist of the 1940s and 50s, Ndiaye Yadikoone, described as African “Robin Hood,” or popular “social bandit.” Marigo’s troubles ensue when he can’t unglue the ticket, and so transports the entire door to the city’s lottery office, cutting an absurd figure. His adventures bring him to the seashore, where Marigo has a sudden flash of genius—it saves his ticket, but costs him the poster of the revered ideological figure.
A victory, or a moral failure?
Mambéty has said that it was easy to film in Senegal—Africa’s natural beauty was on every corner, and the future of the image, as he saw it, was Africa itself. The West could only add technical mastery to this mix, but the storytelling art was as old as the human race. Aptly put by a filmmaker who was, first and foremost, an adamant, brilliant storyteller. And whose eye saw beauty in most uncanny details—such as the image of Marigo, dressed in his long Venetian-red robe, against the procession of emaciated gnu and the flowing, ever-present blue plastic bags. How to explain the way this image imprints itself on the mind, with all its contradictions? In its purest form, the trash and the starved animals are close to what some more scandalous filmmakers do with this kind of Third World material. But the bags are almost all blue—impossibly blue—and wavy, like scattered clouds. And Marigo’s figure is statuesque, elongated, upright. A contrast of elegance and disruption, a color scheme out of Renaissance paintings.
Mambéty’s storytelling brilliance is again in evidence in The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun (1999), a lighter, but also more heartbreaking film, in which a small handicapped girl, Sili (Lissa Balera) surprises the local newspaper lads by outselling them, finds a friend and protector against bullying her own age, and puts her wages to a good use.
The film opens with an alarming image of a woman who has been accused of stealing. As police officers surround her in a public square, filled with gawkers, she tries to wriggle herself out of their grip. As a result, she is left in only her skirt and bra. We see her behind bars a number of times in the film—still in bra only, her frail figure riveted by angry curses she flings at the police. “A madwoman,” but in Mambéty, whose abstraction is rooted in concrete social observation, also a commentary on the humiliation suffered by small folks without resources, or voice. No wonder Mambéty called his films a “Small Folks Stories” series, “Histoires des petits gens.”
The entire film is then an undoing of that very first image: Sili comes from the periphery to Dakar, to make money, and thus provide for her ailing blind grandmother. She joins a band of newspaper boys, and since she has luck with sales, also causes envy, and makes quick enemies. The conflict between the buoyant and strong-willed Sili and the boys who’d have run out of their beat, creates dramatic tension. Meanwhile Sili’s beautiful face and gracefulness of movement are like a delicate poem—or an exuberant beat, as she dances, aided by her pink crutches—to adults’ praise, and incredulity. It seems that Mambéty was fully aware of making his version of Andersen’s The Little Match Girl, and this being Africa, wanted to rid the viewers of any impulse to pity, or to view his heroine merely through the prism of her circumstance. Instead, he makes Sili a bossy benefactress, who doles out her earnings to friends and strangers alike. Cheeky, vulnerable, imperfect, but benevolent—she is simply unconquerable.