The Wagoner's Lad
“Looking Back, Looking Forward: 20 Years of the New York African Film Festival” says it all for the films, photo-art show and panel discussion at Lincoln Center, then to continue over two months at other educational and cultural sites. Opening Night marks the return of Senegalese Ousmane Sembčne’s 1992 Guelwaar, which also inaugurated the first festival. Among the lineup of old and new that follows is that Father of Black African Filmmakers’ eighteen-minute Wolof-titled Borom Sarret/Le charretier/The Waggoner, itself preceding Ousmane Sembčne All at Once/ Ousmane Sembčne Tout ŕ la fois, a filmed interview with the novelist-director-screenwriter followed by a Q&A with its director Christine Delorme.
Sembčne switched from dockworker to expatriate novelist in France to film student in Moscow so as to use the visual medium to reach a larger, less literate audience on his home continent. The longtime Communist escaped dull Soviet Realism to produce stark, satiric but popular, grimly humorous films. His 1966 Black Girl was the first-ever feature by a black sub-Sahara African, but three years before that, after unreleased documentary short The Songhay Empire, Borom Sarret was the first-ever indigenous black African film, period.
The nameless title character (played by Ly Abdoulay) sets out early with a wobbly-wheeled cart pulled by nag Albourah, to ply his trade of poor man’s Dakar taxi-bus-transport. He voiceover comments on his passengers, most of them regulars, some of whom pay in kind like a few nuts to nibble on and some of whom are freeloaders who hop on and off without a word of thanks or a coin.
He grumbles to himself but does not berate or deny anyone. He gives his meager money to a wandering street taleteller, or griot -- of himself, the director said, “I am a storyteller, to express the secret pulsation of my people”-- and goes away broke on taking a recently arrived stranger with a dead baby to the cemetery which will not admit them without proper paperwork.
Cajoled with promises to venture into the off-limits upper European city of colonial wealth, where his well-dressed black tempter disappears into a taxi, the cart-driver is stopped by police, “fined” the value of the cart which he has to hock, and blames everyone and no one. On his empty-handed return to safety in his own neighborhood, his wife hands him their baby and goes out with “I promise you will eat tonight.”
Remarking on her interview with the director, who had died the year before her fifty-two minute documentary was released in 2008, Delorme made an educated guess as to the wife’s intended destination, since prostitution to relieve destitution had been among the topics discussed.
Seated facing the camera against a background leading to a courtyard filled with what seem family and children’s noises, Sembčne nevertheless does not so much reveal his advertised “private and family life” as hammer certain themes. The Frenchwoman is discreetly left foreground, across a round hammered metal table, while the twinkle in the interviewee’s eyes and his tone of voice may lead one to suspect he is sometimes having her (and us) on, as when he abruptly and humorously but firmly stands and calls an end to the proceedings.
Though his strongest direct indictment of European treachery, the banned-in-France Camp de Thiaroye, was apparently discussed, it is unfortunately not included, nor is Black Girl’s incisive portrait of colonial displacement in the race- and class-conscious mother country.
There are only the briefest of still photos of the man’s past as a child influenced at home by (often baleful) Islam and Catholicism or his young man’s stay in Marseilles and Moscow. What is left is essentially a TV-style headshot interview, of an interest confined to cinema fans and those of Africanist leanings. Sembčne does not out of hand reject Old World mores but goes beyond them within his own native African context and languages; accepts blacks’ complicity with Christian and Muslim missionaries in the slave trade -- Ceddo/The People banned in his country; ridicules post-colonial Francofile manners -- Mandabi and Xala/Impotence; brands foreign aid as twenty-first-century slavery and colonialism; and is insistent on the rôle of women in his world as in Guenwaar and 2000 Faat-Kiné.