Director: Ousmane Sembene
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
Senegal, the 1970s. The country has secured independence after overthrowing its French colonial rulers. An economic elite has seized control of the Chamber of Commerce. One such member is El Hadji Aboucedar Beye, a businessman who is also about to marry his third wife, much younger than he is. His daughter by his first wife disapproves and asks her mother to divorce her father, but she refuses. The daughter also speaks her mind to her father, who rebukes her. After a lavish ceremony, Beye attempts to consummate his marriage, but is unable to. He is impotent. The president sends Beye to a witchdoctor, who seems to cure Beye of his impotence. Beye pays the witchdoctor with a cheque that bounces. The witchdoctor then restores Beye’s impotence. Beye’s growing economic problems then deepen, resulting in his explusion from the Chamber of Commerce for discrediting them. His possessions and businesses are then seized by the government and his wives leave him. Beye is then approached by a man who claims to be able to cure his impotence. The man reveals himself as Beye’s half-brother, whom Beye cheated out of his inheritance many years ago. The man tells Beye he will be cured if he strips naked and allows him and his friends to spit at him. Beye complies.
One of the first and most significant of Africa’s post-colonial film makers, Sembene had already made internationally recognised films, such as ‘Black Girl’ (1966), which explored issues arising from decolonisation and its legacy. ‘Xala’ is considered Sembene’s most acclaimed film, a biting satire on colonialism and the self-destructiveness and corruption that followed independence; namely the way in which one set of rulers are overthrown and replaced by an elite which maintains the status quo, despite its promises to create a new society for its people.
Sembene begins ‘Xala’ at the exact point at which independence was won, but not on the streets or with political negotiations, but with the peaceful transition that occured within the Chamber of Commerce, where economic power and influence resided. It is a strange and curious scene, in which three French politicians depart without a word, seamlessly replaced by a number of boisterous Senegalese businessmen. Their victory speeches, proclaiming the start of African socialism with a human face and government in the interests of the people are brief, very quickly making way for stasis. Sembene’s purpose is to demonstrate how with independence, nothing actually changed. Power corrupted those with honourable intentions, who then acted in their own self-interest, maximising their own economic gains, rather than governing for a country suffering from much poverty, as Sembene constantly reminds us with his cuts to exterior scenes, including long takes of Dakar city.
The recurring motif of a silent French businessman, with access to the President is a constant reminder of Senegal’s colonial past. His purpose demonstrates the continuing French influence upon the destiny of the country; how it has been unable to completely loosen itself of history and embark on its own independent future. The first instance the businessman appears, he is handing briefcases full of money to the new economic elite. Perhaps this is an indication of French financial interests in Senegal. Whilst it may have politically severed its ties, it still wields influence. His omnipresence, always overseeing events, encourages the corruption of these new rulers, but he never needs to get his hands dirty. This is an especially subtle satirical point by Sembene, possibly made to be overlooked by the present administration, who presumably would have rejected claims there was any French influence in Senegal still. But then what of Beye’s insistence on speaking French at all times, despite his daughter speaking to him in Wolof, a local dialect which is also spoken by the non-politicians? Is language not one of the finest examples of cultural imperialism? Surely any country boasting of independence would abandon the language imposed upon it?
Whilst independence might have made promises never kept, Sembene recognises that there were never attempts to redress gender inequalities, which sit at the heart of ‘Xala’. Beye might be marrying for the third time to a much younger woman, but he has two wives already resentful of the situation (the elder wife is more pragmatic, but still frustrated). Beye takes pride in his polygamy, barely interested in the potential consequences. Only his daughter, with her more modern ideas, expresses her disgust audibly, but her father tells her “you can take your revolution elsewhere”. Independence did not necessarily being progressive ideas with it; many ancient Senegalese customs were maintained despite promises of a modern future. The partiarchical society was maintained, reflecting a sense of “as you were” in how Senegal was to be governed.
It is interesting how Beye’s impotence, which could easily be the subject of ridicule, is understated. Presumably Sembene wanted this physical impotence to be a metaphorical device; to reflect the political impotence of Senegal to move on from its colonial past. Beye’s physical impotence is also a reflection of his economic corruption. The humour that is attached to his impotence comes not from his inability to be aroused on his wedding night, but the fact that he attempts to fool a witchdoctor with a bouncing cheque in the way that he has managed to fool others in the past, which naturally comes back to haunt him.
A subtle satire with bite, ‘Xala’ is a denunciation of post-independence African democracies which say one thing and do another, emulating Western ideals at the expense of pursuing an agenda in the interests of the people. The greed and narcissism of the new elites which governed is truly punctured; witness the amusing and surreal touches, such as Beye’s Mercedes being washed by imported mineral water, but there is a sense of regret and disillusionment with how the worst aspects of colonialism have been continued. For a film made on a shoestring, there are of course shortcomings, especially the stilted and amateurish acting, but that is easy to overlook because ‘Xala’ is a film brimming with ideas and fuelled by a real sense of indignation, and rightly considered one of the finest films to emerge from the African continent.