Monday, February 4, 2013
Ousmane Sembene's Xala is a sharp, bitter satire of Senegalese independence, lampooning the corruption and incompetence of the sham self-government of Sembene's home country, comparing the new black leaders' shameful failings to sexual impotence. One of these new leaders is El Hadji (Thierno Leye), a wealthy and well-respected businessman who is about to marry his third wife. On his wedding night, however, he is unable to consummate his marriage to his beautiful young wife; he has been cursed with a "xala" that renders him impotent. This impotence in the bedroom mirrors the impotence of Hadji and the other corrupt black businessmen and politicians of the new supposedly independent government, because while triumphantly claiming to have taken Senegal away from white European colonialists, this new government is deeply in the pocket of the colonialists, who still wield their power in fact if not in title.
In the opening scenes, the French are kicked out of the Chamber of Commerce, their statues and other paraphernalia left outside on the steps of the chamber as a symbol of the change in government. But the change is not as dramatic as it initially seems: by the time the new black council has met for the first time, they've shed their African garb for Western tuxedos, and the former white rulers are still in the room, now handing out suitcases full of money to the new black ministers. The changes are purely cosmetic. The French art has been replaced with a photograph of the new black president, and black men now sit around the conference table, but they are puppets of the old white rulers, who now adopt a subservient pose while still controlling everything from behind the scenes. Sembene stages this all methodically: the changeover from the whites to the blacks is orderly, as is the smooth process by which the white bankers and politicians sneak back into the governing room. It's like a revolving door by which the whites are kicked out, without fanfare, and re-enter the chambers of power just as easily.
Sembene is relentlessly parodying this state of affairs, and the humiliation of Hadji is a kind of symbolic revenge against all the leaders of his type, who claim to represent the people but only work to enrich themselves. Throughout the film, more and more ugly revelations about Hadji slowly come out, as his life crumbles around him under the curse of the xala. He's involved in numerous corrupt, under-the-table deals, accepting cash to sell off reserves of badly needed food intended for poor regions afflicted with droughts. Hadji and his friends are remote from those struggles. While the mass of his country's people starves to death, Hadji buys TVs and cars for his third wife, using the money from European bribes and his own corrupt deals to pay for the luxuries of his wives.
Some of the film's most powerful scenes focus not on Hadji but on the vast lower classes of the country who he ignores in his own quest for personal enrichment. El Hadji's sexual plight is juxtaposed against the genuine suffering of the crippled beggars and poverty-stricken villagers who Hadji and his fellow ministers refer to as "human rubbish." The ministers supposedly represent the people, but it's obvious that they only represent themselves, that they're out of touch with the way real people live their lives in this poor, drought-plagued country. One man comes to the city hoping to buy food for his poor village with the scant money the villagers have scraped together, but his funds are stolen and he's left to live with the other beggars. Another man sells a political newspaper that he brags is the only Wolof-language journal in the country, a sign of how marginalized African culture has become in a country where the ruling classes, black or white, speak French. Hadji's politicized daughter Rama (Myriam Niang) refuses to speak French, infuriating her father by answering him in Wolof even though he speaks to her in French, and she also refuses to drink the bottled Evian water that's such a prominent status symbol for the black ministers and upper class.
The black ministers try to separate themselves from African culture, decrying the superstitions of tradition and religion in their efforts to assimilate with the Europeans. (Of course, virtually the only tradition the male ministers don't reject is the traditional ability to marry more than one woman.) Thus the "xala" that afflicts Hadji is an expression of the Africanness that he rejects, and his increasingly desperate efforts to overturn the curse bring him into contact with precisely the superstitions and traditional beliefs that his Eurocentric attitudes oppose. Sembene is symbolically forcing the black ruling class with their European pretensions to "lower" themselves back to the level of the rest of the people: one village witch doctor tells Hadji that he has to crawl towards his wife on hands and knees, a charm clenched between his teeth.
The film is at times savagely funny in its mockery of Hadji and his friends, and there's a great deal of anger in Sembene's outrage at the ways in which these business and governmental leaders have simply acted as puppets for a de facto French regime. In one scene, Sembene even gives Hadji himself a speech decrying the hypocrisy of his fellow ministers, who eventually turn their backs on Hadji, essentially for getting caught committing the same crimes that they've all committed. The ending, especially, is seething with rage, as Sembene makes Hadji an effigy for the entire corrupt ruling establishment. Xala balances this righteous anger with its humanist, realist depictions of the poor and the maimed, the people suffering from poverty and hunger while men like Hadji exploit the country and the people, only pretending to represent black revolution and black self-government.