Emitai [1971] – A Thoughtful African Perspective on the Colonial Era


Ousmane Sembene, who has made a series of seminal Senagalese movies, is generally hailed as the ‘father of African cinema’. Born in 1923, Sembene has worked at the docks of Marseilles, where he got acquainted with French trade union movement, and later the commuist party. He wrote his first novel Black Docker in 1956 and his much acclaimed novel God’s Bits of Wood in the year 1960. Since Sembene felt writing could only enable him to reach the circle of cultural elite, he opted to get trained in cinema from a Moscow film school. He made his first short Borrom Sarret in 1963 and his first feature film in 1966, titled La Noire de (‘Black Girl’). While Sembene’s first two feature films – Black Girl and Mandabi (1968) – dealt with neocolonialism, i.e., set in the period after Senegal’s independence from France (on June 20, 1960), his third film Emitai (1971) is set in the colonial era as French troops abducted young African men to fight in World War II.


Sembene’s cinema has repeatedly offered counter-narrative to the colonizer’s representations of Africanness. Some of his earlier films, including Emitai, exhibit a kind of cinematic roughness compared to the smooth production techniques employed in European and American cinema. But Sembene’s uncompromising subject matter and his ability to innovate filmic medium as a way of fighting against neocolonial oppression make him one of the influential members of the ‘third cinema’. The term ‘third cinema’, first coined by Argentinian film-makers Fernando Solanos and Octavio Gettino, hints at the use of revolutionary film techniques to shine light on the condition of disenfranchised people around the world, and to further arouse them to come together and revolt in masses. Of course the radicalism promoted in such films encountered threat of censorship, ban, and imprisonment (‘third cinema’ largely met its demise in the age of globalization).




Ousmane Sembene has once declared that, We have to have the courage to say that in the colonial period we were sometimes colonized with the help of our own leaders. We mustn't be ashamed of our faults and our errors.” Perhaps, this remark is at the heart of every Sembene’s rich, complex dramas that tackle the myriad ways the colonial era and neo-colonialism is haunting the African consciousness. Apart from the unsavory portrayal of the French colonizers, Sembene persistently alludes to patriarchal dominance in the tribes. Interestingly, the film-maker suggests the rise of Abrahamic religions and European colonialism in the African region as the reason for an oppressive patriarchial system. Women in traditional African system is said to be largely free from sexual exploitation and oppression. It is alleged that only with the colonialist suppression, the women’s status in African society and the egalitarianism of ethnic tribes were lost. Emitai echoes this line of thought and it’s expressed more profoundly in Sembene’s swansong, Moolade (2004).


Emitai revolves around the Diola people, a small ethnic minority living in the Casamance region of Senegal (the region of Sembene’s birth), who possesses distinct culture, gods, and language. The elders in Diola act as a kind of spokesperson, conversing and learning the mandate of gods and spirits (‘Emitai’ is the name for their ‘god of thunder’). The tribe’s women take over the major responsibility of cultivating and harvesting the rice crops. The Diolas believe rice crop is sacred and it is the property of the gods. Emitai opens with able-bodied young men of Diola village abducted and then recruited for French Foreign Legion. 



The colonial troops are enlisted to serve in the army of Marshal Petain. As World War II escalates and foreign troops increases in number, the colonial administration impose a new rice tax across Senegal. Fearing resistance, troops march with guns to seize 50 tons of Diola’s rice-crop. The elders, including the village-chief, wait for gods’ counsel in front of a shrine. But the gods stay silent despite the ritual sacrifices to appease their anger. Meanwhile, the black African soldiers, under the orders of a French commander, round up the village’s woman. The Diolas may have lost their sons and brothers to the French colonizers, but the rice solely meant for spiritual sustenance couldn’t be given up. The elders’ humiliation, the women’s resistance, and the savagery of the French allow Sembene to construct a multi-layered examination of ruthless colonial economy and inflexible cultural beliefs.


It could be argued that the rice cereal, primary reason for the conflict and the eventual tragedy, could be given away by the villagers since it’s largely needed for religious ceremonies. The French argue they need it for their troops at war. But towards the film’s end, there’s news of Marshal Petain getting replaced by General de Gaulle and subsequently the French demand for overseas food is put into question. Moreover, Sembene doesn’t attune to official history and hail de Gaulle as the hero who resisted Nazi rule. For the West African soldiers who take this change with bafflement (ironically they only argue over the ludicrousness of a 'General' taking over from a 'Marshal'), there are no fundamental differences and they are still colonized subjects of the French empire. 




From an aesthetic perspective, Emitai, similar to all other Sembene’s movies, promotes framing techniques that keeps certain distance from individual characters, for the purpose of contemplation as well as to wholly regard the collective tribal society. Sembene use of language is particularly interesting in Emitai. The elders of Diola use language to make decisions for the collective. Yet the language only serves to divide them as they repeatedly talk of the humiliation and stay in their corner. The Diola women rarely utter a word in the narrative, but they use silence to take a collective action against the French. 


The gods in Emitai more or less serve as dreadful phantoms that look as much threatening as their colonial oppressors. In one dreamy sequence when the village chief’s life fades away, Sembene takes us into the reality of the Diola’s religious belief. The sequence respects as well as subtly undermines the native customs and traditions. Nevertheless, Sembene believes that the rituals and customs cause less harm than the ones caused by foreign colonizers. In his after-life, the village-chief appears in front of gods and denounces them for their inaction as if he is their equal, but the same inclusiveness couldn’t expected from the 'foreign devils'. 


Emitai (97 minutes) certainly suffers from the kind of visual roughness, found in most of ‘third cinema’. The non-professional actors also couldn’t do much to smooth out such problems. However, film-makers like Ousmane Sembene bring forth a more plural, ambiguous vision of African history, social structure, and culture which isn’t tainted by the Western influences. 


Touki Bouki [1973] – A Visually Striking Critique on Post-Colonial Mentality and Hollow Dreams


Apart from being a master storyteller, Martin Scorsese was well-known for his encyclopedic knowledge about cinema and for his commitment to preserve or restore the lost and forgotten cinematic gems of 20th century. In 1990, the American film-maker founded non-profit group Film Foundation which aided in restoring a great number of American, British and West European movies. Later in 2007, Scorsese founded the World Cinema Project (WCP) to revive cinematic wonders from countries that has perpetually missed out on film preservation efforts. The mission of WCP is to focus on distinct cinema that has been wholly left out of Western reading of the film history. The first in the WCP series represented films from Sengegal, Turkey, Morocco, Bangladesh, South Korea, and Mexico. 


Directed by Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambety, the resplendently restored version of Touki Bouki (aka Hyena’s Journey, 1973) is an energetic and overtly symbolic document of a specific time and place rarely witnessed on-screen. Djibril Diop Mambety was 28 years of age when he made Touki Bouki, who didn’t receive any formal training in cinema (he made his first short Contras’ City at the age of 24). Satirical and wildly experimental, Mr. Mambety’s visual imagery makes passing references to Nouvelle Vague, especially the films of Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless, Pierrot Le fou). Mambety intended Touki Bouki to be the first of trilogy of film about the effects of neocolonialism on the African mindset. However, it took the director 19 years to return with his next feature film Hyenas (1992), a corrosive tale of human greed and corruption. Mr. Mabety was later diagnosed with lung cancer and died in 1998 before he could make the third film.   


Touki Bouki


Djibril Diop Mambety has embraced film-making at the time Senegalese and African cinema on the whole was young. Ousmane Sembene, hailed as Father of African Cinema, made his first feature Black Girl in 1966, which was touted as the first film made by a Black African. With French production companies aiding the young African natives, soon several exciting and new film-makers portrayed their unique vision of disintegrated, impoverished yet very lively African society. 


Malian film-maker Souleymanne Cisse (The Wind, Yeleen) and Burkina Faso’s Dani Kouyate (Keita: The Heritage of the Girot) were some of the other African film-makers who followed the path of Sembene and Mambety. Vibrant, marvelously colorful, fantastical and angry in tone, Mambety’s formal and thematic approach is entirely at odds with the works of Ousmane Sembene. Few months back, I read in an essay about African cinema (sorry, couldn’t exactly remember where) that equated Sembene’s approach to sublime works of Yasujiro Ozu and Mambety’s to iconoclastic vision of Nagisa Oshima.



Touki Bouki opens with an explosive and disturbing scene, one that burns into your memory and wakes you up from slumber. A boy leads large horned cows across a dry plain on their way to slaughterhouse, encircled with cacophony of cattle’s screams. The unnamed boy returns back alone and then the narrative cuts to a shot of Mory (Magaye Niang) riding through a shantytown in his motorbike with cow’s horns attached to its front. We see a road sign reading ‘Nice, La Riviera et la Corse’, but it doesn’t indicate the French paradise, but only the shantytown where people dream of escaping from poverty. 


Mory and his college-going girlfriend Anta (Mareme Niang) fantasize about moving to Paris (Josephine Baker’s ‘Paris….Paris’ song is heard in the background) and forge a new life, drawing in the anger of their traditionalist family.  Lacking money to make the trip, the duo concocts different schemes to make their dream a reality. From stealing the earnings of a local wrestling match to ripping-off a wealthy friend, Mory and Anta run amok amid the hometown to purchase a ticket on a ocean liner traveling to Paris. These adventures alternately exudes starkly realistic and a carnivalesque or surrealistic tone.


With Touki Bouki, director Mambety exchanges linear narrative structure for poetic evocations and symbolic values. Perhaps, the director while sharply employing the visual flourishes of French New Wave sees the characters and their immediate surroundings from a very symbolic perspective that there’s not a strong emotional investment. Mory and Anta rather than being fully-realized characters looks like well-adorned conduits expressing the desperation and rebellious mindset of post-colonial African youth. However, Mr. Mabety’s explosive visual tendencies and fiery approach to the themes pushes us to somehow overlook the sparse emotional investment.


The ‘Godardian’ contemplation of the African youth’s false or broken dreams acutely addresses the cultural and moral conflicts between new African society and apparitions of European colonialism. The brilliance of Touki Bouki lies in the way Mambety darts between provocative, tempestuous mood and sad, yearning mood. There’s a brilliant scene where the couple lay naked in smooth, elevated rock, looking over the glistening ocean and desiring for the total freedom. In one comic interlude, Mory nakedly parades aboard a stolen car that cuts to dreamy shot of people welcoming their new political leader. All the disparately toned sequences emphasize how the ‘better life’ that’s comprehended in terms of material wealth doesn’t bestow any greater freedom, but rather makes post-colonial nations to only embrace servitude.


Touki Bouki (95 minutes) is an impressive and daringly experimental African cinema which wildly chronicles two young lovers’ elusive dream of freedom and riches. Despite flaws in structure, acting, and characterization, the outstanding visual conceptualization perfectly delineates the raw genius of the West African film-maker Djibril Diop Mambety.


Bug [2006] – A Profoundly Disturbing Claustrophobic Horror


A lonely and isolated individual could come across a loving personality who’s on the same page with him/her, and from whom a blissful bond is developed. But what if this lonely person meets an unhinged personality, who passes off nothing but a severe dose of paranoia? This happens to be the basic set-up for William Friedkin’s unnerving chamber piece Bug (2006), an adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Broadway play. Of course, the idea that hazardous delusion or extreme mental illness is contagious, isn't instantly convincing. Yet Mr. Friedkin brings up brilliant feverish intensity and verisimilitude to the proceedings so as to cloak it’s otherwise obvious weaknesses. 


Friedkin’s methodical peeling of the layers beneath the simple story turns the horror element predominately metaphoric: as a bizarre contemplation on PTSD or a reflection of our personal and collective insecurities, boosted by government’s corruptible and unfathomable actions. From The Exorcist (1973), Sorcerer (1977) to Killer Joe (2011), William Friedkin has shown willingness to deeply descent into madness and destruction; Bug is a vital addition to that uncompromising vision.



Bug is entirely set in a dingy, low-rent motel room in the middle-of-nowhere. The film opens with a series of helicopter shots to emphasize on the remoteness of the place. These shots are cut to shots of old ringing telephone, the piercing sound infesting the surroundings with high-wire tension. Middle-aged Agnes White (Ashley Judd) occupies a squalid room in the motel. She keeps on receiving the strange phone calls, but when picked up she hears nothing on the other side. The calls might be from her recently paroled and abusive ex-husband (Harry Connick, Jr.). Agnes dreadfully waits for his arrival and only finds solace in chatting with her lesbian friend R.C. (Lynn Collins), both of them working as waitress at local bar. R.C. introduces Agnes to the mysterious, reticent guy Peter Evans (Michael Shannon). 


Agnes merely exists in the daze of booze and drugs. Her emotional bruises are so deep to be immediately solved by newfound love. However, she is empathetic towards the fellow loner, Peter. He seems sensitive compared to her violent husband. But there’s also a feeling that Peter is hiding something or there’s something not quite right with him. Irrespective of his slightly balmy nature, Agnes falls for him and gradually gets drawn into his sickeningly scary delusional world-view. What follows is a delirious examination of the demented psyche. 



Bug certainly boasts Friedkin’s weirdest and disturbing visuals. He fascinatingly plays up the character’s inner state through seemingly random elements, like an empty shopping cart or bag of onions, whose depth of meaning is revealed later. Although set mostly inside a single room, Friedkin’s impressive craft fittingly employs sound, light, and color to hint at the character’s dimensions. He subjugates the typical theatrical feeling by building the character with economic yet precise visual details. The narrative mostly evokes subjective viewpoint (for eg, the ominous buzz of smoke alarm or sound of helicopter blades). 


While the director allows us to understand & immerse ourselves in the duo’s isolation and sadness, he keeps us at distance when displaying their deranged conviction. The most interesting interlude of Friedkin’s direction is the montage sequence of sexual intimacy between Agnes and Peter. The camera repeatedly lingers over their bodies, and more than suggesting passion, it stages the intercourse as a form of hazardous infestation. From then on, the visuals get increasingly wacky and further enlivened by torrential performances (the ‘teeth-pulling’ scene is a testament to Friedkin’s visceral power).   




Ashley Judd delivers her best and most complex performance in the role of Agnes. She effortlessly brings out the character’s vulnerability and warmth. That crazy monologue towards the end, delivered in the form of a wail, got to be one of the unforgettable rants in cinema. Michael Shannon astoundingly reprises the role he played on the stage. By the time he played Peter Evans, Shannon was in cinema for more than a decade. His towering performance in Bug served as prelude to his biggest breakthrough roles in Jeff Nicols’ movies (Shotgun Stories & Take Shelter). Shannon’s portrayal of madness avoids hamminess. He makes Peter dangerously odd and at the same time, an endearing figure.


Not everything in Bug is perfectly convincing. Agnes’ sudden transition or downward spiral (irrespective of her depressed nature) feels a bit rushed-out. Friedkin takes good time to set up her character, only to make us witness her rapid disintegration in Peter’s acidic delusions. But essentially, the movie stays raw and disconcerting till the end; its preposterous elements are somewhat acceptable. There’s poignance in Agnes and Peter’s utmost degradation, since it is rooted in their loneliness. And, the true horror in Bug doesn’t just lie in physical self-mutilation or pyrotechnics, but in depicting how two lost souls could find true love and yet descend into the chasms of hell.