Monday, November 14, 2022

Xala (1975)

Ousmane Sembène is well-regarded in film-circles as one of the pioneers in African cinema. Hailing from Senegal, he began making movies after the country's decolonisation from the French. Unlike some though, he didn't think all problems were solved with their departure...

The French have been kicked out of Senegal and the locals have taken up the government themselves. Slipping easily into position, the old corruption continues steadily. Ruthless businessman El Hadji is celebrating his third marriage, but on the night of consummation, he's unable to get it up. After a few nights of failure, he realises he is cursed, and tries various means of removing it. While he searches, he neglects his duties, and the curse may be the least of his worries...

Xala (meaning Curse, of impotence) is a decent enough picture, and in some ways a great showcase for what the African peoples could do with film. It's well-made in general, and also well presented, getting across a pretty universal message, while also highlighting Senegal's specific issues.

The film has some pretty obvious but no less effective satire. The native Africans enter the government building for the first time in tribal dress...then 5 minutes later they've already swapped them out for their old 'master's' suits and ties. Disregard for local culture and adoration of foreign tastes is a big part of Xala. As for El Hadji, he ridicules his own people's beliefs (except when it can get him something), and boasts about kicking out the colonisers...while speaking French.

The others meanwhile are a bunch of snobs, who speak of fancy holidays to European nations, complaining that there are too many negros there now. They are uncaring about the Senegalese people outside their ritzy bubble, declaring cripples and beggars in the streets to be human rubbish. Meanwhile, the working class are downtrodden, like a Wolof magazine seller who makes no sales in his country's native language.

Xala is also a strong feminist film. Many of the women here are presented as strong, intelligent, and resourceful, leading the country into a better future. In contrast with the men, most of whom here are presented as corrupt, weak, and impotent.

Onto the characters. It's El Hadji's first family who get the most focus, from his frustrated but accepting first wife, to his rebellious and proud daughter. The kinda-jealous second wife disappears partway through and is never seen again (from what I could tell, since a lot of these characters blend together), while the third wife is a total non-factor. Despite being such an important part of the story, El Hadji's new young trophy wife has barely any dialogue, and zero personality. We never learn what she's making of all this, if she's happy or sad, brainwashed or clever. She disappears entirely after a while, and never gets a conclusion.

And lastly there is El Hadji himself. He's a bit of a ratbag, yet I feel the movie doesn't do a good enough job of showing it. Yeah we can plainly see he's not a very nice person, but there aren't really enough instances of him causing that much trouble. The worst we see is smacking his daughter for challenging him, he makes one slightly shady deal, and he orders some beggars to be relocated about an hour in, but that's it. It feels like we should have seen a lot more, because as it stands, he hasn't done enough onscreen to really warrant such a punishment. Because of this the comeuppance isn't as satisfying as it could've been.

Here is the biggest problem facing Xala, and it's nothing to do with the story itself-It's the runtime! In contrast with Sembène's earlier feature Black Girl, which ran at a brisk 55 minutes, Xala is a punishing 2 hours (plus change!). It feels like a really good 80 minute film that got dragged out far beyond its limit.

As a result, the pacing in Xala is often extremely slow, and we get an abundance of superfluous scenes, like cars pulling up and parking, or people walking. Lots of little things that could have easily been cut. When things are actually happening, like conversations, or important events, things move at a decent click.

Described in some places as a comedy, that's not entirely accurate. There are a few moments that might cause laughs, though it's not really a laugh-out-loud picture. It's never too dramatic though. The ending itself is a surprising moment. It's an amusingly gross way to end the film (and the sounds the actors make really highlight it!).

The cast do an alright job. Thierno Leye is a good lead, and the wives and daughter do well. The guy playing Ahmed was the best, and had a sense of Caribbean fun, if that makes any sense.

The soundtrack here is pretty good, though not perfect. I really liked some of the instrumental tracks, one in particular. It had a fun ring to it! Some of the ethnic singing can be a bit, uhhh...if I say grating, I won't start a war with Senegal, will I? Well they're not all bad in any case.

Sembène does a good job with the direction, and frames some shots very well. He focuses a bit too much on the mundane for my liking though, whether deliberately or not. I understand what a car looks like, stop showing me how they park!

Xala has its issues, and must, must be watched with a fast-forward button handy, but it's not bad. If you're curious about African cinema and don't wanna go the easy way out and choose an Egyptian classic, this is worth checking out...

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