The monologue of her silence

The Senegalese director, Khady Sylla, made films out of the impossible and the untranslatable.

A still from "Le monologue de la muette," by Khady Sylla.

Filmmaker, novelist, storyteller, visionary, Khady Sylla died this year, at the age of 50. Apart from a blog post on African Women in Cinema, little note was made of her passing in the English language media. The Francophone press took some note, and since then there have been one or two festivals and memorials, commemorating Sylla’s work. The relative lack of notice is not particularly surprising. Khady Sylla was a women who recorded women’s silence into revolutionary Spring and listened to the light in the dark spaces where women work and where women go mad.

When she died, Sylla was at work, with her sister, Mariam Sylla, on a new documentary about their grandmother, Penda Diogo Sarr. The film is entitled Simple Parole, and according to those who have seen it, it is a symphony of silences.

Sylla was best known for two films, “Une fenêtre ouverte” (An open window) and “Le monologue de la muette” (The monologue of the mute), about domestic workers, a story that “…takes place in Dakar, which is to say more or less everywhere, and we’ll need more than pretty words to bury it definitively in the past.”

Sylla described her work process on “Une fenêtre ouverte”:

In 1994, fascinated by the number of mad people wandering the streets of Dakar, I decided to make a movie about them. Unfortunately or perhaps inevitably, the film was over-exposed, much like my view of both the wandering mad ones and frankly of the world more generally … A little while after over-exposing the film, I fell sick and crossed over to the other side. I saw what others did not see: the dislocated eye, antiquity of the glass bubble, the sky that had fallen too low, the horizon that come too close, I experienced the real interior.

And somehow, out of the impossible and the untranslatable, Khady Sylla made film, made art, and made sense. In the film, at one point, Sylla says,

You look at yourself in a broken mirror. You see pieces of your face. Your face is crumbled. And the one who looks at you from the broken mirror, he sees pieces of images of your face. Which of you will actually solve the puzzle? Maybe you’re both actually on the same side of the mirror? It is the void. I hallucinated, I soliloquized at the top of my lungs, I was completely oblivious to the world around me. I felt myself dissolving into the light. The light seemed too bright, too alive. It penetrated me through all my pores. I was no longer whole. I was pieces, fragments of Khady. I rocked back and forth in utter madness.

Khady understood that this madness was particular to women, particular to Senegalese women, particular to migrant women, particular to all sorts of particularity, in exactly the same way that it was part of women’s story more or less everywhere.

That is the lesson of Le monologue de la muette. The “mute” here is Amy, a Serer village adolescent who works in Dakar as a domestic worker. Amy spends the movie in radical silence, but we hear the monologue of her silence. And inside Amy is a revolutionary who rails against her super-exploitation and rubbishes the false promises of ‘development’, and who in her heart and soul and deeds, is preparing for the Spring: “Our Spring will come. Our spring will circle the Earth. Spartacus is with us.”

Spartacus is with the maids. Rest in peace, Khady Sylla. The Spring will come, and it will circle the earth.

Further Reading

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Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.