Explaining why his films typically center around the heroism of daily life, Ousmane Sembene once said: “We have most individuals, both men and women, who are struggling on a daily basis in a heroic way and the outcome of whose struggle leaves no doubt. This is a struggle whose purpose is not to seize power, and I think the strength of our entire society rests on that struggle.”
The New York African Film Festival just concluded its 24th edition. This year, it put Senegal in the spotlight, featuring five short films (“Senegal Spotlight”) from there. Whether heroic or not, the five short films capture the daily struggle of ordinary Senegalese citizens and touch upon the main issues that the Senegal’s urban society faces.
In the last scene of Maman(s), the eight-year old Aida asks, “Mom, does dad still love you?” To which her mom responds, “Yes, of course”, looking away. This film portrays the crammed lives of Senegalese migrants in the suburbs of Paris, where cultural and societal baggage is compounded by the economic hardships of living in the periphery. When the father returns from Senegal with a second wife and baby in tow, we see through Aida’s eyes the imbalance and struggle to adjustment to this new life. This film is foremost about cultural translation in foreign spaces, immigrant families in tiny places, and surviving both physical and psychological violence.
Violence is also the central theme of Marabout (directed by Alassane Sy, whose acting résumé include Restless City, Mediterranea, and White Colour Black), in which a group of street children commonly known as “talibé” are abused by their teacher/guardian (the “marabout”). State and society fail to solve this tragedy that is so visible in Senegal’s main cities. A police detective spends his day chasing around a kid who has stolen his phone only to later come to face with the brutal lives of the talibé. Perhaps as an indictment of the state failure, Detective Diagne arrives too late, after one of the kids has slit the marabout’s throat, and escaped.
Escaping is also a major theme across all the films. In Boxing Girl, a young woman escapes her boring life as a hairdresser when she finds a pair of boxing gloves and tries them on. Guided by the mystical power of the gloves, she wanders around the streets and ends up in a boxing ring, after she is told that “Not everyone is made to be a champion.”
The young men also try to escape their daily struggle through treacherous migration routes or finding refuge in their dreams of leaving. With the ocean running out of fish because of the EU and Chinese fishing boats, local young fishermen find themselves idling, dreaming of escape. That is the story of Matar, the main protagonist in the film Dem! Dem! “Leaving is the only solution. So things change,” Matar tells her girlfriend.
Samedi Cinema is a much lighter story of escape, as two kids try to figure out ways to find money to see the final movie screening before the last theatre in town shuts down. This of course raises the issue of the lack of movie theaters and cultural venues in Senegal, despite the very dynamic Senegalese film industry.