Filmmaker Ousmane Sembene first came to my attention during my very brief college career, which consisted in toto of a single Third World Film Studies class. Sembene’s 1966 feature Black Girl – the story of a Senegalese woman working as a Parisian maid – was one of the course highlights (the only other film I can remember seeing was Courage of the People, a brilliant, and now elusive, Bolivian feature about a tin-mining strike).
The Senegalese director is also one of the focal points of Pacific Film Archive’s current series, African Film Festival 2017, and, though the widely available Black Girl isn’t on the schedule PFA does have a special treat on tap: a rare screening of its archival print of Sembene’s little-known 1968 feature Mandabi (The Money Order). Preceded by a 4 p.m. showing of the recent documentary Sembene!, Mandabi screens at 6 p.m. on Sunday, April 2.
In contrast to the European-set Black Girl, Mandabi takes place almost entirely in Senegal’s capital city of Dakar, where the film’s protagonist Ibrahim (Makhouredia Gueye), has two wives, a handful of children, and no income with which to support them. Nonetheless, the vain Ibrahim keeps up appearances by visiting the barber, where we see him getting his nostril hairs trimmed with a straight razor.
Wait, don’t go away!
The arrival of a letter from his nephew, Abdou, is a surprise and a source of new hope for the beleaguered Ibrahim. Working as a street cleaner in Paris, Abdou has conscientiously saved 25,000 francs for the family, which he’s sent to them in the form of a money order — now Ibrahim will be able to pay back his accumulated debt and still have a little left over.
The money order, however, proves more curse than blessing. In order to cash it at the local post office, Ibrahim needs an ID card; in order to get an ID card, he needs a birth certificate; in order to get a birth certificate, he needs to know the date of his birth — and then, of course, there’s the matter of getting his picture taken.
Mandabi details its protagonist’s Kafkaesque adventure and the widespread corruption and dishonesty he encounters and participates in. By the final reel, virtually everyone we’ve met has been implicated in one way or another – including Ibrahim’s westernized nephew, Hamath, whose ability to circumvent bureaucratic roadblocks is matched by his willingness to pocket his uncle’s money. Only the neighborhood’s scrupulously honest mailman emerges with reputation intact.
It’s impossible, of course, to know whether or not Sembene’s cinematic pep talk had a beneficial effect on his fellow citizens, but today Senegal is considered one of the most democratic and least corrupt African nations, and ranks ahead of countries like Greece, India, and Turkey at the international level. Something’s gone right in the tiny country, and I’m inclined to give this excellent little film – and its creator – some of the credit.
Footnote: somewhat bizarrely, some of France’s most notable pornographers worked on this film, including producer Robert de Nesle, cinematographer Paul Soulignac, and editor Gilbert Kikoine. Don’t worry, though – there’s nothing remotely prurient about Mandabi.