Mandabi Ousmane Sembele (1968; Fr) Makhouredia Gueye
viewed Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle 20 June 2021; ticket: £7
…and they will be bearded…
Sembele’s ‘Mandabi’ set in Dakar, in post colonial Senegal, offers a perspective into the lives of its inhabitants, the conditions under which they live, and hints as to how these conditions will come to haunt us all. Sembele’s script penetrates into the ordinary through a simple device that opens up the ambiguities of this society: the need to cash a postal order. Particular to Sembele as an African film maker is his intimate understanding of the richness of his subject. He doesn’t need the pretext of murder or robbery, he just needs a postal order and the situation unfolds.
The opening sequence of Mandabi sees the protagonist Ibrahim sitting in one of the town’s squares receiving the attentions of a barber, who’s using an open razor to depilate Ibrahim’s nose and to apply the finishing touches to his coiffure. Ibrahim is immediately represented as a man who is vain proud and clean shaven, from head to chin: he faces the world on these terms. But it’s a front, and the sequence introduces the interwoven purpose of Sembele’s film: to satirise the distorted claims of male gender supremacy, but also to communicate to the audience that Ibraham’s situation in this satire, has roots and consequences.
Sembele’s intention is to move beyond Western imagery of African representation. To expose a Western ‘Africanism’ in the same way that Edward Said was exposing and attacking ‘Orientalism’. Both Western thought modes developed to systematically define and control their human objects. When Africa is filmed by Western filmmakers, what we usually see are the ‘successful’ black intermediaries, the powerful inheritors of Western systems, who in their imitative behaviour collude with the values of their paymasters. Otherwise Africans play walk on parts: cheating shop keepers, cheerful workers, happy-go–lucky street vendors. As cardboard cut outs they are summoned into scenarios to accommodate the need for local atmosphere and colour. When sat in front of his barber, Ibrahim is an image of male vanity. It’s an image that Ibrahim himself would like to claim, but Sembele cuts through Ibrahim’s skin into the grain of his life. Behind his image, Ibrahim is another unemployed man, with nothing more than his maleness and formulaic religious enunciations of his Islamic faith upholding his dignity and self worth. The more his situation deteriorates, the more important to Ibrahim become assertion of both his maleness and his Islam. Without work, without identity papers, with a large family, two wives and five children, Ibrahim in effect is a non- person in his own land.
Lacking a formal identity, in the eyes of the state you don’t exist. One particular consequence of colonial rule was the creation and extension of control systems deep into the fabric of civil society. In particular this was important in relation to land ownership where European systems of registration of property ownership were introduced in many colonised lands. Firstly enabling the occupying powers to tax and claim land for themselves; and secondly allowing their local proxy rulers similar rights: to enjoy both privileged work/ careers and manipulation and access to the new civil laws imported form the Mother country. Ibrahim and his extended family are in the situation of being in double jeopardy in the post-colonial situation. First exploited by the French occupation of their country and at ‘Independence’ handed over to the privileged local elite that the colonial power had selected to be the inheritors of their system. The ordinary folk like Ibrahim remained locked out from participation the economic and political spheres of life. Their fate was and still is be disinherited, the impoverished reliquaries of the system designed to benefit the local elite and their ‘ex-masters.’
‘Mandabi’ uses the remittance culture to highlight all these problems. Remittance culture is of course familiar to us from its recent vast extension into the Gulf States, where whole cities, stadia and islands in the ocean have been built on labour of temporary immigrants lured to the Gulf by the prospect of able to earn money that can be remitted back home. With no work for them in their own countries, these workers, labouring under slave like conditions, work in order to send their wages back home so that their families can eat. Sembele’s script gives social substance to the remittance culture – the complexity of life at the comsuming end of the money chain. There is also the moot point that this economic arrangement provides cheap labour for the host; and in the donor country it acts as a sort of safety net for the poor, preventing conditions of poverty becoming so grave that the system would be forced to change.
For the most part remittance people, as in ‘Mandabi’, are non people. They have no access to education, work or privilege. There are barely any state systems to support income, only the hope of money from abroad. In ‘Mandabi’ the only recourse in times of need is to the collectivity, that network of extended family to sustain individuals. It is kith and kin networks that in their complex reciprocity both sustain life and engender tension. There is no escape from these opposing conditions.
As Ibrahim, ever more a lost soul, wanders across Dakar on his futile mission to cash the mandate, the lives of those counting on this money also start to crumble in despair. His wives, his sisters, nieces and nephews face hunger and ruin. And outside Ibrahim’s house lurks the real estate Shark with his eye on purchasing Ibrahim’s house, at a distressed knock down price. It’s Ibrahim’s one tangible asset. When he is forced to sell his house in order to eat, as certainly he will have to, he will be destitute. His destitution will the further undermine his fragile self esteem. Ibrahim will then have resort to ever more extreme claims on male privilege and the certainties of Islam to maintain his fragile sense of self. A destitute Ibrahim will no longer be a subject of gentle satire, his behaviour will have moved beyond parody.
Completely dispossessed with his wives and children dependent on him and remittances, Ibrahim will soldier on until his death. But Sembele’s film provides a haunting look at the phantom that will materialise in the future: Boko Haram. Ibrahim did not rise up against the forces that conditioned and defined his life. Perhaps his sons did not. But his grandsons and thousands like them with only their gender and Islam as the props of their identity are now the soldiers of Boko Haram. They are no longer non-persons. Under Boko Haram they are the ones shaping the future and riding the storm of change – both personal and collective. At this point 50 years on from ‘Mandabi’, Ibrahim’s male descendants see no other choice. They are not clean shaven like their grandfather, they are bearded. They are the spectres haunting Mandabi.