African Journey

Africa has gotten a lot of headlines lately.  U.S. President George W. Bush has been visiting the continent, helping bring more world attention to African problems like political conflict, AIDS and malaria. And one of the contenders for succeeding Bush next year has an African-born father—Barack Obama.

The Detroit Film Theatre has also been focusing on Africa, with a four-film tribute this week to the Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, who died in 2007.  The DFT salute ranged across Sembene’s whole career, from his debut film Black Girl (1965) to his final movie, Moolaadé (2004).

“The African cinema has so far produced one filmmaker of international standing, Ousmane Sembene, whose films are regularly seen in Europe and the U.S.,” wrote James Monaco in his 1981 book, How to Read a Film.

Like many DFT films, Moolaadé (shown February 24, 2008) immersed the viewer in a different country and culture.  Sembene (who was also a novelist and appeared in person at the DFT in 1994) used the daily life of a Senegal village to examine a crude surgical procedure that is performed on young women to “purify” them for marriage.

Conflicts in this community about this ritual led to several emotionally devastating scenes.  The sorrow, grief and hatred of these scenes came across so strongly that I felt like I would be a much different person myself after watching them.

You could almost feel the DFT audience holding its breath during some intense, almost unbearable, scenes.  And when a woman who suffered greatly during the film courageously asserted herself to achieve some hard-earned independence, many moviegoers burst into applause.

Cultural Questions

As I watched Moolaadé, I wondered how the black Americans in the audience used the film to reflect on their African roots, the same way that Iranians might have looked at the recent film Persepolis.

“In 1960, which became the Year of Freedom for Africa, 17 new states were created,” according to the 1961 edition of the Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia.  Senegal was one of many countries that year to achieve independence from France.

Moolaadé showed that strong bonds still exist between Senegal and France.  A young man returns from Paris to help fund a building and pay off different debts.  And much of the film crew and financing for Moolaadé came from France.

The traditions of Islam also played an important role in Moolaadé.  I wondered how the current worldwide strains of radical Islam might affect Senegal, like they have in many other countries on several continents.

On the way out, I noticed a brochure for an April 11-12 program at the First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham on Reaching Out 2008: Peace, Mission and Justice in Africa.  Once again, a Detroit Movie Palace helped build a community of interest.   

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Copyright © 2008 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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