Tuesday, February 22, 2022

2022 Blind Spot Series: Mandabi


Written and directed by Ousmane Sembene, Mandabi (The Money Order) is the story of an unemployed man who receives a money order for 25,000 francs from his nephew where he deals with all sorts of obstacle to cash in his money order while dealing with those who want his money. Based on Sembene’s own novella, the film is the study of a man who is given this large sum of money only to deal with all sorts of complications that threatens the chance to live freely. Starring Makuredia Guey, Yunus Ndiay, Isseu Niang, Mustafa Ture, Farba Sar, Serine Ndiay, Therese Bas, and Mussa Diuf. Mandabi is a compelling and engaging film from Ousmane Sembene.

The film follows an unemployed man living in a village near Dakar who receives a money order for 25,000 francs where he hopes to cash it in but he deals with the modern world where he has to have his identification and birth certificate as he doesn’t have any of those things. It is a film that is really a study of post-colonial modernism where a man who lives in a village with not much knowledge on the methods of the modern world as well as the fact that he’s illiterate. Ousmane Sembene’s screenplay that is based on his own novella is this exploration of a man who is dealing with the modern world as well as the world of bureaucracy as they demand some form of identification for proof. For its protagonist Ibrahima Dieng (Makuredia Guey), it is a revelation about how much he is disconnected from post-colonial society as he lives in a home with two wives in Mety (Yunus Ndiay) and Aram (Isseu Niang) as well as seven children.

He often has to borrow money from people including the local shopkeeper M’barka (Mustafa Ture) as news about the money he’s receiving have those wanting Dieng to pay them back including his sister (Therese Bas). Many around him hear that he has money coming as it becomes troubling where Dieng would even find himself giving money to a beggar only to see her again asking for money again as it play into this new world of greed. There is also his other nephew in the businessman M’baye Sarr (Farba Sar) who does help him a bit but he is also this presentation of someone who is in tune with the modern world while he lives in a posh area in Dakar.

Sembene’s direction is largely straightforward in its presentation as he does shoot the film largely on location in and around Dakar with the exception of one lone scene shot in Paris as it relates to Dieng’s nephew Abdou (Mussa Diuf). The scenes in the villages including the small home where Dieng and his family live showcase a world that is simple despite not having much food or water to use but they live decently despite Dieng being unemployed for four years. The usage of medium shots and close-ups add to the intimacy of how small the house is as well as a shop that M’barka runs where Sembene uses a lot of actual places for the film. The scenes in the city has Sembene use a lot of wide shots to get a scope of how big Dakar is how overwhelming it is for someone like Dieng who has lived largely in a small village and noticed how much the world has changed. Even as Sembene play into the way men treat their wives in those times and how the wives would try to protect the shortcomings of their husband only to make things more troubling. Sembene’s continuous approach to showcase Dieng’s struggle to just get his money from having to get a photograph and realize he had to wait a lot longer to the process of having his money order cleared as it requires many procedures showcase the many fallacies of bureaucracy.

Sembene’s direction also play into this air of post-colonialism that is prevalent in the modern world where begging is now a trade of sorts as it alienates Dieng who is a devout Muslim who often prays to God. Yet, there is this growing disassociation with faith in this modern world that Dieng is dealing with as he would turn to Sarr for a key scene in the second act where Sarr would write a check and get him some money as he would be a key figure for the third act. Notably as it play into Sarr’s own connections with the modern world and what he could do to cut through the bureaucratic tape yet this isn’t the old world. It’s a world that Dieng doesn’t recognize as it play into his own growing sense of doubt and place in the new world. Overall, Sembene crafts a riveting yet harrowing film about a man trying to cash a money order he received from his nephew.

Cinematographer Paul Soulignac does incredible work with the film’s colorful cinematography as its usage of vibrant colors for many of the daytime exteriors showcase some realism but also this air of modernism that shocks Dieng. Editors Gilou Kikoine and Max Saldinger do excellent work with the editing as it has bits of style in its jump-cuts and a transition wipe while much of it is straightforward. The sound work of Henri Moline is brilliant for capturing the natural aspects of sound on location while also cultivating the film soundtrack that mainly features a folk piece that play into Dieng’s plight.

The film’s superb ensemble cast include Ousmane Sembene as a bank worker who reads Abdou’s letter, Mussa Diuf as Dieng’s nephew Abdou who works in Paris as a street sweeper, Therese Bas as Dieng’s pushy sister, Serine Ndiay as an Imam who is asking about Dieng’s money, Mustafa Ture as the shopkeeper M’barka who often helps Dieng out thinking he would get his money back, and Farba Sar as Dieng’s posh nephew M’bay Sarr as a businessman who helps his uncle out but also with some motives of his own. Yunus Ndiay and Isseu Niang are fantastic in their respective roles as Dieng’s wives in Mety and Aram as two women who run the house and take care of the children as they deal with the demands from neighbors and others about the money but also the need to protect Dieng from those who want the money badly. Finally, there’s Makuredia Guey in an amazing performance as Ibrahima Dieng as an unemployed man who is given this money order for 25,000 francs as he hopes to cash it and take some of it for himself and his family but also do good with it only to deal with the many complications as it relates to the fact that he is completely disconnected from the modern world.

The 2021 Region 1/Region A DVD/Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection presents the film in a 1:66:1 aspect ratio with a new 4K digital restoration and an uncompressed mono soundtrack in its Blu-Ray release in its original Wolof and French languages with English subtitles that is translated by Sembene biographer Samba Gadjigo. The special features include a thirty-minute introduction by film scholar Aboubakar Sanogo who talks about many of the film’s themes as well as Sembene’s views on post-colonialism and its effect on the lower and working class. Sanogo talks about the decision for Sembene to shoot the film in color as a way to showcase this new presentation of post-colonial Senegal as well as continue this theme of people being neglected by a new system as it is this incredible piece that showcases the film and its themes.

The 19-minute conversation with author/screenwriter Boubacar Boris Diop and feminist activist Marie Angelique Savane have them talk about Sembene but also Dakar in the 1960s including the social imbalance that occurred during the early days of post-colonial Senegal. Diop and Savane talk about the film as a political statement about what was happening and how it was also inspired by events around the world in 1968 as the film was released in Senegal that November. It was well-received by audiences including students but it was a film that was not well-received by its government as the film told a lot of truths. Savane also go into the role that women played at that time as they had to serve the needs of their husbands though it was something Sembene didn’t believe in.

The 15-minute featurette entitled Praise Song that features outtakes from the 2015 documentary about Sembene with interviews from activist Angela Davis, musician Youssou N’Dour, filmmaker Clarence Delgado, California Newsreel director Cornelius Moore, scholar Manthia Diawara, actress/activist/journalist Fatoumata Coulibay, writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, and novelist Cheikh Hamidou Kane as they all talk about Sembene’s influence and impact on art, politics, and activism. Many of them talk about his novels and films but also the fact that he was also someone that wanted to use art to educate and talk about something that the world doesn’t want to talk about. Davis cites Mandabi as a key example as she talked about what Dieng went through as it relates to her mother having difficulty getting her passport.

The 26-minute 1970 short film Tauw is about a young man who spends much of his day trying to find work to appease his frustrated father as he deals with a pregnant girlfriend and lack of prospects. It’s a short film that plays into this young man’s plight as his little brother also is trying to work to get money for the family as they’re living in a shantytown with little to offer. It says a lot about the many issues about post-colonial Senegal and how the poor was unable to benefit from these changes as the film definitely does a lot in what it needs to be said despite the lack of a strong plot.

The DVD/Blu-Ray set also includes Sembene’s novella that film is based on as well as two other pieces of text in a separate booklet about the film. The first is an excerpt of a 1969 interview with Sembene from the journal L’Afrique litteraire et artistique where Sembene is interviewed by film critic Guy Hennebelle. The interview has Sembene talks about the film and its themes but also his idea of what he wants to do with his art. He also talks about the state of Senegal at that time as he talks about the problems the country was facing such as neocolonialism and the emergence of bourgeoisie amongst a certain population in Senegal and other parts of Africa.

The second piece of text is an essay entitled Mandabi: Paper Trail by film scholar Tiana Reid explores not just the film but also its themes and where Sembene was at in his career as both a novelist and as a filmmaker. It wasn’t just Sembene’s first color film but it was also his first to be told in the country’s native language of Wolof as Sembene felt that if he made a film about common people in their language as a way to reflect on their disconnect with the modern world. He could do something and help them during a moment in time when intellectuals and bourgeoisie Africans were running things to oppress those below their class system as well as take advantage of them as Reid’s essay says a lot about the film and Sembene.

Mandabi is a phenomenal film from Ousmane Sembene. Featuring a great cast, gorgeous visuals, a haunting music score, and its themes of alienation in a post-colonial and modernistic world. The film is a riveting yet harrowing look into the plight of a man who is given a money order but has trouble trying to cash it in due to a world that is completely foreign to him. In the end, Mandabi is a sensational film from Ousmane Sembene.

Ousmane Sembene Films: Black Girl - Emitai - (Xala) – Ceddo - (Camp de Thiaroye) – (Guelwaar) – (Faat Kine) – (Moolade)

© thevoid99 2022


Ruth said...

This sounds really intriguing! I wonder if Boubacar Boris Diop is related to Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop whose film Atlantics is on Netflix (which I highly recommend).

thevoid99 said...

@Ruth-This is a film I think a lot of people should see as I've now covered half of Sembene's filmography so far. As for Mati Diop, Boubacar Boris Diop is not related to Mati Diop but her uncle is Djibril Diop Mambety who is an important figure in African cinema as he has a great film that is also available on Criterion in Touki Bouki.