(director/writer: Ousmane Sembene; screenwriter: from the book Xala by Ousmane Sembene; cinematographer: Georges Caristan/ Orlando L. López/Seydina D. Saye/Farba Seck; editor: Florence Eymon; music: Samba Diabara Samb; cast: Thierno Lege (Hadji Aboucader Beye), Dieynaba Niang (Ngone, 3rd Wife), Younouss Seye (Oumi, 2nd Wife), Seune Samb (Adja Assatu, 1st Wife), Douta Seck (Gorgui), Miriam Niang (Rama, Daighter), Makhouredia Gueye (Kebe); Runtime: 123; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Paulin Vieyra; New Yorker Films; 1975-Senegal-in French/Wolof with English subtitles)

“Takes a cynical look at the bourgeoisie aping their former rulers.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The title literally means impotence. Xala is a biting satire of the “independence” supposedly enjoyed by Senegal after the end of French rule. It is mostly filmed in the native Senegalese language of Wolof. The film takes a cynical look at the bourgeoisie aping their former rulers. Senegalese novelist and Moscow-trained filmmaker Ousmane Sembene is considered the father of sub-Saharan African cinema. His influential and provocative films have an effective way of addressing the many political and social issues facing Senegal and Africa in general. Xala aroused the public’s interest, playing to full houses in Senegal and to critical acclaim at film festivals around the world.

The middle-aged Beye (Thierno Lege) participated in a native coup against colonialist authorities and, along with his colleagues, took control of the government. This group promised to establish a fair system of socialism, but instead their rule led to wide-spread corruption and abuse of power. This is clearly seen as the board members are handed briefcases filled with money by an ambiguous Western businessman.

Beye is a rich, corrupt Dakar business executive, who on the completion of this materially rewarding secret deal makes use of the celebratory atmosphere to invite the board members he’s partners with to his recently purchased third home for the afternoon wedding reception to his third, and much younger additional wife, Ngone (Dieynaba Niang). On the way to the reception, Beye stops by the home of his first wife, Adja (Seune Samb), in order to check on the wedding festivities, and encounters his outspoken teenage daughter, Rama (Miriam Niang), who expresses her outrage for her father’s third marriage by encouraging her mother to file for a divorce. Beye attempts to justify his actions by unconvincingly stating that the practice of polygamy is richly part of the country’s cultural heritage and following this tradition helps make the country great.

The film reserves its stings, which are comical but filled with a real sense of anger, for Beye, not to snicker at the embarrassing bedroom failures on his wedding night, which leaves him in a state of shame and disgrace, but for him carrying on the worst practices of his former French colonial masters and letting his country down. The new post-colonial rulers are severely chastised for their hypocrisy and decadence (one example is the washing of the businessman’s car with imported mineral water). As Beye goes through a series of impotence “remedies” (including witchcraft cures), he loses face in the community because his manhood becomes questioned. Obviously his impotence was meant to symbolize an allegorical attack on the emerging African native upper class who are motivated by greed and narcissism. They have put all their hopes on Western solutions and have ignored their rich cultural heritage except at times when it can be used hypocritically to fit their convenient needs, and as a result offer little hope to the future of their country. The ominous conclusion, replete with native war chants, leaves no mercy for the self-serving businessman and the socially irresponsible new rulers, who disrespect the people and bring about a recurring unrest.

I enjoyed the lessons better as a lecture in political history than as a film experience-the acting by the mostly non-professional cast was stilted and the filming was clumsily accomplished-though those lessons have an undeniable power and the film deserves to be seen by a wide international audience. I was generous in my appraisal of the film as I realize much of the narrative’s awkwardness might justifiably be attributed to the government censors, who in their spiteful editing destroyed its continuity but, nevertheless, failed to remove the film’s overall critical message.

Xala Poster