Three independent women in Faat Kine

I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to see a Sembène Ousmane film that has never been released in the UK. Sembène’s penultimate film before his death in 2007, the print (from America) was brought into the country by the Africa in Motion Festival based in Edinburgh and then made available for screenings in other parts of the UK. I was able to see it courtesy of Cornerhouse in Manchester. I’ve written about Sembène elsewhere on this blog – and now I must post the second part of our overall history.

Here is an edited version of notes given out in Manchester tonight:

Sembène Ousmane (1923-2007) was the father of African Cinema, as well as its prime social and political activist and its wisest counsel. He is a hard act to follow and it is encouraging to see him in Faat Kiné putting some faith in the younger generation. However, the central focus of the film is Kiné herself, a woman born in 1960 at the same time as Senegal’s independence – and therefore representing symbolically the trials and occasional joys of a country uplifted by independence and brought low by the hypocrisies of neo-colonialism.

The film covers an eventful two or three days. Kiné experiences great joy in the success of her two children in the Baccalaureate exams, but also discovers how she might be trapped by both the past and the future in trying to live as she pleases.

Anyone who has seen one or two of Sembène’s other eight features will immediately recognise some familiar characters, situations and social and political questions. Faat Kiné is a contemporary drama which perhaps most closely resembles Xala (1974) with its high angle shots of Dakar and its focus on the marriages and family disputes amongst the bourgeoisie. Twenty-five years on and there has been some ‘trickle down’ to a focus on business people less directly involved with high level corruption. Corruption and deception are still rife, but Kiné herself is a model of financial rectitude. In another link to Xala, however she enjoys what several startled men describe as ‘vulgar language’. The other contemporary films in Sembène’s back catalogue are all referenced in different ways, especially as in Guelwaar (1992), via the younger members of the family. Crucially, perhaps, the importance of ‘going to France’ is here something that has lost its power to enthrall.

Production background
Sembène began to make films in 1963 when he was already 40 and had established himself as a writer. Films are difficult to make in Africa – partly because money is hard to find and facilities not always available, partly because governments have not always taken kindly to the implied social and political criticism of Sembène’s work. It is also the case that Sembène spent much of his time working on the distribution of his films, attempting to have them dubbed into African languages for local, popular audiences and showing and discussing them at film festivals. In the circumstances, it is amazing that he managed to make as many as nine features over 40 years.

After Guelwaar, which was co-funded by various European film and television interests, Sembène appears to have tried to stay independent. The only production company listed in the credits is Sembène’s own Filmi Domireew and the film was edited in Rabat, Morocco. In an interview at the time of the release of Moolaadé in 2004, Sembène explained that he hoped to complete a trilogy about what he called the “Heroism of Daily Life”. Faat Kiné was intended as the first in the trilogy, followed by Moolaadé and Sembène suggested that the final part, focusing on government bureaucrats, would be called ‘Brotherhood of Rats’ (see the Press Notes for Moolaadé referenced below). Sadly, we’ll never have that film to enjoy.

In some ways it seems odd to have Faat Kiné before Moolaadé (although the problems of distribution in the UK means that much of the audience will have seen Moolaadé first). Moolaadé is a ‘timeless’ film set in a kind of idealised ‘green Africa’, albeit one afflicted by the barbarism of female genital manipulation. Faat Kiné is a thoroughly ‘modern film’.

Story and style
Faat Kiné resembles a familiar European family melodrama and I was reminded of Fassbinder’s ‘BRD Trilogy’ in which he uses the lives of three women to explore what was happening in German society during the Adenauer years. Here, Kiné, like Senegal, faces the 21st century with the legacy of the last 40 years. She is a single woman with two children by different men, both of whom abandoned her when the babies were born. She owes her own survival to her mother who protected her from the wrath of a traditional father presented with a daughter and her ‘bastards’ to house. There is plenty of emotional angst here, but Sembène chooses not to express emotion as melodrama – i.e. through camerawork, lighting etc. In the main, he sticks to a social realist aesthetic leavened by glorious colour and costumes and plenty of verbal humour.

Kiné, who wanted to be a lawyer or a judge, has to work her way up from petrol pump attendant to manager of a filling station. She has now surrounded herself with women she cares for and who respect her and she supervises men who respect her authority. If she wants a gigolo, she pays for one. Otherwise she is wary of men’s devious financial dealings.

Yet, the exam success of her children brings some problems – she has to reassert her authority over returning fathers and also suffer the suggestion by her children that they want to achieve more than just running a filling station.

For many, the central question about the film will be: what does it say about the politics of Senegal and about the condition of women in society?

In one sense, the film straightforwardly critiques the men who formed the generation who took power at the time of independence and failed the country in economic terms and then failed the women who worked so hard to make a better future a possibility. These are the men who abandoned a pregnant Kiné and who now pathetically expect her to help them financially (possibly via a marriage). More intriguing is what Kiné herself represents. Her home (with children, Mammy and a maid) is decorated with large portraits of the political figures that we suspect Sembène admires. (I recognised Mandela and Nkrumah, the others include Amilcar Cabral (Guinea-Bissau) and Thomas Sankara (Burkina Faso) according to Gadjigo.) Samba Gadjigo suggests that for Sembène, not only is it important to recognise revolutionary political struggle, but the situation for African women must be revolutionised too. In one magical moment, Kiné and her two female friends emerge from a ‘Sex and the City‘-style lunch at an upmarket ice-cream parlour, sweeping past two elderly men in traditional clothes and carrying staffs to signify their rural background. They look bemused rather than shocked by the sight of these three assertive women. One of the two men is played by Sembène himself.

Kiné is a modern woman, who has achieved materialist success through hard work outside the corrupt world of privileged public services. She wants the best for her children and will continue to sacrifice herself for their future university education. She rejects the chance to become a ‘userer’ by lending at a high interest rate, she gives to charity, but at the same time is sharp and clear-headed in dealing with banks and crooks alike. She looks after her staff. Overall, she is someone we would all probably like to meet – but are these the qualities that a revolutionary socialist like Sembène would hope to see in the new African woman?

Faat Kiné is not a simplistic film in social and political terms but some of the answers to the questions about politics and feminism might come in the last reel, especially when the ambitious son takes on his failure of a father and when Kiné finds a kind of resolution.

After a hesitant start, I found this film shifted up through the gears and produced an engrossing narrative. I was so caught up in its possibilities that time just flew by. I once worried that I might never see this film, so a big round of thanks to the Africa in Motion Festival in Edinburgh for bringing the American print to the UK (and to Cornerhouse for booking it on tour). Now, can somebody please screen Emitai and Ceddo and give one of the great filmmakers of the last forty years the kind of exposure he deserves?

Refs and reviews