First time with Ousmane Sembène. Stumbled across the African shelves in the MML DVD selection and picked this more or less at random.
We begin with Kiné’s daughter Aby worried that if she doesn’t pass the Bac this year (having failed it the year before) she’ll be doomed; Aby’s grandmother, affectionately but also (later) revealingly addressed as Mammy, introduces the movie’s frequent flashbacks with her reflections on K’s upbringing. Between past and future, K is pragmatic and measured, taking each job at her petrol station as it comes. Faat Kiné‘s world tugs in both directions, but K remains stubbornly eyes-down, continuing the effort that has put her kids through her school in the first place.
As new characters contribute more antagonistically to these distractions, (a former lover begs her to overlook his past transgressions; a friend implores her to bankroll his future indiscretions) K emerges slowly as a tough, respectable and very sympathetic figure, forging friendships and relationships on her own terms and at her own pace.
“You are the embryo of free market neo-colonialism!” splutters the desperate debtor; “You are an African from colonial times!” retorts an impassive critic. Revealing dynamics of mobility: M wells up at K’s success in escaping her own poverty, then the next scene sees frustrated A decry the ‘unambitious’ social status of her mother. K in some senses has found her level, but the prospect of mobility (when offered) is a turbulent one.
Some pretty wild mood swings: for the most part it’s a soapy drama, with an almost-literally revolving door of bit parts adding dabs and daubs to the Senegalese social canvas, lulling you into a strange easy rhythm; (helped by a really beautiful and sparingly-deployed harp score) but infrequent ruptures of distinct shock or surprise: a flashback to the illegitimately pregnant K’s return to her angry father, her mother jumping on her to protect her from a brandished burning log (the next, incredible shot is M’s gnarled, burnt back, zooming out as she rocks her granddaughter’s cradle); a heated street discussion about adultery terminated after a pause with an unheralded blast of pepper spray; sometimes amusing, as when the secretary of Jean, subtle suitor to K, blurts out that she has been waiting for him to propose to her for years. (“What?”, end scene.)
When a warm, gossipy meeting between K and her sisters (it is a delight watching K and the others tease each other and absolutely roast everyone else, usually hapless two-timing men) lurched into a matter-of-fact discussion about AIDS I flinched again, but this theme is developed into a strong depiction of women empowered over their own sexuality and sexual health. “If it only took work to liberate women, women farmers would be liberated.” Impossible not to get behind the messages of this film (once some very wooden peripheral acting; Venus Seye is excellent as K, mind) from a decade in which Senegalese cinema had almost spluttered to a halt, with OS working only on account of American financial backing.
Suggestive religious tensions are downplayed: brief standoff between a Muslim customer and a Christian employee during the call to prayer; K’s and J’s religious differences are amicably smoothed over. Perhaps this is an urgent resolution, though the greater depth to which gender, age and (to a lesser extent) race issues are explored does make it seem a fringe concern.
Twice K is branded “vulgar” by antique men who hark back to a past in which they were ascendent. At FK‘s close, Djip (K’s politically ambitious son) harangues them after they crash his party, his diatribe on patriarchal ‘African’ morality buoyed by calls from his classmates to stand up and speak. OS’s pastoral diorama has found a youthful champion (he was 77 when he directed this!), but we at last return to K and her new happy relationship, the resolution of the main plot. Abundance of heart in this simple but alluring picture, a tranche de vie with a lot to say and a winsome but uncompromising voice.