UW Cinematheque celebrates a late Senegalese filmmaker’s unfinished trilogy

Djibril Diop Mambéty’s “Le Franc” and “The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun” screen in new digital restorations on Friday, October 29.

Djibril Diop Mambéty’s “Le Franc” and “The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun” screen in new digital restorations on Friday, October 29.

Image: In a still from “Le Franc,” main character Marigo stands at the front of a boat, smiling and holding an instrument called a congoma.

Although Djibril Diop Mambéty completed only a few short films and two features in his too-brief life, he remains a towering figure in world cinema. The Senegalese film pioneer invented radical new cinematic languages to tell African stories, in contrast to the realism that some of his contemporaries, such as his compatriot Ousmane Sembène, favored. In 2015, UW Cinematheque screened a restored 35mm print of Mambéty’s 1973 debut feature, Touki bouki (Wolof for “Hyena’s Journey”), a striking experimental fantasy-drama about disaffected youth. Mambéty’s second and final feature, Hyenas (1992), an adaptation of Swiss-German playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s tragicomedy The Visit, was a 2019 Wisconsin Film Festival selection.

Before his untimely death from lung cancer at the age of 53 in 1998, Mambéty had been working on a trilogy of featurettes called Histoires de petites gens, or “Tales Of Ordinary People.” Alas, Mambéty lived only to make the first two films of that series, Le Franc (1994) and The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun, which was finished by friends and collaborators and premiered posthumously in 1999. These two medium-length works round out the director’s humble but peerless oeuvre, defined by its deep social conscience, wry humor, and bold formal innovation. Originally slated to screen at the 2020 Wisconsin Film Festival, recent digital restorations of both films are screening back to back on Friday, October 29 at 7 p.m. at UW Cinematheque.

In Le Franc, Mambéty employs the French government’s devastating devaluation of the West African Franc (CFA) in 1994 and the resultant economic hardships as the basis for a vibrant, fragmented, and gently absurdist portrait of contemporary postcolonial African life. Mambéty’s film immediately immerses viewers in the everyday realities of a shanty town with a succession of vivid tableaux: a woman patiently sieving grain; a small, barefoot child toddling in the street; a group of children dutifully reciting verses from the Koran; and the protagonist, Marigo (Dieye Ma Dieye), groggily awaking from his slumber. An eccentric, destitute musician who has chronically neglected to pay rent, Marigo finds himself relentlessly harassed by his landlady (Aminata Fall), who confiscates his instrument, a congoma, which is also the source of his livelihood. He thus embarks on a difficult, dreamlike journey across Dakar (Senegal’s capital city) to redeem a winning lottery ticket obtained under the guidance of a dwarf (played by Demba Bâ) who catches him picking up a 1,000 CFA banknote at the market. Le Franc enlivens the stark reality of Marigo’s situation with whimsical interludes and surrealistic flourishes, such as Marigo pulling birds from his congoma. As Marigo stumbles through bustling, rubbish-strewn streets carrying a door to which he has glued the lottery ticket for safekeeping, Mambéty deftly weaves this simple parable into the rich tapestry of Dakar life.

The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun, which Mambéty described as “a hymn to the courage of street children,” unfolds against the same economic backdrop as Le Franc. This film also follows a character struggling to survive in a shanty town on the outskirts of Dakar. Its protagonist, 12-year-old Sili Laam (Lissa Balera), manages a physical impairment that leaves her dependent on a bright red pair of crutches. She customarily begs for money alongside her blind grandmother (Dieynaba Laam) in the marketplace. Sili decides to try selling copies of a local newspaper, Le soleil, in order to earn what little money she can to help her family. However, she is the only girl who sells newspapers, prompting the local newsboys to habitually intimidate and harass her. Undaunted, Sili perseveres in the face of every obstacle. 

As in his previous film, Mambéty emphasizes the main character’s resilience without sentimentalizing or romanticizing poverty. With compassion and an eye for startling compositions, he brings the streets of Dakar to vivid life, while finding unexpected beauty in even the bleakest of circumstances. One of the most unforgettable scenes in the film exhibits a surreal landscape of empty unsold refrigerators sitting in the market. Mambéty also finds something poignantly human in the daily struggles and communal existence of his marginalized characters as he dares to envision an alternative to the ravages of neocolonialism and globalized capitalism. Both films endure as a tribute to the poor, whom Mambéty described as “the only truly consistent, unaffected people in the world, for whom every morning brings the same essential question: how to preserve what is essential to themselves.”

Although it never came to fruition, Mambéty had already planned out the narrative for the third film in “Tales Of Ordinary People,” La tailleuse de pierre (The Stonecutter), before his death. In this installment, Mambéty said, “a woman excavates pieces of basalt. She breaks them into smaller stones that can be used in construction. People who want modern buildings in their neighborhood ask her to move her workshop away. But she can conquer the ugliness and dirtiness of human beings because she is close to the truth. So, La tailleuse de pierre shows how an individual can dream of beauty.”

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