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‘Guelwaar’

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 04, 1994

 


Director:
Ousmane Sembene
Cast:
Thierno Ndiaye;
Omar Seck;
Marie-Augustine Diatta;
Mame Ndounmbe Diop;
Ndiawar Diop
NR
Not rated


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Ousmane Sembene is Africa's most venerated director not only because he is considered the father of African cinema but also because he remains, at age 70, one of its most provocative and expressive voices. Senegal's Sembene is also a novelist, which may explain the supple complexities of character, patience of plot and unhurried narrative that define his latest film, "Guelwaar."

As darkly comic as "The Loved One," the film targets much more than an industry in its study of the ripple effects of trying to bury a body. In this case, the body belongs to Pierre Henry Thoune (Thierno Ndiaye), an outspoken political activist whose Wolofese nickname, which stands for "the Noble One," gives the film its title. When his family goes to the village mortuary to claim the body on the morning of burial, it's missing.

Finding that it's been accidentally switched with another, the family, friends and the local police chief, Officer Gora (Omar Seck), set off to retrieve it, only to find that it has already been buried in a rural Muslim cemetery. When the Muslims refuse to tamper with the burial ground or allow the Catholic Thoune family even to enter it -- that would be an act of desecration -- the cemetery becomes a battlefield of immediate emotions and imminent actions.

As all this unfolds, Guelwaar proves as much a presence, and a troublemaker, in death as he was in a life gradually defined by flashbacks and the recollections of others. Guelwaar was a riveting speaker who had embarrassed local politicians at a major ceremony in which they accepted foreign food aid. "If you want to kill a man of great dignity, give him every day what he needs to live and you will make a serf of him," Guelwaar tells the crowd. "This aid will kill us ... has killed our dignity."

In a way, it kills Guelwaar, though the exact circumstances of his death are, well, circumstantial. In one sense, Guelwaar represents the voice of cultural and economic autonomy that Sembene has espoused in all his films, but the events surrounding his death also allow the director to explore the conflicts -- between tradition and modernism, between nationalism and colonialism, and between religions -- that are at the heart of Senegal specifically and Africa inferentially.

Sembene is hardly a didactic director and in fact invests his characters with such complexities that they are sometimes compromised. Even Guelwaar is shown as an imperfect hero, his infidelity and impractical politics weighing heavily on a widow who promises his spirit that "our next meeting will be tense." And he is so opposed to welfare-type options that he allows his daughter Sophie (Marie-Augustine Diatta) to prostitute herself in the big city of Dakar. Her mother, Nogoy Marie (Mame Ndounmbe Diop), condemns Sophie's profession but accepts her financial support.

Eldest son Barthelemy (Ndiawar Diop) returns from apparent self-exile in France, forgetful of his Wolof language and convinced that his father's missing body is proof of the state of African disorganization. He even tells Gora at one point that he is now French and converses only in that language. Sembene's challenge is to remind Barthelemy of his true character, to forgive him the exasperation of his casually dispensed Francophile epithet, "Damn Africa!"

All this is not simply familial drama, of course, and the conflicts between the Catholics and the Muslims, though often bitterly comical, address deeper issues of faith and devotion. At one point, a Muslim iman asks: "What's happening to our people?" That is clearly the crucial question for Sembene and it allows him to skillfully skewer many targets: In his eyes, colonialism masquerading as foreign aid and ritualized homegrown corruption (represented by a mayor who arrives on the scene, late, in an air-conditioned Mercedes) are simple dual faces of the same coin, one that is spinning in such a way that both sides come up losers.

"Guelwaar" is crowded with colorful individuals who drop in and out of the frame and plot, much like those in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" but absent the arch artiness, thanks to Sembene's deliberate exposition and subtly detailed characterizations. At film's end, they are all gathered together at the cemetery, which has become an ideological battlefield in much the way Guelwaar's body has become his nation's spiritual crucible. It's Sembene's triumph that these conflicts and conciliations are immediate rather than symbolic, and that the reverse is just as true.

"Guelwaar" unrated is in Wolof and French with English subtitles.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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