Plot: The story focuses on the trials of two women: Nanyuma, a recent widow, and her citified niece Fili, who has never undergone the traditional clitoridectomy.
Her cruel husband's death liberates Nanyuma, but all too soon the village chief approves a polygamous marriage with her husband's buffoonish and idiotic brother Bala. Nanyuma, in love with a handsome, single man who had begged the chief for her hand without avail at her first marriage, fights the arrangement. She goes into hiding in her brother-in-law's village; her niece Fili supports her, but her brother-in-law tells her she must marry his other brother, Bala.
Meanwhile, the village receives a visit from a government representative who orders them to deliver tons of millet at a low, fixed price for government storage. The villagers join together to resist, led by the chief. (He forces the French-speaking official to negotiate with him in Bambara, in a comic standoff.) One woman tells the official, "We're tired of killing ourselves for the likes of you."
Nanyuma is recaptured and transported to her dead husband's village, and dragged through a civil wedding. Her son organizes a raucous campaign of humiliation against Bala, by lacing his water with an herb that gives him diarrhea and flatulence, and by intimidating Bala with imitations of spirits; the gambits buy Nanyuma time on her wedding night.
The villagers then march on the local police station to free the chief. The experience then emboldens the women to ask what the villagers will do about the plight of Nanyuma, threatening not to sleep with their husbands until it is resolved.
But not all organizing by women goes in a progressive direction. Fili, Nanyuma's niece, has returned with Nanyuma on her father's orders to the village. But there she creates a scandal, because she has never been excised. Women, backed by the stern chief, excise her by force, and she is taken away bleeding by her father.
Nanyuma finally manages to leave the village uncontested, with her son. She may find a better life, and even reunite with her suitor. She leaves behind a village that has tasted the success of community organizing, and that has gone through a painful awakening to the questions about women's rights facing the entire community.
Ultimately Finzan is not the story of Nanyuma but of the social crisis precipitated by Nanyuma's (and Fili's) resistance to tradition.
Style: In Finzan, a moral narrative with tragic overtones is laced with slapstick comedy that draws from folk theater. It is a tale that Sissoko intended to entertain as well as teach.
The drama is not intimate and psychological, but social. The camera's focus is typically on the small group--with plenty of room for side and background action--rather than on an individual. Editing is minimalist, and camerawork is often static, as if the director through the camera were introducing us to an exemplary scene rather than attempting to erase the psychological distance between spectator and character.
The social crisis is an open subject for debate, rather than one that emerges through isolated personal decision. Thus, characters openly denounce or proclaim their views. A woman says, "Are women human beings or slaves?", and the chief says, "Excision is at the very base of our tradition!" That debate is reinforced by the soap operatic plot twists, and also by uninflected touches such as the constant sight of women at work in the background of the central story.
One notable feature of the film is its bold buffoonery. Sissoko explained to Pat Aufderheide, "This is all part of a tradition of popular village theater, called Koteba. It's raucous, and can be satiric; it's performed for free in village squares, and it's a forum for young people to raise social problems. It's a very old Bambara tradition."
Another feature is its persistent use of the medium shot. Again Sissoko explained: "I avoided close-ups and a tight focus generally. I know American films do this, and I see it as a technique to idealize the individual. My intention was to show that people are never isolated. I didn't want to emphasize individuality. It's not one person, but the group effort that influences events."
Background on director/film: Political involvement is in Malian film director Cheikh Oumar Sissoko's family history; one of his mother's brothers was a famous anti-colonial activist, who went on to support a pan-West African federation and was eventually jailed after a Western-inspired coup d'etat in 1968. Sissoko, born in 1945, received his higher education in Paris, having attended both the Ecole des Hautes Etudes-Sciences Sociales and the French national film school. He returned to work in Mali, where he has worked as the head of a Malian government agency producing documentaries and newsreels. He recently Helped found a small filmmakers' cooperative, KORA films.
Asked about his inspiration, Sissoko said, "Italian neorealism first and foremost. This was the cinema that linked art to real life. Cinema should be consciousness-raising. I originally wanted to do documentaries, and my first film was a documentary. But I wasn't heartened by the experience, because documentaries are simply not seen; they're shelved. I had to make fiction so that my ideas would get out."
Sissoko previously made a 35-minute documentary called Rural Exodus (1984), about the drought crisis for the peasantry; and the neorealist-style feature Nyamanton (Garbage Boys), about poor urban children's lives.
Sissoko belongs to the Mandingo culture, which encompasses Bambara, Dogon and other cultures. Finzan was made about Bambara culture, and in the Bambara language, the dominant language of Mali.
The $350,000 film was funded by Malian private investors; Malian government in-kind contributions; German TV channel ZDF; and the French Ministry of Co-operation. A pre-sale to an Italian educational firm also Helped. Most actors are nonprofessionals, with a few members of the national theater company. It was edited in Burkina Faso by an African technical crew.
Sissoko had to submit the film both in script form and in final form to Malian government censorship, but encountered no serious difficulties.
Film production context: For general information, see Yeelen.
"Finzan" is a Bambara term for a dance performed by men who have done exceptional deeds; Sissoko extended the term to "women struggling for their freedom."
Female circumcision has different modes and degrees in different African cultures, and the custom has also been practiced in middle Eastern, Asian and Mediterranean cultures. Although it is associated with Islamic practice, in fact it is not mentioned in the Koran and some Islamic cultures do not practice it. Some animists practice it, including the Dogon of Mali and Nigeria, according to Hilary Bonta in a student paper at American University. Defenders believe women's and family honor is protected, and population kept under control with these methods.
Importance: In Mali, the film was widely embraced in the urban cinemas where it was first shown. Criticisms within Mali focused on the fact that only one woman's issue was addressed--a criticism that Sissoko interpreted as reflecting the paucity of films about women. The film debuted to positive reviews in te U.S. simultaneously at the San Francisco Film Festival and at Filmfest D.C., and has been seen primarily as part of the Library of African Cinema. Its importance lies partly in its subject matter, as one of only a handful of films to deal with controversy over women's health.Further reading:
Last updated on September 17, 1996.
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