Cross-Cultural Film Guide/ Patricia Aufderheide
The American University/ ©1992
Plot: The "paradise" of the title quickly gains an ironic flavor in this first feature, a bitterly passionate message of disillusionment.
The hero Tamsir (Abdoul Aziz Diop) has returned to Dakar from 17 years in Paris, scornful of the West and eager to return to tradition. But he's immediately put to work on his uncle's plan to build a factory, where corruption is endemic. Returning to his village, he finds his traditionalist rhetoric battered by a love affair with a neighbor girl (Fabienne Joelle Felhio) who's been promised as a third wife to the local big man, and who can't marry him even though she becomes pregnant by him.
Tamsir isn't the only one whose dreams of paradise are illusory. There's the village character (Diankou Bakhyokho), who stubbornly clings to the belief that he can ride on his motorcycle (inherited from the European priest) to the "paradise" of the big city--until he tries it. Tamsir's cousin (Cheikh Seck) is a sulky rastaman who thinks smoking hash and boycotting his father's business is enough of a statement of resistance, and he's got plenty of friends in town who Help him. He finally flees the contradictions of his class to, of course, Paris. (The film uncomfortably prods as well those who take refuge in anti-colonial and anti-Western rhetoric, without attempting to address local complicity.) Finally, there is the older generation, shocked out of complacency by the actions of their children, but unable to come up with an alternative.
The failed dream of paradise plagues everyone: the farmers struggling with exhausted land and dying cattle; the villagers chafing under arbitrary local authorities; the village daughter who wants to both obey her parents and her heart.
Style: Saaraba's disquieting theme unrolls in a style that unprotestingly uses many of the conventions of European television narrative, from the camerawork featuring many closeups to the editing to the efficient pacing.
But given the film's theme, stressing the impossibility of a blind return to tradition and the dilemmas of development, the stylistic choices do not ring false. This is a film about people trapped between epochs and worlds. Neither Tamsir nor his creator Seck can deny the intermixing of cultures. The film's opening shots, alternating between hectic, tightly-shot scenes of urban technology and wide-pan tableaux of rural countryside, set the scene and foretell the drama to come.
Howard University professor Mbye Cham notes, in the catalog for the Library of African Cinema, that although Saaraba is part of a post-1980 "new wave" of angry-young-men films, it still participates in the filmic tradition, established by Senegalese master film artist Ousmane Sembene, of using cinema as a platform for political and spiritual self awareness. The film's hybrid heritage, evident in its style, may reflect, says Cham, not only its funding and Seck's training, but "that Seck and the disillusioned, fragmented generation he represents seek a more personalized, subjective and ethically-based vision of the future."
Still, it's clear this is a first feature. The narrative thread sometimes gets tangled or lost--for instance, we never see Tamsir discover that his girlfriend is pregnant, nor do we know how he reacted. Psychological motivation takes second place to the filmmaker's thematic exposition. Transitions are sometimes mechanical, and mise-en-scene at times textbook, even cliched.
Background on director/film: The 38-year old Senegalese Amadou Saalum Seck made this film with mostly German technicians, after studying film in Germany and making several short documentaries. He produced the film with funds from German television channel ZDF's "Das Kleine Fernsespiel" (the experimental wing of ZDF, with a track record in Third World productions). This was his thesis film.
Film production context: For general background, see Borom Sarret. Senegal has now benefitted from several generations of filmmakers, some documentarians and some fiction storytellers. Seck takes his place among the sharply critical, sometimes cynical newer generation of cineastes.
Importance: Saaraba, while winning a modest festival showing, was not distributed commercially in the U.S. It represents a rising voice of alienation and despair at the fulfillment of promises of development and of independence.
Roy Armes, Third World Film Making and the West, esp. 214-225
Library of African Cinema: A Guide to video resources for colleges and public libraries, catalog, California Newsreel, 1991.
Last updated on September 17, 1996
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