I’ve always been very attracted to films made in Senegal probably I have been there, exploring Dakar’s neighborhoods. I have sat with women around the dancing circle in Medina. I have strolled in the sandy streets of Niarri Tally, watched women in the shades of mango trees in Malika. And everywhere I went, I have been stunned by the visual beauty and the aesthetic quality of daily life, dazzled by the vibrancy of colors, by women’s natural elegance and poise.
Being a painter as well as a filmmaker, Moussa Sene Absa is perfectly aware of the extraordinary visual potential of Dakar’s streets, but as an artist he must transform the world around him. As he says, he “makes a film like he paints.” Colors become an element of the story he wants to tell. They convey his vision, his personal message.
The source of his inspiration in his latest film, Madame Brouette, is no doubt rooted in Senegalese life. He has entirely reconstructed the set and decided on the color scheme: warm hues of orange, subdued shades of yellow, pink, faded earth colors, set against the deep metallic blue of the background. Niayes Thiokeert, the neighborhood where Madame Brouette has opened her blue canteen on a scintillating yellow sandy beach, has no shades of green. “Green is a color I never choose,” says Moussa Sene Absa.
The story is about Mati – Madame Brouette – who has killed her husband. People call her Mrs. Wheelbarrow because she pushes her little cart through the market place selling fruit and vegetables. The credit lines unfold as guests in stunningly beautiful garbs join in the dancing circle typical of Senegalese ceremonies. But soon the scene fades, takes on a hazy, blurred, slow motion quality. And then turns to tragedy. The dream is shattered. A man has entered Mati’s house. After a few seconds, he comes out staggering and collapses. Neighbors have heard the shots. He is dead. He was also hopelessly drunk. He is dressed as a woman.
How did it happen? asks the “Commissaire” who later interrogates Madame Brouette.
“Très vite…Very fast,” she says laconically. And then adds, “Let me explain.” But she says no more. We suspect by then that the murder story is a pretext for a much wider and more profound look at Senegalese society, at the role of men and women, at corruption, at thwarted destiny, at the fate of women and their struggle to survive. The Commissaire is not here to solve a mystery, at least not in the usual sense of the detective story.
For one thing, the beautiful setting created by Moussa Sene Absa gives the film a tinge of unreality, a dreamlike, surreal quality which takes precedence over the sordid, sad, depraved, corrupt world beyond it, which Madame Brouette must face. In spite of everything, abused women remain dignified, calm, loyal, tender, and maybe that is why Moussa Sene Absa sees their world in beautiful faded, warm, earth colors.
Moussa Sene Absa also knows how to captivate the audience with a rare economy of
means. In Tableau Ferraille, his second feature film, I remember the amazing heart wrenching diatribe of Ndoumbé who turns to prostitution as Mademoiselle Quinzième, “Miss Fifteen” on the 15th of the month when she needs money to feed her kids. Her words have an incredible ring of truth: “I give it all. Every time I sleep with one of you, I age ten years.” Two lines that say it all.
But the one scene from Madame Brouette that will remain with me is truly magical. Halfway through the film, immediately following a sequence of loud exchanges and frantic action, there comes a lull, a moment of such sweetness and poetry that the audience, taken by surprise, holds their breath. A little girl Ndèye, the daughter of Madame Brouette, has started to sing. She sings of a partridge, a fearless partridge. Ndèye gracefully points at Samba, the little boy who has asked her to tell a story: “a partridge not unlike you.” Her voice is clear, pure, backed by a few chords on a piano. She and Samba are alone in her mother’s brightly painted open air canteen. Her voice fills the dark night that surrounds them. Her diction is perfect. She articulates each word of her story with great poise and conviction. She sings of a partridge who loves freedom. Beautiful words in the language of the Wolof of Senegal. Soon the chorus, the group of griots quietly sitting in the background, starts singing with her.
Madame Brouette, of course, is at the center of the drama that director Moussa Sene Absa has carefully crafted, but her little daughter is far from being a minor character. The audience will gradually come to realize her central role as the story unfolds. The “partridge” also has its importance. It is a ceremonial bird in traditional court life, a sacred mythical bird which brings luck and is treated with awe and respect. It hangs from a cage in front of the canteen and Mati symbolically lets it go, as she herself is taken into custody.
The great originality of the movie is its multi-faceted approach to the investigation that follows the murder. The real police investigation is vague, sketchy, and amateurish. Colombo is not a credible detective, just a young man infatuated with himself and with an American TV series. The nameless griots are never far away: they enter the stage at intervals as a soothing chorus to punctuate the action and accompany Mati in her ordeals, softly ushering her forward, as was done in Greek tragedy. The neighbors also are brought in to testify. Each one steps forward and gives their view on the crime. They are the most vocal and also the most articulate witnesses. The line is drawn between men and women, men against Mati and women for her. Men see a threat to their authority. Women know the facts of Mati’s life and sympathize.
At this point, I must say I was a bit disappointed that Moussa Sene Absa chose French over Wolof as the main language for the film. I understand his argument that French is no longer the language of the colonizer and that it has become the primary language to many Senegalese. But I missed the sound of the language, the deep tone of Wolof, the way people often choose to declaim rather than speak it. I could imagine how a tribunal of neighbors could have brilliantly improvised, possibly creating, as an oral tradition, “the legend” of Madame Brouette that Mati herself refers to in the film. To me, at any rate, Wolof is part of Senegalese life just like the smell of shurai and the sound of mbalax coming everywhere from radios. I missed it in the film.
Among the witnesses is a journalist who reports and maintains media hype around the story, seeking sensational details, and the thugs who knew Naago. And, of cours,e there is little Ndèye, who is very shrewd and outspoken. Her comments are straight to the point: “How come we have a wheelbarrow and other people have cars?” she mutters hopping alongside Mati’s cart. Aware of the world she lives in, of injustice and of the limitations of grown-ups, she is also a keen observer of her mother’s life. “Since you have known Naago,” she says, “you have become an old woman who never smiles.”
When Mati is taken away no verdict has been pronounced, so we do not know her fate, which leaves the audience to decide for themselves. We have been told in flashbacks the story of her relationship with Naago. We, the audience, have seen it all: his cowardice, his seductive ways, his treachery, his contemptible shady business deals and, in contrast, her vulnerability, her strength, her determination, her sanity.
We feel sorry for Mati but more than anything, we are filled with admiration for her staunch and yet very gentle nature. She has a dream of a better life for herself and for her daughter and she is striving for it. Naago, who, as a policeman, uses his authority to bribe everyone in sight, is a drifter without any serious life plan. Maybe what he likes about Mati is the fact that she is so grounded and so wholesome, and also in the end, successful. For, she has become the owner of the canteen in her dreams.
Mati is hopelessly in love with Naago and yet perfectly aware of his shortcomings. She is not a fool. After their first date she has a careless conversation with her friend Ndaxté. Giggling Ndaxté mischievously inquires, “Did you make love?” Mati has a succint and yet so very resonant an answer: “HE made love…” We know exactly what she means. Moussa Sene Absa’s insights into women’s conditions has a universal echo. Ndaxté also puts it very simply when she talks about her arranged marriage. She says, “…To live with a stranger. They stole my heart, they ruined my life.” Again, this is an example of a subtle, brief allusion to an important social issue, more poignant than the actual wife beating that takes place in the film.
Moussa Sene Absa admits, “J’écris sur l’urgence,” meaning that there is a great urgency at this point in Africa and in Senegal, in particular, to reveal how things are, to draw attention to the fate of those who suffer, those whose dreams will never come true, those whose present is hopeless and who are being oppressed by society.
Visual beauty on the set is intentional and is meant to impact the audience. Mati is extraordinarily dignified, human and lovable because Moussa Sene Absa wants people –men in particular – to be so taken by her story that they will be affected and will start to change, perhaps subconsciously.
He also presents us with a very powerful blend of modern life enmeshed in tradition. One scene in the film has a surreal, crazed tinge to it. Mati is to give birth to Naago’s child. She is taking a taxi to an expensive exclusive clinic. She is adamant about it – she will give birth under the best medically controlled conditions. In the taxi, she and Ndaxté are suddenly halted and encircled by a group of noisy costumed men, hideously made up, who purposely glue their grotesque white faces onto the taxi’s window, intent on scaring the women inside.
It is Tajaboon. On the day that marks the Muslim new year, men dress as women, women as men. It is an old tradition, harmless, festive, happy, meant to scare bad spirits away. I asked the Senegalese about Tajaboon and they all pointed to it as a fond memory of their adolescence.
But in Moussa Sene Absa’s film, the fortuitous encounter between a taxi and this group of men offers a powerful symbol for the clash between men and women, between tradition and modern life. Mati is pragmatic about infant mortality and knows how to control it, whereas men, ironically disguised as women, irresponsible and unaware, choke her, threateningly surround her cab, hold her back and hang over her as a bad omen.
The morning after, Naago’s fate will be sealed as he appears, drunkenly staggering on high heels, wearing a bright red woman’s dress and a wig askew, his face outrageously smeared and painted white. He wants to see his child. He is ironically at his most despicable when wearing woman’s clothes.
At this point the audience is told what has really happened in the bedroom before the shooting. And it makes perfect sense.