Madame Brouette: A Film by Moussa Sene Absa

Madam Brouette, Mousa Sene Absa, Senegal, 2002, 105 min.
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.

Max and Mona

Max and Mona is a post-apartheid South African comedy. Set in and around the country’s industrial capital Johannesburg, it revolves around young Max Bua (Mpho Lovingo) the village mourner of a small provincial town who, despite inheriting his grandfather’s unique talent for making people cry at funerals, wants to pursue a medical degree in the big city.

The problem is, he is accidentally saddled with the village’s sacred goat Mona, and some nasty debts incurred by Max’s colorful but not terribly responsible Uncle Norman, played by the late Jerry Mofokeng in his last role. Between trying to safeguard the goat, and keep his uncle safe from gangsters trying to collect on their chits (as well as Norman’s own lack of judgment), Max is forced to temporarily abandon his medical ambitions and use his talent as a professional mourner at township, and occasionally suburban, funerals.

What follows makes life in the township and Johannesburg’s inner-city, abandoned by high-end businesses and whites, come alive on screen, as Max’s new and lucrative business puts him in cahoots with a cadaverous white funeral director and his transvestite mortician son, as well as an attractive neighbor of Uncle Norman’s.

First-time director Teddy Mattera, son of the acclaimed poet Don, has said one of the reasons for making the film was the dearth of comedy made by and aimed at the majority black population. He continues, “The comedy in this country has always been made by white people where they laugh at black people…So I thought it would be a challenge to write a story where we would be laughing at ourselves.” What Mattera has achieved is a gentle comedy that finds laughs in tears, mixing the profane, the sacred, and the fantastical to create a feel-good fable.

The 2004 Dhow Awards

FEATURE FILMS

Golden Dhow
Maargam
Directed by Rajiv Vijay
India, 2003, 108 mins.

An understanding evolves between a daughter and her father as they undertake a journey together that takes them through the feudal paths of the father’s ancestral village in Kerala and his radical past as a Marxist, an armed revolutionary among indigenous communities living in remote areas and primitive conditions.

The pair’s trip turns into an inward journey of rediscovery, search into human and historical relationships, and an understanding of the dichotomies of the past and the paradoxes of the present. This journeying takes place in the backdrop of the contemporary realities of a globalizing, urban and developing society in Kerala, South India.

Silver Dhow
Sofreh Irani / Iranian Spread
Directed by Kianoosh Ayyari
Iran, 2002, 100 mins.
A counterfeit Thousand-Toman banknote travels from hand to hand, from the north to south of Iran. During the long travel of the banknote, all people, in spite of their obvious cultural, geographical and ethnic differences, show similar human reactions.

Special Mention
Madame Brouette
Directed by Moussa Sene Absa
Senegal, 2002, 104 mins.
Proud and independent, nicknamed Madam Brouette, survives by pushing her cart through the pathways of the market in Sandaga. She is divorced and shares her life with her daughter Ndeye and her friend Ndaxte. Ndaxte has also escaped from a violent marriage. The film follows their life and dreams.

Special Mention
Kabala
Directed by Assane Kouyate
France, 2002, 112 mins.

Struck by drought, he sacred well of the ancestors in a small village called Kabala, is drying up and the inhabitants lives are in danger. Hamalla knows of a technique to revitalize the well but the elders won’t allow anything to disturb the well’s sanctity. Matters become more complicated for Hamalla when his fiancé becomes betrothed to another. Helped by the magic powers of his mother and the knowledge of modern techniques, Hamalla must confront the Kabala inhabitants once and for all.

SHORT FILMS

Golden Dhow
Senter / Center
Directed by Dean Bloomberg
South Africa, 2002, 7 mins
A film from the new South Africa as it comes of age, Senter / Center, deals with the experiences of displacement of the traditional ‘havest’ by the new democratic order in South Africa.

Silver Dhow
Mozart: The Music of the Violin
Directed by Micky Madoda
South Africa, 2004, 28 mins
The story is told through the eyes of Vukani, a 12-year-old virtuoso, who finds himself trapped between his mother’s endless persistence for him to play his instrument and the taunts of his township youths. They believe that Vukani thinks he is superior because of his talent and want to take his violin from him.

Mozart is the metaphor for a country that is still grappling with its identity even ten years after freedom. It is the story of the new black middle class trying to redefine itself in the ever-changing terrain of belonging, identification and cultural shifts.

Special Mention
Play
Directed by Jeff Waker
Uganda, 2003, 22 mins
Shot in Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda, Special Mention incorporates digital collage techniques to speak of themes of old and new colonialism.

Special Mention
Source d’Historie / Source of History
Directed by Adama Roamba
Burkina Faso, 2003, 22 mins.
Three 12-year-old buddies live quietly in a small village. During this time, the negotiations between the government and rebels fail. The same day, their village is taken for a target and their lives are changed forever.

DOCUMENTARY

Golden Dhow
Conakry Kas / The People of Conakry
Directed by Manthia Diawara
Guinea/France/USA, 2004, 81 mins.
In 1958, soon after Guinea”s independence from France, a cultural policy was established to encourage theater, ballet and music based on traditional themes. The emergence of this modern Guinean culture attracted people like Julian Bond Fannie, Lou Hammer, John Lewis and Harry Belafonte. In 2003, the director visited Conakry with his friend Danny Glover to see what had happened to the Guinean cultural revolution and how Guinean people arecoping with globalisation today. The film also depicts the city of Conakry and the reality of being Guinean in modern times from the point of view of those named as urban heroes.

Silver Dhow
Final Solution
Directed by Rakesh Sharma
India, 2004, 228 mins.
Set in Gujarat during February and March of 2002 to July 2003,  Final Solution examines the consequences of Hindu-Muslim polarization in the state. The first part of the documentary deals with the genocidal violence against Muslims and its immediate bloody aftermath and probes the patterns of pre-planned violence by right-wing Hindu cadres, which many claim was state-supported.

The second part of the documentary reconstructs, through eyewitness accounts, the attack on Gulbarg (Ahmedabad) and acts of barbaric violence against Muslim women at Eral and Deola/Kalol (Panchmahals) even as the chief Minister of State, Narendra Modi, traverses the state on his Gaurav Yatra (journey of pride).

Special Mention
Being Pavarotti
Odette Geldenhuys
South Africa, 2004, 50 mins
Teenager Elton tirelessly sings, trains and rehearses to one day fulfill his dreams of becoming a celebrated opera singer. Until then, he must face the daily frustrations and harassment that comes with living in poverty on the edge of a major South African tourist attraction- the whale migration.

Special Mention
A Certain Liberation
Yasmine Kabir
Bangladesh, 2003, 37 mins
Guradasi Mondol lost her fragile grip on sanity in 1971 as she watched her entire family being massacred by the Razakars, collaborators of the occupying forces, during the Liberation war of Bangladesh. Raped and imprisoned by the commander of the Razakars, she was freed months later by the Bangladesh Liberation Army.

Thirty years on, she roams the streets of Kopilmoni, a small town in Bangladesh, inquest of all that she has lost; scorning authority, snatching at will from strangers and invading space normally reserved for men in this strict Islamic society. Through her madness Gurudasi has found a strategy for survival and through her indomitable presence, has kept alive the memories and spirit of the Liberation war.

EAST AFRICA PRODUCTION

Golden Dhow
Full of Energy
Directed by Stephen Nyeko, Uganda

Silver Dhow
Gardiens de la Memoire / Keeper of Memory
Directed by Eric Kabera, Rwanda

Special Mention
Wakiwa
Directed by Chande Omar Chande, Tanzania.

SIGNIS AWARD

Winner
Madame Brouette
Directed by Moussa Sene Absa, Senegal

Special Mention
Gardiens de la Memoire / Keeper of Memory

We, The Living

South African theater, jazz, video and commercial film director Ian Gabriel’s first feature, Forgiveness, offers a sensitive probing of the realities of apartheid and its human toll and legacy.

One of twenty-four films from twelve countries at the multi-media twelfth annual New York African Film Festival shown by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and a month later the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the story of Forgiveness derives from Greg Latter’s simple, incisive script.

Developed over two-and-a-half years and with several drafts, in conjunction with Ian and producer Cindy Gabriel’s Giant Films and DV8 — dedicated to bringing out “genuinely South African digital feature films” — the veteran scriptwriter’s vision is set, not in the country’s tourist-poster hills and beaches, but on the windy Western Cape and Karroo. It is, importantly, six years after the TRC, when the heart and soul’s definition of “amnesty” is painfully wrung out. Equally relevant is the stern Dutch Calvinistic bent of the republic’s small towns, in this case the aptly named real-life fishing village, Paternoster, precariously stuck between unforgiving landscape and sea.

Religious and cultural myths come into play in cross and fish, blood and confession, conversion, shared bread and wine, seashells, nets, wounds, flagellant garden-hose whips, as well as the silent stranger, weapons, the self-appointed posse. Such suggestions enrich the film but are left subtle, so that characters and interactions emerge paramount. The physical background broods and reinforces, too, as Nadine Gordimer’s “ghost of the fecund earth,” but dun colors of high definition are later blown to 35 mm result in a bleached sepia feeling, a strange appropriate tone for this stage.

Giulio Biccari’s camera catches an unshaven greying man taking nerve pills through a road-stained windshield, an outsider arriving in the hard-luck village and who announces that he is a realtor. Father Dalton (Jeremy Crutchley) knows who the visitor really is and doubts his sincere impulses, but arranges a meeting with the coloured, Afrikaans-dialect speaking Grootboom family. The man is Tertius Coetzee (Arnold Vosloo), an ex-policeman granted official amnesty for the killing of the family’s elder son, university student Daniel Grootboom, ten years earlier.

Commission verdict notwithstanding, the conscience-stricken Boer seeks to explain to the crippled family, not to justify but to atone, not to God but, as with Judaism’s high holy day Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), to the injured human party. The family, too, has perpetuated an untruth about the boy’s death, though their reactions as individuals differ.

Nursing his own sentiments of guilt, fisherman father Hendrik Grootboom (Zane Meas) recognizes the other’s suffering humanity. Mother Magda (Denise Newman) has withdrawn from light and life, while her teenagers Sannie (Quanita Adams) and Ernest (Christo Davids) harbor anger and vengeance  unapologetically. To that latter end, the daughter pay-telephones Daniel’s three ANC “political terrorist” friends: coloured Llewellyn Mientjies (Elton Landrew), black, dreadlocked Zuko (Hugh Masebenza) and white Luke (Lionel Newton).

With their own personal secrets and lies, the three set out on a two-day drive for revenge and biblical justice. During that time, Coetzee’s anguished presence brings about change, as priest and family reevaluate past and present, most notably Magda, who will regain central matriarchal strength and impart life onto her household after lovingly dancing with her husband to “Tell It Like It Is.”

Within the evil of the past, the characters are confronted with moral choices. Zuko made a choice, for instance, which led to Daniel’s making another. The present has its roots in that past, and Sannie chooses to choose, as does younger Ernest. But while decision-making seems individual, it ripples out to intersect concentric circles with others’ choices. Compassionate and haunted by Calvinism, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great chain of humanity will be unbroken, humbling acceptance and penance exacted of all, and, imperfect but persistent, life will go forward.

Be Kunko

Shot in video, in the style of a news report, Be Kunko begins with the arrival of refugees in a UN camp. But very quickly, the narrative becomes more fictional as it focuses on the life of a small clan, a brotherhood. The fact is that if Little John has this news report value, its intentions go beyond a specific situation. No time or place is mentioned by the way; the real story is the violence individuals internalize in times of war, the type of violence that messes up, haunts, obsesses and erases all structure and culture. The type of violence that brings more violence, crime, and the rejection of self. Girls are becoming prostitutes while boys are pointing guns at people.

Nevertheless, all of them still respect their grandmother with whom they engage in a hide and seek game imbued with humor. Her authority is safe even if everything is happening behind her back. The seedy character of Uncle Youl (who, on screen, disappears in clouds of smoke) – honest during the day, deceitful at night – is here to remind us that adults are the ones making war and using children for their own ends.

What is the point of bringing back such obvious questions? Because it is still very current in this day and age to deconstruct conflicts. Because it is important in a world that has lost its marks, to look with humanism at the déshumanisation resulting in the violence that has stained the area of Cheick Fantamady Camara as well as other regions in Africa and in the world for more than ten years.

There was no need to thrust forward great arguments, but rather to have a few individuals stand out in the midst of the televised images of refugee camps, eager to live their youth, but bearing on their shoulders the weight of their displacement, of the world drifting, of the loss of their close relations and let them live, laugh, speak, dare, search and lose themselves. It’s like a Nicolas Ray short, or Rebel Without A Cause, with, as a new addition, the lust for quick money, a very current issue.

If Cheick Fantamady Camara’s second short film makes you really feel that the world is weighing you down, it’s because it bears the great mark of a film director – a mark already perceptible in his first short, Konorofili. He masters the narrative benefits from the choice of cameras, sends a thrill of multiple shots, which resonate with the gun shots as much as with the characters’ jokes and most of all, like in Konorofili, the film takes shape through the subtle way in which Camara catches and directs motion, the expressive movements of his actors or of the camera that he uses exempting his shot from lingering.

Here nothing stays still. Everything follows the tragic rhythm of these young people made in the image of the Conakry gangs (cf. Mathias, Le procès des gangs by Gahité Fofana and Kiti, Justice en Guinée by David Achkar) adamant in their teenage recklessness, existing in a miniature version of the world, blowing up because they cannot live and killing themselves softly.