Sembčne; cinematography by Dominique Gentil; music by Baba Maal; with Omar Seck (Officer Gora), Thierno Ndiaye (Pierre Henri Thouine, aka “Guelwaar”), Ndiawar Diop (Barthelemy, his elder son), Mame Ndoumbe Diop (Nogoy Marie Thioune, his wife), Moustapha Diop (his second son), Marie Augustine Diatta (Sophie, his daughter), Myriam Niang (Hélčne, her friend), Samba Wane (Gor Mag, the Imam), Joseph Sane (Father Leon) ; in French and Wolof with English subtitles.
Our ancestor Kocc Barma said, if you want to kill a proud man, supply all his everyday need; in the long run, you will make him a slave.—Pierre Henri “Guelwaar” Thouine
Guelwaar, as with so many of Sembene's films, is based upon a true incident, a mixup in which a Christian man's body is accidentally sent off to be buried in a Muslim cemetary. From this bit of local news, Sembčne weaves a story that is at once humorous, pathetic, politically acute, and deeply humanistic.
In the story that he tells,
the body turns out to be that of Pierre Henri Thouine,
known to everyone as “Guelwaar” (Honored One), a
political activist who has died under suspicious circumstances. Although a hero to the people, Guelwaar had a troubled family life. His elder son, Barthelemy,
Barthelemy, who has returned to
this plot line, a good deal of social commentary and political critique is
woven. We see what life in this dusty,
drought-ridden, interior part of
In the film’s powerful, climactic confrontation flashback scene, occurring at a ceremonial rally where Guelwaar is expected to thank the representatives of the donor nations and aid agencies, we see the fiery elder pointing the finger of moral criticism at the political establishment who are getting rich off the people’s misery (a critique that includes the donor nations and their complicity in maintaining the status quo). In an incisive analysis of this scene (“Guelwaar, A Verbal Performer,”) Willamette University’s Amadou Fofana tells us, “Guelwaar’s speech was perceived as an affront by the political class because it lifted the linguistic mask covering the politicians’ games, and the people who had been used for over thirty years only to clap their hands are suddenly awakened to the bitter truth with only one option: to take action.” And take action they do, as the film is brought to its conclusion, and the legacy of “The Honored One” becomes apparent.
the most interesting features of the film—and particularly important for us in 2008--is
its handling of the two conflicting religious communities. Sembčne treats them
in a balanced manner, exposing parallels by means of various stylistic
symmetries. The Catholic priest and the
Muslim imam are both decent men who have difficulty controlling the jealousies
and fears of their respective flocks. Sembčne is not critical of either religion here; rather, he
feels that religious difference is being exploited to promote corruption and
prevent the unity needed to solve
As is usually the case in Sembčne’s films, women play a striking, memorable role. There is the prostitute who refuses to apologize for her occupation, asserting proudly to the Catholic priest that her sex work has allowed her brother to go to the university (and the priest in turn cannot bring himself to criticize her choice, but can only humbly ask her to dress a little more modestly for a funeral). There is the dead Muslim man’s widow, perusing fashion magazines in the privacy of her compound. Sembčne’s world is full of these strong women who have little appetite for pretense and conformity.
Another typical element of the film is the director’s willingness to take time to show us the slow unfolding of social ritual. As is appropriate for the subject matter of this film, we get to see people spending a lot of time standing around, waiting interminably for events to move forward, for the truth to come out. As we wait along with them, we get a clear feeling of the social textures of these communities.
Guelwaar remains one of Sembčne’s most popular films, and with good reason. He manages to combine social critique with biting humor and his usual deep sense of humanity, more relevant now than ever.
--Notes by Michael Dembrow
RETURN to CFAF 18.