GUELWAAR (1992, Senegal, 115 min.), directed, written, and produced by Ousmane

Sembčne; cinematography by Dominique Gentil; music by Baba Maal; with Omar Seck (Officer Gora), Thierno Ndiaye (Pierre Henri Thouine, akaGuelwaar”), 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 “GuelwaarThouine

 

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, has abandoned Senegal to become an expatriate in France; his younger son Aloys was injured in a fall from a tree, became disabled, and is now perceived by everyone to be useless; his daughter Sophie has moved to Dakar to work as a prostitute.  His wife Marie Nagoy has retreated into her Catholic faith.

 

          Barthelemy, who has returned to Senegal for the funeral (which of course cannot take place without a body) enlists the help of Police Officer Gora to find out where his father's body is.  It turns out that through a bureaucratic error, his body had been mistakenly thought to be that of Meyssa Ciss, a prominent member of the Muslim community.  In accordance with Muslim tradition, the body had been buried immediately.  Ciss’s family refuses to allow the body to be exhumed, and religious community is pitted against religious community.  Gora finds himself in the middle.

 

          Around 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 Senegal (around the city of Thičs) is like, the way that relief aid is used by the neo-colonialist, Senegalese bourgeoisie to fuel a corrupt system.  Through a series of flashbacks interspersed throughout the film, we come to know more and more about the life of Guelwaar.  He turns out to have been a fairly complex character.  He certainly had his faults, and Sembčne does not hesitate to show those to us.  He bullied his wife, was unfaithful to her, was willing to be supported by his daughter’s work in the sex trade.  However, Guelwaar also levied legitimate criticisms against the government for the way drought aid is being solicited and then diverted for criminal gain. 

          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.

 

          One of 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 Senegal's problems.

 

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

 

 

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