KARMEN GEI (Senegal, 2001, 84 min.), directed by Joseph Gaï Ramaka; screenplay by Ramaka; cinematography by Bertrand Chatry; production design by Nikos Meletopoulos; costumes by Mame Fagueye Ba; music by David Murray, with additional music by Julien Jouga, Doudou N'Daye Rose, El Hadji N'daiye, Cherif Diop, Secka, and Yandé Coudou Sene; with Djeinaba Diop Gaï (Karmen Geï), Magaye Niang (Cpl. Lamine), Stéphane Biddle (Angelique the Warden), Thierno Ndiaye Dos (Old Samba), Djeynaba Niang (Ma Penda), El Hadji N'diaye (Massigi the Singer), Aïssatou Diop (Majguene, Lamine's wife) Yandé Codou Sene (Blind Woman Singer). In Wolof and French with English subtitles.
Be careful! Hide your women, hide your men,
Karmen has come! She who creates havoc is here!
Carmen is a myth, but what does Carmen represent today? Where do Carmen's love and freedom stand at the onset of the 21st Century? Therein lies my film's intent, a black Carmen, plunged in the magical and chaotic urbanity of an African city.'
--Joseph Gaï Ramaka
The story of Carmen can first be found in the 1845 novella Carmen by the French writer Prosper Merimee. His story of a sensual, strong-willed gypsy woman working in a cigarette factory in Spain, who seduces and ultimately is killed by a respectable army officer, has been re-told in many different versions, initially and famously in the 1875 opera by Georges Bizet. There have been more than fifty film versions of the story, silent and sound, American and international, conventional and spoof, family-friendly and X-rated. Some of the most notable include Otto Preminger's 1954 musical Carmen Jones, with an all-African-American cast featuring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte; Spaniard Carlos Saura's 1983 flamenco Carmen; and Jean-Luc Godard's First Name: Carmen; (1983), which turns the story into a B-movie film noir. There is even a recent hip hop version of the story by Robert Townsend, Carmen: A Hip Hopera (2001).
Karmen Geï brings the story to contemporary Dakar, Senegal, where it feels right at home. The film opens with the driving rhythm of Doudou N'Diaye Rose's sabar drummers and the stunning presence of Djeinaba Diop Gaï as Karmen, with her vivid smile and flashing eyes. Seated, her body moves, her thighs opening and closing to the music, and then she is on her feet in an explosion of seductive dancing that is both wild and highly deliberate, to the applause and cheers of a crowd of women. The target of her seduction is a beautiful woman in uniform, who initially resists, but finally joins her in the dance. Then all the women are with them, in a wild orgy of dance, until a series of whistle blasts drive them from the square. As the camera pulls back, we realize that this is no cigarette factory, but rather a prison. The woman in uniform is Angélique, the warden of the prison, and the women--including Karmen--are her inmate charges. The prison is located on Gorée Island, the former slave port located near Dakar, haunted by the memory all those victims of human greed and oppression.
The conflicts between conventional morality and sexual freedom, between constraint and liberation, between complacency and passionate self-abandon, which are always present in iterations of the Carmen myth, will here acquire a very African political dimension, as well as a very modern one in terms of its sexual politics.
This political dimension will be most apparent in the film's next big scene, where we are introduced to another major character, a young police officer named Lamine. We are at a high-class wedding celebration. The bride is the daughter of the city's chief of police. A griot (traditional praise singer and oral historian) is singing out the distinguished lineage from which the daughter, Majguene, has sprung. The new husband, presumably from humbler origins but whose alliance with the boss's daughter appears to guarantee his continued ascent to a distinguished career, sits complacent and smug, his lovely bride beside him. Suddenly, everything changes, as a dancer springs into the space before them. Yes, it is Karmen, who has used her sexual seduction of the warden to effect her escape from the prison. At first, we assume that she is part of the evening's entertainment, but we soon realize that she is there on her own, her purpose to mock the bourgeoisie and denounce the political fatcats. "You are all evil! You've swallowed up the country, but we'll eat your guts. You've swallowed up the country. But it will stick in your throat." She dances up to Lamine and paralyzes him with her presence, her mockery, and the wild abandon of her dance. The bride, on the other hand, is no pushover, and she accepts Karmen's challenge to a fantastic duel of dance, for which they are well-matched. Karmen, however, plays by no rules but her own, and she insolently throws the young woman to the ground. For that, she is again arrested and given to Lamine to be led to prison. This will, of course, seal the young officer's fate. And ultimately, that of Karmen herself.
The film's political perspective will ultimately retreat to the background--it is there, but rarely again as explicit the exception is a marvelous scene in which a police inspector is confronted by a singer (Massigi) and crowd singing in chorus. The film covers ground familiar to viewers who know the Carmen tale. Lamine is no match for fiery Karmen. The only individuals who really seem to understand her are her high-spirited mother, Ma Penda, and her former lover and leader of her gang of smugglers, Old Samba (played by the wonderful veteran Thierno Ndiaye Dos, star of Ousmane Sembène's 1992 film,Guelwaar). She has a relationship with cocky Massigi, brought to vivid life by the Senegalese pop singer El Hadji N'diaye, but it does little more than confirm her commitment to being a free spirit.
Interestingly, the one relationship that really seems to touch her is her affair with Angélique, the warden. Unable to be seen at Angélique's funeral (she would be arrested), she must remain in a side room where she feels the impact of what she has wrought. She is never quite the same afterwards, nor is the film. This relationship with Angélique is a new and very logical variation on the Carmen myth. So is the film's allegorical political dimension--its hostility between "the people" (who adore Karmen and her spirit of refusal, and who serve as the chorus in this musical) and the police (and all those whose job it is to maintain a corrupt status quo). It is thus very much an African film, both in spirit and in its sensual energy.
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Born in 1952 in Saint Louis, Senegal, Joseph Gaï Ramaka has been working in cinema for a number of years. After completing studies in Visual Anthropology at the Paris Institute of Social Sciences and Film Studies at the Institute for Higher Education in Cinema (IDHEC), he made a series of award-winning short films: Baaw-Naan (Rites of the Rain) in 1985, Portrait d'une Mannequin and La Musique Lyrique Peul in 1986, and Nitt N'Doxx (The Rainmakers) in 1989. While living in Paris, Ramaka created the French production and distribution company Les Ateliers de l'Arche in 1990. It was in association with the Senegalese branch of Les Ateliers that he opened the Bell'Arte cinema space in Dakar in 1999. This in turn jump-started the creative work of the Arche Studios, West and Central Africa's first large sound stage (15,000 sq. meters), fully equipped with computerized lighting. His 1997 short film Ainsi Soit-Il won the Silver Lion for Best Short Film at the Venice Film Festival. Karmen Geï is his first feature. Though its initial screenings in Senegal were halted due to pressure from the powerful Mouride sect, who protested the fact that Mouride chants could be heard during the funeral of Angélique, Karmen's sympathetic lesbian lover, the film has received a great deal of attention and praise internationally.
--Notes by Michael Dembrow