A CHILD’S LOVE STORY/UN AMOUR D’ENFANT (Senegal, 2004, 93 min.), directed by Ben Diogaye Beye; screenplay by Ben Diogaye Beye; cinematography by Maurice Giraud; music by Wassis Diop; edited by Abdellatif Raïss; with Anta Sylla (Yacine),  Mafall Thioune (Omar), Sega Beye (Demba), Habib Diara (Layta), and Fatou Diouf (Ngoné), Fatou Fall (Maty, the Beggar Girl), Mamadou Sane (Young Beggar Boy), and Omar Seck (Big Laye).  In Wolof and French with English subtitles.

 

            A Child’s Love Story, the second feature film by veteran director Ben Diogaye Beye, isn’t really much of a story.  Set at the end of the school year in Dakar, Senegal, it brings us into a tight circle of 12-year-old friends, all more or less middle class.  We get to see these kids interact, quarrel, make up, fight, make up, announce their affections, withdraw their affections, get in trouble, get out of trouble, until the circle is broken up.  Really not much of anything, in terms of movie plot.  Yet A Child’s Love Story is a very engaging film, bringing us into the everyday lives of these African urban kids in a way that is extremely rare in the films that we get to see in this country.  And just beneath the surface of this story, intertwined with it, there is a sophisticated social analysis.  Despite the apparent stability and solidity of the middle-class lives that we see here, theirs is in many ways a very fragile world.

 

            The film opens with two boys getting ready for school.  At first we only see them through their shoes—one is lacing up his white sneakers, the other wears blue plastic sandals.  On the soundtrack are the sounds of the street—this is a world in which “inside” is not much separated from “outside,” no matter how fancy the house.  The boy with the sneakers is Omar, the film’s central male character, and he is rushing through breakfast in order to be able to intercept the path of his friend Yacine, his best friend even though she is a girl.  Yacine’s is the best-off family among the circle—her father has a good job, he is thinking of sending her off to an elite high school, they have TV and a nice car.  But there is nothing of the snob about Yacine—she is a hard-working girl, with a ready smile and at times a sharp tongue, though she always tries to think the best of people; and she is very attached to Omar, with whom she shares a friendly competition for best in class.  Omar reciprocates her feelings.  They love to be together. It is not easy for them to articulate or even pinpoint their feelings. Omar tries to do so, using the conventional language of adults, but it will ultimately get him into trouble and temporarily jeopardize their relationship. 

 

            The second pair of shoes belong to Demba, who is a complicated kid.  Well-off, not too good in school, using bluster to mask his insecurity, he has a secret known to none of the other children.  While he swears to his friends that he would never have anything to do with beggars, we know the truth:  he is secretly attracted to Maty, the daughter of a blind beggar woman who comes around to their home every day for a handout.  He longs for the slightest bit of contact with her, just the touch of her hand as he is passing sugar or biscuits to her.

 

            The third boy in the group, Layti, is the opposite of Demba.  With Layti, what you see is what you get.  Tall, strong, and a good-natured dreamer, he has one goal: to go to America and be a basketball star like his hero, Michael Jordan.  He likes girls, but he likes food even more!  For him, bliss is a girl giving him food.  And he has that kind of relationship with Ngoné, his uncomplicated “girlfriend.” 

 

            Many of the scenes in the film would be familiar to most of us:  rivalries at a pre-adolescent dance party; boys boasting about their prowess with girls, yet hiding their secret affections; kids playing “She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not” (here with a Senegalese twist involving the leaves of an Ice Petal plant and a near-guarantee that it will predict that “She Loves Me”); boys measuring their “zizis” to see who is the best-endowed; kids finding ingenious ways to cheat at school; kids getting caught in humiliating situations; kids impulsively saying and doing things that they later regret. 

 

At the same time, though, there is much in this film that speaks directly to the African urban experience—mediated by a child’s perspective.  Behind the relatively calm exterior of these children’s lives lies a good deal of harsh social reality: workers on strike, the effects of globalization, police brutality, poverty and the lack of a social safety net (other than begging).  Yacine’s family appears to be the most stable of all, yet even their position is ultimately tentative and fragile.  When her father nearly loses his job as a result of globalization (i.e., decisions by the World Bank), the family is forced to relocate to the distant city of St. Louis to avoid unemployment and poverty.  Omar’s family too is pushed to the edge when his father decides to take advantage of Muslim law and take a young second wife (his wife sees right through his assertion that he is doing it “for the family”); this foolish decision has the potential to push them into poverty. 

 

            Two of the other characters in the film are particularly important in this respect.  One of the positive role models for the children is “Big Leye,” an older man who rents out bikes at the seaside.  Himself a top student when he was young, he was falsely accused of cheating and expelled from school—and as is typical in the Third World, unless one has good connections, there are no second chances.  He needs to scramble for his living on the verges of respectability, vulnerable to a corrupt and high-handed police force and social ostracism.  Yet he embodies solid moral values and is always urging the kids to work hard; he has a deep affection for the kids and is in fact the only adult to really listen to them.

 

            The second character to embody social reversal is a young beggar boy who keeps showing up in the film, drawn in some way to young Layti.  There is something about him that reminds Layti of something, which only becomes clear at the end of the film.  It appears that the two of them were students together at a Koranic school long ago.  Things obviously worked out for Layti and his family in a way that they did not for the other boy.  Layti was able to go to “French School,” while the boy was relegated to begging.  There is a moment of recognition, a smile, and then they part, each going his own way.  The film then juxtaposes images of each boy:  Layti moving from right to left, his basketball in close-up; the other boy moving from left to right, his begging box in close-up, and we see that his ragged t-shirt bears the name of Zidane, the great French-African soccer star (suggesting that the boy too is not without dreams).  This little segment again reminds us of how vulnerable these kids are to the vagaries of a fate outside their control.

 

            Still, overall it is the “sweet” side of “bittersweet” that ultimately characterizes the tone of this lovely little film.  Despite all that separates them in the end, Omar and Yacine have found a poetic, magical way to keep their friendship intact.  In the words of Yacine, “My mom said my dad lost his job because of World Bank, but even the Bank cannot keep us apart.  Our friendship is stronger than the World Bank.”

 

* * *

Ben Diogaye Beye has made a career of media work.  Along with his work in film, he has been a radio broadcaster-producer for Radio Senegal. He also has worked as a professional journalist, directing the Senegalese news agency’s ‘Sports and Culture’ department.

 

He first worked as an assistant director on about ten Senegalese and foreign films including Touki-Bouki by Djibril Diop Mambéti. He co-authored the film Sarah et Marjama by Axel Lohman, which was shot in Senegal in 1974. He worked on the adaptation of the Senegalese film script Baks by Momar Thiam. Ben Diogaye Beye also worked as first assistant director on these two movies.

 

He made his first short film, Les Princes Noirs de Saint-Germain-des-Prés (1975), in Paris. a short-film which satirizes young unemployed Africans who strive to survive in the French capital in an unusual fashion.  Samba Tali/Street Kid (1975) won the Best Short Picture Award at the Festival International du Film de l’Ensemble Francophone (FIFIEF) in Geneva in 1975 and Best Short Film at the Carthage Festival in Tunisia.

 

In 1980 Ben Diogaye Beye wrote, produced and directed Sey, Seyti/A Man and Some Women, his first feature-length film, which questions the practice of polygamy in Senegal.  In 1976 the script of this film was ranked second at a contest organized for the Francophone countries by the Agency for Technical and Cultural Cooperation. Sey, Seyti also received an honorable mention at the Locarno International Film Festival in 1980 and the Prix de la Commune at the Ougadougou’s Pan-African Film Festival (FESPACO) in 1981.  In 1987, Ben Diogaye Beye directed a documentary on the Senegalese Red-Cross and in 1990 he helped direct the magnificent Hyenas by Djibril Diop Mambéty (which featured outstanding music by Mambéty’s brother, Wassis Diop, who also scored A Child’s Love Story).

                             

A Child’s Love Story, Beye’s second feature-length film, released in 2004, won the UNICEF Award for the Promotion of Children’s Rights, at the Festival Panafricain du Cinéma  de Ouagadougou (FESPACO 2005), as well as a Special Mention from the World Catholic Association for Communication. 

 

                                                                             --Notes by Michael Dembrow

 

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