TAAFE FANGA/SKIRT POWER (1997, Mali, 95 min.), directed by Adama Drabo; screenplay by Adama Drabo; cinematography by Lionel Cousin; edited by Rose Evans-Decraene; music by Hourna Barry; with Fanta Berete (Yayemé), Ramata Drabo (Kuni), Ibrahima S. Koita (Ambara), Hélène Diarra (Timbé), Teneman Sanogo (Agro), Michel Sangaré (Nomoku), Nana Diabate (Yandjou, the "Andumbulu"), Oumou Berthe (Naton), Sidiki Diabate (The Griot), Baco Gagnon (The Griotte). In Kaado and Bambara with English subtitles.
Taafe Fanga opens in a contemporary village setting. A number of people are sitting in a hall watching a Hollywood musical on a small TV. A griot, or traditional minstrel/storyteller (played by the celebrated griot Sidiki Diabate) enters the hall, switches off the television, and begins to sing to the audience: "We griots can find in the past the answer to today and tomorrow's questions. Honorable audience, where should I take you in the past?" The answer presents itself when a young woman in exotic clothing and archaic hairstyle enters and proceeds to sit down with the men. She is berated for violating the principle of separate seating for "skirts" and "pants" and is nearly slapped; however, she turns out to be remarkably strong, overpowers the man who has attempted to strike her, and sits with the men. Chuckling, the griot praises this "dauntless, most charming lady," asks her if she is human or angel, and sings that she reminds him of the past, of a story involving the brave Dogon women who lived on the cliffs of Bandiagaro at the bend of the Niger River in Mali. And we are off into our story, which will be "a vessel to take us to the time of those brave people, famous for their original cosmology." It will be a tale of magic and myth, slapstick and satire, yet with clear messages directed to a contemporary audience.
As the story opens, the harmonious existence of the Dogon village is about to be disturbed. Ambara, an elder, has decided to take a second wife, a girl of 15. This news devastates his wife, Timbé. Her immediate reaction is to try to be a "better wife" for him, to get wood to heat his bath. She runs off to seek help from her niece Yayemé. We then meet Yayemé's young daughter, Kuni, a sassy, spunky girl who makes fun of Timbé and her troubles. (Interestingly, Kuni refers to Timbé as her co-wife and Ambara as her husband. This is a traditional element of Dogon culture, rooted in the arcana of their gender mythology, where a nephew will call his aunt "wife," and a niece will call her uncle "husband." If Ambara is Kuni's "husband," then Timbé is her "co-wife.")
The troubles soon spread, as Yayemé is beaten by her husband Agro for talking back to her when she asks him to go out and get wood (traditionally a woman's job). She runs off in anger to get the wood herself, despite the fact that sunset is a dangerous time to leave the village, for it is when spirits walk the earth. A villager risks encountering the spirit of a Tellem (one of the ancient people who were driven out of the cliffs by the Dogon some time between the 13th and 15th centuries. They left behind a number of masks, statues, and other artifacts, and came to assume near-mythical status for the Dogon), or even worse, an Andumbulu, an elf-like spirit with great powers and feet turned backwards. No woman has ever encountered an Andumbulu and lived.
But Yayemé does. Not only does she encounter the elves, but she meets a tall creature wearing the Albarga mask (symbol of unity and harmony). She manages to knock the creature down and steal its mask and raffia skirt (stained with red earth and menstrual blood), and with it, much of its power. She is able to put this power to use the following day when she dons the mask and skirt and pretends to be an Andumbulu. She threatens the men with death and destruction unless they turn over their power and prerogatives to the women. Soon, the men are wearing the skirts and the women are wearing the pants, in all sorts of ways. Soon the women become the hunters, drinkers, deliberators, and bosses, while the men are expected to cook, clean, care for the children, defer to their wives, and perform sex upon demand.
In a variety of comic scenes, the women revel in their new-found power, and the men chafe under their subservient yoke. Between the two worlds travels Kuni, who, as a child still belongs to both. (In the Dogon tradition, everyone is born with a twinned spirit; it is only after puberty and circumcision that men become men and women women.) She also befriends Yandju, the creature whose mask Yayemé stole, who turns out to be a beautiful Tellem (she is in fact the same powerful beauty that we met at the beginning of the film), who had herself stolen the mask and skirt from the men of her tribe ages ago. As the story progresses, clever young Kuni increasingly becomes a spirit of acceptance and reconciliation. She, along with the other children, connives to restore order to her world.
The villagers are finally brought together at the end of the film as they wait anxiously to learn the fate of a woman locked in a difficult childbirth. The villagers all sit together--young and old, child and widow, man and woman. The camera pans over their faces as they pray for a successful childbirth. The confinement hut becomes the site of a spiritual struggle that results in the end of the Tellem Yandju, but the birth of a new set of twins.
Traditional Dogon cosmology is all about twinning and doubling. The Dogon believed that in creating the world, Amma--the Supreme Being and embodiment of truth--established a space-time continuum (taking the form of an expanding spiral) that required the careful balancing of opposing energies (symbolized by the male and female principles) to keep it from flying off in disorder. This need for balance is all-pervasive in Dogon life. In the words of Marcel Griaule, a French ethnographer who spent years studying with the Dogon sage Ogotemmeli, "In the Dogon system of myth, social life must reflect the working of the universe, and conversely, the world order depends on the proper ordering of society."
What interests Adama Drabo here, however, is how the attempt to maintain ordered gender roles can in fact become an excuse for abuse and exploitation. It is one thing to have separate roles; it is another when one group has all the power. When the women sing bitterly early on "It's a world made by men, for men/A world full of confusion and suffering for the rest of us/In this world of uncertainty/peace and unity are empty words," we cannot help but sympathize with them.
It is crucial to the film and to Dogon social life that order be restored in the end. However, it is not enough that men and women return to their traditional roles; we realize that life was out of balance even at the beginning of the film. Balance must involve a shared access to power. Interestingly, it is the elders (Timbé and Ambara) and the children who learn the lesson best. In Timbé's words, "Men and women are here to complement each other. Let's use our power now to bring equality among us. Let's share everything: work, happiness and misfortune." Or, as Kuni puts it, "It's not about power. It's about equality in our difference."
Without this kind of equality, tradition becomes just a rationale for further abuse and disruption. To bring about this kind of equality will of course require struggle, and the film ends as a call to action. The griot returns in the end to sing, "Women, from the four corners of the world, fight for the right to be different and equal." And the last words of this film (which Adama dedicates to "all my mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, grandmothers on every continent) are given to a female griot: "We've experienced the taste of freedom and we will never forget! So beware!"
Adama Drabo was born in 1948 in Bamako, Mali's capital city. In 1979 he won a competition to work as a cameraman at the National Center for Film Production. In 1988, he made the short film Nieba. His first feature film was Ta Dona/Fire! (1991), Set in the Malian countryside, Ta Dona features a young forestry expert who is trying to blend modern resource management techniques with traditional Bambara agricultural and medicinal practices. He comes up against the forces of modern corruption embodied in the regime of Samou Traore (a thinly-veiled reference to Moussa Traore, whose 23-year corrupt regime was about to fall), which cynically seeks to maintain traditional practices when it suits its purposes. The film showed at Cannes and won prizes at FESPACO and other international festivals (as has Taafe Fanga). He apparently came up with the idea for Taafe Fanga when he heard a radio program on Dogon mythology. Dogon mythology gave him the tools to comment allegorically on the contemporary status of women, both in reference to their positive role in bringing about the downfall of Traore, and in terms of their second-class status. It also allowed him to set his film in a region of unique architecture and stunning, strange beauty.
--Notes by Michael Dembrow
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