TABLEAU FERRAILLE (1997, Senegal, 85 min.), directed by Moussa Sene Absa; screenplay by Moussa Sene Absa; cinematography by Bertrand Chatry; music by Maadu Diabaté, with songs performed by Souleymane Faye, Dial Mbaye, Madu Diabaté, Omar Ndiaye, Animata Fall, and Ismaël Lô; with Ismaïl Lô (Daam), Ndèye Fatou Ndaw (Gagnesiri), Ndèye Bineta Diop (Kiné), Thierno Ndiaye (Président), Amadou Diop (Gora), Akéla Sagna (Civilisé), Daniel Ripert (Diop Dollar), Isseu Niang (Anta), Ahmed Attia (Prostitute). In French and Wolof with English subtitles.
Tableau Ferraille is our second film by director Moussa Sene Absa. The first, Ça Twiste à Poponguine, was a delightful, nostalgic look at life in a seaside village in Senegal in the Sixties. It was a bittersweet evocation of young people caught up in the in influence of foreign music (French and American), where racial and cultural animosity ignite but are quickly put to rest by a film self-consciously looking back in time.
Tonight's film is also set in a seaside town, but the time is now and the tone is far from nostalgic. As the film opens, we see a seaside littered with garbage and industrial waste; appropriately, the town, located near the capital city of Dakar, is named "Tableau Ferraille," or "Junk Heap." A man and his wife pile their possessions onto a horsecart and ride off, silent and despondent, as a crowd watches. The crowd is then distracted by a griot who calls them over to celebrate the opening of a road and to share in the munificence of a local capitalist, a man that we will come to know as Président (played by Thierno Ndiaye, who starred as Pierre Thioune Guelwaar in Ousmane Sembène's Guelwaar). The cart comes to a halt at a cemetery, where the woman gets off and visits a grave. As she kneels quietly, the film goes into the first in a series of flashbacks by which its story will be told.
Daam (played by Senegalese music star Ismaïl Lô) has returned to his native town of Tableau Ferraille from successful study in France. Handsome, eager, and ambitious, he has decided to run for political office; he wants to become a Deputy, so that he can bring jobs and hope to his poverty-stricken town. He has no real political program; rather, his goal is to be an honest, capable technocrat, and to help his country avoid the chaos that has befallen so much of Africa. In the midst of his campaign, he meets Gagnesiri, a local beauty and cousin of his friend Gora. He decides immediately that he will marry her, and she, obviously smitten, agrees. They marry (the scene in which she comes to him, stately and elegant, is stunning), and he soon wins the election.
Daam's career takes off. Ironically, in his quest to help his home town, he helps local businessman Président open a fish cannery, setting in motion a process that will ultimately bring about his own downfall. Président soon becomes quite successful, thanks to his union-busting tactics and emulation of American values and techniques.
Daam and Gagnesiri are unable to have children, and, despite his obvious affection for her, he decides to listen to the advice of other men and take a second wife, Kiné. European-educated, stylish, and ambitious, she seems to be the kind of "trophy wife" that would be appropriate for the rising young minister that Daam is about to become. Though not really happy with it, Gagnesiri supports the decision, since she sees it as a way to become a surrogate mother and to keep Daam happy.
Kiné quickly gives birth to a child, then another, but she chafes under her domestic situation. Comfortable in their plush new house, she is really more interested in establishing a career as a gallery owner than in her children. Gagnesiri in fact seems more the mother. Worse, Daam still seems to prefer his first wife. When Daam refuses to give Président and his cronies the inside track to securing a bridge-building contract, the pieces are laid for Kiné to betray him and bring about his political demise. Faced with this ultimate challenge, Daam's degrees and his technocratic abilities can do him no good, and he is no match for the long-standing habits of corruption and cronyism. He dissolves into drunken self-pity, lost if not for the loyal Gagnesiri.
The story has now come full circle, and we are back at the beginning. The woman whom we now know as Gagnesiri leaves the graveside of her friend Anta (whose death was indirectly caused by a worthless husband) with new resolve. She leaves her husband and Tableau Ferraille in a concluding scene of striking, powerful beauty. This concluding scene is characteristic of the film as a whole, with its gorgeous visual images and emotionally-compelling music, whose lyrics provide insightful commentary on the action that we see.
Tableau Ferraille has been called "a masterful portrait of the pitfalls of economic development policies in Africa, highlighting the need to maintain Africa's traditional communitarian values against the rapacious greed of global capitalism" (James MacBean). In a sense, MacBean is correct, but I would say that he ultimately misses the point of the film. Moussa Sene Absa is locating the horrors of capitalism (which are certainly there; see, for example, the radioactive containers) in the decisions of individuals. It is the greed or ambition or simply the weakness of individuals that causes such horrors to occur. Capitalism merely provides the venue for these actions. As is often the case in films from Africa, this film is less a piece of socio-economic analysis than it is a moral/ethical critique, a call for individual viewers to look inwards and re-evaluate their own course of action.
Still, this film is far from didactic. As was the case in Ça Twiste à Poponguine, Moussa Sene Absa refuses to judge his characters. Kiné could have been painted as a heartless witch, but she is far from that. The ruthless Président is not so much evil as he is a self-serving survivor. (It is ironic to see Président played by Thierno Ndiaye, who in Guelwaar played the rebel-critic, who railed against the debilitating effects of accepting foreign aid.) . Daam is not a bad man, just weak, foolish, and cut off from any deep spiritual values.
Those values are most consistently centered around Gagnesiri, who represents tradition and motherhood. By making her infertile, the director not only increases the pathos of the story, but he suggests that motherhood is most crucially a spiritual state. Fertility is not a value in and of itself. He is thereby critiquing the practices of a patriarchy that uses polygamy for its own selfish ends. Reinforcing Gagnesiri's spiritual centrality is the fact that she is periodically accompanied by a group of fishermen who act as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on her situation. By their dress, they are clearly meant to represent Baye Faals, members of an Islamic sect that stresses frugality, hard work, and mutual support. Their strange, stylized presence here reminds us that the film is not simply a "slice of life," or a contemporary romance. It has an abstract, timeless quality. Beyond its story, Tableau Ferraille is a deeply ethical interrogation of the way that Africans are responding to the challenges of modernity. Moussa Sene Absa is clearly taking his place as an heir to Ousmane Sembène.
Born in Dakar, Moussa Sene Absa has been making films for a little over ten years. His first short film, Le Prix du Mensonge received the Silver Tanit at the 1988 Carthage Film Festival. His first feature film Ken Bugul, came out in 1991, followed by several more short films--Jaaraama and Set Setal in 1992 and Offrande à Mame Njare 1993. Ça Twiste à Poponguine was released in 1993, followed by a short feature, Yala Yana in 1994. Tableau Ferraille won a well-deserved award for Best Cinematography at the 1997 Pan-African Film Festival (FESPACO), the top competition for African film.
--Notes by Michael Dembrow
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