Monday, May 2, 2016
Director: Ousmane Sembene
Writer: Ousmane Sembene
DP: Georges Caristan, Michel Remaudeau
Editor: Gilbert Kikoïne
Starring: Ibou Camara, Joseph Djatta, Dji Niassebanor, Robert Fontaine, Michel Remaudeau
Distribution: New Yorker Films
Length: 1 hr. 36 min.
Emitaï is a film about a Diola village in Senegal during World War II, and the invasive effects of French colonialism on its people. The film seeks out connections between different kinds of power, and what implications they might have for the future. Locations and edifices therein are treated with ritual import, and linked together through camera movement and editing.
The flow of power suggested by these techniques originates from a literal depiction of Diola tradition. At the sacred precinct where the village elders meet, the gods appear in physical form to counsel them, emerging from a tree where they perform rituals. The title, Emitaï, refers to the creator god who only receives prayers directly during times of crisis; a fitting title, considering the struggle the French put the Diola through.
Ousmane Sembene once said "if Africans do not tell their own stories, Africa will soon disappear." The film's literal treatment of Diola spirituality opposes the advances of the French, who paternalistically insist that the Diola accept Philippe Pétain and Charles de Gaulle not only as leaders, but practically as gods. This is cultural imperialism in the name of war, the French illegitimately attempting to assert that their fight is also the Diola's fight.
The film features two stories of the colonial invaders disrupting life in the village: the first takes up the initial 20 minutes of the film, and involves young men being conscripted into the French military to fight in World War II. Resistance is met with retribution, and in the end nothing can prevent the men from being taken away from their homes. After this, text informs us of a one-year time lapse, and the film's title is finally displayed over footage of women preparing and planting crops.
These women take on a much more prominent role in the second story, taking up the remaining 76 minutes of the film: this time, the French have come to take half of their rice harvest for the war effort. They're loath to give up their rice - which has both practical and traditional significance - for someone else's war, but they're unsure how to react under the threat of violence. They turn to Emitaï to ask why this is happening and what they can do, but he does not offer them a way to resist.
The village chief, Djimeko, attempts to lead an uprising, but is shot and killed. The French interrupt his funeral, forcing his mourners to leave his body and their spears behind. The place where they left him surrounded by spears lodged in the ground becomes a makeshift grave, and the film returns to that location several times, treating it with a similar significance to that of the shrine where the elders meet; when their traditions are disrupted, so changes the landscape of sacred places and things.
Meanwhile, the French apprehend all of the community's women and force them to sit under a tree in the center of town until the rice is surrendered to them. The women keep their morale by singing and praying, even as the French try to silence them. The first 20 minutes of the film ended by transitioning from failed resistance to women starting a new harvest; it's left to them to create a new life.
In Emitaï, the burden of resistance shifts from the community's leaders to the women who will have to sow new seeds in the wake of the damage inflicted by colonialism, which Sembene captures in his camera. The women are left with the task of adapting, but also preserving their community from harmful influence. They put up a moral resistance where physical resistance fails, keeping their culture alive in spirit. Even if they acquiesce to the French demands for rice, they will not acquiesce to the French insistence on treating Philippe Pétain and Charles de Gaulle as objects of worship.
The struggle they face reflects real-life events: it's reminiscent of the efforts of Alinesitoué Diatta, a Diola woman who became a religious leader and anti-colonial figure in 1940s Senegal. She led an movement resisting the seizure of rice by the French, and united people under her religious teachings. Her teachings, said to have come from visions sent by Emitaï, put some novel ideas into practice. She's now seen a as a symbol of resistance, and an agent of community among the Diola in a time of crisis.
Sembene's approach to resistance in this film, and also in his final film Moolaadé, is complex. The wrongs being committed are clearly designated, but those who perpetrate them are not completely villainized - though they may be completely condemned. Those who resist are celebrated for their resilience, but their resilience is not determined only by their endurance when faced with hardship; rather, it's seen as a willingness to change without losing sight of the things in the past that contribute to people's identities. Rare is the film that takes a clear-cut moral stance but simultaneously feels like it's pulling off a delicate balancing act.