Sunday, July 31, 2016

Faat Kiné (2001)

Director: Ousmane Sembene
Writer: Ousmane Sembene
DP: Dominique Gentil
Editor: Kahéna Attia
Score: Yandé Codou Sène
Starring: Venus Seye, Mame Ndoumbé, Ndiagne Dia, Mariama Balde, Awa Sene Sarr, Tabata Ndiaye
Distribution: New Yorker Films
Length: 1 hr. 57 min.

You can also read (a slightly longer version) of this post here.

The opening sequence of Faat Kiné shows us the complexity of urban motion in a place where modernity and traditionalism are still somewhat at odds. We see groups of women in traditional Senegalese dress walking through the city of Dakar. Then, the camera pulls further and further away from them until we can see can see a whole city block. We can see not only the women but also cars and other pedestrians, all moving in different directions. Some of the other people walking about are dressed like the women are; some are dressed in a more European style.

This sets the stage for the variety of different beliefs, lifestyles, and destinations that exist between the characters in Faat Kiné. By giving us such an understanding of its setting, the film also influences our perception of Kiné N’diaye Diop, its titular character. She frequently finds herself obstructed by archaic values, but thrives in modernity. It’s through her that the film renders an entertaining and thought-provoking slice of modern life in urban Senegal.

Even after the opening scene, Faat Kiné emphasizes human movement through populated spaces. After confrontations occur between characters, the camera will often follow the people involved as they move away from where the confrontation took place. Alternatively, it’ll hold on compositions whose focal points shift as characters move in and out of the frame, contrasting different directions of movement. There are also many scenes similar to the opening, which showcase the grandiose network of movement that exists on the scale of the whole city.

Interactions between characters also involve a form of movement: the actors’ body language.Venus Seye, who plays Kiné, carries herself with upright confidence, and in scenes between Kiné and other characters, her body language tends to be more conspicuous: she gestures with her hands when she speaks, and expressively shifts her whole body.

The only characters who match Kiné in this regard are people close to her, other women who commiserate with her on problems of finance and traditional marriage. Moreover, when Kiné gets into disagreements with other characters, she often tells them where to move or otherwise influences their movements.

Another key element that makes Kiné stand out is her costuming. While most other characters exclusively wear either traditional Senegalese clothing or European clothing, Kiné changes her outfit periodically. Sometimes, she wears traditional clothes; other times, she combines traditional and European styles. This is perhaps appropriate, because the film situates her between generations, and one of her concerns in this film is balancing her past with her family’s future prospects: she hopes to secure a better future for her children while also ensuring that they understand the burdens placed on her in the past by traditionalist and exploitative men.

In one scene, the camera pans over Dakar’s skyline while two sounds spread over the city: one is the Muslim call to prayer; the other is the ringing of Christian church bells. Muslims and Christians share the city, and while the tension between them never becomes one of the characters’ major problems, the film sometimes drops hints reminding us of its existence. Kiné, for instance, is a Muslim, and consequently is apprehensive about marrying a Christian man. It doesn’t favor one side over the other, rather, it just exposes their coexistence and briefly notes some of the issues involved with it.

In fact, the film rarely seems to favor any one thing over others. Consider one of the most extreme scenes: that in which Kiné pepper sprays another woman for insulting her. The film has such a loose, slice-of-life story that this moment slips by without much resonating significance. There’s no music, and camera remains somewhere between the characters, capturing them more-or-less independently of their surroundings or of each other. 

Instead of insisting that Kiné’s action here was righteous or unrighteous, the film leaves us to observe that it fits in with her other behavior: it’s aggressive, competitive, and unyielding. The film portrays these qualities as inherent to modern life, and tracks Kiné as she works out a place for herself as a modern person. The characters frequently compete and argue over which of them will get their way, and the outcome of any such conflict manifests in the characters’ movements.

That said, it’s worth noting that the act of competition itself does not play out in terms of movement, but in terms of words. The characters compete by impugning each other’s motives, coming up with justification their own actions, and hurling crude insults at one another. They quibble over names and the meanings of certain words, all while alternating between languages. 

The relationship between people’s words – especially women’s words – and their freedom of bodily movement is a theme that also occurs in Sembene's first feature, the 1966 film Black Girl, which derives remarkable tension from the dissonance between its main character’s aggrieved narration and the tedium of her labor. You can also see it in his final film, 2004’s Moolaadé, when a group of cruel traditionalists attempt – unsuccessfully – to control a woman’s words by controlling her body.

Of course, the focus on women in Faat Kiné is equally significant, and is another thing it shares with many of . His films often have feminist aims, and he held the belief that “when women progress, society progresses.” Films like Moolaadé or his 1971 Emitaï show women taking up causes that others won’t or can’t, and working to build a better future for their communities.
Kiné is not quite as influential on the world at large as the women of those films; after all, she works to position herself securely in modernity, rather than to promote a larger cause. Nevertheless, she does stand up to gendered oppression, and in doing so challenges the traditionalists’ notions of family and marriage.

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