XALA B- aka: The Curse Senegal (123 mi) 1975 d: Ousmane Sembène
His bitterness had become an inferiority complex in the company of his peers. He imagined himself the object of their looks and the subject of their conversation. He could not endure the asides, the way they laughed whenever he went past, the way they stared at him. His infirmity, temporary though it might be, made him incapable of communicating with his employees, his wives, his children and his business colleagues. When he could allow himself a few moments of escape he imagined himself a carefree child again.
—text from Ousmane Sembène’s Xala (112 pages), 1974, Xala by Sembene Ousmane
Sembène’s version of Buñuel’s VIRIDIANA (1961), adapting his own 1973 novel by the same name, unleashing a dark social satire targeting corrupt African governmental officials in the post-independence period who are mere figureheads that are easily bribed, while the real power remains behind the scenes as whites continue to rule, as the nation’s resources and the most profitable businesses are still controlled by foreign powers. The revolutionary change of power from a colonialist state to full independence is a charade of pomp and ceremony, full of celebration and cheer, as whites supposedly accede their positions of privileged status to black Africans who are clueless how to rule, embezzling short-term profits that only temporarily line their pockets while ignoring long-term goals. At the center of this comical farce is El Hadji Abdou Kader Bèye (Thierno Leye), carefully balancing modernism with traditional ways, proudly taking his position as a respected member of the Dakar Chamber of Commerce, as foreign whites are driven out, supposedly a triumph over colonial forces, publicly walking them out the front door only to return by the back door in their new roles as advisors (with the all-black police noticeably supervised by a lone white figure in sunglasses), leaving behind their valued briefcases that symbolize successful business transactions. Seeking quick profits, El Hadji diverts large sums of subsidized rice intended for drought-stricken regions, then sells it on the black market while keeping the proceeds for himself. So why people are starving to death, he’s buying TV’s and cars for his new wife, using the money from European bribes to pay for the luxuries of his wives, becoming a symbol of the new African bourgeoisie, beholden to all things European, driving a Mercedes Benz car, hiring a chauffeur, drinking imported water, and perhaps most absurdly fellow Commerce members are required to discuss business exclusively in French, the tongue of the colonialist oppressor, living in a massive estate that is actually owned by his first wife Adja (Seune Samb). As if to celebrate his newfound success, El Hadji decides to take an arranged third wife who at 19 is young enough to be his daughter (Dieynaba Niang), providing each of his wives with their own villa and a car, sparing no expense at the wedding, which is a lavish spectacle, suggesting a man is what others see, that he is an extension of his material possessions. This decision causes considerable trepidation among the other two wives who believe they will be neglected, with Adja, always dignified, an exemplary Moslem wife, wearing colorful flowing traditional African clothing, and 2nd wife Oumi (Younouss Seye) a volcano of emotion who considers herself emancipated in a wig, sunglasses, and low-cut attire, more representative of the modern European style, both seen awkwardly sharing a Coke together before lecturing El Hadji, asserting their authority even as he is about to be married. Perhaps even more angered is his college-educated daughter Rama (Miriam Niang), a child of privilege who religiously avoids the company of oppressed people, yet also a modern feminist finding the practice of multiple wives despicable, believing all polygamous men are hypocritical liars that can’t be trusted, showing concern for her mother Adja’s happiness, even suggesting divorce, but her mother counters that at her age it would be slim pickings to find a better arrangement, that she’s better off exercising her seniority among the wives, with both keeping a low profile, allowing El Hadji his day in the sun.
Alternating between Wolof spoken on the street and French spoken to conduct business and governmental affairs, the film continually contrasts between the former colonizing state and a liberated Africa, seemingly confused about the mixed messages, with El Hadji filling the void with nefarious practices that existed prior to independence, suggesting there’s no real liberation so long as officials remain corrupt. By imitating former colonialist practices, Sembène lambastes the new African bourgeoisie as morally vacuous caricatures who remain lazy and cowardly, certainly worthy of contempt, exactly as expressed by Rama, who refuses a cup of Evian Water, her father’s favorite beverage, reflecting a healthier and more educated postcolonial attitude. However, on the wedding night of his third marriage, with a young bride beautiful enough to “wake up the dead,” El Hadji is unable to perform sexually, afflicted by xala (impotency). The bride’s mother is incensed, believing he must take care of this affliction immediately, which sends him reeling into traditional methods of witch craft, which El Hadji doesn’t really believe in, but he’s desperate, willing to pay any price. He’s a pathetic figure that slinks into work the next morning, with his food import business already opened by his secretary, Fatim Diagne, who fumigates the place, even perfumes the sewer water discarded by women on the street, which otherwise reeks a foul odor, while El Hadji is unhappy with the collection of musicians, cripples, and beggars sitting outside his door, describing them as “human rubbish,” calling the police to have them picked up immediately in order to protect his business. As if to accentuate the illicit street activity, an accident draws a crowd, where a pickpocket easily takes advantage, robbing a farmer of his annual savings, sent to town to replenish his village’s needed provisions, now left with nothing, while the pickpocket is seen buying a fancy tailor-fitted suit. Once the riff-raff are removed outside his business, El Hadji tends to more important troubles, visiting a highly recommended witch doctor to remove the curse of the xala, who inquires about who may have inflicted the curse, one of his wives, a jealous colleague, suggesting the appropriate remedy may be linked. But the xala continues afterwards, with El Hadji preoccupied by nothing else, neglecting his business, allowing debts to grow, spending weeks moving from healer to soothsayer, spending gobs of money, driven even deeper into the outskirts of a faraway village in search of a revered spiritual marabout, offering a check as payment, a piece of paper that has little meaning or use in the bush country, requiring a lengthy trip into the city in search of a bank. While xala is initially viewed as sexual impotence, an inability to satisfy his three wives, it also represents the failure of self-serving men to satisfy the needs of their country. Sembène’s exaggerated portrait transforms the meaning to represent the inability of newly independent African nations to resolve their own conflicts, requiring continuing reliance on colonial powers that don’t have their country’s best interests in mind, becoming a musical chairs game of changing black figureheads, none of whom possess the capabilities needed to run a country. Sembène’s metaphor continually expands, painting a damaging picture of the effects of white marabouts, who take the forms of advisors offering technical assistance, offering aid packages in massive European loans designed to solve problems of development that in reality create larger problems of psychological and economic dependency, as the massive debt incurred is often impossible to repay, especially after years of drought, leaving African nations as desperate as El Hadji to remove the colonialist curse.
By the time El Hadji is finally cured, he’s deeper in debt than he imagines, summoned to appear before his fellow members of the Chamber of Commerce, who have all suffered from the bad checks El Hadji has been passing, their creditors refusing their requests, their reputations in shambles, all pointing their fingers at El Hadji’s open display of embezzlement, voting to remove him from their chambers, where El Hadji’s eloquent speech suggests they’re all just middlemen for white capitalists, yet painting them all under the same broad brush of self-serving greed and dishonesty fails to sway their votes, unanimously expelling him so their corrupt and exploitive practices can continue unabated. The new arrival taking his place is none other than the pickpocket thief who stole the wad of money on the street, wearing his new suit along with a cowboy hat, receiving the symbolic briefcase that comes with the job. Meanwhile, the police shut down El Hadji’s business and shutter it under lock and key, his Mercedes is repossessed (they have to push it as nobody knows how to drive it), and two of his wives leave him. Ironically, a new xala has been placed upon him, as the marabout who removed the spell discovered the check bounced, so just as quickly he reinstates the curse. But that is not all of El Hadji’s misfortunes, as there’s a final Buñuelian beggar’s banquet twist, as all the beggars and cripples find their way to his estate, representative of all the oppressed people in Africa, suddenly taking over his refrigerator, drinking all the cold drinks, where the most vociferously angry is a farmer whose land was stolen by El Hadji, then denied the monetary aid package for victims starving of drought, as many in his village died because of the actions of El Hadji, who basically extorted funds to pay for his wedding. This farmer initiated the xala in the first place and can easily remove it again, but only if El Hadji exposes himself naked before the group, allowing them all to express their moral outrage by spitting on him, a complete reversal of power, as only this moral atonement will remove the curse. Despite the abject humiliation, basically crawling on his knees for forgiveness, losing his manhood is more important to him, so he degrades himself with this exorcism. With his remaining wife in tears, El Hadji submissively relents to their conditions, where the “human rubbish” are the ones now passing judgement over him. Throughout the film there is a steady stream of native chants and African music, including poetic African lyrics that satirically mirror the situation El Hadji finds himself in, creating layers of allegorical content. With Sembène an ardent communist, the film may as well be about the evils of capitalism, as for every El Hadji that succeeds, even temporarily, there are hundreds of beggars and less fortunate who don’t, who comprise the mainstream of African society, who are no better off in a post-colonial nation, with foreign nations continuing to rape and plunder African lands and resources, leaving an impoverished lower class all across the continent. While the film is often considered one of Sembène’s finest, a huge box-office hit in Senegal, yet it can be uneven and awkwardly told, blisteringly angry one moment and unengaging the next, lacking a searing emotional intensity, at times bordering on the surreal, where it’s a heavy-handed morality tale, wildly over-the-top, feeling more like a farce, with El Hadji serving as comic relief, a dupe whose name is affiliated with a Hajj, having taken his first wife on a pilgrimage to the Islamic Holy Land of Mecca, yet he’s a religious hypocrite, polygamous without being devout, guilty of stupid moral transgressions, with his brethren mimicking the official gestures of state officials, where men overall are viewed as universally deplorable, with Sembène suggesting they need to be purged from power. Only the women receive their due in this film, reduced to secondary characters, yet their blunt honesty shines in sharp contrast to the waters muddied by men. The African leaders who mismanaged, abused and continue to abuse their power since the end of colonization have mostly been men, advocating a continuation of the status quo, as El Hadji does here, sharing the blame for disempowering African women whose contribution is unequivocally needed to build a stronger and more equitable Africa.