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Xala

aka The Curse

D: Ousmane Sembene / 123m

Cast: Thierno Leye, Seune Samb, Younouss Seye, Myriam Niang, Fatim Diagne, Mustapha Ture, Iliamane Sagna, Dieynaba Niang

With independence from France finally achieved, the white administrators of the Senegalese Chamber of Commerce are ousted from their offices by a group of local businessmen (who promptly accept hefty bribes from the French so that true power resides with them, “behind-the-scenes”). One businessman, El Hadji Abou Kader Beye (Leye) is preparing to marry for a third time. His first wife, Adja (Samb), and his second, Oumi (Seye) are both unhappy with his decision, as his new bride is much younger than them. But on the night of the wedding, El Hadji finds he cannot get an erection and the marriage remains unconsummated.

The beleaguered businessman confides in the President of the Chamber of Commerce who recommends he visit a marabout (a local witchdoctor). But despite the marabout’s advice, El Hadji remains impotent. Oumi visits him and invites him to her home that evening with the promise of sex; during her visit El Hadji starts to wonder if his impotency is a curse – a xala – placed on him by his second wife. Leaving his office his driver (Sagna) advises El Hadji to visit his marabout. A cure is effected but El Hadji finds his new wife has her period; he visits Oumi as arranged and he has sex with her instead. Meanwhile, El Hadji’s colleagues begin to discover that he’s running up debts he’s unable to repay, and that he’s been selling rice on the black market to maintain his social and economic standing.

His store comes under scrutiny from one of his buyers. With no stock in it, El Hadji has to reassure and cajole the man into accepting that all will be well and soon. A summons from the President of the Chamber of Commerce interrupts them. At the meeting, El Hadji is advised to go and visit his bank director. When he does so, he’s told that any further advances he needs will be dependent on his clearing his existing debts. But it’s at a further Chamber of Commerce meeting that El Hadji finds his future  as both a member and a businessman in jeopardy, and he still has no idea who placed the xala on him to begin with, or why.

Xala - scene

There’s a French proverb that goes, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. It means, the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is the theme at the heart of Sembene’s scathing look at contemporary politics in Senegal during the Seventies (and as adapted from his own novel of the same name). Xala is unapologetic  in its attempts to expose the continuing corruption that plagues the country, whoever is in power, and it paints a powerful portrait of the ways in which that corruption affects the poor and the disadvantaged. Viewed now after forty years, and with much more known about the ways in which Colonial Africa overthrew its European masters, only to prove even more ruinous in its inability to govern itself, the movie is a candid snapshot of the times.

Sembene tells the audience everything they need to know about the political backdrop to the movie in the opening scenes where the local businessmen take over the Chamber of Commerce with all the pomp and circumstance of men acting with a moral certainty. The white administrators are rudely dispensed with, but are soon back, with briefcases full of money, one for each of the men who are supposed to be “better” than they are. With the bribes accepted eagerly, one of them hangs around as the President’s “advisor”, hovering in the background like a political fixer of old. The old corrupt system is dead, long live the new corrupt system. And once Sembene has established that indeed, things will remain the same, he focuses on El Hadji as an example of the greed and selfishness that were – and are – endemic in African politics.

The businessman’s lifestyle, or at least the lifestyles of his two wives, along with the cost of marrying a third, soon proves to be his undoing. Such is El Hadji’s need to be seen to be ascending the social and political ladder, it results in his risking everything to arrive and stay there. Like so many African leaders in the post-Colonial era, the temptation to appropriate resources for himself – and at the expense of the people – is shown as an extension of his usual business practice, a refinement if you will of sharp practice. The only difference between Xala and real life is that Sembene doesn’t let El Hadji off the hook, and his comeuppance is both well-deserved and horrible at the same time.

Although there is a great deal of drama to be had from El Hadji’s shady wheeling and dealing, it doesn’t come along until well after the halfway mark. Until then, the movie follows a recognisably European comic scenario, with the new groom afflicted by a bout of impotence that sees him berated by his new mother-in-law, and encouraged to approach his new wife on all fours with a fetish in his mouth that makes him look like some kind of dentally challenged vampire (it’s all part of a “cure”). There’s good fun to be had from the way in which this serious businessman, now in a position of power, will yield to the most bizarre of behaviours in order to regain his potency, and how he’ll let his first two wives dominate him. Sembene also pokes fun at El Hadji’s increasing “Europeanisation” through his wearing of Western clothing beneath more traditional robes, and his pretentious assertion that he only drinks bottled water (and which is used to fill his car’s radiator at one point).

Sembene also casts a judicious eye on El Hadji’s surroundings, spending time with those less fortunate than his main character, and speaking up for the rights of the disenfranchised and the disabled. As this storyline becomes more and more important to the narrative, Sembene more closely examines the ways in which this abandoned section of Senegalese society should have more of a voice than it does. Their ultimate effect on the fate of El Hadji is introduced with great skill by Sembene and leads to one of the most terrible of movie endings, but one that retains a redemptive feel, both for them and for El Hadji.

Xala - scene2

The movie has a washed-out colour scheme that may well be due to the film stock available for Sembene to use, but even so it makes for an effective reflection on the murky practices of El Hadji and the Chamber of Commerce (and their puppet masters). The soundtrack is filtered through the bustle of street life, and the occasional bursts of music enliven what is a mostly sombre tale. Sembene shows a complete confidence in the material throughout, and if he slips up occasionally in his attempts to make El Hadji as emotionally impotent as he is physically, then he can be forgiven for trying to add another layer to the character’s problems.

Rating: 8/10 – forthright and critical in its depiction of post-Colonial political corruption, and with a compelling comic sensibility, Xala tells it’s story simply and with a sense of righteous indignity; there are times when it seems as if we’re watching a documentary, but Sembene directs with compassion and no small amount of skill.

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