OusmaneSembène’s Mandabi (1968), now available in a restored print, was the first full-length feature film whose characters speak an African language. Small bits of French appear, but Wolof is heard all the time. And the title offers a good example of a kind of colonisation in reverse, being a Senegalese adaptation of the French term for money-order: mandat de débit.

The movie criss-crosses genres in ways that would be bewildering if the director weren’t so calm about it. The plot makes it seem like a frenetic farce, while the human situation drops into dire neorealist gloom. Our hero is Ibrahima Dieng, played by Makuredia Guey, a pompous, self-regarding man who has been out of work for some time. His main activities are bossing his two wives about, ignoring his numerous children and devoutly uttering praise to Allah every five minutes. He also likes to take a walk in the streets of Dakar. For this he dons his best outfit, a shirt-dress called a boubou, about ten sizes too large, more like a tent than anything else, and he has to keep flopping the folds over his shoulders, and nipping them in at the back as he walks. He does this throughout the movie, so that the recurring image becomes a sort of fable or definition of identity. Only his sorrows turn this man into something other than a comically uncomfortable clothes-horse.

Dieng’s wives dress well, or rather very well, compared to their husband. In an interview excerpted for the DVD, Sembène, who died in 2007, says he was criticised for this, since the characters are supposed to be poor. His response is that ‘this reproach does not hold, because everyone gets dressed like that in Dakar.’ This seems a rather evasive claim until we return to the movie, which suggests that everyone in Dakar (well, nearly everyone) lives on credit or charity, not at all a bad scheme, apparently, so long as you know how it works. Early on we are told that begging has become a trade.

While Dieng walks, his two wives, Mety and Aram (Yunus Ndiay and Isseu Niang) wonder where their next meal is coming from, since they haven’t any cash and owe quite a bit already to nearby shopkeepers. The postman arrives with a letter and a money order. He doesn’t read the letter to the women, but he does mention the amount on the order: 25,000 francs. On the strength of this sum the women go shopping. The film cuts to Dieng finishing a pile of rice and nuts. ‘What a big meal,’ he says, licking his fingers. ‘I haven’t had such a meal in ages.’ In a fit of largesse he instructs his wives to give the leftovers to a beggar. Even this act of kindness has an aspect of calculation, though. Whenever he does anything vaguely benevolent, Dieng is hoping that Allah will think well of him and decide to ‘shield’ his family.

It’s time for the midday prayer, but Dieng decides he would rather take a nap – affirming his piety afterwards by scolding his wives for missing the service. ‘Seems as if I live in a house of unbelievers and infidels,’ he mutters to himself. Then his wives tell him about the letter and the money order. They have meanwhile had someone read the letter to them. It is from Dieng’s nephew Abdou, who lives in Paris. He wants Dieng to give three thousand francs to his mother, Dieng’s sister, and keep two thousand for himself. The rest is for safekeeping. (Abdou, it seems, doesn’t understand Dieng or Dakar.) Later, when Dieng gets someone to read the letter to him, in return for fifty francs he doesn’t have, the movie obligingly or ironically shows a few shots of Paris (the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe) just so we know exactly where Abdou is, and exactly where we are, in this postcolonial world – Senegal achieved independence in 1960.

Dieng’s first problem is the post office, where they won’t cash the money order because he doesn’t have an identity card. He has a tax receipt and a voting card but these won’t do. His next queue – there are crowds of people in virtually every scene, whether the streets are sand or are paved and crowded with buses and cars – is at the police station, where he can’t get an identity card because he hasn’t got a birth certificate. The mockery is aimed at bureaucracy, of course, and at the class that benefits by it. But a deeper democratic concern is how a society so relentlessly document-based can do anything other than discriminate against those who can’t read – to start only with the basics. How to survive in a petty crime culture is another question. ‘In this country,’ one of the characters says, as if citing The Beggar’s Opera or Goodfellas, ‘only the crooks live well.’

With a little help from a person who knows the right person, Dieng manages to get around the birth certificate problem, but he still needs three photos. He has one taken – more borrowed money spent – and returns the next day only to be told that the camera didn’t work and there is no photo. Both men are angry, and things turn violent. Dieng calls next on the services of a distant cousin, Mbaye (Farba Sar), who can fix anything for a price. Mbaye says that Dieng should give him power of attorney, and then he will cash the money order. He does, then avoids Dieng for a day before telling him that he, Mbaye, has been robbed, and all the money is gone. The film ends with various glimpses of Dieng’s despair, on the streets and at home, as key phrases from earlier conversations sound in his head, as if he has finally understood where he lives. He hasn’t yet, but the elements are there.

Dieng’s first instinct, even now, is to moralise: ‘Decency has become a sin in this country.’ And then to immoralise: he decides he will become a crook like everyone else. The postman, who is part of this scene, has another view. ‘We will change this,’ he says. ‘Who is “we”?’ Dieng replies. The postman says ‘You’. Perhaps Dieng won’t change things, or change himself. Perhaps he can’t. But the point is clear. No one in the world of this movie wants anything to change, except the nephew who is in Paris. A flicker of invention or resistance would make a huge difference. In the interview I quoted earlier, Sembène calls Dieng’s situation ‘absurd’, which catches both the mode of farce and the sense of helplessness. ‘I wanted to show a Senegalese,’ he says, ‘who, as many other people would have, remains passive in a situation he believes to be fatal, whereas we know that it is not.’

When Dieng is struck by the angry, incompetent photographer, his nose bleeds, and his wives decide to say that he is dying, an admirable (and successful) incitation to charity. Dieng reproaches them for the lie, mainly because he is worried about what people will say when they see him up and about, but his wife Mety, in an aphorism that Sembène must have enjoyed concocting, says: ‘A lie that unites is better than a truth that divides.’ We might adapt this proposition: a half-truth that gets you out of a hole is better than an undeniable truth that will only sink you deeper.

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