There has never been a better time to watch Mandabi, the second feature by the great Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène. The film — the story of the chaos caused when a middle-aged Dakar man receives a money order from Paris — is newly restored. Colours sing, the picture is pristine. Few film-makers deserve the attention more than Sembène, who until his death in 2007 directed a string of charged, bravura films about complex life in west Africa. Being called the “father of African cinema” was said to make him uneasy — too much grandiosity. But it was a useful shorthand for his achievements. It still is.
For western audiences, there has never been an easier time to watch Mandabi either. Made in 1968, the film is only now having a first release in the UK, joining a Blu-ray put out in the US by high-end label Criterion (having been restored by French company StudioCanal). That novelty tells its own story. Despite the excellence of his movies — multi-layered, always surprising — Sembène is barely known in the west beyond cinephiles. Yet even in that small world of film schools and cinematheque seasons, his work has often been overlooked for other names: Bergman, Fellini, Kubrick, and so on. Those are the familiar 20th-century auteurs who make up the canon — the unwritten but powerful consensus idea of who shaped film history.
A caveat is needed: Sembène would not have cared. Originally a novelist, he came to cinema with a self-defined brief — to make films that spoke to Senegal. His first feature, Black Girl (1966), was a scalding portrait of a young Senegalese woman in service in moneyed Antibes. Mandabi followed, the world’s first film shot wholly in an African language (Wolof), made with an African crew. Revolutionary is not too big an adjective.
London-based curator June Givanni maintains the Pan African Cinema Archive, a one-of-a-kind collection including films, photographs and audio of Sembène. “His films are undervalued in the west,” she says, “but they were made for African people. His whole purpose was to reflect African life back to African audiences.”
That much was political by necessity. To Sembène, African cinema had to upend old images. “We have had enough of feathers and tom-toms,” he said before Mandabi. 1968 was a tumultuous year across the world — Senegal and its former colonial power France included. The film’s protagonist Ibrahim (Makhourédia Guèye) has a nephew working as a Paris street-sweeper; he is the source of the 25,000 francs sent home via money order. In a melancholy sequence, Sembène tracks the younger man in a drizzly French capital. The story then returns to Senegal, where Ibrahim tries to cash the order amid rampant bureaucracy, absurd to the point of a west African Kafka.
Mandabi is both comic and scathing about the legacy of colonialism. Nuanced too. Paris itself was of limited interest. “Sembène never chased the recognition of the French,” Givanni says. But France was hard to escape. He could only secure funding for Mandabi after agreeing to shoot a version of the film in French as well as Wolof.
Givanni has archived African cinema since the 1980s. If Sembène has been under-regarded in the west, the same is truer still for other film-makers from the continent. Givanni mentions just a few of the groundbreaking names whose work film lovers should know: Djibril Diop Mambéty and Paulin Vieyra, also from Senegal; Mauritania’s Med Hondo and Abderrahmane Sissako; Sarah Maldoror, behind the camera in Angola; Idrissa Ouédraogo, master film-maker from Burkina Faso. “And the history of Egyptian cinema should be investigated, one that dates back to the time of the Lumière brothers,” Givanni adds.
None of these names feature in the canon. For such a clearly subjective idea, the benefits of belonging can be huge. Givanni has worked independently to care for her collection. But film preservation and restoration are an expensive business, typically carried out by a handful of companies and agencies in Europe and the US. Canonical film-makers have dominated their attention. Other films have been left not just under-seen but in perilous condition. Prior to the restoration of Mandabi, StudioCanal found the original film materials badly damaged.
Over in the US, Ashley Clark began work as curatorial director of Criterion last December. A Londoner, Clark too says Sembène would not have measured his success in special-edition Blu-rays. “The work itself isn’t suddenly more valuable because western eyes are on it,” he says. But for those western audiences, the history passed down by the gatekeepers of high film culture — cinema programmers, journalists and teachers — has been deeply partial. “The authors of the canon have been incurious about African film-makers,” Clark says. “At worst, there has been a sense they are literally worth less than western directors.”
For Criterion, the issue has become critical. In a time of collapsing sales of physical media, the company has maintained a must-have status among cinephiles. Making its list of exactingly restored, beautifully packaged titles brings huge prestige (directors are known to covet inclusion). And while the catalogue always had quirks, it was also a solid one-stop shop for the canon.
Its Achilles heel became public knowledge last summer when the New York Times surveyed the black film-makers in the collection. At the time, 461 directors’ films had been released by Criterion. Just four were African-American. Two were African. Between them, they represented less of the catalogue than the eight films directed by Wes Anderson. Clark says the company he joined later in 2020 is sincerely trying to fix blind spots. “There have been honest conversations, a lot of thought given to what we present and why.” As well as Mandabi, Criterion is now releasing a standalone edition of Touki Bouki, the jagged Dakar love story by Djibril Diop Mambéty, championed by Martin Scorsese. There are restored releases too from under-seen black American film-makers such as Marlon Riggs and actor-director Bill Duke.
Change may be rolling. In London this April, Givanni’s work preserving African film saw her receive a special prize at the British Independent Film Awards. It came at a moment of particular focus on black archive film. The same month, Haitian director Raoul Peck was lauded for his archive-heavy HBO series Exterminate All the Brutes. But Givanni emphasises that African cinema is a story still in motion too: “Beyond the older generation, people should also know of younger African film-makers.”
The new age of streaming may bring a more equitable spotlight. If countless lockdowns have been spent watching Senegalese crime series Sakho and Mangane on Netflix, the streamer has also given African art film a global reach. In 2019, it released Atlantics, a stunning portrait of ghosts and refugees in modern Dakar. The director was Mati Diop, niece of Djibril Diop Mambéty.
For Clark, a passion for African film happily coexists with love for the canon auteurs. “Orson Welles and Truffaut were formative to me. But western film lovers should always ask: why haven’t I heard of this as well?” Like Givanni, his eye is on the future. Beyond restorations, he speaks excitedly of Criterion planning to release Faya Dayi, a project from Ethiopian-Mexican director Jessica Beshir: “It heads off at the pass the risk of it being a brilliant African film that ends up being overlooked.”
But for now Mandabi is the main attraction. “Sembène is such a singular voice,” Clark says. “An intellect and a humourist. The simple fact is, if you’re interested in cinema, you should be watching Mandabi.”
For Givanni, the stakes are higher still. “To experience cinema, the world should never leave Africa out of the picture. The world loses out when it does.”
‘Mandabi’ is in UK cinemas from June 11
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