Director: Ousmane Sembène
Writer: Ousmane Sembène
Running time: 115 minutes
Burial of a Christian political activist in a Muslim cemetery forces a conflict imbued with religious fervor. A satiric portrayal of religion and politics, sometimes humorous, sometimes deadly serious.
Guelwaar is a very accessible introduction to the often difficult delights of African cinema. Like Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray, Sembene has often been patronised as a non-Western director making films for Western audiences. And certainly, the film is full of elaborate, didactic speeches - about military, police and civic corruption; first world imperialism etc. - that play like lectures to the uninformed, and would presumably seem like statements of the obvious to indigenous viewers.
Unlike many African films, which are driven by myth, imagery, allegory, or the tropes of oral culture, 'Guelwaar' is reassuringly structured in a way familiar to Westerners. As in a film by Costa-Gavras, a detective story plot is used to uncover wider truths about the country's social and political framework.
There are three interrelated detective stories in the film: where is the missing corpse of the title hero (which translates as 'The Noble One'), a revered dissident fomenting opposition to local corruption and first world neo-imperialism?; how did Guelwaar die - if he was killed, who murdered him?; who was Guelwaar the man anyway?
As in Costa-Gavras, the film's initial focus on the local immediately implicates the national. The first detective story - about the corpse - reveals the deep religious hostilities in the country. Guelwaar was a Christian in a largely Muslim society; when it's discovered that his body was, due to an administrative blunder (a mordantly cynical piece of satire), buried in an Islamic graveyard, the dead Muslim's people refuse to 'desecrate' the cemetery, and return the body.
Most of the movie is taken up with the stand-off of the two peoples in which blind intransigence quickly gives way to a violence which is only neutered when the army are called in. It is unclear whether this is a justification for military visibility - the chief policeman is one of the few sane, non-corrupt characters in the film. Much is made of the irony that each clan proclaims the authenticity of a religion originating thousands of miles away.
The second detective story - who killed Guelwaar - again takes the narrative away from the local. It is clear that Guelwaar was a threat to local and international interests, both politically and religiously - at a ceremony celebrating the receipt of foreign aid, he delivers an incendiary speech denouncing his country's craven dependence on others. It is hard to disagree - none of the strong men in the area seem to do any work, the lands remain unharvested; civic dignitaries line their pockets, and their daughters become bread-winning prostitutes at a socially convenient distance. This is a pleasant, anti-Catch-22 state of affairs - the first world retain virtual power after colonialism; the locals get rich. Guelwaar is in serious danger of disrupting it. He has to be wiped out.
This is all very instructive in an educational kind of way, but would be rather dull as film drama in itself. There is a real thrill (and a kind of horror) when the foreign aid van is seized, its supplies sabotaged and trod on, but agit-prop as hagiography can be rather unpalatable. The third detective story complicates this. Who was Guelwaar? He was certainly an inspiring, charismatic, articulate leader. But he was also a bullying patriarch who diminished his wife and was quite content for his daughter to whore herself for his dinner.
Unlike most political films, which can be very macho, Sembene records female experience in such a society, in which rigid social and religious rules keep women at home while their men fornicate freely. Although the film ends with Guelwaar the heroic, the progression of the four flashbacks is more difficult. The first suggests his involvement in thuggish political violence. The second shows his contempt for his wife and family responsibilities. The third shows his taste for 'freedom' was more sexual than political. Only in the fourth do we get any idea of Guelwaar's nominal nobility, by which time our taste for rhetoric, as opposed to action, has worn thin. Surely the idea that two peoples, adhering to foreign religions, and fighting over a corpse, is irony enough.
So far, so Western. This narrative has other familiar trajectories - the uniting of a scattered family; the power and role of language, colonial and local; the transformation of a Western-educated son into a Senegalese patriot. The satire of bureaucracy and corruption can be very funny. The great pleasure of 'Guelwaar', however, are its digressions from the narrative, when it slows down to record a way of life, even in extremis; the mish mash of rites (tribal, Christian/Islamic); the colourful clothes and murals, the music.
© Text and image: Wikipedia and Alice Liddel