Like Borom Sarret, Black Girl, The Money Order, and Xala, Ousmane Sembene’s latest release is another chapter in the writer-director’s laser-sharp commentary of post-independence in Senegal. Faat Kine brings the viewer face to face with politically, economically, and morally corrupt social fabric. Against this backdrop, Faat Kine stands out as the most hopeful, the most restorative, and the most beautifully crafted story Ousmane Sembene has ever told about the changing roles of women in Senegalese society. In this sense, Faat Kine could be regarded as a defining text of what feminism could mean in 21st-century Africa.
Sembene’s beautifully directed and graphic panegyric to the wild and unchecked growth of Dakar mesmerizes the audience with contradictions arising from the post-colonial landscape. Through the glare of the camera’s eye, cinematographer Dominique Gentil pierces the meanders of Dakar’s architectural physiognomy, while subtly arranged music by Yande Codou Sene and sound design by Alioun Mbow free the quotidian visual effects that reveal how deeply the contentiousness of modernity runs through Africa.
In the same space of the opening frames, women carrying water buckets and babies strapped to their backs cross paved avenues with the noises and fumes of antiquated public transportation and the dazzling sights of European or Japanese “reconditioned” luxury cars. Passing on, a startling sight: a dusty open space where starving cattle munch on anything they can find. New villas with manicured lawns shelter the moyenne bourgeoisie, the middlemen and managers of capitalist interests who have turned their backs on the crumbling chattel houses where their neighbors dwell. While begging and corruption become accepted ways of life, AIDS and pollution affect millions. The skyscraper monuments to globalized venture capital arrogantly towering above the decaying city are clearly symptoms of the city’s failing post-colonial economic, social, and cultural policies.
Recall Moussa Sene Absa’s Tableau ferraille and Djibril Mambety’s La petite vendeuse de soleil. As was the case in these gems, urban images and the transformation of an eponymous hero provide the terms of failure and impotence in Faat Kine.
Yet Faat Kine is not a fairy tale, entertaining and humorous though it may be. From the first scene to its happy ending, the harsh details that document and animate Kine’s private and public life in a society buffeted by forces of the past and those of modernity reflect what Sembene calls “the remains of the feudal system and the embryo of a nascent liberal neo-colonialism.” Masterfully, Sembene allows the folkloric appeal of her person to oscillate with the narrative of her struggle — between past, present, and future measures of success — and survival.
The film opens in the present, on a day of exceptional joy for Faat Kine whose two children Aby and Djib have passed the notoriously difficult and celebrated high school diploma of the baccalaureate (BAC).
Faat Kine is a chic, sexy, and “liberated” woman. She is a forty-year-old single mother, born at the same time as Senegalese independence. From her humble beginning as a gas-station attendant constantly being harassed by male customers, Faat Kine has climbed a ladder reserved for men to become a successful station manager of a multinational oil company. She is financially in control, well-connected in the business world, and adept at manipulating the banking system. Le Credit Lyonnais keeps no secrets from her. When she needs it, she can afford boy-toys. She owns a car and a stylish villa littered with posters of Sembene’s revolutionary icons. She has adopted all the fetishes of the moyenne bourgeoisie, including telecommunication knickknacks, modern appliances, and, best of all, a servant who draws her a warm bath when she comes home from work.
The double success of her children is yet another achievement for Faat Kine, one which stirs memories of her own youth in 1981, “when Sanghor left and handed power to Abdou Diouf.” So, Sembene’s pendulum swings back to the time when Faat Kine was twenty, in her last year of secondary school, just months before her final exam. She had dreamed of becoming a lawyer. But this was not to be. Immaturity, perhaps, and weak social and educational safeguards conspired against her. She was instead seduced by Gaye, her philosophy professor, and left alone pregnant.
The foolishness of the past exacts its brutal price, Sembene reminds us, in the crippled form of Mammy who lives on in the present with Faat Kine, Aby, and Djib. She is Kine’s mother and another of Sembene’s pillars of strength. For once she was expelled from school, Faat Kine’s only protection at home came from her loving but powerless mother. When Kine’s conservative father wanted to kill both his daughter and her newborn, it was Mammy who shielded the children with her body from her husband’s vicious blows.
Crippled Mammy, ambitious Faat Kine, the fatherless Aby: Three generations of women, who have only each other for support in a world shaped by feudal and neo-colonial values, hold the keys to Sembene’s moral. At first to survive, then to succeed, Faat Kine entered a world forbidden to women. By breaking taboos, she unabashedly took control of her life. She faced the world, was rewarded with a degree of financial independence, and moved steadily toward the center of Dakar’s middle-class. What does it mean then, when Sembene lets the pendulum loose once more? Faat Kine becomes pregnant and is abandoned again. Her lover strips her of her savings and their son Djib of his paternity. Apparently, one lesson Kine has yet to learn is that independence can never be a gift. It is hard won.
Faat Kine may be a film about women in a world of men — or worse — a post-colonial time when many waver at the crossroads of change and conservatism. But Sembene’s revolutionary heroes are men of action who live or die for democratic justice and egalitarianism. Mandela, Thomas Samkara, Nkrumah, and Amilcar Cabral — their massive, iconic relationship to the capricious fate of Faat Kine is complex only in how it serves Sembene’s overarching belief: There can be no complete or successful liberation of Africa from the colonial past without a concomitant liberation of African women. By catapulting the story of Faat Kine into the new millennium, Sembene declares, that time has come.
The utopia imagined in Faat Kine is a future about hope and the struggle against despair. Some day, both the cinematic vision and politics of professionalism that inspire Sembene behind the camera will define a new film language for Africa. For now, Faat Kine is truly a milestone in Sembene’s relentless struggle to “recover” and propel actuality in Africa toward images and an ideal of freedom earned and enjoyed by both men and women.