Director: Ousmane Sembène
Production: Domirev; 35mm; running time: 90 minutes. Released 1975. Filmed in Africa.
Director of production: Paulin Soumanou Vieyra; screenplay: Ousmane Sembène; photography: Georges Caristan; editor: Florence Eymon; sound: El Hadji Mbow; music: El Hadji Mbow.
Cast: Tierno Seye; Donta Seck; Younouss Seye; Senn Samb; Fatim Diange; Myriam Niang; Markhouredia Seck; Babou Faye.
Sembène, Ousmane, Xala, Paris, 1973; Westport, Connecticut, 1976.
Martin, Angela, editor, African Films: The Context of Production, London, 1982.
Moore, Carrie Dailey, Evolution of an African Artist: Social Realism in the Works of Ousmane Sembène, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1984.
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Armes, Roy, Third World Filmmaking and the West, Berkeley, 1987.
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Landy, M., "Political Allegory and 'Engaged Cinema': Sembène's Xala," in Cinema Journal (Champaign, Illinois), Spring 1984.
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* * *
Ousmane Sembène's Xala is the fourth major film by one of black Africa's most important directors. Based on Sembène's novel of the same title, Xala demonstrates his ongoing social, political, and cultural concerns. Sembène had previously attacked the relatively easy targets of European racism (Black Girl), African bureaucracy (The Money Order), and past colonialism (Lords of the Sky), but here he denounces the neo-colonial deformities resulting from the collaboration of European businessmen and African elite.
Sembène structures his film around the concept of xala—in Wolof, a state of temporary sexual impotence. The protagonist, El Hadji, is a polygamous Senegalese businessman who becomes afflicted with xala on the occasion of taking his third wife. In search of a cure, he visits various witchdoctors, who take his money but fail to cure him. At the same time, he suffers reverses in business, is accused of embezzlement, and ejected from the Chamber of Commerce. In the end, he discovers that the xala resulted from a curse sent by a Dakar beggar whose land El Hadji had expropriated. The protagonist finally recovers his manhood by submitting to the beggar's demands that he strip and be spat upon; the film ends with a freeze-frame of his spittle-covered body.
On a psychological level, xala functions as a truth-teller. El Hadji has taken a third wife purely for reasons of sexism and conspicuous consumption. "Every polygamous man," his daughter tells him, "is a liar," and although his mouth can lie, his penis cannot. The xala, on one level, constitutes the revenge of the women in the film; on another, it is the revenge of the oppressed classes of Senegal, represented by the beggars who have been defrauded by the new African bourgeoisie. On still another level, the xala symbolizes the political and economic impotence of the many newly established independent countries. El Hadji, with his Europeanized habits and tastes, encapsulates the conditions of neo-colonialism, in which an African elite takes over the positions formerly occupied by the colonizers.
Sembène portrays this elite as a kind of caricature of the European bourgeoisie. In the pre-credit sequence, we see them throw out the Europeans and take over the Chamber of Commerce. While their public speeches are in Wolof and their dress African, they speak French among themselves and reveal European suits underneath their African garb. (Continuing indirect European domination is underlined by the immediate return of the same Europeans as "advisors.") The Senegalese businessmen slavishly adore all that is European. They pour imported mineral water into the radiators of the Mercedes, and one complains that he no longer visits Spain because there are "too many blacks." The elite, in other words, have absorbed European racism and paradoxically turned it against themselves. At the same time, the film reminds us of the presence of the uncorrupted poor who look in on the ostentatious wedding celebration, and linger in the streets outside El Hadji's office. By spitting on El Hadji, they express the anger of the oppressed against the leaders who have betrayed their hopes. Yet the symbolic purging of the spittle will lead, it is implied, to the end of impotence and a kind of rebirth, for El Hadji and for his country.
Sembène masterfully deploys a diversity of narrative and aesthetic strategies in Xala. At times, his approach is allegorical, as in the satirical scene involving the African take-over of the Chamber of Commerce, a moment clearly evoking the historical juncture of formal independence. Each of the key women in the film has an allegorical dimension in that each represents a different stage of African history. Awa, with her traditional clothes and manners, represents the pre-colonial African woman. Omui, with her wigs, sunglasses, and low-cut dress, represents the colonized woman who imitates European fashions. El Hadji's daughter Rama, finally, represents an ideal synthesis of Africa and Europe. She speaks Wolof but studies French; she rides a moped, practical and inexpensive. She is culturally proud and politically aware, but she can also appreciate Charlie Chaplin, whose poster decorates her wall.
Sembène's achievement is that he has made an accessible political film, which speaks honestly to the problems of post-independent Africa, while skillfully orchestrating realism, humor, satire, and allegory.