“The trouble with our new nation(s) was that…we had all been in the rain together until yesterday. Then a handful of us – the smart, the lucky, and hardly ever the best – had scrambled for the shelters our former rulers left, and had taken it over and barricaded themselves in. And from within they sought to persuade the rest, through numerous loudspeakers, that the first phase of our struggle had been won.”
– Chinua Achebe, A Man of the People
Senegal gained independence on April 4, 1960. Xala begins on this very day, this exact moment in history. ‘We choose socialism,’ declare the new leaders of Senegalese independence, as two white Europeans bearing cash-filled briefcases ascend the steps of Congress, ready to conduct a very un-socialist transaction. And so begins Sembène’s viciously disturbing satire, with caustic details of precision that could, in the right light, easily be overlooked.
Very few of us will know very much about the colonial history of Senegal, or much of West Africa. We consider such things so very distant from our own comfortable existences. Sembène can teach us that we are wrong. The premise of his film is simple, the stuff of parable, really. El Hadji Abdoukader Beye is a corrupt inheritor of the new independence. To celebrate, he has taken a third wife, younger, virginal. But there is a problem. He has xala, ‘the curse’, and cannot please his new wife in their marital bed. The news of his impotence spreads like wildfire. His social standing plummets. Savage comedy ensues.
Beye’s impotence is, of course, a reflection of the realities of an independence predicated on falsehoods and inequalities. Senegal is released from colonialism, but unable to self-govern. Limbless beggars drag themselves through the dust, rounded up by policemen for disturbing the peace. White representatives of the former colonial government wordlessly shadow the new president. The faces have changed, but nothing else. This is cultural embolism, dilution and betrayal of tradition. Beye, and men like him, have discarded their cultural values for ‘technological fetishism‘. We watch, amused and horrified.
Yet Xala is not only about the transitions and exploitation of African statehood. It is a warning about the endless varieties of infiltration that exist in a world where things, everything, anything, can be bought and sold. This is the only film I can recall that involves itself in a kind of anti-product placement, for the sake of making a political point. Evian bottled water is everywhere, because it is the only water available. ‘This is all I drink,’ declares Beye, assuredly. His daughter, who refuses to speak the ‘official’ language of post-colonial Senegal, opting instead for the native Wolof, is the only one who understands that ultimate absurdity: the corporatization of life itself. ‘There will be a shop in every village,’ cries Beye, well stocked, no doubt, with Coca Cola.
Beye turns to traditional African remedies to recover his lost mojo. In a piece of great comedy, he is cured by the local doctor, a marabout, and then, unable to pay, is made impotent again. Sembène is engaging us in a great mockery. Only when faced with a very primal affliction does Beye seek salvation from his own people. Eventually, he is stripped of power, rendered politically sterile, and undergoes one final degradation in order to recover his manliness.
But the greater impotence, one more dangerous, goes on, unabated. And what happens in Africa will, eventually, inevitably, happen to us all.