Ousmane Sembène Xala 1975

  • Not on view

Before he became a filmmaker, Sembène was a writer, publishing books in French, the language of the colonizers and of the educated in West Africa. Because most people in Senegal could not read French, the author became a filmmaker in order to “speak to” a public at home. He did this most successfully, in the process engaging global audiences with his Senegal-based films.

Xala, Sembène’s film about a modern, corrupt, and prosperous businessman stymied by what he believes to be a curse, is in both French and Wolof, one of Senegal’s principal languages. The word xala means “curse” in Wolof, and the curse visited upon the protagonist (Thierno Leye), a respected member of the Chamber of Commerce in Dakar, is one of sexual impotency. This is an embarrassment, as he has just taken a young woman as his third wife, much to the displeasure of his other two. Thinking he is the victim of domestic witchcraft, he tries ancient remedies. The contradictions between old and new, acceptable and questionable behavior, and extravagant consumption and true need are the juicy and enjoyable tensions of this dark social satire, which portrays Senegal’s new ruling class as comical and potentially ruinous.

Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
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