Summer’s the perfect season for Ousmane Sembène’s Faat Kiné, just released in DVD by California Newsreel. It’s an exuberant movie, full of laughter, wit and sexual high-jinks, by the “father of African cinema.” Faat Kiné is Sembène’s next-to-last film (his career began in 1963 and ended in 2004), 3 years before his death.
Set in an idealized Dakar where at first only the cripples and beggars seem real, Faat Kiné is, at every level, a celebration of women. And what glorious women they are. Even the lowliest of them, with a plastic bucket of food on her head, stride regally through the market place; while the more prosperous, with her elaborate turban and luxuriant gown, looks as though she belongs at the court of an 18th century monarch.
The title character (Venus Seye) runs a Total petrol station in the middle of the city. A voluptuous, fun-loving woman in her early 40s, Kiné is the proud mother of a daughter and son who’ve just gotten their baccalaureate degrees. Both children are illegitimate; their histories are given swiftly in a couple of fluent flashbacks. It’s a delight to watch Kiné at work. She measures the density of a diesel fuel delivery with the concentration of Madame Curie and from behind her desk outwits a snobby woman with counterfeit bills with the breathtaking savvy of a character played by Joan Blondell in the 1930s. Her back-talk shows she’s a woman not to be messed with.
Kiné comes home full of joy and pride. Both daughter and son have passed their baccalaureate exams, her son with highest honor. Happy but exhausted, she sits down in a rocking chair opposite her mother (Mame Ndoumbé Diop). This formidable woman looks like a figure carved of wood and moves with the deliberation of an idol in a procession. Kiné supports her mother and stepfather in a spacious suburban house, decorated with oil paintings of Julius Nyere, Kwame Nkrumah, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and other heroes of négritude. In front of a portrait of Nelson Mandela, Mammy reminds Kiné how she saved her and her daughter’s lives. “When you got pregnant out of wedlock the first time… Your father was so furious, he wanted burn you alive.” Mammy stood between her and her father (the wonderful Samba Wane, seen only in two flashbacks) and she goes on to praise Kiné not only for giving her children everything she didn’t have as a child, but also for giving her mother a home and finding a husband for her. “Now, I am your daughter,” she says, “I praise you.”
Sembène’s paean to the women of Senegal, its “pillars of society,” culminates in the long final scene. Kiné gives a bash for her children at which, uninvited, their fathers turn up. The event feels like the end of a novel by Victor Hugo where the virtuous are triumphant and the wicked are defeated, but the director foregoes none of his usual irony. There’s a suggestion of hope in Djip (Ndiagne Dia), Kiné’s 17 year-old son, toasted enthusiastically as a ”future president of Senegal,” except that in his good looks and impeccable French, he reminds us of Sidiki Bakaba who played the tragic hero in Sembène’s 1987 Camp de Thiaroye. Sembène’s view of the future of Senegal is anything but rosy.
Fortunately – happy enders rejoice! – for Kiné herself the movie wraps, deservedly, in bliss.
1 Disc; California Newsreel price $24.95
Senegal; 2001; in French and Wolof with English subtitles; 121 minutes; Color