In Guelwaar, a Senegalese film director raised a Muslim takes on the Christian-Muslim conflict in Africa by focusing on a tiny Senegalese village in an unexpected way: a Christian family grieves, their Muslim neighbors behave unreasonably toward them and a coalition of Christians, Muslims, agnostics and local government officials smooth things over.
Making the particular into the universal, the director, Ousmane Sembene, uses these microscopic events to expound upon the troubling legacy of colonialism, argue that foreign aid is a curse and reveal something of how his people live -- and he does so with generous humor and passionate wisdom. Sembene's wonderfully observant 1992 film comes to Houston as part of the Museum of Fine Arts' August "Encountering African Cinema" series, and it's an excellent introduction to Africa's foremost filmmaker. With a mere seven features over the course of a 30-year career, Sembne, 71, has divided his creative life between making films and writing; Guelwaar reflects the best of both pursuits. A visually spare, aesthetically beautiful offering, it's a film full of ideas and vivid characters. It's not often that you come across a movie with so much in it, so skillfully realized.
Confined to the events surrounding the funeral of Pierre Thioune, a political activist and ardent Christian, Guelwaar deals with what happens when his body turns up missing at the local morgue. There's speculation it's been stolen by fetishists. The truth, however, is more disturbing: through a death certificate foul-up, Pierre has been buried in a Muslim cemetery. How the diverse community responds to this predicament is what makes the movie go.
The centuries-old antagonism between Christians and Muslims raises its ugly and -- in Sembene's estimable hands -- comical head when the Thioune family wants to exhume the corpse. Local Muslim leaders are aghast at what they deem sacrilege, calling the Christians "atheists." A level-headed district policeman sets up a meeting between the representative priest and an imam, but the talk soon disintegrates, leaving violence a distinct possibility. The mayor arrives and the situation is finally resolved, though no thanks to the corrupt politician, whose main interest is making sure his driver parks his Mercedes in the shade.
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Sembene surrounds the burial with other matters, both serious and comic. One of Pierre's sons, home for the funeral, has lived in France for so long that he's forgotten how to speak his native language; Sembene further explores colonialism and modernization by having village elders wear Western felt hats along with their African garb. Pierre's daughter returns from Dakar, where she supports the family as a prostitute -- a vocation even the priest tolerates, since her money is earned. To Sembene, anything is better than begging, and in flashbacks, Pierre -- who's nicknamed "Guelwaar" or "Noble One" -- makes fiery speeches about self-reliance: "If you want to kill a man of great dignity, give him every day what he needs to live," and, "Make a man dependent on your charity and you make him your slave."
Guelwaar ends with the villagers coming together to trample shipments of grain and rice, a particularly shocking scene given that people are starving in Senegal. But short-term expediencies from without, Sembene feels, don't provide long-term solutions from within. While Sembene may be faulted for not offering tangible alternatives, and accepting without question African patriarchy, he doesn't simply make Pierre a saintly mouthpiece. Pierre is a rather buffoonish philanderer, and his complicated character reflects the unpredictability of Sembene's narrative technique. Life, Sembne seems to say, rarely has pat answers. Neither does Guelwaar; it forks off into subplots, anecdotes, digressions. Featuring a mostly nonprofessional ensemble cast in sparse surroundings, Guelwaar is a deceptively simple movie. With easy grace and acute analysis, itÕs a morality tale most sublime.
Written and directed by Ousmane Sembene.
Screenings Saturday, August 6, and Sunday, August 7, at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet. 639-7515.