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The alternative film review

Mixed Media

Mandabi

directed and written by Ousmane Sembène

91 minutes

★★★★✩

Ibrahima, a middle-aged unemployed man who lives with his two wives and seven children in a poor neighbourhood in Dakar, Senegal, gets an unexpected money order for 25,000 francs, from his nephew Abdou who had left for Paris to find work. With 2,000 francs of it for Ibrahima, his wives lay on a feast, wait on him, massage him. He sleeps, a man seemingly blessed by good fortune.

Over 50 years after its first release, this first-ever feature in an African language – Wolof – tracks the naïve, non-French-speaking, illiterate Ibrahima’s efforts to cash the cheque. In so doing we learn, as he does, hard truths about his country 10 years after independence from France. He’s a man in between the old and the new, who respects traditional community solidarity but is exploited at every turn by French-speaking bureaucrats and sharp-suited business types. At the post office he needs an ID card. To get that he needs a birth certificate, but he doesn’t even know his date of birth. Cheated by a photographer who never actually takes any photos, he’s then beaten up.

Writer-director Sembène, like Abdou in the film, had left Senegal as a young man to find work in France. He became a dock worker, a union militant and a novelist. (His God’s Bits of Wood, about a strike on the Dakar-Niger railway, is a classic.) He turned to film to reach a mostly illiterate mass audience. This, his second feature, is beautifully observed and grounded in time and place. It shifts from broad satire, of a pompous patriarch and money-fixated bourgeoisie, to low-key tragedy. This re-release is as relevant today as it was when made. 

Sweat

directed and written by Magnus von Horn

106 minutes

★★★★✩

Sylwia is a fitness trainer and social-media influencer in Poland. She has 600,000 Instagram followers, whom she calls her ‘loves’. She performs and guides pulsating high-energy mass workouts in places like shopping malls. She videos herself: in her bright and tight fitness gear; in her sleek glass-walled apartment, making smoothies. She sells products, she sells self-improvement, she sells a lifestyle, and she sells herself.

She’s focused and works hard. She brilliantly promotes her brand, pitches her product – an image of Sylwia. But where does that end, and the real Sylwia begin? Early on, she’s driving home and singing along to a bright bouncy Roxette tune – ‘She’s got the look’ – and shouts ‘I love this song. I love Roxette’. There’s no-one else in the car to speak to, but she’s performing and commentating as if her ‘loves’ were watching. She’s trapped in projecting an image of herself.

Reality, though, is out there and less controllable. Followers whom she bumps into want selfies with her. At her mum’s birthday tea, she’s miffed that her relatives and mum’s friends don’t pay her enough attention. At home, a man in a car parked outside watches her and, when she approaches, she sees he’s wanking.

Director von Horn follows his debut (The Here After) about a teenager who is despised (he has killed his girlfriend) with a second empathic and revealing feature about a young woman who wants to be loved. It movingly shows how someone who continually pretends could, maybe, find real connection. 

New Internationalist issue 532 magazine cover This article is from the July-August 2021 issue of New Internationalist.
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