Tales of Little People, 1994-1999
The unreconciled ghosts of colonialism and its legacy of economic stagnation, currency devaluation, and underdevelopment among emerging contemporary African nations lies at the core of Djibril Diop Mambéty’s whimsical, yet incisive (and sadly, unfinished) series of envisioned fables, Tales of Little People, that sought to illustrate – through accessible, culturally familiar folkloric imagery and traditional, tale-teller narrative – the endemic socioeconomic malaise that continues to plague the continent as it collectively struggles to emerge from its exploited history and remain viable in an age of effacing globalism. But far from the resigned lamentations of systematic exclusion and seemingly arbitrary, externally inflicted injustice at the hands of myopic, international economic superpowers, Mambéty sought to expose the underlying dysfunctional culture as a means of confronting – and inevitably breaking – the self-destructive behavior that enables (and continues to fuel) these entrenched mechanisms of corruption, exploitation, and crippling dependency. In the two completed tales, Le Franc (1994) and The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun (1999), Mambéty introduces the trenchant idea that the power of the imagination to raise post-colonial African consciousness does not exist in fanciful, but ultimately empty, idle dreams or wistfully dwelling over a lost – and stolen – noble past (a theme that is also articulated in Jean-Marie Téno’s films, as well as Ousmane Sembene’s Borom Sarret), but in a certain wide-eyed innocence and naïve determination that recovery and advancement are still possible with dedicated effort. It is within this contrasting framework of marginalization and perseverance that the protagonists of Le Franc and The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun may be seen as both symptomatic representations and character foils towards this overarching theme of indigenous self-empowerment: Marigo, the perennially daydreaming, able-bodied, bumbling loafer and sidelined street musician of Le Franc and Sili, the determined, young, disabled newspaper seller of The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun.
Le Franc, 1994. Set against the French government’s economically catastrophic devaluation of the CFA franc exchange rate in 1994 (from 0.02 to 0.01 French francs), Le Franc chronicles an impoverished, ne’er-do-well musician, Marigo’s (Dieye Ma Dieye) impossible path towards financial recovery and independence. Unable to go out into the city and earn a meager income as a street performer when his landlady (Aminata Fall) impounds his beloved congoma after failing to pay his back rent (and who then proceeds to taunt him by playing the instrument in front of his house), Marigo resorts to spending his idle time watching life go by from a city sidewalk until he spots a fallen bank note near the lottery ticket stand of a mystical, dwarf peddler named Kus (Demba Bâ). Following Kus’ advice to play his envisioned lucky numbers on the national lottery (whose theme is pointedly titled Devaluation), Marigo fastens the ticket behind a poster of his Robin Hood-styled folk hero, Yaadikoone for good luck – an impulsive act that soon threatens to invalidate his ticket when he is unable to hand over the item for verification at the lottery office. Concluding with the double-entendred image of a lone, raving, ecstatic Marigo on an isolated rock formation hovering between uninhibited euphoria and seeming madness, the film is as a wry and sardonic fairytale that implicitly reveals the entrenched cycle of self-defeating poverty, where the popular gravitation towards quick fix, delusive panaceas of instant wealth and easy money reflects both the inertia of a resigned acceptance to second-class status, and an endemic culture of victimization and sense of helplessness, where the very notion of economic (and moral) recovery rests in illusive – and implicitly external – ideals of reparation, charity, and arbitrary dispensation of divine justice (a wishful thinking that is embodied by Marigo’s idolization of thief/benefactor, Yaadikoone).
The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun, 1999. Inasmuch as Le Franc serves as a parable for a pervasive moral climate of disempowerment, Mambéty’s subsequent installment for Tales of Little People, The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun is its poignant and sublime antithesis. The film centers on a young, illiterate, crippled girl named Sili (Lissa Balera) from a shantytown on the outskirts of Dakar who decides one day to abandon her blind grandmother’s vocation of begging in the street and take up the physically demanding job of selling newspapers – a task usually undertaken by boys who can aggressively peddle them at busy intersections throughout the city (an early image of a dead kitten lying on the side of a road alludes to the harshness of life for these impoverished street children). Given an initial allotment of thirteen copies of the less popular, government newspaper, Le Soleil (a symbolic quantity and representation that alludes to the continent’s struggle to emerge from a position of disadvantaged history), Sili’s first day on the job proves to be auspicious when a well-to-do businessman, encouraged by her initiative and self-reliance, offers to buy out all her remaining copies, leaving her free to share her unexpected good fortune with her grandmother and a few neighboring friends for the afternoon, and even pleading for the case of a wrongfully accused woman who has been imprisoned without charges at a local police station. In time, Sili forges a thriving business with her refreshingly low-key sales approach, cultivating a growing clientele of customers who go out of their way to buy her newspaper. But as the competition becomes increasingly desperate and cutthroat, Sili’s popularity soon places her in the crosshairs of rival peddlers who see her presence as a turf invasion and resolve to thwart her profitable enterprise by any means necessary. In juxtaposing Sili’s well-earned success against her rivals’ increasingly underhanded – and implicitly thuggish – territoriality, Mambéty presents an incisive metaphor for the cultural institution of lawlessness and corruption, enabling a tragic legacy of factionalism, civil wars, and government coups that have contributed to a climate of chronic destabilization. However, as the government’s announcement of its decision to dissociate its currency from the French franc in Le Soleil suggests, the travails of post-colonial Africa are not solely rooted in cultural dysfunction, but are also an insidious (and perhaps inevitable) consequence of imperialism. It is through this seemingly anecdotal convergence with the government’s symbolic declaration of independence that Sili’s quest for financial independence becomes an integral metaphor for the plight of contemporary African nations in their own struggle for economic survival. Concluding with the parting image of a mistreated, but unbowed Sili emerging into the light, her defiant gesture not only represents an ennobled act of perseverance, but also offers a way forward from the chaos, despair, and sense of helplessness of inflicted marginalization.
Acquarello 2007 [reprinted]