Criterion Box Set Review: Three Revolutionary Films by Ousmane Sembène

Senegalese titles Emitaï, Xala, and Ceddo receive the Criterion treatment

Still from Emitaï, courtesy of Criterion Collection.

Criterion Collection celebrates the rebellious art of Ousmane Sembène with the recent release of a box set of three of his works: Emitaï (1971), Xala (1975) and Ceddo (1977). All three, while similar thematically, differ in tone and genre. Like his earlier film Mandabi, they are filmed in the filmmaker’s country of Senegal. Themes of colonialism and resistance are front and center, while the time periods range from pre-colonization in Ceddo to the modern setting of Xala.

Emitaï is a god’s name, called upon by tribal elders as their young men are kidnapped and conscripted to serve with the French colonial forces in WWII. Adding to the pressure on the village depicted in Sembène’s 1971 film, the French demand tons of rice from the villagers. The male elders talk amongst themselves about how to deal with the French. The women of the village hide their rice and are held hostage by the colonial authorities in the village square, waiting until someone confesses the hiding place.

This work is full of symbolic imagery, from the masks of the gods to the camera’s slow panning past all the rice tools dropped by the village men who have been taken away. The white glare of statues praising colonizers contrast against the earthy, more vibrant tones of the village and the blood of animal sacrifice to the gods. The village women are inspiring in their silent protest under the hot sun, especially as they sing in mourning after the authorities instruct them not to. Emitaï is a powerful depiction of quiet rebellion and an indictment of France as a colonizing power.

Tabara Ndiaye in Ceddo, courtesy of Criterion Collection.

Ceddo also centers around a village in turmoil, although centuries earlier.  King Demba Wâr (Makhourédia Guèye, Mandabi) is under the influence of an imam thirsty for power, while white men trade for slaves or attempt to convert villagers to Catholicism. One of the villagers resistant to any conversion chooses to kidnap the king’s daughter, Dior Yacine (Tabara Ndiaye).

Through some clunky pacing, Ceddo involves angry conversations between men about the state of things, while the women are mostly silent. There is a lot of talking with minimal action. The most inventive sequence of the film is a flash-forward scene, placing characters in a 1970s-era Catholic mass in Dakar. In this unexpected moment, the filmmaker exhibits the continued influence of religion and the future impact of the colonization to come. As one of the characters notes, “All this oppression for the sake of religion.”

Miriam Niang in Xala, courtesy of Criterion Collection.

Based on Sembène’s own novel, the director sets Xala in independent, post-colonial Senegal. The comedy is a satire on the corruption and hypocrisy of the new African government officials. Elder businessman and Chamber of Commerce member El Hadji (Thierno Leye) marries a much younger third wife despite the protests of his adult children and other wives. In his desperation to, um, perform for his new bride, he descends into debt.

There are pacing issues here, but for this viewer, Xala is the most compelling work of the set (Emitaï is a close second). As El Hadji asserts that having a third wife is a traditional practice, his language of choice is that of the colonists. In a display of language as protest, his outspoken daughter Rama (Miriam Niang) — as a representative of the hope and voice of the new generation — makes a point to respond in Wolof to her father’s French.

Again, Sembène uses striking imagery from the start; when the new Senegalese government takes effect, the men remove statues and other French symbols from their chambers. This promising act is only for show. We soon see how little the new politicians truly care for their constituents, be they working class or further underrepresented communities. With a bitter wit and lively musical cues, the filmmaker gives voice to the powerless in this sharp cinematic rebuke of corrupt officials.

The Criterion Blu-Ray box set includes:

  • 4K digital restorations of all three films, with updated English subtitle translations
  • an incisive essay from film scholar Yasmina Price on Sembène’s re-visioning of history in these films, providing further historical and political context
  • 1981 documentary, The Making of Ceddo
  • a 2024 discussion between the founder and executive director of the African Film Festival, Mahen Bonetti, and writer Amy Sall on the legacy of Sembène and his lasting impact on African cinema
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