Black Girl

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BLACK GIRL, drama, not rated, in French with sub­ti­tles, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, 4 chiles

Black Girl is a qui­etly mas­ter­ful film. Sene­galese film­maker and nov­el­ist Ous­mane Sem­bène chose a maid as the film’s pro­tag­o­nist, a woman who nor­mally — at least in 1966, when the film was made — would have re­mained in the back­ground. But al­most every­thing about what Sem­bène was do­ing at the time was revo­lu­tion­ary: He was film­ing sto­ries from an African — not a Euro­pean — per­spec­tive. A young woman, Diouana (Mbis­sine Thérèse Diop) lives in Dakar, and she wants work. When she knocks on doors to see if any­one needs a maid, one door gets slammed in her face; a dog barks her away from an­other. Diouana is un­de­terred. She be­gins to wait in a square where peo­ple come to look for maids. Her quiet dig­nity helps her se­cure a job at the house of a rich French cou­ple with three chil­dren. The same quiet dig­nity will later be vi­o­lated, when her em­ployer, Madame (Anne-Marie Je­linek) turns into a nag.

Af­ter some time in Dakar, Madame in­vites Diouana to work for the fam­ily in France. Thrilled at the op­por­tu­nity, Diouana leaves her na­tive Sene­gal for France, where she ar­rives, clue­less and alone. In the French Riviera, Madame and Mon­sieur (Robert Fon­taine) do noth­ing to help her ad­just. While they are not per­versely cruel, some­times ap­a­thy can be a form of cru­elty. Diouana was so ex­cited about com­ing to France that she came dressed as an el­e­gant lady. Now, as she mops the floors, Madame chides her that she has been dressed in the same way for the last three weeks, as though for a party. That may be true. But for Diouana, the party never be­gins. Her spirit is crushed by the bore­dom and repet­i­tive na­ture of her work as a house­maid. The chil­dren are pre­sum­ably away at school. Her do­main con­sists of the kitchen, the bath­room, and the bed­rooms, and she must cir­cle those realms end­lessly. Not sur­pris­ingly, she be­gins to waste away. When Mon­sieur of­fers her more money, it is a fu­tile rem­edy that comes too late.

As the story pro­gresses, Sem­bène makes bril­liant use of an African mask to il­lu­mi­nate the com­plex forces at work here. The film is set in post­colo­nial Africa, and Diouana and her boyfriend (Mo­mar Nar Sene), whom she has left be­hind in Dakar, have con­flict­ing at­ti­tudes about whether or not to work for a white man, and whether or not such work con­sti­tutes slavery. When Diouana first got her job, she pur­chased the mask from a lit­tle boy, promis­ing to pay him when she got her first wages. It speaks to Diouana’s gen­eros­ity that on her first day at work, she gifts the mask to Madame. “It’s the real thing,” her em­ploy­ers ex­claim about the mask. The in­trigu­ing mask trav­els to France with the fam­ily, and Diouana will one day try to get it back.

Diouana’s dis­il­lu­sion­ment with France — “Is this black hole France?” — re­flects the ini­tial dis­il­lu­sion­ment of any im­mi­grant who leaves be­hind a vi­brant com­mu­nity to en­ter the seem­ingly more ster­ile en­vi­ron­ment of a Western coun­try. As Diouana sees it, in France, ev­ery­one’s door is closed. Where are the peo­ple? Where are the chil­dren? Diouana is never able to get past her dis­il­lu­sion­ment. Sem­bène’s use of voiceover as a tech­nique to give Diouana a voice is an in­spired choice.

Be­cause Diouana hardly speaks a word dur­ing her time in France, the in­sis­tent cho­rus that fol­lows Mon­sieur at the end of the film in Dakar, when he runs away from a lit­tle boy wear­ing a mask, is es­pe­cially haunt­ing. Mon­sieur may be run­ning away from his guilt, for treat­ing Diouana as some­one who is less than hu­man. In the fi­nal scene, when the boy takes off his mask, the im­age is rich with mean­ing. We are at once re­minded of Diouana’s child­like spirit­ed­ness, and how food and wages alone could never have sus­tained her in France. This short, com­pact film is able to con­vey two worlds — Sene­gal and France — and Diouana’s in­ner world in the space of a lit­tle over an hour.

Black Girl plays as part of the Au­teur Se­ries at the Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts. The feature will be pre­ceded by a 1963 Sem­bène short, Borom Sar­ret (The Wagoner), a dev­as­tat­ing piece about a day in the life of an im­pov­er­ished wagon-driver. The short can also be seen an al­le­gory of a dys­func­tional econ­omy and a cor­rupt sys­tem. The wagoner drives peo­ple around town every day in his horse-driven cart, but money is hard to come by. In the morn­ing, when the wagoner leaves home, his wife gives him what lit­tle money they have left. It is up to him now to bring back wages so that his wife and baby will have some­thing to eat. But not all his cus­tomers pay him, and he is in­spired to hand­somely tip a singer — and then things get ex­ceed­ingly dif­fi­cult. It seems like yes­ter­day and the day be­fore weren’t much bet­ter, either.

The films will be in­tro­duced by Ja­son Sil­ver­man, the di­rec­tor of a bi­o­graph­i­cal film, Sem­bène! (2015), that opens win­dows into film­maker Ous­mane Sem­bène’s ways of think­ing, in ad­di­tion to con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing the po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment he was work­ing in, and show­ing what ob­sta­cles — in­clud­ing cen­sor­ship and cor­rup­tion — he was up against. In its third year, The Au­teurs se­ries cel­e­brates “the world’s es­sen­tial film­mak­ers, with a fo­cus on clas­sic, hard-to-see films.” Cinephiles who have not pre­vi­ously en­coun­tered Sem­bène’s work are in for a treat. — Priyanka Ku­mar

Africa dream­ing: Mbis­sine Thérèse Diop

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