Voice to the voiceless

Ousmane Sembène’s groundbreaking ‘Mandabi’ gets a handsome restoration


Has decency become a sin?” Ibrahima Dieng cries. On his knees, Ibrahima holds out his empty hands in mock offering. The world has stripped him bare, and now, in an ending fitting of Kafka, Ibrahima offers up the scraps.

So ends 1968’s Mandabi (The Money Order), a postcolonial satire from Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, out now on home video from The Criterion Collection: Ibrahima on his knees, the world howling through the soundtrack. It’s an ending that’ll haunt you long after the screen’s gone dark.

How Sembène gets there is a stroke of genius: Ibrahima (Makuredia Guey) has two wives, seven children and has been out of work for five years. One day, a money order arrives via mail carrier. Your nephew in Paris has sent 25,000 francs, the mail carrier explains, handing over the document. But Ibrahima is illiterate and cannot read the money order. So, he goes to a reader (Sembène in a cameo), who tells him the money order says what the mail carrier already told Ibrahima. The difference: The mail carrier did it for free while the reader must be paid. And Ibrahima has no money.

So Ibrahima goes to collect the money from the bank, but the bank will not give it to him without proof of identification. Ibrahima has no ID card. So he goes to another government building to acquire an ID. Certainly, the clerk tells him, I just need your birth certificate. As you can probably guess, Ibrahima has no such document. When were you born, the clerk asks. Around 1900 is the best Ibrahima can do. And if this wasn’t hard enough, half of these conversations take place via translators. The government officials speak French, Ibrahima can only communicate in Wolof.

Wolof is Senegal’s native tongue, and Mandabi marks the first feature film made in the African language. Sembène’s first two films were made in French — the language of colonialism — but he decided that his third, an adaptation of his novella, should be in his people’s language. It’s worth noting that when Sembène published The Money Order, it was in French: Le mandat. Sembène started as a novelist and would have likely remained one if not for the audience he wanted to reach. Like Ibrahima, they were largely illiterate. So Sembène turned to films and found success.

Images articulate where words fall short, and Sembène’s work shows how the French occupation scarred the land and transformed the daily structures of Senegalese life, from tiny indignities to sweeping bureaucratic changes no one asked for. An entire culture has been left behind: Ibrahima’s culture. And if the replacement is anything like the middle-class Sembène offers in the movie, Senegal’s future does not look bright. Has decency become a sin? It sure looks like it.

ON THE BILL: Criterion’s ‘Mandabi,’ on Blu-ray and DVD, features a new 4K restoration of the film; a valuable introduction by film scholar Aboubakar Sanogo; a conversation between writer Boubacar Boris Diop and feminist activist Marie Angélique Savané; ‘Tauw,’ a 1970 short film by Sembène; a short documentary about Sembène, ‘Praise Song’; an interview with Sembène; an essay by Tiana Reid; and a new translation of Sembène’s 1966 novella, ‘The Money Order.’

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