Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems: Ousmane Sembene’s FAAT KINE

Ousmane Sembène’s Faat Kiné, one of the first mainstream African films to focus on a female protagonist from the upper class, is an exceptional look at the complexities engendered by an individual’s climb to prosperity within a milieu of poverty. The film details the quotidian quandaries faced by the title character, a wealthy, unwed, gas-pumping, cigarette-smoking, pepper spray-packing, foul-mouthed, semi-Muslim mother of two, who daily endures a gauntlet of discrimination based on her race, gender, and former social class.

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Faat Kiné’s riches are relative—she drives a Renault, not a Bentley—but she enjoys many luxuries that necessitate the envy of her indigent community, including her own successful business, a palatial estate, and a loyal servant. Most importantly, Kiné is providing for her aged mother and her own children, unlike their fathers, a pair of deadbeats who appear periodically to try to snatch the credit for their kids’ success. The film condemns the iniquity of Senegal’s masculine bourgeoisie, who are shown to have botched the nation’s first post-colonial generation. At the same time, it honors the remarkable perseverance and distinction of Senegalese women, who single-handedly manage to keep their families and communities afloat while their men engage in fraudulence and philandering.

It must be stated that the film has several curious aspects that may discourage casual Western filmgoers. There is no definitive principal plot to hold the viewer’s attention, as Sembène (who also scripted the film) opts instead to depict a series of episodes that encompass various aspects of Senegalese society at the turn of the 21st century. The opening scene seems to establish a mildly compelling storyline, as Kiné and her two children, Aby and Djip, fret over whether the kids will pass their Baccalaureate and be eligible for university study. But any narrative tension is almost immediately diffused when both children’s successful test results are announced via that most uncinematic of actions—a phone call. Getting this problem out of the way allows Sembène to indulge in a series of digressive interests, including exploring the intricacies of running a gas station.

The film develops into a contemporary Senegalese Odyssey: during the course of her daily errands, Kiné endures a bizarre set of encounters with figurative characters, almost all of whom try to exploit or extort her for part of her personal fortune. Thus, we meet the scrounging fellow gas station manager, who tries to coerce Kiné into lending him some more money—

The swindling bank manager, who tries to con Kiné into a loan at 19% interest and then punctuates his usurious offer with one of the most superb pick-up lines in recent memory—

The angry third wife of a man rumored to be having an affair with Kiné, who comes up with her own imaginative rectal remark—

The disabled delivery man who gently chastises Kiné for offering him alms—

And a white dude in a dashiki thrown in for good measure.

At times, Sembène wanders completely off the narrative path, as when Kiné departs from the bank, but the camera lingers long enough to capture a wisdom-filled, though utterly incongruous conversation between two men who appear nowhere else in the film.

Viewers who can attribute the lack of a central narrative to the influence of the griot and oral tradition on African cinema can congratulate themselves for their acuity, but there are larger plot-related questions which cannot be so handily explained. Why does Kiné virtually vanish from the film’s third act, receding into the background as her son voices the main concerns of the film in a fiery climactic speech?

Why does the film celebrate Kiné’s independence for 110 minutes and then resolve with her suddenly submitting to a questionable marriage with a man she has repeatedly spurned in the past?

Perhaps most pertinently, why does Sembène favor the seemingly petty squabbling of Kiné’s current life of comfort over the decidedly more compelling struggles that marked her earlier life?  We eventually learn that Kiné was once a top student like her own children, before being impregnated and abandoned by her high school teacher. As a result of her unwed pregnancy, Kiné’s abusive father attempted to burn her alive, but she was rescued by a selfless act from her mother. By relegating these comparatively dynamic scenes to an awkward and abbreviated succession of flashbacks, Sembène is essentially putting them in parentheses, signaling his intention to forego another predictable depiction of the destitution which has marked his continent (and its cinema) in the past in favor of an examination of the perils incumbent to an increasingly opulent way of life that is becoming more prevalent in Africa, particularly in burgeoning cities like Dakar.

Such consideration allows us to justify and even commend the nomadic narrative of Faat Kiné. Still, the film contains other puzzles that periodically intrude on our attention. The script contains instances of blatant exposition as well as several contrived developments, such as when the father of Kiné’s son is introduced in a flashback and then, moments later, miraculously reappears in her life after being gone for almost 20 years. The aesthetics are slightly marred by insert shots which don’t quite match the establishing shots, as well as artificially posed close-ups, the cumbersome flashbacks, and some prosaic visual choices, as when Sembène literally foreshadows the ominous nature of one character with this hackneyed shot.

I first saw Faat Kiné in college, and all of these qualms—the itinerant story, the problematic ending, the stagy dialogue, the ragged editing, the staid cinematography—planted a seed of skepticism within my positive reception of the film. Because I felt the subject matter was important, I made a conscious decision to embrace the film in spite of its failure to meet my usual requirements for cinematic excellence. But such prejudices in turn illustrate the pitfalls of trying to analyze African works of art – not to mention African social issues –  through a Western frame of reference. When Godard or Scorsese skew the standards associated with superior filmmaking, I presume that they’re doing it on purpose, and praise them for stylistic innovation. When Sembène follows suit, I presume that he’s lacking in resources, and praise him for his efforts. But now I realize that, not unlike his film’s boldly determined title character, the legendary director is simply refusing to play by rules which were chosen without his consent.  Whatever is lost in terms of Western convention is gained, with interest, in distinction, curiosity, and resolve.

Phillip Maher is a writer based in South Korea.

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