Djibril Diop-Mambety’s Tales of Little People

May 16, 2008 at 12:29 am

I love the work of Senegalese director Djibril Diop-Mambety (1945-1998). His sense of humor, his remarkable sensibility in telling a story, his ability to show social dynamics through the movement of the protagonists around Dakar and the periphery. Like many other African directors, his filmography is fairly short, and there are gaps of a decade and even longer between his films. His two full-length features, Touki Bouki (1973) and Hyenas(1992), both classics of African cinema and both among my favorite films, have limited availability. His Parlons grand-mère (1989), reportedly a hilarious documentary about the shot of Idrissa Ouedraogo’s Yaaba, is unavailable. Neither can one see his early films, Badou Boy (1970) or Contras’ City (1969), a witty portrayal of Dakar. (These are briefly discussed in N. Frank Ukadike’s important interview with the director at California Newsreel‘s web-site).

So I was overjoyed to be able to watch Mambety’s last two films, 45 minute-long novellas, the second one of which has been completed post-humously after the director’s death in 1998. The DVD of Tales of Little People contains The Franc (1994) and The Little ‘Sun’-Seller (1999), both subtitled in English, Spanish and French (and perceptivly reviewed by Acquarello at Strictly Film School). The DVD’s bonus features a memorable interview with the director (in French only), where he talks of his unique approach to visualization and narrative, a ‘master class’ of sorts where he comes across as an accomplished philosopher of cinematic art.

Set against the background of the 50% disastrous devaluation of the West African Franc by France in 1994, it looks as if the cripples from Ousmane Sembene’s Xala and the young workers from Jean Rouch’s Jaguar have simply stepped over into Mambety’s tales. The blind woman’s disabled granddaughter, who is doubly disadvantaged for being handicapped and being a girl, makes a really tough choice by becoming a street vendor of the ‘Sun’ newspaper, yet bravely lives up to the challenge. The impoverished musician from The Franc, a proud follower of folk-legend Yaadikoone (a man who Mambety refers to as his inspiration as well), does not have much other chance to recover financially but winning the lottery (which, hilariously, does happen). The Franc contains some of Mambety’s trademark sequences of phantasizing about prosperity, for which the director is famous from the time of Touki Bouki. Even if not naming names, his targets are the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which he calls ‘enemies of humankind’, a treatise directly leading to the open accusations in Abderrahmane Sissako’s recent Bamako.

Tales of Little People was meant to be a trilogy co-produced by Senegal, France and Switzerland. The project, however, was cut short by the untimely death of the director by lung cancer at a Paris hospital at the age of fifty-three.

© Dina Iordanova
16 May 2008