By Serge Daney
An attempt to assemble critical pieces approaching cinema “from the standpoint of sound”. This article was first published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 304, October 1979, and reprinted in La Rampe: Cahiers critique 1970-82 (Cahiers du Cinéma/Gallimard, 1983). Translation found on http://sergedaney.blogspot.com.
By habit and laziness, racism too, whites always thought that emancipated and decolonized black Africa would give birth to a dancing and singing cinema of liberation, which would put them to shame by confirming the idea that, no way around it, blacks dance better than they do. The result of this “division of labor” (logical thought for some, body language for the others) is that the Western specialists of the young African cinema, too preoccupied with defending it through political solidarity or misguided charity, have failed to grasp its real value and originality: the oral tradition, storytelling. Are these “stories told very differently”? Yes, but in a cinema that is literal (and not metaphorical), discontinuous (not homogenous) and verbal (rather than musical). To begin with speech, not music, is what already characterized the early films of Ousmane Sembene, those of Oumaroou Ganda, and Mustapha Alassane, as well as those created in exile by Sidney Sokhona. The same is still true for the most recent – and most beautiful – film by Sembene, shot in 1977 and entitled Ceddo.
The film recounts the forced Islamization of a seventeenth-century village, situated in what would later become Senegal: the conversion of King Demba War and his court, and then of the villagers, even though they are convinced (as their spokesman says several times) that “no faith is worth a man’s life”. The king is secretly assassinated, the nobles are elbowed out of power, and the villagers (who are the ceddo, the “people of refusal”) are vanquished, disarmed, shaved and shorn, and rebaptized with Muslim names, ready for the slave market. (The next instalment, in a sense, will be Roots). Alongside this first story whose center is the village square, Sembene pursues a parallel story whose site is in no man’s land, somewhere out in the bush. The princess Dior Hocine, the king’s daughter, has been carried off by a ceddo who is trying to protest against the Islamization of the court, and who mercilessly kills anyone who tries to free her (first a brother, then a loyal knight). He is finally assassinated on the orders of the imam who has meanwhile taken power. Only at this point does the princess become conscious of the subjection into which her people have fallen. When she is brought back to the village, superb in her pride, with tears in her eyes, she kills the imam: a freeze frame on this last image, and the film is over.
Thus people in Ceddo lose freedom (the village), lives (the king), blinkers (the princess.) But there is worse. Ceddo is the story of a putsch, with the intrusion of religion into politics (as in Moses and Aaron, for instance) and the transition from one type of power to another (as in The Rise of Louis XIV), but it is also the story of a right which is lost: the right to speak. A right but also a duty, a duty but also a pleasure, a game. If the imam wins, it is not because he is militarily stronger, it is because he introduces an element which will cause the traditional African power structure to implode. And this element is a book, a book which is recited: the Koran. Between the beginning and the end of the story told by Ceddo, what has changed is the status of speech.
In the beginning, it is clear that we are in a world where no one lies, where all speech, having no other guarantor than the person who produces it, is speech of “honour”. When he films this people who will soon be reduced to silence, Sembene first insists on restoring their most precious possession: their speech. It’s an entirely political calculation. For what the defeat of the ceddo signifies is that African speech will never again be perceived by whites (first Muslims, then Christians) as speech, but instead as babble, chatter, background noise “for poetic effect” or, worse, “palavers”. Now, what Sembene brings before us, beyond archaeological concerns (which we are too ignorant of Africa history to evaluate) is African speech in so far as it can also have the value of writing. Because one can also write with speech.
In the court of King Demba War, in the coded space where the plot develops and the protagonists of the drama appear, each person is one with what he says: the king and his people, the Muslims and the “pagans”, the pretenders to the throne. There are rhetorical games, theatrical turnabouts, negotiations and oaths, declarations and rights of response: speech is always binding. Only in Pagnol can one find such incandescent moments where speech, functioning as writing, lays down the law. In this way Sembene’s film becomes an extraordinary document on the African body (today’s actors and yesterday’s heroes) upstanding in its language (here, Wolof), as though the voice, accent and intonation, the material of the language and the content of the speeches, were solid blocks of meaning in which every word, for the one who bears it, is the last word.
Is this an ideal, naive vision of a world without lies? The utopia of a world before ideology, ignorant of the gap between the statement and its enunciation? Not so sure. The societies which are a bit hastily considered to be “without writing” have resources all their own for extracting from spoken language that which can have the value of the written. One such resource is the use of what Jakobson called the “phatic” dimension of language (concluding one’s phrases with “I said!”). Another is the use of gestures with a performative value (Madiac, the heir to the throne dispossessed by the new Koranic law, repudiates this law and makes himself an outlaw; he demonstrates this position by trading a slave for wine which he solemnly drinks before the disgusted imam, who holds his nose against the smell.) Yet another resource is the use of undecidable statements (Madder the outlaw speaks only in proverbs.) Finally – and this is the most striking aspect of the film, the most unknown for us – there is the existence of an essential character, without whom communication could not take place: the official spokesman, the pot-bellied nobleman Jafaar.
It is as though an entire aspect of language – speech which is not binding – had fallen to a single man: Jafaar alone can lie, exaggerate, flatter, trick, play every role (including his own), occupy all the positions of discourse. Two characters standing face to face still need him to signify that they are speaking to each other: “Tell him that…” Yet Jafaar is not a spokesman in the Western sense (he doesn’t speak for a statesman who, remaining hidden, can always deny what has been said) and nor is he a buffoon, nor the king’s fool (so common in the Arab tradition.) He is not the one who speaks the truth while all the others lie, he is the only one who has the right to lie while all the others are sworn to truth. He is the one with a monopoly on the gap between statement and enunciation. Without Jafaar there is no communication; he is, if I daresay, the “blank spot” who spaces the speech of others and transforms it, in a certain way, into writing.
Therefore, even more than recounting the fall of King Demba War, it seems to me that Ceddo recounts how someone is dispossessed of his role as spokesman. At the end of the film, the imam sends Jafaar away (despite all his grovelling attempts to keep himself in favour), and replaces him with one of his loyal followers, Babacar. In fact, the function changes. Babacar speaks on the orders of the imam, who himself supposedly speaks in the name of a book (the Koran) he knows by heart. But a book is nobody. This vertical transfer of speech replaces the horizontal circulation of African language where a liar, put at everyone’s disposition, allows each one to “keep his word”. It is after Jafaar’s defeat that the reign of ideology, if you will, can begin. That is to say, the set of positions, not to say postures, that can be adopted before an untouchable Text: poses, travesties, excesses of zeal, hypocrisies, disguised unbelief. This is where Sembene becomes deliberately polemical: the ferocity with which he composes the portrait of the imam speaks clearly of his disdain for the servants of all dogma. More than an anti-Islamic film, Ceddo is anticlerical. Sembene hates priests.
So much for Ceddo-language. Ceddo-music remains. I said above that there were two films, two stories, two “positive heroes”: the people who collectively resist and the princess who becomes aware of the situation out in the isolation of the bush. The two films only converge in the final images, which are all the stronger for their forced, fictional quality. For when the princess kills the imam, it can only be an improbable end, an emblematic denouement: the final liberation of Africa yet to come. Sembene, more dialectical in this than filmmakers such as Leone or Kurosawa, knits together two stories without ever confusing them; he maintains the distance between the description of resistance and the fiction of liberation, between the people and its heroes, the collective and the individual, archaeology and convention. In short, the princess is not Zorro.
In fact, if there are two Ceddos, they are treated by means of two different approaches to cinema. Where the archaeological part is based on speech, the allegorical part is based on music. Each time the film calls on known situations, belonging to a diffuse, trans-historical memory of the history of the African Diaspora, the music – by Manu Dibango – seems to play as a reminder, a connotation. Speech against music? Not really, more a kind of dichotomy: to music belongs everything that refers us to our ignorance – which, in the case of Africa, is boundless. The result is a fascinating displacement of affects. When the villagers are branded with a hot iron, when they are hustled onto the square to be rebaptized, the cruelty of the situation, far from being underlined by the music, is held at a distance, as though someone were murmuring ironically: but you already knew all that… The music (Negro spirituals, balafons, choruses evoking free jazz) does not reassure, exalt or dramatize, but makes meaning. For once, film music has something like the taste of ashes. For this is the music that the ceddo people and their children will make later, elsewhere: in the USA, in Brazil, in the Caribbean. And they don’t yet know that. We know it (and more, we like that kind of music). The music is a future past, it will have been. In the same way, the ceddo people don’t know that for we Westerns, they will become beings of music, good-for-song-and-dance – precisely to the extent that they will lose the right to speech. It’s one thing to perceive in the music of the oppressed the reflection and expression of their oppression, but it’s another to ask oneself this question: before being condemned to sing their condition, what did they say and how did they say it? Ceddo risks an answer. Above all, Ceddo allows us to ask the question.