Guelwaar (1992, Ousmane Sembene)

Sembene’s third-to-final film, the one before Faat KinĂ©. His usual feminism is in effect here, but it’s mostly pushed to the background because he has more pressing issues to worry about.

Guelwaar (Thierno Ndiaye, below, also in Karmen Gei) has just died when the movie begins but we meet him in flashback. He has been killed because of his outspoken political beliefs, that it is better for a person or a nation to live poor than to accept handouts. He and his family are Catholic, and when his expatriate son Barthelemy goes to retrieve the body for the funeral, he finds that there has been a mix-up and Guelwaar was buried in a Muslim cemetery. A cop somewhat-assists, but when he finds out Bart lives in France he suggests that Bart appeal to his ambassador instead of asking the local police for help.

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Meanwhile at Guelwaar’s house, the funeral party drags on longer than anyone had anticipated. His widow Nogoy, younger crippled son Aloys, and prostitute daughter (the prime breadwinner of the family) socialize with the guests (who include the daughter’s coworker, actress who played Rama in Xala). When word gets out about the fate of Guelwaar’s body, the Catholic priest and Muslim imam have a showdown, each craving peace but backed by an angry and armed mob of their people. The Muslims only back down when a government man (on whom they depend for food) drives up and convinces them of their burial error. Guelwaar is returned to the Catholics for his funeral, Bart has a newfound patriotism, and on the way out, the Catholics, in solidarity with Guelwaar’s climactic flashback speech (and as an outlet for their pent-up rage) destroy the shipment of food headed for the Muslim town in a passing wagon.

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Interesting that Guelwaar defends the fact that his family lives off the daughter’s prostitution trade, over his wife’s protests. At least it is work, he argues, and they are not relying on handouts from others. This scene cuts down his noble martyr status by a couple notches. Nobody’s perfect. Also I like that the imam (above) is portrayed as a good man who listens to reason and tries to sway his angry followers to do the same. The only group that is portrayed as irredeemable is the corrupt government officials who silence Guelwaar’s voice that decries the handout system, since they skim a large share from foreign aid money before distributing it to their people, and they’d like to keep it that way.

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