Mandabi
d. Ousmane Sembène (1968)
The Criterion Collection

A few years ago (gosh — it was four years ago), The Criterion Collection released Ousmane Sèmbene’s debut feature film Black Girl on home video. That release opened up a new world for me. I’d never seen any of Sèmbene’s work, and I found it rich and important. This week, they are releasing Mandabi, Sèmbene’s second feature, and it, too, is a vital film.

It is Sèmbene’s first film in his native language, Wolof — the first film ever in Wolof, actually — and his first color film. According to the features that are included with the Criterion release, making a film in color was politically complicated. Sèmbene did not want to exoticize the locations or exalt the filmmaking. He was very careful to consider how the film would be received and consumed, knowing that seemingly minor choices would affect how his subject was represented.

Based on his own novella, Mandabi — or, The Money Order (which is included in a booklet found inside the Criterion package) — explores the perilous state of an older generation in post-colonial Senegal. Ibrahima Dieng (played by Makuredia Guey) is a Senegalese man in his mid-60s (we don’t know how old; he himself knows only that he was born “around 1900”).

Dieng has no work and I never did figure out how he managed to feed his two wives and seven children. It’s clearly a day-to-day struggle, or even a miracle, really, considering survival is measured in pounds of rice. But then Dieng’s wives receive a money order from the postman. They don’t know how much it is for or even its provenance. Dieng, who cannot read, sets off to figure this out and to cash it.

At the post office, he learns it is from his nephew, Abdou, who works as a street sweeper in Paris. From Abdou’s letter — read to him by an attendant who expects to be paid for the service — Dieng learns that the money order is for 25,000 francs, but not all of it is meant for Dieng. Most is to be kept safe for Abdou himself for when he returns from France, a decent chuck is meant for Dieng’s sister (Abdou’s mom), but some is for Dieng himself, because Abdou knows he struggles. The amount is still enough to help Dieng pay some debts and ensure there is food to eat for a few weeks.

After centuries as a French colony, Senegal had become independent in 1960, just a few years earlier. This new state was tumultuous, and Mandabi explores a few days in the life of one man trying to find his way to do something seemingly simple: cash a money order that can give him and his family a bit more peace of mind. Surely the ominous title spoils the secret: it doesn’t.

Dieng hasn’t even cashed it yet, but it’s clear that the money is finite and there are many neighbors, friends, bureaucrats, and vipers who see it as an opportunity.

There are so many obstacles to Dieng simply cashing out and holding on to the money as Abdou asks. First, the system is not built to even allow a man like Dieng to cash the money order. He is functionally shut out of the post-colonial system. Dieng has no identification papers. That’s okay. He can get some. But then he needs a birth certificate, which he doesn’t have, not even knowing his date of birth. And this introduces us to the another obstacle: all of the folks who have recognized the problems with the system and look for ways to profit from it. Fast to offer Dieng assistance in collecting the items he needs to unravel the thread and cash his money order, they each want a bit of the money he has borrowed to accomplish his goal. The bureaucratic maze may be familiar to most of us, but it’s made impossible here.

The most poignant aspect of the film for me is that Dieng looks like a foreigner in his own land. He grasps that things are not working out, but like someone who does not understand the language he is unable to communicate his frustration and relies on people who are not actually looking out for him.

It should be noted that Dieng is not offered here as a perfect individual who represents an ideal. He is comically fussy about his clothing throughout, for instance. More damning, though, are his eruptions of fury about his two wives. They have a role to play in his world, and he expects them to play it to perfection.

No, far from lamenting — though there is sympathy for those caught in it — an ideal past, Mandabi is more complicated and astute. It’s a fantastic film.

The Criterion edition is a great package as well. I mentioned above that it comes with a booklet containing the novella, but it also contains important supplements that contextualize the film and Sembène’s goals and choices. I particularly enjoyed the introduction by film scholar Aboubakar Sanogo and the conversation between Boubacar Boris Diop and Marie Angélique Savané. Their insights are invaluable. That is fitting for this invaluable release.

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