black girl (ousmane sembène, 1966)

This is the twenty-eighth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 28 is called "World Cinema Project Week":

Martin Scorsese founded the World Cinema project in 2007 with the goal of preserving and restoring films from around the globe that otherwise would become neglected. They focus on films that do not get a lot of exposure in the West and that are at risk of becoming lost because of the lack of resources some countries have to preserve their own films. They continue to work on this endeavor to this day, so far ensuring that 54 films from 30 different countries have been preserved and accessible to a global audience through screenings, Criterion boxsets with 24 of the films on DVD and Blu-ray, and through streaming on the Criterion Channel.

Whether you’re Marching Around the World this month or not, let’s all enjoy one of the films preserved by the World Cinema Project and remember how inaccessible the voices and perspective of people around the world can be for even the most avid moviegoer. Michael Hutchins maintains an up-to-date list here.

Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project is one of the great gifts the celebrated director has given the film world. I've seen a handful of the films on the above list and most of them have been very good, with one classic-to-me, Buñuel's Los Olvidados. Black Girl is a perfect example of the treasures to be uncovered in the project. Ousmane Sembène was an esteemed writer from Senegal who wanted to expand his audience by making films. After two shorts, he wrote and directed Black Girl, which became known as the first Sub-Saharan African film to get attention worldwide. It tells the story of a Senegalese woman, Diouana, who gets a job with a white French couple, who later take her with them to France. Sembène uses a complex narrative structure that bounces between the present and Diouana's past life back in Senegal.

The essential examination in Black Girl is of colonialism and race, but Sembène draws a sensitive performance from first-time actor Mbissine Thérèse Diop as Diouana that personalizes the story even as it points to how colonialism affects its victims. The film is short, but the story of Diouana feels extensive, and ultimately heartbreaking. Sembène pulls no punches. #272 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

film fatales #176: atlantics (mati diop, 2019)

In Atlantics, Mati Diop relies on several genres that don't immediately seem to fit together. It begins with a love story of young people in modern Senegal, places those people within the specific problems of Senegal, deals with family disagreements, and then turns into something all together different. It's not seamless, but I don't think that is Diop's intention. She goes with what she thinks works, and leaves the audience to follow her instinctively. I admit to being confused at times, but I was always intrigued, and by the end of the movie, everything fit together.

Atlantics is the debut feature from Diop, who had directed shorts and had also acted (35 Shots of Rum). Her command of the interplay between genres is excellent ... perhaps even more impressive is the performances she gets from her cast, some of whom were appearing in their first movies. This is especially true of the lead, Mame Bineta Sane, who had never acted in anything before (and I can't find anything she's been in since). She is the center of the film, and she's wonderful, complex, photogenic ... I'd say this was a star-making performance except she doesn't seem to have done any work in films since.

I'm being a bit vague on how the narrative turns. It's best if you come to the movie cold, as I did. That contributes to some of the confusion, but it's worth the surprises it entail. #116 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century (#917 on the All-Time list).

touki bouki (djibril diop mambéty, 1973)

Touki Bouki fills an enormous blind spot in my movie going, for it is the first movie from Senegal I have seen. This is on me ... there are many classic Senegalese films. Touki Bouki came to mind recently when it finished #66 in the Sight and Sound poll. People are still arguing about the relevance of this poll, where, thanks in part to an expanded, more diverse group of voters, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles finished at the top. In the previous poll in 2012, Touki Bouki was the only movie from a black film maker in the top 100. It has jumped from #93 to #66, and the number of black film makers in the top 100 has increased from 1 to 7.

I am so glad to be exposed to Touki Bouki. It has the freshness you might expect from a first-time film maker on a $30,000 budget. Mambéty gives us an insider's look at a country that had only recently declared independence from French colonialism. Touki Bouki does not explain Senegal from the point of view of the colonialists. It presents the world as Mambéty saw it.

I didn't always connect with the movie, which often felt like a student film, for better and for worse. Mambéty is unencumbered by the "rules" of cinema, and the freedom is enticing. The story is of young lovers who dream of escaping the strictures of their lives in Senegal to live in a France that is much more fantasy than reality. We see the poverty of their surroundings, and we understand their dreams, but ultimately, the picture rejects the fantasy France. Mambéty's Senegal is hard on the lovers, but there is beauty as well, and Mambéty makes sure we see that. Still, the "try anything" feel of the film didn't always cohere for me. I was impressed, but at times confused.