Known mainly for his award-winning short films, in Les Feux De Mansaré director Mansour Sora Wade delivers a second feature film as a story about desire, choice and the freedom (or lack of it) of young people forced into a traditional practice where a male tags a girl at birth for marriage in adulthood.
Mathias returns triumphant to Mansaré, his native city, after having amassed a fortune abroad over a few years. He wishes to become a businessman and marry Nathalie, promised to him at birth. However, Nathalie is in love with Lamine, a Muslim and childhood friend of Mathias' – himself a Christian – and rejects him. Between the two men, and – in parallel – between the two religious communities, the tension mounts. When Nathalie runs away on her wedding day, out of pride rather than out of love, Mathias resolves to find her, no matter the cost and consequences.
The impending arrival of Mathias (Ibrahima Mbaye) from abroad after several years (where it seems, from his own description, he was some kind of soldier of fortune) is the talk of the town. Everyone knows he's betrothed to the town beauty, Nathalie (Khady Ndiaye Bijou), and everyone knows she's in love with Mathias' childhood friend, Lamine. In fact, it's more than just a betrothal, if the town's chief, Mathias' father is to be believed; it's pretty much the case that it's been sanctioned by the ancestral fathers. Although I seem to recall it is mentioned once that Nathalie has a choice not to chose to marry the man who tagged her at birth, it's pretty much ignorned after that. Either the marriage takes place or all hell will break lose, something that Nathalie's mother seems only too aware of. Consulting higher powers with cowery shells doesn't change the verdict, and backup verbal supplications to Jesus, Mary and Joseph don't really do much to ease the tension in the air either.
With good performances all round, this sets things up nicely for a passionate African morality tale of love and honour, old and new ways, and repucussions of tragically Greek proportions if things aren't worked out amicably between all parties. In fact, along the lines of a Greek tragedy (a format which is familiar to traditional African story telling), the film even has it's own Greek chorus, albeit comprising just one "madman" from the Carribean who sings songs in the local bar which seem to be composed on the spot on his acoustic guitar.
But something goes terribly wrong... and I'm not just talking about the fact that Mathias realises that he's not going to get Nathalie without a fight, or that she runs away on the day of her wedding. Suddenly the town of Mansaré is visited by a sub plot comprising every possible cliche of modern African imagery you can imagine. Greedy white business partner? Check. White diamond "traders"? Check. Attractive, white, bleeding-heart female aid worker? Check. Refugees from neighbouring regional strife? Check. Child soldiers and private militia? Check.
Reading synopsis again after watching the film was something of a surprise to me at first, but then became perfectly understandable. Although there was no religious conflict in the film, it seems fair enough to assume that Christian versus Muslim violence ought to have completed the African nightmare scenario. There were both Christian and Muslim representatives at a meeting with the town chiefs and elders to discuss an amicable solution to the love triangle, but that was about the extent of their involvement in the story - a juxtaposition of new and old authorities in modern African society.
As the seemingly out of nowhere subplot develops, involving the planned new development project of Mathias and his white business partner (some kind of resort, I think) and the siphoning off of water supply and employment of local labour, suddenly there's mayhem and destruction, people are getting hurt and killed, and all this covered on a video camera that Matthias brought as a gift from abroad for his young nephew. So, at the end of film, the images we're left with are the video footage which is sold to local TV news, and then a shot of a pregnant Nathalie, though it's not clear whose child she might be carrying.
To say I was disappointed and underwhelmed is an understatement. I felt cheated. Not only had my day's theme of love been hijacked, but it was clear that whether I'd been wearing my "wcwb" hat or not, this film's main achievment (and intent?) was the entertainment of a western audience by means of reinforcing images that begger rhyme or reason but which everyone is all to familiar - Africa in chaos.
Love, it seems, will not always save (or end) the day.