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The Shadow & Act Filmmaker Series Discussion: Ousmane Sembène's 'Mandabi'

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by Tambay A. Obenson
March 28, 2013 4:59 PM
10 Comments
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Mandabi

Continuing on the with the series... if you're just joining us, and are intrigued, please click HERE to catch up on what the series is about.


The film in the series we tackled was Ousmane Sembene's first feature-length film (although it's only 66 minutes), La Noir De (aka Black Girl). If you missed that entire discussion (which I believe continues) click HERE.

We continue the series with our discussion of Sembene's second film, Mandabi, which was released in 1968, 2 years after Black Girl.

As an aside, one reader suggested that this series would be better served in a live conversation, like via a podcast. And I agreed to that! It's actually a good idea and something that I plan to make a reality eventually. But for right now, we'll continue in this blog format. Thanks to all those who chimed in on Black Girl! There were some good comments.

Let's see what you made of Mandabi. Let me also just say that the point of this, really, is to encourage you all to watch these early Diaspora films by the masters, who came before the names we all know about today. They were making films at a time in our history when being of African descent and a filmmaker was far more challenging to accomplish than anything black filmmakers struggle with today. And I believe that these films and filmmakers from yesteryear, especially those who aren't talked about as much, but deserve to be, should be recognized and their work not forgotten

All that said, let's discuss Mandabi.

"Mandabi" translates as "money order" in English. The film tells the story of Ibrahima Dieng, a pompous, foolish Senegalese man who receives a large money order from a nephew working in Paris. However, he can't cash it, because he lacks proper identification, a problem he spends days trying to rectify - a journey fraught with cheaters, liars, and worse, who have their eyes set on the money as well, after the man's wives unknowingly help leak the information. 


Mandabi, unlike Semebene's last film we discussed, Black Girl, is a comedy - a humorous social critique, we could say; though like Black Girl, deceptively simple and direct on its surface, but more layered and complex underneath. 

Like most of Sembene's films, it's essentially commentary on, and analysis of, the cultural legacy of colonialism, as our hero is forced to leave the safety of his traditional community, in which he is dominant, and thrust into an intimidating Neo-Colonialist bureaucracy, where he finds himself a victim; and the money order sent by his Paris-based nephew ends up being more of a burden, than the invaluable aid it was meant to be. 

It's at times painfully humorous, as Sembene essentially holds a mirror up to his beloved country.

I think of Kafka of all people, and the hopelessness and absurdity that are common themes in his works.

So, did you watch it, as requested? You had 2 long weeks to do so. And if you did, or if you're already familiar with it, share your thoughts, comments, questions, observations, etc, in the comment section below, and let's discuss.

For those who haven't seen it, and who are interested in joining the dialogue, the film is on Netflix, both on DVD and is also streaming, so you're a few clicks away from watching it. You can also pick it up on Amazon if you prefer.


Here are the first 2 minutes of Mandabi, which I think set the tone for the rest of the film:

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10 Comments

  • @kiratiana | April 1, 2013 2:54 AMReply

    Why am I always the last person to comment on things? I took some time this weekend to watch Mandabi and I'll admit I was blown away. I kept asking myself if this film was really filmed in 1968? Ousmane's thinking/commentary about woman's rights, countrywide poverty, education, religion and empty pride was so on point. It's sad that I think this film still today reflects a significant part of Senegalese society. I'm a francophile and have visited Senegal twice so this film was a joy to watch because... I'm a francophile! Below are some random thoughts I had about the film.

    MAIN THESIS - I have to agree with Tambay's assessment above that the film is a critique of colonialism. But I'm wondering if the hero's unfortunate experience in trying to cash the money order is a direct reflection Senegal as a country? The money is coming from France and in 1968 Senegal was (and probably still is) getting most of its money from France. By the time it reached Senegal, it wasn't going to the people who needed it but the elites (like the cousin). Furthermore, Senegal was beaming with pride at this time having just achieved its independence. But is Ousmane really saying that independence really doesn't mean anything if you can't generate enough jobs to keep people from escaping to France and thereby sending French money home?Ousmane was clearly criticizing his country's "false pride" that wasn't reflected in education, money and jobs.

    VISUAL IMAGERY - I personally loved the intimate cinematography of the film. I get a sense that Ousmane (or whoever the DP was) spent a lot of time framing his scenes to be perfect in their composition. One of the best scenes was when one of the guys' wives left her crying child to massage her husband's legs. We then see a scene in which the baby is crying to the side and I think the white baby doll is on the other side (don't even get me STARTED about that).

    RELIGION - I'm wondering how religious Ousmane was because he has some significant criticism for the way people abuse the tenets of Islam, such has the fact that you must give to be blessed (giving so much you don't hav anything for yourself.) I absolutely LOVED when the nephew says that ONLY Allah knows how that 25,000 CFA got stolen. OKAY...

    WOMEN IN SENEGAL- I love Ousmane's realistic capture of the stature of women in Senegal. The work ALOT, but somehow have control over everything. I found myself wondering how these women could stay with this man who hasn't had a job in four years. But society in 1968 was much different than American society today. If these women had left the man, they would have been without a house and with seven kids!

    THE NEPHEW - He speaks French and represents the educated. I honestly didn't understand what he was trying to do. Buy his nephew's house? Sell his nephew's house? And I'm assuming he did this when he had his uncle signed the paper? Was that his lover waiting for him at the house during his siesta?

    Loved this film. Can't wait to see more!

  • PH | March 26, 2013 3:45 PMReply

    Thank you very much for having this dialogue! Not many others are, which is a shame, because it's very much necessary that we appreciate and recognize our forefathers of cinema.

    For your information, I wrote an essay on Mandabi a few years ago called Mandabi: The Political Use Of Realism, in which I discuss Sembene's great use of what we call realism in cinema for political end. You will find the essay here: http://bit.ly/16W9TlI

  • Justin W | March 26, 2013 11:16 AMReply

    I personally enjoyed the film. I love how it is a comedy with a legit theme and message that fits that plot effortlessly instead of most comedies in which themes and messages are crowbarred and shoehorned in. The theme about corruption that was related back in those times can easily be applied today.

  • Stew | March 25, 2013 5:58 PMReply

    If I can be blunt and say that the crudeness of the image made it hard to watch at first. I don't know if it's Netflix's copy that they have streaming, like maybe they don't have an HD copy, or if that's just how the image is. But I did watch it a second time and was able to get past the image and sound quality. I'm a little surprised though that it's being described as a "comedy", because, yes, while it does it have its humorous moments, it's also hard to watch this poor man as he goes through his various schemes trying to do a simple thing like cashing a money order. At almost every turn, there are human vultures waiting to get him, to give him way less money than he deserves for a necklace, to demand a bribe for a teller in a bank, to take a photo and not deliver the goods. We see a society rank with corruption that especially hurts those who are illiterate and/or poor. As an American, I was quite entranced by its glimpse into another part of the world that is probably all too familiar to millions of people outside of the West, but revelatory for those of us used to seeing Africa as a backdrop for white characters and storylines. And since we keep talking about remakes I think this is a film that a contemporary adaptation could be made based on it.

  • Umar Turaki | March 28, 2013 3:20 AM

    These comments bring to mind two very distinct American filmmakers whom I've been lately obsessed with. The first is Kubrick. Speaking of slowness, I just finished watching '2001', and I don't know which other movie takes the prize for slowness if not this - arguably not even 'Barry Lyndon!' I wouldn't consider pacing a flaw in 'Mandabi', just as I wouldn't consider it a flaw in '2001'. In fact, I feel it's even more justified in 'Mandabi' because it is a true reflection of the pacing of African life in general. It takes a while for things to happen here.

    The second director is Sidney Lumet, who apparently 'flipped' whenever he saw a look or shot in his movie that looked too artsy. He was always pushing for that raw, natural look. I can't say what Sembene was thinking when he made this film, but there is something beautiful in the raw simplicity of it, and oft times, filmmakers tend to be ashamed of the reality around them and want to burnish things up a bit when in truth, the reality that surrounds them is enough.

  • Abdul | March 25, 2013 11:49 PM

    If there are notable flaws with the movie, they are its pacing and the subtitles. The movie is slow, sometimes very slow. Scenes of action and dialogue are separated by long, ruminative camera shots accompanied by kora music. But a bored viewer can easily fast-forward through those. Also, the subtitles are quite old and done in narrow, white typeface, making them hard to read at times. But still a scathing and ironic portrait of bureaucracy and everyday life in post-independence Dakar, Senegal, and one of Sembene's best IMHO.

  • Curtis | March 25, 2013 7:22 PM

    What you refer as "crudeness" is really more that it's cinematically simple, shot with little technical polish. Black Girl is kinda the same way if you think about it. Sembene wasn't all about the gloss and finish especially back at that time. But it's a beautifully understated approach to shooting it and to its story and characters. As far as whether it's a comedy, "Mandabi" is in the sense of a comedy of errors or a very dark comedy.

  • blah, blah | March 25, 2013 5:09 PMReply

    Mandabi is the third or fourth I've seen of Sembenes and instantly became number one. Ironically I watched it right after seeing Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief and instantly drew a comparison. Basically both are simple stories; The aspect of what a person, in this case Ibrahim, has to go through including wild goose chases through bureaucracy and being conned by your own countrymen, only to being force to take drastic matters into their own hands and yet be sadly disappointed at the end. As comical as the film is, towards the end you feel pity for him because of how unfair "the system" has treated him because he lacks the proper uneducated, identification and influence to do the basic task of just cashing a check. For those who have been or are sympathetic to the plight of the poor in our own country, you know how hard it is to gain access to money if caught up in the same position as Ibrahim. Likewise, how to the cycle of poverty tends to continue as what is ultimately yours becomes the entire community. It is more than the crabs in barrel syndrome, which we know it as, but rather a very socialist aspect in communities where people want to share the wealth. This kind of thinking has done many of pro-athletes hailing from poor communities and Mc Hammer a personal disservice as the promise of money, created its own economy in itself in which fed lots of people.

    However what's interesting is how the main character Ibrahim assist in his own demise through his negative pride, sexism and inflated self-importance. For me, I always felt like it was a great allegory to dispel the myth that folks are just cogs in a system when in actuality folks are active players.

    Okay that is all I have for now. Can't wait to read what everybody else came up with.

  • Aaron | March 27, 2013 7:48 PM

    25000 French Francs which is equal to $5,308.97 US dollars which is the amount of the money order. So far I like this film, I'm at the beginning of it right now and I finally see a film with black folks practicing polygamy. I also have Black Girl in my queue as well.

  • Stew | March 25, 2013 6:09 PM

    I believe what you speak of is the it takes a village mentality which is very African, and something we probably brought with us when we were brought over in chains on ships, like we did so many other things. You've made it, so help the rest of us out. A rising tide lifts all boats, even though it's just a money order for not a lot of money. I don't remember, but do we learn how much the money order is for, or is that kept unknown since maybe it's not about the amount but what the idea of money means in this newly post-colonial society, and how it affects others. But I agree with you on how sad it gets. That's what I said in my comment ontop of yours.

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