Follow the Money
By Yasmina Price
Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Le Franc and The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun combine a harsh critique of neocolonial structures with buoyant portraits of those surviving at their margins.
With scintillating films scaffolded by a disdain for neocolonialism and globalized capitalism, Djibril Diop Mambéty made it clear that his driving motivation was one of demystification. Speaking about his final feature, Hyenas (1992), he once said: “My task was to identify the enemy of humankind: money, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank.” Money—and particularly the exploitative stranglehold by Western countries and international financial institutions on African economies—was the named antagonist and pervasive concern in much of Mambéty’s cinema. He chronicled the emergent neocolonialism that he witnessed after the wave of transitions from colonial to purportedly independent governments on the continent. Even as African nation-states were consolidating some semblance of independence, the predatory grasp of foreign forces was not so much disappearing as it was changing its shape. These economic constraints and a lack of financial autonomy pervaded the cultural sphere as well, creating a significant structural blockade for African film industries (then, as now).
The currency used in former French colonies, the CFA (Communauté Financière d’Afrique or Financial Community of Africa) franc, is a key object in Mambéty’s cinematic worlds. The CFA attached African economies to the French Treasury even after independence, and Mambéty was unqualified in his indictment of the structures of dispossessive debt created by this neocolonial tethering. In particular, the devaluation of the CFA—meaning an externally determined shift in exchange rates, with devastating consequences for African economies—informs the common assertion of Mambéty’s Le Franc (1994) and The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun (1999): that the economic vulnerabilities of Senegal were created and aggravated by Western financial string-pulling. In order to unmask the endangering global sociopolitical mechanisms at play, these two medium-length films signal an imperative to follow the money, while also offering twin fables about the everyday possibilities of crafting alternative paths.
Le Franc and The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun are two parts of an unfinished trilogy: episodes of the minor forms of history that MAMBÉTY considered to be the worthiest of telling and the most revealing of a global system whose injustices he always sought to expose.
Born in 1945 in Colobane, a town near Dakar, Senegal, to an imam father, Mambéty began his artistic practice by training for the stage but was kicked out of Dakar’s Daniel Sorano National Theatre because of his lack of discipline. This biographical detail is perfectly indicative of Mambéty’s flair as a filmmaker, an early heralding of the disobedient and mischievous character of his cinema, which coexisted with his precise technical mastery of the camera. Formally flamboyant and uniquely experimental, the visual language of his films channeled elements of the surreal and the theatrical, while also being tenderly anchored in the banalities of ordinary life.
Le Franc and The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun are two parts of an unfinished trilogy of films collectively titled “Histoires de petites gens” (“Tales of Ordinary People”): episodes of the minor forms of history that he considered to be the worthiest of telling and the most revealing of a global system whose injustices he always sought to expose. Mambéty took a different route from other continental African filmmakers who paired social realism with a nationalist vigor, such as his compatriot Ousmane Sembène. Instead, Mambéty focused the insurgent poetry of his cinema on the people generally excluded from nation-building projects. He was a filmmaker defiantly attentive to the very poor, the very young, and all those marginalized by the shifting regimes of power in the allegedly postcolonial period.
This was not his only planned trilogy—nor was it the only one left unfinished. Mambéty’s breathtaking first feature, Touki Bouki (1973), and its 19-years-later follow-up, Hyenas, were also meant to be closed out by a third title in a cinematic triptych about power and insanity. His films were filled with biting critique as well as humor, offering a compassionate approach that evaded saccharine sentimentality. Without resorting to didactic paternalism, Mambéty extended a lesson in humility and invited us to walk alongside characters who are expansive and imaginative in finding ways forward despite the cruel restrictions of their material circumstances.
Although it never came to be, the narrative for the third film in “Tales of Ordinary People,” La tailleuse de pierre (“The Stonecutter”), had been mapped out. In this final episode, Mambéty said, “a woman excavates pieces of basalt. She breaks them into smaller stones that can be used in construction. People who want modern buildings in their neighborhood ask her to move her workshop away. But she can conquer the ugliness and dirtiness of human beings because she is close to the truth. So, La tailleuse de pierre shows how an individual can dream of beauty.” The friction between traditional social structures and the drive toward modernization compelled by neocolonialism was to close out the trilogy, while also echoing the previous two films in the stance that those rendered disposable and inconsequential by structures of power are the closest to their truth. Le Franc was fully produced under Mambéty’s care, but The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun was completed by friends and collaborators after his premature death from lung cancer in 1998, at only 53 years of age.
Le Franc opens with an immersive montage of ordinariness: a woman sieving grain; a tiny child tottering between houses; a teacher leading a group of children reciting Koranic verses; and the protagonist, Marigo (Dieye Ma Dieye), lounging on his bed. The catalyzing drama of the film is that the hapless Marigo is unable to pay the rent and his landlady (Aminata Fall) takes his congoma—a musical instrument that is his livelihood—as compensation. This sets him off on a trek across Dakar to cash in a winning lottery ticket, obtained on the counsel of a dwarf from whom he tried to steal 100 CFA at the market—a slip of paper that ends up stuck to his bedroom door after he glues it there for safekeeping.
Carrying the door with him by foot, by bus, and by stubbornness, Marigo moves across this anarchic urban fable with an unrelenting buoyancy. He is an everyman endowed with a rubbery, long-limbed comic flair, and his stumbling around with the door has a controlled grace and expressive force. Marigo is caught in a constant daydream, and the bare reality of his situation is punctuated with imaginative meanderings in which he pulls birds out of his congoma, has prophetic visions of his future self, and is hallucinatorily pursued by the mocking face of his landlady. Mambéty’s films were rightfully lauded for their camerawork—deftly staccato, a tapestry of fragments to match his preference for temporal skips and discontinuities—and in this one, shot by Stéphan Oriach, the recurring destabilization of Dutch angles renders us askew with Marigo, formally aligning us with his endearing eccentricities.
Mambéty’s works were also notable for being animated by varied array of cultural reference points. These included gangster and Western films, rock and avant-garde jazz, European-influenced African pop culture, and the kaleidoscope of Senegalese cultural practices, ranging from schools of Sufi Islam to the multitude of local ethnicities and their particular languages and oral and spiritual traditions. This pluralism is transmitted particularly through Mambéty’s sonic directions and musical choices. In one emblematic scene in Le Franc, the sounds of the muezzin’s call to prayer become entangled with a street musician’s saxophone, offering an aural shorthand for the sometimes-enchanting cultural collisions of his contemporary Dakar. Mambéty’s soundscapes are eclectic but carefully wrought, exhibiting collage-like quality in both films. The sonic overspill of his films verges on cacophony and also functions as a sort of organizing principle—in Le Franc, both Marigo and his landlady add to the motley soundtrack with their own musical interludes and the final title card in The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun offers the film itself as a song: “This story is a hymn to the courage of street children.”
This second film also follows a protagonist whose bodily movements are impeded in a citywide odyssey to find a way to make ends meet. We are introduced to Sili Laam (Lissa Balera) by way of a tenuous glimpse of her weaving between houses made of corrugated iron, as she makes her way toward the main road. The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun accompanies this young girl in her attempts to sell a local newspaper, Le Soleil, on the streets of Dakar, while managing a disability that leaves her dependent on crutches, with one of her legs in a brace. In parallel to a news announcement made early in Le Franc, one of the primary reports from Le Soleil is the devaluation of the CFA. In a context where her economic situation is likely to worsen, Sili is one among many children unsteadily making what money they can to help their families. She is, however, the only girl, resulting in her being bullied by the newspaper boys. Mambéty was particularly drawn to female characters who self-authorized their divergence from expected trajectories, such as Linguère Ramatou in Hyenas and Anta in Touki Bouki. In her own way, Sili does the same. The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun begins with spectacle and violence: a man accuses a woman of being a thief in an altercation observed by a large crowd standing fanned out around them—a policeman idling nearby, a boy in a wheelchair with a boom box, and people on a balcony—and she is dragged off to the police station, where we see her pacing behind bars. This comes full circle when an officer takes Sili to the station as well, suspicious of a 10,000 CFA banknote given to her by a generous stranger in exchange for her entire stock of newspapers. With a cool head, little Sili dresses down the policeman, telling his supervisor she was arrested without proof, and once she hears the imprisoned woman claiming the same, insists that they both be let go. With her own movements at various turns limited, Sili operates from a place of intransigent solidarity, and in freeing this woman from the jail, gives her back the mobility that was unjustly taken. This is echoed at the end of the film, when the newspaper boys steal one of Sili’s crutches and Babou Seck—a boy who is her friend and protector throughout the film—carries her on his back. If there is a lesson, it’s that the ability to move in the world is a shared and collective responsibility.
As a young girl, disabled and poor, Sili inhabits an ordinary, yet exceptional, multiple exclusion. Mambéty accents her resilience in a way that is still damning of the system that forces her to travel far to sell newspapers to earn a pittance for her family, treating her character with care and dignity, but not empty triumphalism. She is exceedingly brave, radiant no matter what happens to her, and resourceful in the face of every obstacle—but she should not have to be. The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun is not a romanticization of poverty or a feel-good story of overcoming adversity but a charge against the pitiless neocolonial economic structures of Mambéty’s latter-day Dakar. The money Sili makes goes to her blind grandmother and other children, in an old form of mutual sustenance that is the very opposite of the hoarding and impoverishing formal economies that condemn them to precarity.
Both Sili and Marigo attempt to craft something like a “desire path,” which by Merriam-Webster’s definition is “an unplanned route or path (such as one worn into a grassy surface by repeated foot traffic) that is used by pedestrians in preference to or in the absence of a designated alternative (such as a paved pathway).” They’re both positioned outside of any conventional socioeconomic possibilities for financial stability in postcolonial Dakar, an emphatic reminder that this was a hierarchically stratified society in which some locals did benefit from the neocolonial configuration. These bodily and structural restrictions on normative ways of moving compel Marigo and Sili to carve out their own desire paths to survive—improvisatory and idiosyncratic trajectories made possible by the force of their imaginative adaptability. In a way, they both succeed in their tasks: Sili proves that a girl can sell newspapers and is able to earn money for her family, while Marigo manages to cash in his lottery ticket. Excluded from formal economies, they get by through other means. As outsider protagonists, they embody something far more courageous than the archetype of the urban flâneur, because they are constrained in their ability to wander, but do so anyway. A desire path requires a measure of defiance and nonconformity, much as Mambéty’s cinematic trajectory did. Although lack of funding was detrimental to his cinema, he was steadfast in his declarations that the African continent has a visual and cultural richness that could never be restricted to a monetary value, and his films are emblematic of this.
At the very beginning of Le Franc, an announcement for the National Lottery tries to sell tickets on the logic that “especially amongst populations who have been cheated, ripped off, and humiliated by international swindle of supply and demand,” playing the lottery might be a sensible choice. In the rigged gamed of capitalism, appealing to a roll of the dice might be no worse than confronting intentionally inequitable structures. Mambéty’s call toward a disavowal of economic systems that rely on exploitation of the many for the wealth of the few is signaled by his nod to Yaadikoone Ndiaye, whose likeness appears on a poster stuck to Marigo’s door, and whom he describes to a bank teller as “our own Robin Hood. Defender of children and the weak. Ask you grandparents about him.” This account of what we might think of as an anti-capitalist and anti-colonial folk figure is also a subtle gesture toward the prevailing social systems of an older generation, which predated—and offered a source of resistance to—the violent encroachments of colonialism.
Marigo’s meandering desire path even crosses out of the realm of “reality” in the course of his daydreams. He is something of a proxy for Mambéty himself, who compared his filmmaking to dreaming: “To do that, one must have a mad belief that everything is possible—you have to be mad to the point of being irresponsible. Because I know that cinema must be reinvented, reinvented each time, and whoever ventures into cinema also has a share in its reinvention.” This resolute belief is telling of the political convictions bolstering his films, which refused the inevitability of neocolonialism and made an exalted demand for a collective participation in undermining presumed destinies.
Mambéty’s protagonists in Le Franc and The Little Girl Who Sold The Sun embody a vision of community animated in daily struggle and populated with a set of ethics that refused the paths laid out by colonial impositions and were instead rooted in what preceded them. The vitriol and gleeful irreverence of his films were always tempered with compassion and an unrelenting desire to keep dreaming a world of alternative paths. As much as Mambéty strayed from regulation and convention, his affectionate eye always remained devotedly fixed on the dignity of cast-out dreamers and wanderers who cannot walk the line and yet find ways around it. •
Yasmina Price is a writer, researcher, and PhD student in the Departments of African American Studies and Film & Media Studies at Yale University. She focuses on anti-colonial African cinema and the work of visual artists across the Black diaspora, with a particular interest in the experimental work of women filmmakers. Recent writing has appeared in The Current (Criterion), The New Inquiry, The New York Review of Books, and Vulture.