Sub-Saharan director Safi Faye’s groundbreaking ‘Mossane’ makes its West Coast premiere
After many false starts, Faye’s award-winning and thematically complex 1996 film has finally premiered in Los Angeles, California.
By Ryan Aliapoulios
Though the internet and digital outlets like Netflix have made it easier to watch all kinds of films right at home, the distribution of movies and shows we see are often limited by where we are in the world. As a result, we may be getting a narrower view of world cinema than we realize. For anyone who attended the LA premiere screening of ‘Mossane’ at the first annual Female Filmmakers Festival this past weekend, that reality couldn’t have been made clearer.
‘Mossane’ is a feature film directed by Safi Faye, a Senegalese director and ethnologist who was the first female filmmaker from Sub-Saharan Africa to make an internationally distributed feature, namely ‘Kaddu Beykat,’ released in 1976. Though ‘Mossane’ screened at the Cannes Film Festival and won the prestigious Un Certain Regard award in 1996, the process of getting it released took six long years. As it turns out, only one 35mm print of the film with English subtitles existed in an American museum. It was eventually pulled out and digitized for Africa in Motion festival in 2017 with Faye’s permission.
As such, recent screenings of ‘Mossane,’ including the one at FFFest, have the air of a premiere rather than a re-release—and this one also included a Q&A afterward with Manouchka Labouba, a PhD fellow in Cinema and Media Studies at USC and a pioneering African filmmaker in her own right, as well as Jude Akudinobi, PhD, a lecturer at the Department of Black Studies at UC Santa Barbara.
The film’s story concerns a 14-year-old girl named Mossane, played by Magou Seck, who lives in a village in Senegal. Coming into marriageable age, she is considered a superlative beauty who hypnotizes everyone in her community who comes in contact with her. Of the men whose eye she captures, the primary three are her wide-eyed brother Ngor, played by Alpha Diouf; a respectful college boy she loves named Fara, played by Alioune Konaré; and Diogoye, a wealthy ex-villager who moved to France and to whom she has been promised by her family. With the exception of a photograph, Diogoye is never shown onscreen.
Overall, ’Mossane’ is a languorous, beautiful film which bears little in common with mainstream Hollywood fare. Because most of Faye’s output has been ethnographic documentaries, remembering to read ‘Mossane’ as a work of imagination may take some effort. While the story is more a series of thematically connected vignettes than a tightly plotted tale, what all these scenes have in common is the upending of commonly imagined dichotomies—and there are a lot of them.
There’s the implicit balance of female and male power in the village, as well as the balance of Mossane’s own needs against those of her local community. There’s the tension between Fara’s modern world, which includes going to college and getting an agriculture degree, and the ancient world of the village, with its own traditional priests and ceremonies. In one important scene, everyone—including Fara and Mossane—gathers to watch some holy men sacrifice an ox before the town’s ancestral tree as part of a ritual to bring rain. At the end of the ceremony, the camera lingers on the oxblood flowing into water, the two fluids swirling in and around one another. Though virtually every frame is up for interpretation, the implication seems to be that the many self-contained worlds in ‘Mossane’ are constantly co-existing; the past and the future are always seamlessly flowing into one another.
This sense of blurring boundaries also makes it hard to read ‘Mossane’ as a comedy or a tragedy. The main arc concerns Mossane’s rebellion, namely her chaste yet romantic love affair with Fara in the face of the village’s expectations against it. Their scenes together are romantic but strained; on the other hand, the scene of her arranged marriage is ebullient and fun and lasts an outrageous eight minutes. Even before the actual ceremony, Mossane’s friends gossip and giggle about her upcoming marriage. In general, the village is willing to turn a blind eye to the troublesome aspects of the arrangement, perhaps because Diogoye sends so much money to the villagers from France.
In light of all this injustice, Mossane literally falls to the ground in one key scene and cries out to the heavens as things are falling apart. In response, a chorus of her ancestors’ voices rings out in response, lamenting right along with her. We’ve heard these voices before—they’re there when the film starts, introducing Mossane as any typical theme song would. Now, they’re breaking through—if not the fourth wall then certainly a wall, somewhere—to speak with Mossane directly. Is this meant to be read comedically? Pathetically?
By dabbling in the realm of the supernatural, the film also neatly sidesteps a lot of uncomfortable ethical questions about Mossane’s beauty and our complicity in beholding it. To illustrate this, there’s a slow, sensual scene where Mossane’s friend Dibor makes love with her husband. She is shown on top of him, topless, before sending him away as Mossane enters. The two women then discuss the power of their own sexuality, with Dibor speaking proudly about how her sex replenishes her husband’s strength. However traditional this arrangement may read, it’s clear the women are in control. Shortly after, the two friends stand nude washing and admiring each other in the shower in a scene that is definitely sensual if not quite sexual. Again, the camera lingers on the textures: wet skin, soapy water flowing into a drain.
At the end of the film, nobody gets what they want—and perhaps it’s unsurprising that Mossane’s downfall also involves water. Beyond any cultural divides, what will likely make ‘Mossane’ difficult for audiences to interpret is its rejection of nearly all the neat hierarchies and stereotypes we tend to accept implicitly. Mossane is both active and passive; the women and men around her are complicit even as some of them resist tradition. Even the viewer is implicated: though we’re encouraged to appreciate Mossane’s preternatural beauty, we’re also asked to be responsible for it. Through all this complex social interplay is a constant reminder that we are all of us powerful, all of us interconnected. We are ultimately responsible for one another’s destinies, and in that sense, the ending of ‘Mossane’ finally settles on tragedy.