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90 minutes, 2002, Senegal
Producer/Director: Mansour Sora Wade
in Lébou with English subtitles

Ndeysaan can be appreciated simply as a deeply moving, beautifully acted, visually stunning story of love, betrayal and redemption. But it can also be read as an attempt, conscious or unconscious, to reconcile or negotiate traditional and modern sensibilities, a film whose ambiguities are often as fascinating as its certainties.

Ndeysaan's ambivalence stems from the artistic aspirations of the novelist who wrote it and the filmmaker who adapted it to the screen. Novelist Mbissane Ngom was educated in French colonial schools and wrote his novel Le prix du pardon in French; at the same time he wanted to preserve some memory of his own culture, the Lébou ethnic group of fishermen on the Southern coast of Senegal. Director Mansour Sora Wade (also a Lébou) worked for eight years as an archivist on traditional culture for the Senegalese Ministry of Culture. He subsequently directed two short films which aspired to be "film folktales" Picc Mi (Little Bird) and Fary, l'anesse (Fary, the Donkey) both of which are available from the Library of African Cinema's Three Tales from Senegal

In Ndeysaan Wade moves beyond the folkloric developing an epic style which resembles in spirit the storytelling techniques of a traditional griot. This does not prevent the film from experimenting with puppetry to recount mythic events, employing special visual effects and using a soundtrack by Youssou N'Dour and Wasis Diop. Still the filmmaker deliberately shied away from using the uncharacteristically flamboyant costumes which have become cliches in some African films for the more authentic muted tones which everyday African fishermen would wear. "I privileged unified colors: white symbolizes purity, wisdom, red is a sign of blood and passion, black represents guilt and death."

At the same time, Wade brings to the story inevitably modernist attitudes. He writes:" What interested me most in this story is the fact that it shows that personalities are not fixed and determined once and for all. They evolve and can often be contradictory or ambiguous." Similarly, the film's opening epigram emphasizes, in contrast to the traditionalist's commitment to repetition and stasis, a more contemporary focus on progress and mutability. "Price of forgiveness, oh life! The world moves on and people change; yesterday is not today." As a result of the film's belief in the possibility of change, the initial villain turns into a kind of hero, while the original hero ends up almost as a villain.

Wade makes his characters ambivalent too, torn between their traditional roles and their own desires. For example, Mbanick is the son of the village of Timberling's marabout, Baay Sogi; they are descendants of a man who fought so courageously against a shark, "the lord of the sea," that his line inherited the power of transformation, of the ocean's fluidity and mutability. Although his father lies dying, Mbanick does not want to have his secret knowledge passed on to him. Timberling urgently needs a marabout because it is engulfed in a dense fog making it impossible for the fishermen to pursue their livelihood; this is perhaps symbolic of the ignorance and superstition of the villagers. Mbanick suggests sarcastically that people would do better relying on themselves than on their ancestors.

Nonetheless, after Baay Sogi's death Mbanick is overtaken by a violent and mysterious illness as his father's spirit enters him. He then makes a pirogue out of the tree under which his father is buried and sails fearlessly into the fog returning with a boatload of fish. The fog mysteriously lifts, the film's palette lightens and Mbanick becomes a hero to the villagers. He is especially admired by a young boy, Amul, who like Mbanick, has resisted his father's desire that he carry on his own caste role as a griot, signified by his party-colored patchwork clothes.

Mbanick's best friend, Yatma, is the son of Peer, whose wealthy family derives its power from an ancestor who outwitted a lion, the "king of the savanna." Yatma also is in love with Moxoye and, when he sees Mbanick and her making love, he is driven mad with jealousy. He follows Mbanick into the brush and bludgeons him to death with a rock. Although he tries to cover-up his crime by dumping the mortally wounded Mbanick at sea, everyone in the village knows who the real culprit is but they are too afraid of Peer's authority to demand retribution.

Maxoye then agrees to marry Yatma, but she does so only to make life miserable for him; she will not let him touch her and he must bring up the child she conceived and named after Mbanick. Yatma is plagued by regret and does everything to win Maxoye's respect; he showers her with gifts, which she disdainfully rejects, and is a good step father to Mbanick's son . He even participates in a ritual where he plays a fierce lion tamed by the villagers. With the passage of time Timberling pardons Yatma and he and Maxoye have a child of their own. Nonetheless when Yatma visits a marabout to see how he can expiate his act, he is told that he can never be forgiven and will die if he goes out to sea during the coming year.

When Amul takes the young Mbanick out to sea to meet his father, Yatma, despite the earlier warning, rows out to save them. Yatma leaps into the water, challenging the shark, Mbanick's embodiment, to exact his revenge and he is killed. For many viewers the price of pardon may seem very high indeed; in fact there has been no pardon at all. In the end it is ironically the "lord of the sea" who seems unable to change. We are told, however, that as the result of Yatma's sacrifice and example even the "sea learned to forgive." Here the film resonates unexpectedly with contemporary debates over the death penalty and punishment versus rehabilitation. In a final irony, the film is summarized by an aged griot, presumably Amul, who has despite his youthful reservations followed in his father's footsteps. He says that Timberling has vanished and the story of Yatma, Mbanick and Maxoye has been washed away to the farthest corner of the oceans. The medium of film, of course, has fixed the oral story and made it possible to give it continued life around the world.

Mansour Sora Wade writes about his film "My concern was to show that ordinary life and the supernatural can exist together without ostentation as was the case in my childhood, showing that belief and pragmatism co-exist naturally." Whether he has merely embodied these tensions or resolved them, viewers will have to decide for themselves. But all will agree that he has made a film of exceptional beauty exploring the uneasy co-existence of past and present that many Africans feel in the 21st century.
"This ethereal and memorable Senegalese film explores the age-old challenge of forgiveness in a distinctly African setting. Highly recommended."
Video Librarian
"Mansour Sora Wade knows how to reveal the solemnity of his story through a fatalism which fits tragedy as well as faith. It is a haunting film, a beautiful film."
Cahiers du Cinéma
"This film must be seen...It is like a surrealist painting."
Le Figaro


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