In honor of Black History Month, I thought I would provide encouragement by giving overview and insight to acknowledge we still possess the ability to change our lives in the present space we occupy. I thought it would also be helpful to share what I learned in watching Black Girl (1966) and Faat Kine (2001), both directed by Ousmane Semebene, in my International Cinema class a few weeks ago.
Both protagonists are strong, independent women who brave a world outside of what is familiar to them despite the obstacles set against them.
Originally, Diouana (Mbissine Therese Diop), in Black Girl, a young woman in Senegal, jumps at the chance to work as a babysitter in Paris for a couple. Every day, she sits on the street and waits for an opportunity that would offer a job where she could build her own life.
The film is set during the Post-Colonial period that encompassed certain regions in Africa involving Britain and France, and to an extent Portugal and Belgium. The French countries came into Africa for slave trade business and would “civilize” according to their point of view and values.
“The French occupied Senegal from the mid-nineteenth century on and essentially, they imposed the French way of life, the French educational system and French films were only reviewed,” Film Studies professor Steve Rybin said. “It was actually against the law for the Africans to make their own films.”
Diouana is willing to do anything for them so she can achieve the comfortable life she has only dreamed of. But the couple quickly sees that and starts taking advantage of her. When Diouana first arrives, she gives them a mask which becomes a motif—a repeated symbol—throughout the rest of the movie.
She trusts them with a piece of herself, which they end up betraying through their mistreatment of her. First, Madame (Anne-Marie Jelinek) informs Diouana that she will take care of the children while she and her husband indulge in an occasional outing or leave for vacation. Ultimately, she demands that Diouana assume charge at all times, even if she is lounging on the couch.
Madame also piles the housework and other odd duties on Diouana. The couple has visitors over and, at one point, an elderly man announces he would like to kiss Diouana just because he has never kissed a black woman before. What she thought was her newfound freedom reveals the contrary; that she has become an object just like the mask.
The couple also lies to Diouana about her mother writing her a letter and shaming her for neglecting the family back in Senegal, but Diouana recognizes the deception. She tries to take back the mask, whose meaning she feels gets abused and, while she succeeds, she still reverts to what some may consider a dark decision.
But an older student from my class observed that Diouana actually expressed her strength since she rejected a life she could not live. In the process, her choice also changed the family she worked for and hers and the spaces she lived in, both in her past and present.
The other film, Faat Kine, lands on a more optimistic note and the initial plot revolves around Faat Kine (Venus Seye), a woman in her forties who lives in Senegal and shatters the societal norms from how she grew up. The history carries into another period called Neo-Colonialism where oppression from the upper classes and practices continue, even though Senegalese people have more power in their hands at that point.
Despite that, Kine had two children out of wedlock and from different fathers. She becomes the manager of a gas station. While that does not sound like the greatest career in the world in America, she owns the business and in that culture, breaks from traditions.
One of those traditions stems from the Islamic and Christian religions where the patriarchy prominently reigns. Rybin clarified that it is not that Semebene does not like Islam, nor that he does not like Christianity, but that he is critical of them.
Kine also has good relationships with the community around her, but she knows she still needs to assert herself when she interacts with men. Tim Starman, a sophomore in Film and Media Studies, pointed out that while society has improved, her wariness shows that equality between the sexes still needs work.
It is inferred that Kine gains her confidence from her mother (Mame Ndoumbe) when Kine’s father discovered that she was pregnant with her first child. He had wanted to burn Kine alive for her disgrace to the family, but Kine’s mother stood up for her by getting in front of Kine and the fire leading to her entire back getting burned.
Years later, when Kine’s mother walks into one of the first scenes in the film, she carries herself with power, but she is stiff. She is alive, like Kine, but she bears scars like the emotional wounds Kine has inside her.
Kine has had to live her life alone, in a sense, because other women in the community have married and are jealous. They lack the financial power Kine has now, but, in the past, fought to achieve.
Although sometimes it feels like society is going backwards, it really is moving ahead. Sometimes it is the congestion that results from ignoring issues rather than confronting them.