Safi Faye's films invert the ethnologer's gaze on rural life in Senegal
It is a tragedy how difficult it is to find copies of films by African film director Safi Faye. The revolutionary filmmaker was the first Sub-Saharan African woman to direct a commercially distributed feature film, yet many of her films were not given the opportunity of wider distribution. Oft forgotten and unappreciated within a masculinist cinematic community, her works, like those of so many other Black women filmmakers, have been lost or suppressed for telling stories that disrupted and challenged colonial mythmaking. “We (humans) are a storytelling species,” Sylvia Wynter writes—often telling stories that normalize and reproduce the work of the homogenizing global racial-capitalist order. Safi Faye wanted to tell a more nuanced story of African life, one that illuminated the agency and resilience of African people living under systems of colonial oppression. In an interview, Faye explained that “The role of African cinema today is to reflect the vitality of a people—an African people in all its diversity—and through this people, reflect the world.” For Faye, the camera was a tool against African subjection.
Born in 1943, Faye grew up in Fad’jal (which roughly translates to “arrive to work”), a Serer village south of Dakar, Senegal before relocating to Dakar to become a schoolteacher. Her masterpiece, Fad’jal (1979) is a heartwarming ode to the hard-working people of her village who are the backbone of the Senegalese agricultural industry. Faye delicately weaves ethnographic footage, fictionalized scenes, and oral folklore to tell the history of her village through the intimate lives of the Serer villagers. She challenges the visual narrative of “the village” as an archetypical place of ‘backwardness,’ commonly used by colonial ethnographers and anthropologists to subordinate the “Other.” Through collective remembrance, the villagers orate the events that led to the founding of her small ancestral farming village by tracking the famine that her community survived, their exodus, and its restoration by way of a powerful matriarchal force. In the opening scene, text appears on the screen that quotes Malian historian and ethnologist, Amadou Hampaté Bâ: “In Africa, when an old man dies, a library has burned.” The archiving of oral histories which rupture dominant imperialist historical accounts is a recurring theme which reverberates throughout Faye’s filmography.
Fad’jal, like many of Faye’s films, examines rural Senegal’s position within the developing neo-colonial state by illustrating the mundane ways Senegalese people rejected colonial violence. In her own words, Faye “turned towards cinema as a violent colonial technology and demanded that it work otherwise.” During the colonial era, the camera and other visual technologies were used to justify and enforce France’s economic and cultural projects in colonized regions, ultimately functioning to distribute paternalist propaganda. Post-independence, local filmmakers pressured President Léopold Sédar Senghor government to replace the French-owned distributors, resulting in the creation of the government-owned entity, SIDEC (Senegalese Company for Cinematographic Importation, Distribution, and Screening) that bolstered the local film industry.
Petit à petit [is] a reverse docu-fiction film that pokes fun at the brutality of colonial anthropological practices by subjecting unsuspecting Parisians to ethnocentric examinations.
The SIDEC co-produced Faye’s lyrical hybrid of fiction and documentary filmmaking, Kaddu Beykat/Letter from My Village (1975). Narrated by Faye herself, the film is framed as a letter from a young villager to a friend, taking viewers into the heartbeat of Serer culture and presenting the harsh reality of rural life as vestiges of colonialism reappear in new ways in the first decades after independence. The film subverts “European” cinéma vérité aesthetics by blending preconceived mise-en-scene with vivid imagery of everyday rural life and a fictionalized subplot of young romance.
Faye’s chance encounter with the father of cinéma vérité and French film ethnographer Jean Rouch at the First World Festival of Black Arts enlightened Faye of the limits and possibilities of ethnographic filmmaking. Her acting debut in Rouch’s 1970 filmPetit à petit, a reverse docu-fiction film that pokes fun at the brutality of colonial anthropological practices by subjecting unsuspecting Parisians to ethnocentric examinations. This prompted Faye to study at the prestigious Louis Lumiere Film School as well as obtain an ethnology degree from La Sorbonne, also in Paris, in 1979. Faye envisioned a style of filmmaking that used the camera to tell authentic stories that emerged from the rural communities of her upbringing, allowing African audiences to view themselves in cinema without the racist caricatures embedded in Eurocentric filmmaking.
Ironically, her first feature-length film Kaddu Beykat was initially banned in Senegal for its criticism of the country’s agrarian policies, which were inherited from the colonial era. The film uses Faye’s familial history, obtained through ethnographic research, to trace the economic and social history of the devastating effects of prolonged colonial monocropping of groundnuts.
Faye dedicated the film to her grandfather, a lifelong farmer, who died just days before the start of production. His words echo throughout the film: “What is the use of groundnut speculation if it impoverishes us and our land?” In Senegal, the introduction of groundnuts by the French to meet the needs of the European metropole influenced Senegal’s specialization in this speculative export culture and increased rural social differentiation with the spread of cash cropping. In his book Neocolonialism in West Africa (1971), the Egyptian-French Marxian economist Samir Amin states that “colonization created the belief that the land of Senegal could produce nothing but groundnuts…..the colonial state was not interested in the development of the colony but its usefulness for home needs: to provide cheap oil for French consumers by underpaying the African peasants for their work.”1 Samir Amin (translator: Francis McDonagh). Neocolonialism in West Africa. New York: Monthly Review Press (1971): pp. 14.-15
… one can’t help but notice that it is women’s emotional, reproductive, and manual labor that nourishes the land, the community members, and the entire village.
Like Faye’s grandfather, the film spotlights the Sereer peasantry facing the harsh economic realities of sustaining a ground-nut-based rural economy. At the time the film was released, The annual income of a farmer was 20,000 francs (around $33). The Senegalese government sought IMF intervention and adopted the economic and financial adjustment plan in 1978 and a new agricultural policy in 1985. These policies were far removed from the concerns of farmers and peasants and Faye captures that dissonance in real time—one of the farmers depicted in the film states, “their politics don’t concern us, for me, politics means I only eat one meal a day for six months of the year.” Another farmer exclaims, “For us, politics means no dowry for our daughters and no money for our sons.” It was Faye’s two years of fieldwork documenting the lives of the peasant community, the farmers, and her hometown that gave her the tools to begin connecting the dots between the community’s internal economy, the state-imposed farming practices, and the neocolonialism of international markets. Ultimately, her work situated the local within the global by highlighting the everyday lives of Serer community members.
Despite being banned, the film would go on to win numerous awards after premiering at the 1976 Berlin International Film Festival and influenced the cinematic style of filmmakers such as Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Abderrahmane Sissako, Raoul Peck, and Jean-Marie Teno, who would use in their own debut films “the device of the letter with voice-over and formal experimentation.”
Both Fad’jal and Kaddu Beykat remix fact and fiction to deliver poignant socio-economic and environmental commentary about how the changing social relations in rural communities are a direct result of modern government policies mirroring colonial era practices and limited employment opportunities ultimately warping the Serer community’s relationship with the land that sustains them.
Undergirding these films Faye’s subtly centers the Serer women, who are the driving force of the Serer community. Through her oral reportage, Faye even uncovers that her home Fad’jal was established by a woman. In numerous scenes in both films, despite their being in the background, one can’t help but notice that it is women’s emotional, reproductive, and manual labor that nourishes the land, the community members, and the entire village. While Faye did not use the term “feminist” to describe herself or her work, she nevertheless saw herself as “feminisant,” doing womanist work by affirming women’s rights and opportunities.
Mossane (1996), Safi Faye’s only entirely fictional saga, centers the women who keep the village running through the story of a beautiful 14-year-old girl coming of age in a rapidly changing rural village. Mossane explores the struggles of a teenage girl, the title character, whose “devilish” beauty enchants all who look at her including her brother. Mossane literally means beauty in Sere, here Faye wanted to emphasize the beauty in the darkest skin tones. Two years before the shooting of Mossane, Faye went to Senegal to study the lighting and the colors to showcase the possibilities of filming dark skin when it’s done right. In an interview, Faye stated that she wanted the main character to be the “blackest of black, a blue-black”. The girl is also constantly shot in close-ups to emphasize her perfect features and radiant skin set against Senegalese desert scapes. Faye admitted that she “wanted the most beautiful girl in the world to be African.” This is most evident in the scene where rain starts to pour on Mossane, and it quickly turns to night, and her skin begins to shine—reflecting through the dark night to become a shiny blue-black. In that single scene, Faye captured the richness of black skin in a way that hadn’t been done before, ultimately achieving her goal.
Mossane’s beauty makes her a commodity in her village ― everyone wants a piece, or is deeply envious of her. This is compounded by the fact that she is in love with Fara, a poor university student on leave from school due to a strike. But her family is determined to have her marry the guy of their choosing, Diogaye, the son of a family friend who has earned the money for her dowry while working in France. In spite of this, her free-spirited friend and prophetic grandmother support and encourage Mossane’s rebellious pursuits. Her friend even gives her sexual advice for when Mossane and Fara become intimate, delving into sexual education in a way that is pleasure-focused by emphasizing clitoral play during sex, and we see Mossane‘s innocence when she exclaims ― what are you talking about? This is an important scene because it not only transcends the ideologies of religious and social conservatism but also disrupts colonial logics of African women as “erotic” or “submissive” objects. Throughout the film, Mossane is fighting between tradition and the desire for emancipation and sexual freedom, leading her to denounce the arranged marriage in front of everyone, including the village elders; flee her place of home; and in the end, succumb to her death.
On February 22, 2023, Safi Faye passed away at the age of 79. She was a prolific anti-colonial filmmaker, educator, storyteller, ethnologist, and archivist. But restricted access to her filmography and the historic marginalization of African women filmmakers by the African cinema community has had severe repercussions on the viewership of her films. Safi Faye, at times, was nicknamed the mother of African cinema ― but she never received the recognition or auteur status earned by some of her African male peers, such as Ousmane Sembene, Souleymane Cissé, Abderrahmane Sissako, and Djibril Diop Mambéty, who similarly emerged from the shadows of colonialism. This lack of recognition, distribution, and preservation threatens to rob us of the pioneering works of West Africa’s first woman auteur.
Matene Toure is a writer and critic from the Bronx. She covers politics, film, and culture through a working-class lens and is currently completing her MA in Critical Journalism and Creative Publishing at The New School for Social Research.