About two days before the great African filmmmaker, Ousmane Sembène, passed away on June 9th of this year, I got the urge to watch one of his masterpieces, Xala (1975). Recently I also watched one of his earlier films, Black Girl, and wrote about it here. Needless to say I was surprised at his death. And I have been thinking of Xala ever since, and in particular two structurally and thematically intertwined scenes that feature the use of bottled water.
Here we have the chauffeur pouring a bottle of Evian (a French imported water) into a bucket so that a street beggar can make a buck washing the car:
Here the chauffeur pours another bottle into the car’s radiator:
These shots are meant to display a kind of ambivalence towards the product (Evian).
Here we have government minister Hadji Aboucader Beye (the main character if one does not count Africa itself as the main character) offering some Evian to his daughter who has visited him in order to confront him about his marrying a third wife:
We watch Beye pour himself a drink – the daughter declines:
Emphasis is placed on Beye’s preference for Evian:
Beye speaks to his daughter in French. His daughter speaks to him in the native Senegalese language of Wolof – which upsets Beye:
In these two scenes an apparently innocuous product, a bottle of Evian water, is used as a kind of metaphorical device standing for the continuing hegemonic power of colonial imperialism, even when the former colony has now gained its Independence. Senegal had been a French colony from about the 1850s until 1960. Xala pokes very serious fun at how the newly elected leaders of Senegal ruled for their own self interests, were corrupt, and were still trying to emulate their former masters.
The bottle of Evian also raises the issue of how products play a role in defining cultures and individuals. As consumers we make choices based on needs and desires. Our choices say a lot about who we are and what we value. Just as when we speak our native tongue, or that of another, the products we buy have a kind of symbolic language that is both an expression of who we are and changes (even slightly) the world in which we live. Brands can have real power in the world, but that power is given to them, not inherent to them. In Xala we find that products are not disconnected from culture or power. Not surprising coming from a Marxist like Sembène.
Needless to say, I like Evian, and probably a lot of other products emblematic of imperialism, free trade, and neo-classical economics – for example: Nike, Coke, iPods, low prices, instant gratification, and even organic food grown on farms around the world using low-cost labor. I like to think I am independent of those products, but am I really?
Some good examinations of Xala:
Symbolic Impotence: Role Reversal in Sembene Ousmane’s Xala
Xala at Louis Proyect
The Guardian review