Arts and culture were back on the front burner of Simmering Senegal this weekend. I spent Saturday and Sunday at my favorite downtown spot, the Centre Culturel Francais, attending a documentary film festival for young West African directors and writers, Le Festival Lumière d’Afrique. On Saturday night, we all (Matthew under forced marching orders) attended a modern dance performance at the Theatre National Daniel Sorano sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in honor of African American History Month.
The film fest was fab. I attended 8 of the 10 screenings, and only walked out on the second to last, which struck me more as a rap video than a documentary. The films came from all over West Africa: Togo, Mali, Niger, and of course, the hometown favorite, Senegal. The topics ranged from traditional adoption in Mali gone awry in modern Bamako and Senegalese wrestlers in Pikine to the pressure felt by a red onion grower in Niger trying to grow as much and sell as high as possible to marry his daughter properly as well as that felt by a young Zinder king who wants to modernize his tribe’s cattle raising techniques to export more widely.
One of my early favorites featured Yandé Codou, la griotte or praise singer of Léopold Sédar Senghor, Senegal’s first president post-independence. This 80+ diva is still sassy, hinting at her intimate relationship with Senghor and telling a modern interpreter of her songs on camera to stop trying to imitate her because he was too inferior. Although not as high on my list, the documentary on Togo’s last political succession (note the term used, even though this father to son hand-off was cloaked in the guise of an election) was impeccably timed, for Togo is getting ready for another round of presidential elections at the end of this month. When I took my coffee break in a nearby café just after viewing this film, I picked up the most recent copy of Jeune Afrique and saw President on the cover, giving his first interview in three years.
In the end, I voted for a last minute substitute (for an unfinished film) as my film fest favorite. It centered on the intertwined stories of a homeless man at a bus shelter who speaks truth to power in poetry and an unemployed train worker who spends his days bumming money off friends, drinking beer with the proceeds, and writing this documentary’s manuscript. The villains are the World Bank and its structural adjustment policies, which forced the country’s public train system into privatization, which in turn resulted in many lay-offs. The camera technique was sophisticated. But even more striking was the dramatic storytelling that the directed achieved while documenting the day-to-day activities of an unemployed train worker. The acting was superb. I had to leave before closing ceremonies, so I don’t know which film one. And the winner is . . . .
The contemporary dance performance Saturday night was equally spectacular. It was fun to go inside Senegal’s national theater, having passed it so many times when riding buses downtown and seeing its interior in movies and t.v. shows. The featured dance troupe from the U.S., called Evidence, was led by choreographer Ronald K. Brown. Evidence was preceded by a traditional Senegalese dance troupe called Kondiof. Their performance was gorgeous, with three drummers and 16 dancers divided equally between men and women. The drummers filled the large hall with sounds, while the dancers occupied the stage with bright colors and pulsating rhythms.
Evidence’s first number echoed many of the same dance moves, making the connection between Africa and the diaspora physically clear. The music was fantastic, ranging from soul to gospel to classical and back. The troupe was small, so over the course of 90 minutes divided into three separate movements, I felt like I really got to know these dancers as individuals. I’m not a dance fan, but found this performance riveting.