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Film Review


Saaraba, directed by Amadou Saalum Seck, 86 minutes, Senegal, 1988. In Wolof and French with English subtitles.

     Saaraba tells the absorbing story of a young man's painful homecoming. Returning to Senegal after spending much of his youth in France, Tamsir struggles to find himself and a sense of place amid the competing demands of traditional culture, modernization, western mass culture, and the legacy of French colonialism. The young generation's search for personal identity gestures toward the broader challenge facing many other young African nations: how can post-colonial Senegal find itself and articulate its own sense of national identity as an imagined community? The title of the film, which translates as "utopia," is meant to question not only whether utopia is attainable, but whether such a place can even be envisioned at this historical moment. The film is an excellent vehicle for exploring these very issues regarding post-colonial Africa in the world history classroom. 1
     Tamsir returns to Dakar, Senegal after spending seventeen years in Paris, where he was educated under the sponsorship of his wealthy uncle. Upon leaving the airport, Tamsir is confronted by images of poverty (beggars, shantytowns) as well as wealth (the Mercedes that transports him to Dakar) and Western investment (the new stadium built with Chinese money and the international trade forum). Tamsir's uncle offers him a good job in his company, but Tamsir is ambivalent. He grew up in a small village far from the city and part of him wishes to return to the old life. Tamsir's father, who still lives in the village, is a devout Muslim who is dismayed to discover that Tamsir no longer says his prayers. However, he is reassured that his son wishes to return to the old life, since, in his words, "tradition is identity." Nevertheless, he reminds his son, one must pay his debts. 2
     While Tamsir is visiting his home village, the local big man and Member of Parliament addresses the villagers and promises them a new tourism center, facilities for water supply, and a salt factory. A herder opposes the plan, fearful that such improvements would destroy his pastoral way of life. The village wise fool, Demba, asks whether such a plan would draw him any closer to Saaraba, or utopia. Another villager plays the traditional tune, "Saaraba", on a stringed instrument, singing its lyric in the local dialect of Wolof. Tamsir learns that Demba intends to fix his motorcycle and journey to Saaraba, a place where he imagines that machines do all the work for men. Tamsir cautions Demba that he has known this place, but it is the men who do the work for machines. 3
     During his stay in the village, Tamsir is reintroduced to Lissa. They fall in love, but Lissa's parents accept instead an offer of marriage from the M.P., who showers her family with expensive jewelry. Their word is final. Tamsir learns that his sister is also frustrated by village custom regarding marriage. She has fallen in love with a man who has been educated as a doctor in Brussels, but her parents refuse to approve the marriage because he is of the wrong descent. Meanwhile, Tamsir's father falls seriously ill and can receive proper medical attention only if Tamsir can transport him by cart to the railway station, and by rail to Dakar. Before Tamsir can even reach the rail station, his father dies. His last words are a lament that one ultimately cannot resist change and the ways of the new generation. Yet we're also reminded of his earlier remark to Tamsir that Saaraba is the paradise awaiting devout Muslims in death. 4
     Upon returning to Dakar, Tamsir learns that his uncle's company is responsible for producing the salt factory plans proposed for his home village. It also soon becomes clear that his uncle is embezzling funds intended as foreign aid. Red Cross milk powder and German ambulances never reach their intended destination. Sidy, Tamsir's cousin, is painfully aware of his father's corruption. He is critical also of creeping Westernization but can see no viable alternative in his own life. He retreats into the world of drugs--an escape from reality that becomes his own version of saaraba. Tamsir sternly lectures Sidy about his lack of maturity and direction, but eventually Tamsir meets an old friend who also was educated in France and is now living aimlessly in Dakar. Together they smoke a joint and Tamsir rushes headlong into Sidy's confused, chaotic world of drugs. Disheveled and weary, a disillusioned Tamsir walks into his uncle's company and destroys the plans for the salt factory. Saaraba for Tamsir cannot be a life of privilege and prosperity won by exploiting his own people. Before leaving Senegal and starting over in France, Sidy confronts his father in a letter with his obligations to society. He admonishes his father that praying to Allah is not enough to be absolved of one's sins. The uncle considers mending his ways but is soon tempted again by corruption. 5
     According to both village custom and Islamic law, a woman should be a virgin when she marries. Although Tamsir had been willing to honor what he considered an "outmoded" tradition, Lissa came to him after her parents insisted on the marriage to the M.P. She hoped that if she were no longer a virgin, the M.P. would change his mind about marrying her. Lissa soon learns that she is pregnant by Tamsir, much to the shame of her family. Yet even now the M.P. will not let her go. The film reaches a climax during village festivities marking the installation of the new facilities promised by the M.P. The herder who opposed the plan is despairing because his herd is dying from drought. Only at the last moment was his hand stayed from stabbing his daughter, the local witch doctor's suggested method for inducing rain. Demba's motorcycle is ready for the journey to Saaraba, and at this point Tamsir gamely agrees to join him. They ride to the top of the hill and stop while a grinning Demba watches the road below. He has tampered with the brakes or steering mechanism in the M.P.'s car. The resulting accident leaves the M.P. paralyzed and in the care of the doctor who has returned from Brussels. Demba and Tamsir take off on the motorbike, driving wildly. They lose control and crash. In anger and frustration, Tamsir throws a rock at the damaged bike. Demba becomes furious with Tamsir and nearly tosses him over a cliff. (Yes, the movie has an actual "cliffhanger".) After sparing Tamsir, Demba dies of his own injuries. His last words announce that he is already in Saaraba and that he should have known how close Saaraba was all along. 6
     The belated message of Saaraba seems to be that rather than pinning our hopes on some indefinite, elusive future or place, we should find meaning and fulfillment in the moment. Yet whether this is possible for the young generation of post-colonial Senegal buffeted by modernity, corruption, religion, and tradition is left deliberately unresolved. 7

Steven Goldberg
Oak Park River Forest High School

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