Decolonial Feminist Films: Safi Faye’s Selbe et tant d’autres (Senegal, 1983) and Trinh T. Min-ha’s Reassemblage (USA, 1982)

In her 1988 essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak argued that representation must be viewed as double; first it is a space in which people find a category of representatives, and second it is a space of re-presentation, a space for rhetoric and realism. The subaltern cannot speak, it does not have power over representation and is silenced by oppression. Working through a decolonial praxis centred on multiplicity, infrapolitical forms of agency and coalitional politics, Pavitra Sundar and Debashree Mukherjee expand on Spivak’s work by asking ‘which bodies and experiences have served as structuring absences in our histories of media, and further, how do we start to remediate this absence?’ (2022). In Safi Faye’s Selbe (1983) and Trinh T. Min-ha’s Reassemblage (USA, 1982) the subaltern is no longer a structuring absence, she is expressive of a still-to-come decolonial futurity as she struggles against material matrices of exclusion and the burden of representation through a relational ethics rooted in multiple, intersectional axes of difference.

Directed, edited and produced by Safi Faye, the 1983 Senegalese documentary short Selbe et tant d’autres [Selbe and So Many Others] focuses on the social role and economic responsibility of women. Working in the feminist tradition, Faye uses Third Cinema aesthetics as a reparative tool of rupture. In La Passante [The Passerby] (Senegal, 1972) she explores the position of an African woman in France being observed by white and black men, highlighting and troubling themes of neo-colonialism, female autonomy, double consciousness and the male gaze. In Selbe, Faye utilises the same simplicity of form to illustrate a complex community at work and to excavate the ideological and economic imperatives underpinning its frameworks.    

Selbe runs several village businesses, as well as taking care of her family – despite being its main breadwinner. Shots range from medium close-ups of Selbe bemoaning her idle husband to wide shots of him moving around the village. The film captures daily life in the fertile plains of rural Senegal, where families still live in a traditional fashion (with men seasonally migrating to the city for work), in a small but self-sufficient community. The title plays on this formal ambiguity; while this is Selbe’s story, it is also the story of the women and men around her whose lives are imbricated by systems of geo-political power which sustain legacies of inequality. The privileging of Selbe’s subjective narration foregrounds the need for social and political change and allows the voice of women to dominate the cinematic space and thus, public sphere. 

Selbe bears close similarities to Trinh T. Min-ha’s 1982 film Reassemblage (USA), a documentary short which also observes the lives of Senegalese village women. This film semiotically challenges the Western subject with its title, a term relating to Homi K. Bhabha’s ‘resemblance’, meaning an uncertain familiarity and similarity between coloniser and colonised which according to Bhabha is ‘terrifying to the West’ (1994: 88-90). The film presents women who diminish the division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in their recognisability and identifiability. Like Selbe, Reassemblage follows women as they perform their daily routine. The camera remains at a distance and shots are accompanied by sparse narration by Min-ha, during which she states her intention to avoid speaking for the women, but to ‘speak nearby’. Her narrative intention is matched by discontinuous editing and unexpected framings, which underline her desire to observe but not dictate or dominate. In its focus on interstices, voids and intervals, Reassemblage challenges the polarised views of ‘ethnological’ filmmakers like Jean Rouch, who in 1958’s Moi Un Noir [Me, A Black](France), literally speaks for his black male subject as he narrates his progress. Following the psychosocial classic La Noire de… [Black Girl] (Senegal/France, 1966) and the unfinished feminist trilogy which bookend Senegalese auteur Ousmane Sembene’s ouevre, Faye and Min-ha’s films brings the female Senegalese voice from the margins to the centre of cinematic culture, rewriting Western tropes and refuting colonial amnesias.

Faye’s camerawork, in contrast to Min-Ha’s, is not inconspicuous; Selbe and other characters speak directly to the camera. They are clearly responding to questions, and responding to the spectator as subjects, while in Reassemblage the spectator is a voyeuristic ‘fly on the wall’ who the women appear not to see. Selbe thus evades the tendency to present filmed construction as real life. While the film is about real people, real places and real conversations, these are knowingly framed and filmed; the contributors are clearly aware of their part in creating the finished work. The uneasiness which can accompany voyeuristic works is thus absent and perhaps this is what makes the spectator so willing to laugh with – or at – the subjects as equals, rather than pity or patronise them. Challenging the ‘pornotroping’ (Spillers, 1987) dominant in Western depictions of the continent and its peoples, these films chart resistance to what Lauren Berlant has described as the slow death of ‘populations marked out for wearing out’ (2007: 760). They position women’s roles in the public sphere as critical to reshaping the future of these local and global spaces. Through this decolonial feminist lens, we are invited to recognise the tragi-comedy of the human condition and conversely, the distinct ways in which global structural inequalities have been systematically gendered and racially marked.

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