Geopolitical Paralysis in Sembene’s satire Xala (1975)

Adapted from legendary Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene’s 1973 novel, Xala is a visually stunning satire which plays on themes of corruption, inequality and shame via symbolic hyper-realism.

Xala uses humour to expose the harsh realities of neo-colonialism in 1970s Senegal, an enduring state of enforced dependency on the former colonising power regarding aid, education, military, identity cards (Senegal still receives these from France), etc. The film’s portrayal of protagonist Beye’s conduct, an embodiment of this geopolitical paralysis, deploys a Brechtian sleight of hand that ensures you find yourself laughing when you should be crying.

Elite businessman and politician, El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye (Thierno Laye) exemplifies Homi K. Bhabha’s theory of ‘colonial mimicry’, that is, the postcolonial moment where the formerly colonised start to imitate their former masters. As sociologist Meyda Yeğenoğlu writes, the fetishism of difference encoded in Bhabha’s theory of ‘colonial mimicry’ is affected by the perceived lack of the phallus (the signifier of power) in the colonised. This lack makes the colonised (or former colonial subject) a threat to the hegemony because of its perceived castration anxiety, which produces fear and anxiety in the (former) colonisers. The colonial subject thus seeks the phallus to effect the castration of the colonial power. Xala captures the frustration of this desire for power in simple visual language by presenting the newly independent Senegalese Chamber of Commerce in a system which remains unchanged – the all-black cohort discuss policy and strategy while a white man in the back of the room hands out suitcases of money to those who do his bidding. So the phallus continues to be denied to black Africa, made impotent in the face of neo-colonialism, as quite literally becomes the case with Beye. On the night of his wedding to his third wife – herself a commodified symbol of his wealth and phallic power as patriarch – he falls victim to the curse of impotence, the ‘xala’.

‘Colonial mimicry’ is utilised as the subject of comedy and humiliation. Beye gives up speaking Wolof in favour of French, has his driver wash his car in Evian despite water shortages and orders the police to remove beggars from his business’ road. When he reverts to indigenous culture for aid regarding the ‘xala’, he becomes a subject of mockery. In the final scene he is pictured centre frame encircled by homeless men spitting on his naked body; he reads this event as a potential cure, they read it as revenge. The film does offer hope, however, in the shape of his Wolof-speaking daughter Rama (Miriam Niang) who has a very different vision for the future of her nation.

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