Borom sarret
Reviewed in August 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Ousmane Sembene. Cast: Ly Abdoulaye, Albourah (a horse!). Screenplay: Ousmane Sembene.
Twitter Capsule: Sembene's Bicycle Thieves, with typically wry twist, as harsh social critique turns to ribbing of the victim's psyche

Photo © 1963 Doomireew Films
Ousmane Sembene's early short film encapsulates everything that is angry, witty, pellucid, and healthily, uncynically skeptical about his cinema. The plot is simple: the owner of a horse-drawn cart, still functioning as a taxi driver in post-independence Dakar, Senegal, sets out for a day of fares that begin inauspiciously with an old woman and an unemployed man who share the cart although neither of them can pay. In vignettes that consume less than a minute apiece of screen time, the driver ("Borom sarret" is, I think, a generic name on the level of "cabbie") assists a middle-class construction foreman whose success will not trickle down to his level, a woman about to give birth and her husband, and, most movingly and famously, a man who needs to bury a small, shrouded child in a cemetery that will not accept him. Sembene withholds close-ups so that they really count when he delivers, and the pure but understated look of unsurprised reproach on this man's face when the driver leaves him at the cemetery, whose penny-pinching guard refuses to let him even enter the premises, is worth the proverbial thousand words. It's a telling index of Sembene's refusal to take the "side" of his protagonist in any uncomplicated way, even as the potent if predictable crux of Borom sarret concerns the driver's proletarian hardships as opposed to the promises of liberation and the haughty disregard of the black upper classes in the French Quarter. The driver conveys one of these newly moneyed archetypes to the modern, white-washed, serene, and car-filled streets of the French Quarter, where he knows horse-drawn carts are not allowed. In a recurring motif not limited to these rarefied environs, though it takes its bitterest shape there, the rigid vituperations of the black service-class bring as much grief to the driver as do their more coolly, overtly exploitative employers.

Borom sarret can feel unsubtle until you realize how the generous array of quotidian snapshots that filmmaker-novelist Sembene has compressed into his 20-minute narrative bears at least one event that countermands or complicates the most obvious thematic upshots of other episodes. This is why Borom sarret never feels less than outraged but also never feels as though it grows so choleric that it loses sight of the nuances of social life, or of storytelling. Sembene's typically measured, loping rhythms, the elegant travelling shots and jump cuts of his New Wave inspirations, and the repeating musical motifs played on the ngoni (until baroque European classical music effaces it in the French quarter) have their usual effect not just of engaging the viewer in an offhanded, economical environment of movements and sounds but of tempering the didactic currents in the scenario with a formal equanimity that does not dilute the force of Sembene's critique so much as it embeds that critique within a plausible recreation of street life. Lots of political cinema about "real people" never feel like it originates from or alongside those people, and Sembene's almost always does, but at no cost to his principles.

And his principles have, as in his justly celebrated features, a way of evolving in unexpected directions and embracing a variety of targets and tones. After Borom sarret has suffered his grossest humiliation, the film takes for granted that it has scored its points about social hierarchy and, instead of continuing to ram those home, steps back for an ironic portrait of the distorted rationalizations of the oppressed. The driver returns home, casting about in voice-over narration for the proper scapegoat for his own misfortunes, and his choices are both comic and pathetic in their escalating unfairness. This mental shuffling proceeds into a surprising declaration of love for his village, though Sembene is not so ungenerous as to undermine the grounds for that fondness, even though the speaker's view of social relations and environmental conditions is clearly less nuanced than Sembene's own. Most zestily, though not surprisingly given Sembene's career-long indictments of chauvinism in many forms, the finale of Borom sarret revolves in a comical way about the husband-provider's admission of defeat and the wife-mother's almost reflexive pragmatism about (sigh) how to keep her family on track. There are dark clouds within this great joke, given the unspecified nature of her plans and the two-shot efficiency with which Sembene captures the bewildered resentment of a protagonist who feels more emasculated than relieved, left holding an infant and making a child's demand ("But there's nothing to eat!") as his wife saunters out the door. Again, the command of tone is no less masterful for appearing to emerge so simply: Sembene brings us daringly close to laughing at this man, even after spending a film evoking lucid but earnest compassion for him, and without ever forsaking the key insight that none of these characters, including the quietly intrepid wife, is up to the challenge of a grotesquely lopsided society. All of that in 20 minutes that are piquant and smoothly executed. Borom sarret is breezily ingratiating, politically astute, and palpably wise, in ways that elicit outrage and wit in equal, almost coeval measure. Grade: A

VOR: (5)   (What is this?)
As if the political insights, understated formal finesse, and storytelling ease I have just outlined were not enough (and this, from a film whose griot character is not especially sympathetic), Borom sarret lays a rudimentary blueprint for a major directorial career that almost single-handedly ignited global recognition of West African cinema, despite the chagrin some viewers harbored about Sembene working in the French language and with European money and collaborators. Still, this is an indispensable document for an invaluable artist and an entire lineage of filmmaking. In fact, certain shots, edits, and uses of voice-over in Borom sarret—to say nothing of the second-billing that accrues to the horse who drags the driver's wagon—sparked me to consider Sembene's affinities with Bresson in a way that Mandabi, Xala, and Faat Kine had not prompted me to do, and which seems like a fruitful path for future thinking, though I'm sure it long ago occurred to other scholars and enthusiasts. Cinephiles looking for the influence of Sembene's training in Soviet film schools will find that, too, in some of Borom sarret's sharply angled close-ups and its dialectical weaves back and forth between the individual and the populace. Despite all of this historical and aesthetic value, that there is nonetheless nothing dusty or "academic" about Borom sarret only makes its eloquence and its rounded grasp of modernity all the more priceless.

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