REVIEW of DELWENDE at the SFFS Sundance Kabuki Screen

In his unpublished 1997 dissertation "From 'Culture' to 'Commercialization': The Production and Packaging of an African Cinema in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso", Thomas J. Bikales offered the sobering reminder: "[A]s much as Africa's and Burkina's films and film makers penetrate the international circuits … they remain far removed from the mainstream. Despite the ever-increasing number of international film festivals and conferences devoted to African cinema, despite the growing body of literature … African cinema continues to be a product produced, consumed, and debated first, on an international more than an African scene, and, second, in an elite, academic/intellectual context that, for better or for worse, is far more circumscribed than many with an interest in African cinema see and/or would like to believe." (Bikales 1997:ix, quoted in Kay Armatage's "Screenings by Moonlight", Film International 2008, Vol. 6, No. 4, p. 38.)

This compromised situation is further complicated by the theoretical problem that "some critics and directors see European funding as a Faustian pact for African and Arab directors", notwithstanding the practical necessity of such alliances with France, in particular, "because it has led the battle for recognizing cinema as culture and national identity, the so-called 'cultural exception' in the ongoing WTO GATT trade dispute with the United States." (Kevin Dwyer, Beyond Casablanca: M.A. Tazi and the Adventure of Moroccan Cinema, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004:338, 365 and 412, quoted in Jeffrey Ruoff's "Ten Nights in Tunisia: Les Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage", Film International 2008, Vol. 6, No. 4, p. 50.)

Kudos to the San Francisco Film Society for offering the revival screening of S. Pierre Yameogo's Delwende: Lève-toi et Marche to their admittedly cinephilic constituency but via their running Sundance Kabuki Screen series, open to the general public. Hopefully, mainstream audiences will take the hook, as Delwende is a compelling dramatic narrative, which—in her recent review for The New York Times—Jeannette Catsolulis writes: "demonstrates how superstition supports patriarchy and how easily both can slide into misogyny."

I first caught Delwende at the Pacific Film Archive's 2nd African Film Festival back in February 2006. Inspired by the true story of Napoko Diarha, accused of having eaten a soul and subjected to her village elders' decree, S. Pierre Yameogo's disturbing exposé of how ancestral customs employ superstition to dictate life in African villages was presented in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, marking the occasion of director Yameogo's first visit to Cannes. Yameogo is known for his committed activism in Burkina Faso, defending essential human and cultural values in his efforts to rouse a continent whose social development is slowed by some of its customs and traditions. Delwende examines the unjust fate awaiting certain women whom the community has designated as "soul eaters." In rural areas, they are blamed for mysterious deaths. As outcasts, these women are doomed to become scapegoats for all the society's ills. As Yameogo stated his intentions at Cannes: "There are people in the capital that still believe in 'soul eaters' today. I wanted to describe through the film that it is important for traditional beliefs to evolve and for Africa to wake up. I wanted to show that some people exploit these beliefs to lie, cheat and abuse others for personal interest. These traditions are corrupted."

Delwende: Lève-toi et Marche clearly aligns with the school of African cinema that believes women are the future of mankind, following closely behind Ousmane Sembene's acclaimed Moolaade and even "unspooling" (as Variety phrased it) in the same Un Certain Regard—Prix de l'espoir festival slot. Following up on his earlier documentary on the "witch shelter" phenomenon of Burkina Faso, Yameogo's feature is named after one such "shelter." Its French subtitle ("Get Up and Walk") refers to both the exiled sojourn of Napoko (Blandine Yameogo), a woman accused of being a soul eater witch and the emancipatory search of her 16-year-old daughter Pougbila (Claire Ilboudo) to rescue her and bring her to justice. One of Delwende's most compelling scenes is Pougbila's walk out of her village, into the city, to find her mother in the "witch shelter". As Catsolulis writes: "In a country where women can be forced to drink a vile 'truth potion' or become outcasts, Pougbila's resolute march is more than just an act of defiance: it's the promise of progress."

In its unflinching portrayal of the sad, nefarious practice of scapegoating and how traditions are manipulated to unjust, sexist ends, Delwende depicts the ritual of the siongho, wherein two virgin males carry what is either a bundled corpse or some kind of wooden "divining rod" simulated to look like a bundled corpse. This is carried around a village in search of a "soul eater" or a "witch" to blame for, what in the film, is a meningitis outbreak. Underscored by Wasis Diop's beautiful soundtrack, Delwende is a heady reminder of how vengeful leaders can subjugate women's bodies to enforce their own patriarchal authority; a caution not so far removed from our own country. As Acquarello writes at Strictly Film School: "In its fabular, affirming, and profoundly humanist approach towards critical self-examination, Delwende favorably evokes the films of Ousmane Sembene and Idrissa Ouedraogo in its incisive social expositions of outmoded customs that contribute to the cultural stagnation of post-colonial Africa."

Cross-published on The Evening Class.

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