The first-ever film to be shot in an African language, Sembene’s landmark sophomore feature is a cultural experience to behold, and a gently comic satire about the bureaucratic hurdles a debt-ridden man has to undergo to cash in his money order.
Cast: Makhouredia Gueye, Ynousse N’Diaye, Isseu Niang, Mustapha Ture, Farba Sarr
Plot: Ibrahima is without work and has a large family to support. One day, he receives a money order from his nephew in Paris. However, when he goes to cash the cheque, he is asked for his identity card, which he does not have. Thus, an absurd foray into the corrupt world of Senegalese bureaucracy begins.
Subject Matter: Moderate – Bureaucracy; Debt; Poverty
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
Following his breakthrough first feature, Black Girl (1966), African filmmaking giant Ousmane Sembene shot the first-ever film entirely in an African language—in this case, Wolof—as he adapted his own short story, “The Money Order”, for the big screen.
Dabbling in literature for years, he decided to switch to cinema to wake his people from the slumber of neocolonialism and the threat of the bourgeoisie who largely control administrative and financial processes and entities, leaving the poor in the same rotting cycle of poverty.
Mandabi, newly restored and made accessible by the Criterion Collection, is a cultural experience to behold—the sights and sounds of Dakar fill up the screen, and so are the rich, vibrant colours of the clothes that the people wear.
We get acquainted with Dieng, a devout Muslim with two wives and seven children, who receives a money order from his nephew (working in Paris as a street sweeper).
“If you help nine poor people, you’ll become the tenth.”
Hoping to cash out the money to clear existing credit and debt, he becomes bogged down by an endless series of bureaucratic hurdles that leaves him further away from his goal.
While an explicit allegory of the exploitation and pain that the poor have to endure, Sembene imbues his work with a gently comic slant to the extent that its satirical qualities allow us to appreciate the absurdity of the situation.
In this regard, it doesn’t quite contain the severe harshness of more typical social realist films—any bleakness in tone is often tempered by its vital cultural aspects, which should pique the curiosity of viewers who are far removed from this context.
For the Senegalese who couldn’t read or write, and who relied entirely on the oral tradition, Mandabi was made for them, and that was precisely what Sembene had set out to do for the next few decades as he sought to “return African stories to the Africans”.