From Johnny Weismuller's Tarzan to Disney's, from Out of Africa to this summer's I Dreamed of Africa, Hollywood has been holding a mirror up to the Dark Continent, but the mirror has mostly reflected Hollywood's own blue-eyed view of the world. Meanwhile, homemade African films, which rose out of the ashes of European colonialism, have had trouble crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Few are available on video, and only a handful have been commercially distributed. Let's hear it, then, for the UW's African Studies program, which is sponsoring a series of African films that will be shown on four consecutive Thursday nights beginning June 22. (All the screenings are at 4070 Vilas Hall and start at 7 p.m.) For those of you who have dreamed of Africa without wanting to own and run the place, here's the next-best thing to being there. The series opens with Tableau Ferraille, by Senegalese director Moussa Sene Absa. Roughly translated as "scrap heap," the film's title refers to the low-rent town where the story is set. It happens to be Absa's hometown, and like the rest of Africa it seems poised between the past and the future, tradition and modernity. Or should I say African tradition and European modernity? Out of the people and places he knows best, Absa has fashioned a folktale/political allegory about the messy challenges left behind by the colonial powers. Afropop singer Ismaël Lô stars as Daam, an idealistic rising politician who becomes entangled in petty corruption. An essentially nice guy, Daam is no match for the forces arrayed against him, and that includes the second of his two wives, Kiné, who has a bad case of Western greed.
Daam's first wife, Gagnesiri, is a statuesque beauty who may stand for both Africa's past and its conscience. Absa structures the film as Gagnesiri's rueful reminiscences of her husband's rise and fall, and the flashbacks are a little hard to sort out at first, but the looking-back strategy succeeds in casting a pall over the movie. And so does Ndèye Fatou Ndaw's quietly regal performance as Gagnesiri. I love the moment when Daam, having just seen Gagnesiri for the first time, walks up to her and says, "My name's Daam. I want to marry you." His exuberant directness will only gradually transform from a kind of innocence to a kind of naivete to a kind of guilt. This is not the guy we should be handing our future over to, Absa seems to be saying, or the scrap heap will someday be piled higher than ever.