Criterion Prediction #178: Guelwaar, by Alexander Miller
Director: Ousmane Sembene
Cast: Abou Camara, Mame Ndoumbé Diop, Thierno Ndiaye Doss, Myriam Niang
Synopsis: Controversy arises in a Senegalese settlement when Guelwaar, a well-known, outspoken activist of the Catholic faith is killed under suspicious circumstances. Matters are only exacerbated when his body goes missing before the funeral services. However, things reach a boiling point when the people suspect the Christian Guelwaar was buried in a Muslim cemetery, creating a political and religious rift the village community.
Critique: Sembene’s cinema is candid, rightfully unapologetic toward imperial colonialism and French intervention, just as much as he is critical of African tribalism and superstitions. In the conversation of politically minded filmmakers, there’s an impression of inherent rabble-rousery. The overzealous tendencies that are a detriment to the more Anglo/Euro sensibilities (Stone, Gavras, Loach) yield effective but deliberate, sometimes heavy-handed material. Sembene’s work, from the jumping off point with Borom Sarret and Black Girl, trumpets the arrival of an inspired and brazen voice unabashedly condemning of French intervention operating without an ounce of subtlety. With Sembene, his anger is palatable, justified, even broad; his aesthetic delivery is swift, punctuated and unadorned, free of protracted didacticism.
With Guelwaar, Sembene finds a localized story, a story that, from a distance, seems small. A body goes missing. Maybe he’s in the wrong cemetery. We’re not sure if it’s a murder. There are some political implications and issues regarding religion. And yet the film isn’t a whodunit. Tt flirts with being a political thriller but, while it’s a thrilling experience, Guelwaar shirks the conventions of that genre to boot. As a matter of fact, it eschews any familiar dramatic framework, which is why this unconventional (to evoke a cliche) slice of life is so subtly ingratiating; Sembene’s unemphatic neo-realist approach feels informed by traditional griot storytelling. In exploring the plight that follows the displacement of the titular Guelwaar’s body, Sembene unfurls a plethora of contrasting elements.
Much of the plot is revealed through conversations and flashbacks. Aaside from being a dead Catholic, we don’t know much about the main character but there’s a deliberately paced non-linear narrative that escalates in potency with each ascending revelation. By the midsection of the film, we’re acquainted with both the Muslim and Christian sides/representatives of the village, the police chief, Guelwaar’s widow and a few of his children. With each introduction, we learn more about the formerly elusive man and his fiery influence that was garnering more attention. What begins as a simple, misleadingly banal curio evolves into a compelling account that simultaneously explores the lingering effects of colonialism, cultural segregation, religious tensions, provincial discrimination, gender grading, ritualism and, of course, political discord. But is Guelwaar a fist pounding indictment film? Therein lies the cunning power of Sembene’s direction. His ability to observe and critique seamlessly blend into a singular form of social commentary that emits strength and resolve but never dissolves into callow condemnation.
Regardless, Guelwaar is a later effort from the prolific filmmaker. The movies became more structured but his determination and shrewd acumen never paled.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: Luckily, Black Girl was inaugurated into The Criterion Collection a few years ago and last year this column chose Sembene’s Xala as another one of the director’s works to get the Criterion treatment. The later is rumored to be owned by Janus films. While streaming on the defunct Filmstruck, both Xala and Guelwaar opened with the Criterion and Janus Films logo. There are rumors that five of Sembene’s films will grace the collection. I wonder what they could be?