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Moussa Sène Absa and the Trilogy that Redefines African Femininity in Film

Moussa Sène Absa and the Trilogy that Redefines African Femininity in Film

Moussa Sène Absa - Afrocritik

In all three films, Absa, through his complex, multidimensional female characters that defy stereotypes, critiques the prevalent prejudices of patriarchal systems in African societies, challenging the notion that women are merely victims or passive participants in them.

By Helena Olori

There are only a few African filmmakers who have succinctly captured the depth and multiplicity of African women through the characters of their films. The veteran Senegalese filmmaker, Moussa Sène Absa, is one of these handful; his trilogy on women’s destinies is a testament to that. 

Over the years, perhaps since the inception of African cinema itself, there have been concerns about the paucity of well-rounded female characters in African films, and the stereotyped narratives told of women in leading roles, which often mirror the patriarchal systems ingrained in African communities. From the dutiful wife to the self-sacrificing mother, or the helpless damsel in distress, African women in films have often been boxed into narrowly defined roles — characters that not only reinforce gender biases and societal expectations but also limit the potential for authentic and empowering depiction of African women as nuanced individuals on screen. The majority of these stories, mostly written by men, are one-dimensional, simplistic representations bereft of the true yearnings, aspirations, and complexities of African women. 

This is not to say all stories written by men perpetuate these stereotypes. Interestingly, some of the most perceptive stories that incisively scrutinise patriarchal systems in Africa are written by men. From Senegalese pioneer filmmaker, Ousmane Sembène, whose 1975 classic novel-adapted film, Xala, satirically critiques patriarchal traditions and exposes the absurdity and consequences of male-dominated power structures, to Nigerian filmmaker, CJ Obasi’s contemporary and critically acclaimed Mami Wata, which vividly captures the tension between matriarchy, tradition and modernity within the context of indigenous mythology and societal conflict. African filmmakers have, in a remarkable and less male-centric approach, explored the complexities of gender dynamics, challenging societal norms through the female characters in their stories. 

Moussa Sène Absa’s trilogy — comprising Tableau Ferraille (1995), Madame Brouette (2002), and Xalé (2022), adds to the catalogue of well-written femicentric stories. Inspired by the resilient women who have played pivotal roles in shaping his perspective, Absa has proven that men can tell women stories. Sharing with Afrocritik in an exclusive interview shortly after last year’s African Movie Academy Awards, he notes, “I feel more connected with women’s stories, not only for their beauty and fragility but also for what they bear, what they bring to society. This is something we don’t acknowledge often and it’s very important for me to give tribute to these women, especially the women in Africa”.

Moussa Sène Absa - Afrocritik
Moussa Sène Absa

This summarises the basis of his storytelling and his trilogy on women’s destinies. Born in the seaside town of Tableau Ferraille near the capital city of Dakar, Absa was raised by a “multitude of maternal figures”, including his mother and neighbours. It is the absence of a daughter in his family which forged the bond with his mother and her friends and ultimately became the cornerstone of his storytelling. “I was the ‘daughter’ of my mum and was everywhere with her. Maybe they thought that I was a little girl because I was always in the kitchen with her doing everything together”, he shared.

The presence of these strong and resilient women in his life, who often willingly and carefreely confided in him or shared their life experiences with him, became the foundation of his storytelling and the very thing that set him apart — his ability to create authentic, multidimensional characters that truly reflect the complexities of African womanhood. It is also why he frowns at the stereotypical portrayal of women. 

Absa with his Aunt
Absa with his aunt | Instagram: @moussa.absa

In the first film of his trilogy, Tableau Ferraille, Absa chronicles the event of a young man’s life, Daam, who returns to his Senegalese fishing village after studying political science in Europe. He marries Gagnesiri, gracefully portrayed by Ndèye Fatou Ndaw, a devoted wife unable to have children. To further his political career, Daam marries Kine (Ndèye Bineta Diop), who bears him a child but prioritises her ambitions over motherhood. As Daam rises politically, Kine’s greed leads her to betray him to a corrupt businessman, causing Daam’s downfall. Despite Gagnesiri’s loyalty, Daam’s shame leads to a tragic end. 

Tableau ferraille (1997) - IMDb
Tableau ferraille (1997) | IMDb

Absa’s direction gives us two genuinely different female characters mirroring African women in the face of patriarchy. While Gagnesiri embodies the expectedly supportive, selfless, resilient wife, Kine’s character challenges these norms, prioritising personal ambition over the conventions tied to marriage and motherhood.

In Madame Brouette, a Silver Bear winner at the 2003 Berlinale, Absa continues his exploration.  This time, we see a resilient divorced mother, Mati, who despite hardship, prefers to work independently towards her dream of owning a diner, rather than engage romantically with the numerous men who sought her attention. Mati’s character, brought to life by a stellar performance by the award-winning actress, Rokhaya Niang, refreshes our minds on the African women striving for dignity and self-sufficiency. Providing insights into his rationale, he said, “I don’t know weak women in my life. All the women I’ve met or related to are strong, very resilient women fighting for their lives, taking care of the household; and at the same time, standing in the society as a figure of power”. Madame Brouette is an affirmation of his belief that the many single mothers and divorced women, scorned and faced with societal prejudices, are more complex and multifaceted than commonly perceived. These women are first humans with agency and depth, whose individuality should not be defined solely by their relationships with men or traditional gender norms. 

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Stills from Madame BrouetteX (Twitter)
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Berlinale archives
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AfroDB.com

Absa’s third film of the trilogy and most recent offering, Xalé, takes a different turn. But the story moves along with the same drive, exploring the complexities of the life of an African girl child/woman in navigating personal aspirations, familial obligations and societal expectations.  Set in Dakar, the film, told in a non-linear approach, follows the life of 15-year-old Awa (Nguissaly Barry), who is enjoying her teenage years with her twin brother Adama whose dream is to travel to Europe. However, things go south when their aunt and uncle, Fatou and Atoumane, marry to honour the grandmother’s death wish. Unable to deal with his unconsummated marriage, Atoumane forces himself on Awa – a horrific act that alters life as Awa knows it. In spite of this, she goes on to create a life she is proud of, facing the future with unyielding freedom.

Xalé has been received with much critical acclaim. In one review, film critic and journalist, Tambay Obenson noted, “Xalé also resonates with Mati Diop’s Atlantics (2019) with which it shares similar themes and aesthetics, exploring the issues of migration and its impact on Senegalese society and families, addressing the oppression and violence that women face within patriarchal societies, and incorporating elements of fantasy and revenge in their narratives”. Both Atlantics and Xalé immerse viewers in the emotional coming-of-age experiences of young Senegalese girls in rural villages, drawn in by the beauty of the coastal scenery skillfully shot by Claire Mathon and Amath Niane, respectively.

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Xalé

 

In all three films, Absa, through his complex, multidimensional female characters that defy stereotypes, critiques the prevalent prejudices of patriarchal systems in African societies, challenging the notion that women are merely victims or passive participants in them.

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It’s been months since Absa’s melodrama, Xalé, co-written with Pierre Magny and Ben Diogaye Bene, outshone its peers at the 19th Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA), clinching the most coveted title of “Overall Best Film” as well as awards for Best Achievement in Costume Design, Best Achievement in Screenplay, and Best Actress in a Supporting Role. But the multi-talented and well-travelled filmmaking veteran is still ecstatic about the recognition. 

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He had been on a work trip to Paris even at the time of our interview — which had taken a long time to come to fruition — hence his absence at the live event held at the Sheraton Hotels, Lagos. “It was a very nice moment for me to be celebrated in the AMAA Awards. After almost 35 years of being a filmmaker, I have been recognised by my peers and also celebrated at this prestigious award”, he said with a palpable level of energy, you’d think this is the only award the film has clinched. He is obviously a bubbling soul, a personality you can feel in his films. As succinctly described by the American magazine, Variety, in their review of Tableau Ferraille “Director Moussa Sene Absa’s light often humorous approach, plus vibrant production values and a soundtrack to delight African music lovers, makes it a likely hit”. 

Before the recognition earned at the AMAA, Xalé was Senegal’s official entry for the 95th Oscars, a no small feat he acknowledges. It was the first time in a long while an entirely local crew achieved this kind of recognition, affirming the quality of local filmmaking in Senegal. As Absa puts it, it is the way to go. In the same year as its Oscar entry, the film had its world premiere at the London Film Festival and was later screened at the Adelaide Film Festival and the Mill Valley Film Festival for its US debut. It was also the opening film at the 5th edition of the Joburg Film Festival, among several other notable achievements. 

All three films have been critically acclaimed. Tableau Ferraille made the Official Selection at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Official Selection at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and was also the FESPACO Best Cinematography Prize winner in 1997. Madame Brouette was a  Golden Bear nominee for Best Picture and Silver Bear winner for Best Film Music at the 53rd  Berlin International Film Festival in 2003. Collectively, the trilogy has been screened in Oslo and France. 

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As resounding as the acclaim the films have garnered, it is the feedback and reactions from viewers, especially women who connected with the themes that he cherishes the most. “My best experience was in New York during the New York African Film Festival where Xalé was screened at the Lincoln Centre”, he recounts. After the screening, a very elderly woman approached him and embraced him for about five minutes, silently shedding tears. This emotional moment deeply affected Absa and he too, started to cry. “I think this is the most beautiful thing that ever happened to me in my career. My trilogy about women’s destinies is for me the essence of my life. I think it important to portray women in a positive sense, in their grandeur and capacity as bearers of change”.

He hopes that the profound impact of these stories continues beyond entertainment as they continue to be screened globally, contributing to building a new social order where women are viewed in a new light characterised by equity and equality.

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As much as the filmmaker creates works that resonate,  Absa’s unique infusion of music into his films also makes him stand out. This, and most importantly, his ability to retain the authenticity and cultural relativity of his stories while appealing to a global audience. His films are reminiscent of his childhood experiences. As a young boy, he was always fascinated by cinema; his earliest encounter was when he traded his jacket with a groundnut seller to get some 100 CFA franc to buy an open-air theatre ticket. 

Growing up in his small hometown back in the early 60s meant he was part of the generation that witnessed the rise of African cinema — howbeit in its cruddiest form — the era of the legendary father of African cinema, Ousmane Sembène, and the pioneering minds that saw to the establishment of FESPACO. Cinema in this era, for many African countries, were essentially outdoor screenings of films typically projected using 16mm film projectors mounted on a platform to elevate them for better visibility, and then projected onto a large white sheet/cloth hung between poles or trees. They provided a communal space for people to gather and enjoy films together. It was these experiences that sparked Absa’s curiosity and imagination. “I thought that the characters were in the boxes and at the end of the show, they would then come out of the boxes”, he recounts with a sense of amusement, as he reflects on how this curiosity shaped his life into a boy who can dream, fueling his creativity and inspiring him to write poetry and stories by the age of 15. 

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A seaside in Tableau Ferraille, Absa’s hometown

Cinema became his gateway to explore the world and dream beyond the confines of his village, with Bollywood films, particularly those of the legendary actress, Hema Malini, being his favourites. He was mostly drawn to the music, dance, and humour in these films. His fondness for the 1970 Abhinetri, featuring the iconic Malini, was so great that he watched it repeatedly – more than 35 times. Years later, when he had the opportunity to meet her in person, he said to her, “You cannot imagine how your films have shaped my life”.

I share his sentiment. The adoption of melodrama as a style in his filmmaking has its roots in his early obsession with Bollywood. Absa’s films are known for their powerful musical scores, which he considers an integral part of the narrative. Music, for him, is a character that enhances the storytelling and conveys the essence of African life. He believes that African filmmakers should use music authentically to create a distinct cinematic experience. For instance, South Africa is one of the biggest film industries in Africa with thousands of homegrown and international coproductions churned out annually, yet one will hardly find a film using South African local music properly in its true cultural sense, and this greatly worries this music-loving-director. Perhaps, this is why Xalé holds a special place in his heart. Not only was it shot with an entirely local crew — a first time for him — but it was also filmed in Tableau Ferraille, his birthplace, which allowed him to explore new dimensions of storytelling. 

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Absa on a film set

Not many filmmakers wear the multiple hats of director-producer-writer, but as a veteran filmmaker and artist, Absa’s creative process is driven by his passion for storytelling and exploration, and multitasking gives him that freedom to own his stories. “I think this is the first time that I was so free to do what I want”, he shares. For Absa, filmmaking is about freedom and authenticity, and owning one’s story and staying true to cultural roots triumphs. “Young African filmmakers must trace their roots in folklore and create original stories that reflect their culture before embracing global influences”, he advises. “As a filmmaker, you have to create your own unique, original stories rather than copying Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese or Moussa Sene Absa. Once you have done this body of work, and understand the stories that need to be told, you’ll be able to stand out amidst all this cacophony. Be yourself”, he admonishes.

As a veteran with over three decades of work in the industry, Absa’s impact on African cinema is undeniable. And so, his advice for the next generation of African filmmakers is invaluable. While the African film industry is expanding rapidly, with Western streaming service providers becoming key financiers of local projects, there is a risk of losing unique African identities in the pursuit of international appeal if we embrace Western influence too heavily or outrightly copy their perspectives. This, he believes, can erode the gains of the previous generations of African filmmakers if young African filmmakers choose “international acclaim” over authenticity. 

Absa is a firm advocate for an African streaming platform dedicated to African stories — documentaries, folktales, and fiction. As he shares further, there’s also a need for investors to promote stories curated by Africans for Africans, “I also think that we need business moguls, art lovers, billionaires, who will invest in the industry to afford us a streaming platform that people here in Popenguine, Senegal, or Botswana or Mali to see films from other African countries. Cinema is the mirror of a society and to foster understanding among African nations, you have to look at the films that have been made there”. 

Barely two months after he shared this with me, Absa’s vision of an African streaming platform dedicated to African stories has now materialised in Showmax’s relaunch, reaching over 40 African markets. However, more of these initiatives are needed to solidify this progress and offer African viewers even more options. The market is very big and surely, can accommodate healthy competition if there are more indigenous, home-grown streamers.

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As creatives are wont to do, Absa reflects on his expansive career which began when he was 35.  He considers what he would do differently if he could start over, especially in these modern times and with more efficient filming equipment. “If I could go back in time and start over, I would make more films. I will create my own gang. To me, cinema is essentially a story of collaboration, your own team, collectively bringing films to fruition”. His emphasis on the importance of collaboration and having a dedicated team to handle various aspects of filmmaking — from writing scripts to securing funds and distribution —  underscores the essential role a strong team plays in a film’s success. It also speaks to the need for more cross-border collaborations in film productions, especially with platforms like Showmax readily providing the African audience access to more Pan-African films, the potential for co-productions has never been greater.

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A younger Absa | Instagram: @moussa.absa

As he looks to the future, Absa is working on several legacy projects that he believes must be told, such as a story about Battling Siki, the Senegalese boxer killed in New York. But currently, The Lady of Midnight is among his upcoming works. “I want to shoot this year and I’m looking for partners too”, he told me.  As the name implies, is this also another femme-centric film? We anticipate.

Helena Olori is a talented multimedia journalist, she enjoys staying abreast with the latest happenings in the film industry and what makes the movie business tick. Connect with her on Instagram @heleena_olori or helena.olori@afrocritik.com

 

 

 

 

 

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