PRINT November 2008


FICTION NOW SEEMS TO HAVE TRUMPED FACT; farce seems to have supplanted politics. If contemporary artists—from the Otolith Group to Iké Udé and Roshini Kempadoo—routinely obfuscate the lines between documentary and satire, such amalgamations have become no less commonplace in the bizarre media stunts of the United States presidential election. These convergences are not new, of course. Yet their full historical and cultural breadth remains obscure. An oft-overlooked but critical precursor in this vein is the late Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambety, who once showed us startlingly progressive possibilities of merging real and fake. Indeed, Mambety was responsible for what we could call Africa’s first mockumentary: Contras’ City (City of Contrasts, 1969).

Mambety’s film is a tale of cultural misrecognition. A faux narrative of a Senegalese man taking a Frenchwoman on a tour of Dakar, Contras’ City presents a stream of disjunctive characters, mannerisms, and architectural styles, a cinematic landscape in which the French tourist constantly misinterprets what she sees. What is more, instead of debuting to local viewers, the film initially screened to audiences exclusively located in the West. Mambety thus proffered the city of Dakar at a double remove—as a cosmopolitan, heterogeneous space in which notions such as “African” and “French” lose their moorings. This unhinging forms the basis for a pointed satire of both French neocolonialism (the metropole’s continuing economic and political influence over its former colony) as well as the Westernized Senegalese elite and its regressive, oppressive politics. Although it is darkly droll (the film has likewise been called Africa’s first comedy) and at times absurd, Contras’ City also displays a deeply empathetic admiration for the Senegalese “folk” class and its quotidian existence. The director’s dual critique and celebration suggest political and social formations that are not organic wholes but rather violent collisions of disparate constituencies.

Mambety himself was a product of such recombinant times; born in Dakar in 1945 to a Muslim cleric and member of the Lebou tribe, he turned to cinema after his expulsion as an actor from Senegal’s Daniel Sorano National Theater. Unlike his better-known peers in postcolonial African cinema, such as Ousmane Sembène or Souleymane Cissé, Mambety did not study filmmaking in the former Soviet Union, nor did he adopt predominantly realist cinematic codes. Rather, throughout his career (which was cut short by his death in 1998), Mambety probed the porosity of genres and geopolitical positions with zealous efficacy: He made just six films, and Contras’ City was his first.

ENMESHED IN THE COMPLICATED TIES between Senegal and France—and 1960s debates about what a fully modern, postcolonial Africa might look like—Contras’ City opens with a close-up of the clock on the beaux arts City Hall of Dakar. Music reminiscent of the French national anthem plays in the background. The camera zooms out, pans over the tasteful yet somewhat menacing scrollwork of a wrought-iron fence, and ultimately reveals a stately, blindingly white facade. This palimpsest of nationalist sounds and surfaces gives way to stark physical and cultural difference: The French visitor thinks she is looking at Paris, when she is actually looking at the Paris of Africa (as Dakar was called). Her mistaken conflation becomes clear when the classical music falters, sputters, and grinds to a halt—and the camera pans down to show the Senegalese flag flying outside and an African man entering the building. The scene then shifts to a horse-drawn cart pulling up to City Hall. Zooming in, we see Mambety, who stands behind the cart; Inge Hirschitz, the film’s thin, blond, and mod “script girl,” as the credits call her; and a cameraman, who focuses on Hirschitz. As the viewer never actually sees the speaking tourist and tour guide, one is left to identify the disembodied voices with the images of Hirschitz and Mambety—but can never be quite sure of this correlation.

Only twenty-one minutes long, Contras’ City moves rapidly through a series of such culturally hybrid and ambiguous scenes—yet the film places its tour of Dakar in quotation marks, turning a critical and parodic eye on various forms of power (colonial, governmental, economic) as they are manifest in lived experience. The self-reflexive presence of the director, cameraman, and Hirschitz on-screen deftly moves Contras’ City away from the tropes of African realist cinema. Instead, the film shifts toward abstraction, a montage of architectural details and urban scenes that formally registers the social hierarchies, contradictions, and divisions indelibly inscribed in the city’s walls.

Mambety’s “tour” thus toys with ethnographic film and the narcissistic structure of the travelogue (and of travel more generally)—presenting a play upon customs and manners both local and global. But the tour also shows, without irony, the everyday lives of ordinary residents of Dakar. For all the film’s satirical posturing, Mambety’s stance is clearly and unequivocally anticolonial: He highlights the agency and vitality of the nonelite, aligning the film with a politics of struggle associated with and articulated by the Senegalese Left. As the film moves between satire and documentary, then, it weaves between critical distance and loving intimacy. The movement between these poles suggests that the viewer sees not one Dakar but two. The first, depicted through Westernized architecture, is the Dakar of neocolonial power. The second, represented by populated streets and markets, ushers forth the “authentic” city of the folk class. Yet Mambety continually redefines each pole by oscillating between stark visual contrasts and unexpected similitude. As the camera sweeps vertically along the length of colonial buildings and palm trees alike, or tracks horizontally across cityscapes and markets, or homes in on both architectural details and the facial features of everyday people, it makes clear that these two versions of Dakar—culture and nature, ruler and ruled, Europe and Africa—are inextricable from each other.

Simmering beneath these visual agitations are the painfully literal conflicts that transpired immediately prior to the making of Contras’ City: Between May 27 and June 9, 1968, Dakar had exploded in demonstrations and riots. It is estimated that fifty thousand people—one-sixth of the population of the city at the time—were engaged in active struggle against Senegalese president Léopold Sédar Senghor and his administration. By late June, Senghor, fearing the collapse of his government, had reorganized his cabinet and begun the decadelong process of loosening his tight grip on civil liberties in Senegal. Although the faltering Senegalese economy and Senghor’s oppressive regime were two of the primary lightning rods that led to the 1968 riots, these events were also indicative of widespread anti-French sentiment. In the aftermath of the violent protests, both Senghor and the Senegalese Left invoked France as a symbolic weapon to advance their competing agendas. The president, on the one hand, accused the members of the Senegalese Left of “aping” their French counterparts—of being therefore unpatriotic and psychologically bound to their former oppressors. The opposition, on the other hand, insisted that Senghor’s intimate ties to France prevented moves toward any significant Africanization. Contras’ City repeatedly takes up these intricate and contested bonds between the former colonizer and the colonized in terms of the physical profile of Dakar itself. A scene near the film’s opening is particularly telling: Mambety trains his lens on the concrete bunkers of an oil magnate’s gas station, and the narrator drily explains that the tycoon keeps his oil close to his side. This paranoid, presumably French entrepreneur and his bulwark become signposts for entrenched neocolonial tension, making this scenario just the first of many in the film that lampoons the built environment and its carceral and semiotic forms of control.

FROM THE APPEARANCE OF THE FIRST FRENCH BUILDINGS in 1857 in the nascent city of Dakar, the metropole had created an architectural language to suit its imperial mission. When the colonial capital was formally established in 1902, new governmental structures, such as the 1907 Presidential Palace and the 1929 Chamber of Commerce, were modeled on their Parisian counterparts and heralded the ascendance of French power in the region. Other buildings, such as the 1908 Kermel Market and the 1932 Institute of Social Hygiene, were designed to incorporate what the French understood to be the architectural idioms of the region. This stylistic merger articulated both the French policy of assimilation, in vogue before World War I, and association, which became the guiding colonial paradigm thereafter. A polyglot architecture was meant to assert French power by physically inserting an imperial presence in Dakar, while simultaneously claiming to respond and adapt to local customs and taste. Architecture became a means for psychologically controlling and assuaging the colonized. In addition, the French believed (or at least hoped) that such an architectural practice would quell any desire for rebellion on the part of the “natives.”

Like the French, Mambety well understood the relationship between architecture, power, and identity. Although untrained in filmmaking and film history, he took stunning advantage of the transgressive possibilities of the reanimation of architecture via film. Contras’ City deploys architecture as a screen for the projection of both French and African selves, of neocolonialism and its attendant regional collusion. As Mambety himself has said of Dakarois architecture, “We had a Sudanese-style cathedral, a chamber of commerce building looking like a theater, while the theater resembled a block of council flats.”* By visually elaborating Dakar’s cacophony of typologies and styles, Mambety’s mise-en-scène reveals an architecture that is less a direct expression of power than an embodiment of absurdity, mistranslation, and pastiche.

Fittingly, the film’s focus is almost always on the architectural fragment. And the devil is indeed in the details: Sculpted lions, angels, rosettes, and the like function as metaphors for France’s continued presence, the strange integration of colonialism into the city itself. Observing the dramatic flair of the ornaments of the beaux arts Chamber of Commerce, the Senegalese narrator likens its flourishes to “pastry,” wondering if this structure is a theater; the narrator and French tourist then speculate on the Daniel Sorano National Theater, its International Style edifice built for the 1966 First World Festival of Negro Arts. Because of the theater’s crisp modernist lines, the tourist decides that the structure, in fact, looks like “ghetto luxury”—a block of very chic (and very European) apartments. A montage of advertisements for local businesses displaying the slogan “French Taste” follows, after which the tourist again mistakes Dakar for Paris—and the narrator intones, “No, it’s your father, exporting his addiction to steak-frites.” Finally, panning across the city’s Kermel Market, Mambety dwells on its polychrome Moorish horseshoe arches, intricate rosettes, and leonine stone heads. As the camera skims the building’s facade, we hear a frenzied, high-pitched chant of “Rococo, rococo, rocococo, rococo, rococo. . . .” With this trilling mockery of eighteenth-century French decadence and its subsequent Orientalist variants, Mambety suggests the ways in which colonial architecture still reinforces the racialized economies and inequities of Dakar. Each of these scenes casts surface, ornament, and artifice as the primary actors in a cultural masquerade. Architecture is shown to be a series of mutable and miscegenated signs, making impossible any easy notions of a pure Africa, a pure Europe, or what Senghor called “a universal humanism.”

Mambety’s film is therefore also an intense critique of Negritude—Senghor’s concept of a pan-African humanism based, in part, on European anthropological and ethnographic paradigms, Marcus Garvey’s “Return to Africa” movement of the ’20s, the writings of the Harlem Renaissance, and burgeoning African nationalism both on the continent and abroad. Formulated in Paris in 1934 by Senghor, Aimé Césaire, Léon-Gontran Damas, and a group of African and Caribbean students, Negritude took as its goal the affirmation of African cultural heritage in the service of resisting Western domination. Significantly, however, Negritude was still a fundamentally modernist notion, a reaction to and an integration of the tenets of the French avant-garde—and its previous mobilization of primitivism as a form of modernism, its invocation of the “tribal” in the name of the “modern.” Senghor’s notion that precolonial African cultures were inherently socialist, for example, conveniently justified his desire to create a West African socialist state; similarly evoking the modernist project, Senghor also attempted to forge an African culture that fully integrated his notions of “universal humanism,” merging primitivist and exoticized notions of Africa with the demands of postindependence modernity. Tightly controlled and generously funded by the president, the arts—an integral part of the Ministry of Culture, which received a staggering 25 percent of the national budget between 1960 and 1980—were primary tools for the dissemination and codification of Senghor’s ideological man- date. Visual artists, often referred to by the president as his chers enfants, populated their work with timeless African myths, African masks, and cosmic figures in a kind of rural never-never land. (Senghor was also the force behind the creation of art schools in the newly independent nation-state.) In the eyes of many on the Left, like Mambety, the universalism of Negritude was not only neocolonialist but had shockingly little relevance for the majority of Senegalese.

The filmmaker’s critique of Negritude concentrates not only on the symbolic frisson of postcolonial architecture but on the sphere of mass media and identity formation as well. While the camera focuses on the Presidential Palace, a voice imitating Senghor exclaims that Senegalese women will now have complete access to “culture.” As the mock president speaks, the camera moves away from the palace, cutting to a close-up of two Senegalese women, cooing in near ecstasy as they peruse French romance and tabloid magazines. In the next shot, the women walk into Senegal’s Department of Information. Here, the equation of well-to-do Senegalese women with both European kitsch and African bureaucracy calls attention to the farcically intimate relationship between Senghor and the French—as well as the complicated terrain on which postcolonial Senegalese identities are constructed.

Religious identity, too, is both satirized and critically examined to withering effect. At one moment in the film, the French tourist sees a Senegalese man sporting dreadlocks and exclaims, “Oh, a hippie!” Her Senegalese companion corrects her: Not a hippie, this man is a member of the Sufi Mouride brotherhood; he follows Sheikh Amadou Bamba, the brotherhood’s founder. The lesson leads to a visual examination of a call to prayer outside a humble mosque. Despite his riff on the French invocation of horseshoe arches (a primary staple of Moorish architecture that is as foreign to Dakar as its French counterparts are) in the Kermel Market, Mambety affectionately codes Muslims as noncolonial and “African.” Actually, both Islam and Catholicism were imports to Senegal. But in stark contrast to his portrayal of Muslims, Mambety represents Dakarois Catholics as a diverse group of privileged, “Europeanized” Africans who worship alongside the French. Instead of focusing on Catholic worship, the film concentrates on the city’s Sudanic-style “Afro-deco” Catholic Cathedral of African Memory, built in 1929. While the camera scrutinizes the cathedral and the parishioners who gather in front of it after services, the narrator implies that the church is actually part of a French neocolonialist web of psychological and economic interference—full of empty promises of salvation.

Yet when the filmic “tour” moves to African working-class areas of the city, the wry voice-over commentary ceases. Panning through Dakar’s streets and markets, Mambety creates a collective portrait of a cosmopolitan but underdeveloped arena. It is in these scenes that the film moves from satire to an intimate exegesis of the city. Distance melts away; close-ups of individuals and objects take center stage. The abrupt cuts seen in the footage of architecture disappear, and the camera moves more slowly, lingering on a barber cutting hair, a tailor busy at his sewing machine, sunglasses throwing off the midday rays of the sun. This formally patterned montage of everyday detail gains a kind of differential power, precisely through its symmetry with the film’s parodic and fantastic modes.

Whether in the space of the absurd or the didactic, Contras’ City’s political force lies in the imagining of a space that allows for being in the world differently. The film’s alternative constructions of identity and culture suggest a kind of exit strategy from the paralyzing grip of neocolonialism and, likewise, the limits of documentary practice. This imaginary space is enacted in the film’s formal register and in its rejection of social realism as a viable cinematic mode. If Contras’ City is a film about the remaking of African identity and African culture, then it proposes that identity and culture can only be constituted through their conflicts with opposing social formations—emerging not from semblance but from divergence. In Mambety’s hands, Contras’ City does not simply mock or protest, but rather performs a space-clearing gesture, through which dreams of other colors and other forms may yet arise.

Steven Nelson is associate professor of art history at the University of California, Los Angeles.

*Djibril Diop Mambety, quoted in N. Frank Ukadike, “The Hyena’s Last Laugh: A Conversation with Djibril Diop Mambety,” Transition 78 (1998): 136–153; 136.