The Money Order: A classic of west African cinema

Ousmane Sembène’s 1968 film as exciting and politically charged as ever

The Money Order (Mandabi), Ousmane Sembène’s 1968 film.

Film Title: The Money Order (Mandabi)

Director: Ousmane Sembène

Starring: Makhouredia Gueye, Ynousse N'Diaye, Isseu Niang, Mustapha Ture, Farba Sarr, Serigne N'Diayes, Thérèse Bas, Mouss Diouf, Christoph Colomb

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 92 min

Fri, Jun 18, 2021, 05:00

   

Ibrahim (Makhourédia Gueye), an unemployed Senegalese father of seven and husband of two, receives a money order for 25,000 francs (¤50) from Paris, where his nephew works as a street sweeper. This unexpected windfall brings begging neighbours, eager creditors and nothing but trouble. The post office demands proof of identity from Ibrahim, sending our increasingly thwarted hero on an odyssey through petty scams, bureaucratic indifference, and neocolonial corruption. (A slick local player tellingly drives a Citroën 2CV.)

Martin Scorsese, who has proved as important an archivist as he is a filmmaker, has been instrumental in restoring the work of Ousmane Sembène, the great Senegalese master often characterised as “the father of African cinema”. This 4K restoration of Sembène’s magnificent 1968 second feature premiered in 2019 and this month reaches Irish cinemas and digital platforms for the first time.

If you’ve always wanted an education in west African cinema, Mandabi is a great place to start. The first film made in the Wolof language was an act of defiance in a country that spoke Wolof or Arabic but where French remained the official language. It shares DNA with such focused straight-shooting quests as Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, in which a beleaguered homicide detective spends several frantic days tracking down his pickpocketed gun.

Before he was a filmmaker, Sembène – who appears in Mandabi seated under a picture of Che Guevara – worked as a fisherman, carpenter, mechanic, dock worker, union organiser, bestselling novelist, and served as a sharpshooter in the French colonial army during the second World War. A committed Marxist, his distaste for capitalist avarice and religious hypocrisy is evident. The mistreatment of women, especially Ibrahim’s bafflingly loyal wives, is a recurring, powerful theme.

Mandabi’s playful grammar and arresting camerawork are as exciting and politically charged as anything that emerged from the contemporaneous Nouvelle Vague. The film’s vibrancy and apparent determination to capture real life, ensure it has aged more gracefully than most 1968 wows. The central theme of African inequality, moreover, remains depressingly relevant.