Thursday, September 19, 2019
DVR Diary: EMITAI (1971)
World War II wasn't the "good war" everywhere. Far from Europe, in Europe's colonies, what Hitler was up to hardly mattered. In some places the Allies, the good guys of the usual narrative were the oppressors. That's the context of Ousmane Sembene's war picture, which shows the war's impact on the Diola people in French-ruled Senegal. They and their crops are resources for France to draw upon at will. Emitai starts with colonial troops pressing villagers into military service. The young men must listen to a French officer praise them for volunteering and exhort them to revere and obey Marshal Petain, at that moment (Spring 1940) France's last hope against the Nazis. One year later, Petain leads a collaborationist regime, but France's alignment means little to the Diola, who are now required to give up their rice crops to the colonial power. The village elders debate the necessity for revolt and, perhaps more importantly, the will of the gods. Their chief has grown skeptical toward the pantheon -- if not toward their existence, then toward their effectiveness in this modern crisis. Ironically, it's he, mortally wounded in a futile uprising, who receives a vision of the gods. They chide him for his lack of faith, while he reproaches them for their apparent indifference to their worshipers' dire situation. After he dies, the film slows down as the village prepares for the chief's funeral, the remaining elders -- in hiding from the colonial troops -- ponder how to appease the gods and/or the French, while two French officers and their native troops hold the women and children hostage, with rice as the ransom. Sembene's deliberate, novelistic pacing -- he was a novelist before taking up the camera -- immerses the viewer in the life of the embattled village while steadily heating up indignation against the elders' preoccupation with the gods. They balk (rightly) at sacrificing rice to the French, but then one sacrifices a goat to the gods on impulse. The bawling animal has its throat cut and bleeds out before being dumped like so much garbage. Sembene respects Diola culture in the broadest sense but is clearly secular in his sympathies, or at least highly critical toward religion. The elders' folly sometimes nearly overshadows the oppression of the French, who switch sides in the world war, abandoning Petain for de Gaulle, with no change in their treatment of the Diola. But the film ends with a sharp reminder that, whatever their faults, the elders, like their fellow villagers, are essentially villagers of a regime that must have seemed little better to them than any tale of Nazi rule the French might have told them. Unsurprisingly, several years passed before either Senegalese or French people could see Emitai, but films like Sembene's are valuable, not necessarily as correctives to a particular narrative of World War II, but as examples of perspectives from which the moral drama of that conflict is not and never will be central, and the winners of it may never be the good guys.