A cinema of wax and gold

by Teshome H. Gabriel

from Jump Cut, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 31-33
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1982, 2005

This essay originally appeared in Presence Africaine No. 116, in French.

Ousmane Sembene possesses the vision of a committed cineaste of social change. All his films, self-critical ones, offer constructs to interpret the cultural jumble that covers Africa. In the Sembenian universe, film depicts not simply individuals bereft of context, caught between the traditional and the modern or the foreign and domestic, but shows the collision of two mutually exclusive symbol-systems, which serve their own set of icons and are equally arbitrary and mutually worthless to each other.

Whereas in EMITAI and CEDDO, two historical films set in rural Africa, Sembene deals with Africans' isolation in a colonial environment, in BAROM SARRET, TUAW, BLACK GIRL and MANDABI he treats individuals' alienation as they live between two cultures in contemporary Africa.(1) In XALA (pronounced "halla") Sembene portrays a man seemingly successful in both worlds and both systems. Here, unlike in the other films, the African has at last gained access to and mastered both value systems, but his very stance leaves him vulnerable.

The film centers on El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye (El Hadji is a title meaning "pilgrim" and in Islam it refers to one who has been to Mecca and has come back holy). He is the prototype of the emerging African bourgeoisie, who destroy the continent, politically and economically in the name of "African Socialism" and "Progress." To Sembene, this new class of nouveau riche in Africa presents a much more sinister force than the openly exploitative European colonialists. Formerly the colonialists could be readily identified by race, language, dress, custom, manner of worship, etc. In contrast, the new enemy insidiously shares all the Africans' outward aspects and cultural attributes and has assumed his inimical role through a conscious political choice.

As the film opens, we note the transfer of power taking place in an unnamed African country. To "spice-up" the independence celebration, El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye, a board member in a "Chamber of Commerce," announces his third marriage to the 19-year-old N'Goné, the same age as his daughter, Rama. Unfortunately, the weight of El Hadji's fifty years and his psychological make-up prevent him from consummating the marriage. El Hadji believes himself hexed — someone, an enemy, has put the spell of "xala," impotence, upon him. He suspects his two wives and even a colleague. His increasing anxiety and desperation as he seeks to break the spell of xala sets the film's pace. El Hadji goes from one marabout to another, from wife to wife, searching for the cause and cure of his lost virility. His wallet grows lighter as he must pay for each visitation. He becomes so obsessed with regaining his potency that he neglects his work as a member of the "Chamber of Commerce." Quite literally he becomes impotent not only in the bedroom, but also in the boardroom.

XALA is on one level a comedy. El Hadji's desire to regain his "manhood" (as he defines it) is presented in an extremely humorous way. The film illustrates a simple moral tale of a man who loses everything as a result of living beyond his age and means. On another level, however, the film offers a poignant satire about Africa's neo-colonial leaders.


The film language of XALA, I believe, can be constructed on the model of an African poetic form called "sem-enna-worq" which literally means "wax and gold."(2) The term refers to the "lost wax" process in which a goldsmith creates a wax form, casts a clay mold around it, then drains out the wax and pours in molten gold to form the valued object. Applied to poetics, the concept acknowledges two levels of interpretation, distinct in theory and representation. Such poetic form aims to attain maximum ideas with minimum words. "Wax" refers to the most obvious and superficial meaning. But the "gold" embedded in the artwork offers the "true" meaning, which may be inaccessible unless one understands the nuances of folk culture.

In the novel Xala, the structural key that explains the story's surface political meaning links a sexual metaphor with a sociological message.(3) In the film XALA to unearth the "gold," we must go beyond the manifest content and beyond the sexual metaphor. To restore the "gold" in its purity in XALA means, therefore, to perform an autopsy to remove the "wax," the comedy format, in order to gain access to the text's ideology.

How does Sembene, the filmmaker, help us discover the ideological underpinnings, which lie mute within the comedic form? What arrays of cultural codes and filmic modes does he employ to mark the film's immanent meaning? His search for African cinema, I believe, comes in his use of these two modes of discourse. What follows, therefore, is a two-pronged study and investigation of XALA. The first section deals with the cultural fabrics of the film and the second section with the film style.


Many symbols in the film expose the manipulators of the new social order — the westernized Africans who like chameleons are ready to change their appearance to protect their selfish interests. At the film's beginning the board members in the "Chamber of Commerce" (euphemism for government) wear native dress as they acknowledge their assumption of political/ economic power. They then change into well cut, European, three-piece suits once they reach the boardroom's sanctity. Similarly, the secretary of El Hadji's warehouse wears a traditional African dress while outside in the streets, but once in the office she takes off this outer layer to reveal a European dress underneath.

El Hadji's two wives represent the duality that has become Africa. The first wife, Adja Awa Astou (Adja refers to a female pilgrim), is a woman with dignity and wears the traditional African dress. She understands the institution of polygamy, which in her wisdom and womanhood she knows she cannot change. She accepts the traditional role of service to her husband without undue concern for money and success. The second wife, Oumi N'Doye, never talks to El Hadji except about sex and money. She, unlike Awa, who always speaks Wolof, almost always addresses El Hadji and her children in French. She likes western dress and likes to appear sexy. She stands as a symbolic figure of neo-colonial destruction.

The choice of language spoken throughout the film is also symbolic in the way it is used. The use of French in XALA clearly sets those acculturated to European ways apart from the masses who speak Wolof and are seen as the preservers of indigenous culture. El Hadji speaks French throughout to the disgust of his progressive daughter Rama:

El Hadji: (angrily) Rama, why do you answer in Wolof when I speak to you in French!?

Rama: (in Wolof) Father, have a good day.(4)

Acting as her father's conscience, questioning his motives and behavior, not intimidated by him, Rama also represents the omni-present and omniscient voice behind the film. As the hope of liberated Africa, all progressive statements in the film are associated with her.

El Hadji (angrily) Who are "dirty dogs," Rama?

Rama: Men!

El Hadji: Why are they "dirty dogs"?

Rama: Every polygamous man is a liar!

El Hadji: (astounded but firmly) Say that again?!

Rama: Every polygamous man is a liar.

In the special meeting of the board called to determine the advisability of retaining El Hadji in the administration, El Hadji is summoned to answer for misuse of funds and for writing bad checks. Here, however, he uses the same words of his daughter Rama against his adversaries. Furthermore, his request to speak in Wolof rather than French indicates a reversal in his moral character:

Board Member: El Hadji, the colonial period is finished. We govern the country. You collaborate with the government, Big Mouth!

El Hadji: President, I will speak in Wolof.

Board Member: President, point of order! In French, old boy. The official language is French.

President: Calm down, act civilized. El Hadji, you may speak but in French. Even the insults in the purest tradition of Francophonic.

El Hadji: Each one of us is a "dirty dog." I repeat, "dirty dogs," probably worse than I. We are crabs in a single basket. We have all given bad checks …

The entire spectrum of symbols used in the film reminds us of Africa-in-otherness flirting with Africa-rooted-in-its-own. All the cited cultural codes serve as open symbols whose meaning is quite literal, i.e., Africa stripped off her cultural identity. The film also explicitly criticizes those who command political and economic power. It critiques their myopic vision of independence and their confused mixing of their class interests with those of African liberation.


Throughout the film, there is a game of opposition between the nouveau riche and the people — those who speak French and those who do not — those assimilated by the system and those who are its rejects. These two groups share a common heritage and a form of interdependency. Their paths, however, differ in one crucial area — wealth.

Sembene wastes no time in making a dialectical logic of the two classes' intersection. A band of crippled beggars make us uneasy, but as we follow the lives of the affluent, it is the bourgeoisie's class nature that dominates.(5) The beggars are often seen but, except for the theme music that comments on their situation, they are not heard, so they remind us of harsh realities in urban Africa mutely.

The film's use of mass beggars offers a real picture of urban Africa. Sembene depicts the less fortunate as victims of the bourgeoisie, who deprive them of basic needs and view them with utter contempt. The beggars do not have a way to redress wrongs done to them. In their despair, therefore, after El Hadji has been stripped of his wealth and his second and third wife have deserted him, they confront him in Awa's villa. (Since Awa represents traditional Africa, El Hadji's return to her symbolizes the exile's complete return to his roots.) Seated like a tribal jury, this band tells El Hadji that they alone can cure his impotence.

El Hadji: (as he emerges from his bedroom in pajamas) What is this, "robbery"?!

Gogul, the blind man: Robbery, no, "Vengeance!!" Our story goes back a long time ago, before your first marriage with this lady. What I have become is your fault. You appropriated our inheritance. You falsified our names and we were expropriated. I was thrown in prison. I am of the Beye family. Now I will get my revenge. I arranged your xala....If you want to be a man, undress nude in front of everyone. We will spit on you.

Again, it is the concern for self which motivates El Hadji to submit himself to this debasement and revenge by the beggars, whom he had once called human rubbish." The symbolic class implications are enormous.

Sembene does not use stereotypes such as depicting the exploiter as ridiculously evil and the exploited as simply heroic. In XALA we feel empathy for both El Hadji and the beggars. Sembene warns the emerging bourgeoisie not to lose sight of its own trauma and inevitable fall from power. At the same time, the filmmaker clearly shows a difference between human nature and the corrupting influence of imposed systems and cultures on Africa.

"Xala," in fact, indicates a "temporary sexual impotence"; "temporary" suggests that the bourgeois era will end one day. It also implies that the new bourgeoisie, when reeducated and having undergone proletarianization, will become active and valuable cadres when the dominated class seizes power. Just as the oppressed offer a cure for El Hadji's xala, therefore, so too they do for Africa.

What has given most viewers of XALA an uncertain feeling of the film's ending is the ritual of spitting on El Hadji. The scene challenges spectators to forget their viewing habits, to fight conventional codes and to attend to an experience — a new code. The spitting seems like a vomiting of bile — a symbolic social act. Its treatment in film language makes it a powerful "trope" of cinematic rhetoric to connote the bourgeoisie's spiritual deterioration and material decadence, and the common people's expression of anger against that class. Furthermore, the spitting on El Hadji helps reincorporate him into the people's fold. In other words, the ritual becomes a folk method of purgation, which makes El Hadji a literal incarnation of all members of the class or group that spit on him and consequently reintegrates him into folk society.


If we accept the notion that artistic choice also connotes ideological choice, we must begin to investigate the ideological weight carried by a film's formal elements. Spectator involvement in XALA does not come, I contend, from the plot and story structure alone but also from the execution of some basic cinematic elements such as editing, composition, camera positioning and movement.

Sembene acts effectively in XALA in his editing strategy and composition within the frame. An excellent instance of his editing comes in the sequence of the wedding reception, an event documenting the foibles of the emerging bourgeoisie. Two men, a minister and a deputy, meet at a doorway:

Deputy: Mr. Minister, after you.

Minister: No, Mr. Deputy, after you.

Deputy: No, Minister, you are the government representative.

Minister: But you represent the people.

Deputy: I will wait.

Minister and Deputy: Let us wait.

They remain erect by the door. In the next shot we see the bride's mother and aunt cutting up the meat, followed by a shot of the wedding cake where everyone is waiting for a share. Here are two government officials splitting the nation into halves by claiming they represent either "the people" or "the government." They gut Africa as if it were a piece of meat where people assemble to get their share.

In terms of composition, there are two examples in the film that are indeed remarkable. One is at the wedding reception. We see the bride's mother and aunt, Ya Binta, coming towards the camera to greet El Hadji's first and second wife who enter the frame from the right side. The camera lingers on this shot while we listen to them exchange greetings. We notice their dress — all have African dresses except El Hadji's second wife, Oumi. But the dress worn by the bride's aunt reveals the film's whole nature and complexity. She wears a most colorful dress that appears, at first sight, authentically African; however, it is spotted with white figures which look like Queen Elizabeth of England.

In another instance, the manner in which composition of film takes greater meaning is in El Hadji's warehouse office where Rama, seated in front of a map of Africa, talks to her father. (Note the double entendre in the dialogue. According to folk habit, xala is usually attributed to the first wife's jealousy, so that in private and public quarters Awa will be blamed for it.)

El Hadji: Rama, my child, sit down. How is school?

Rama: I do my best. And the activities?

El Hadji: Ok, ok. Everything all right at home?

Rama: Yes.

El Hadji: Did your mother send you?

Rama: No, I came on my own. I am old enough to understand certain things.

El Hadji: (suspecting that she might be referring to his xala) Understand what?!

Rama: Mother is suffering.

El Hadji: Is she sick?

Rama: Physically, no. I remind you, father, that mother is your first wife.

El Hadji: I know, my daughter. I will come by. Tell her so.

Rama: No, she doesn't know I have come.

Before Rama stands up to walk out of the frame, Sembene makes us take note of the map of Africa behind her once again. We notice too that the color of the map reflects the exact same colors of Rama's traditional boubou, native costume — blue, purple, green and yellow — and it is not divided into boundaries and states. It denotes pan-Africanism.

El Hadji: My child, you don't need anything? (He searches his wallet)

Rama: Just mother's happiness. (She then walks out of the frame as the camera lingers on the map)

What Sembene is saying to us is quite direct and no longer inaccessible. On one level, Rama shows concern for her mother — it occupies a place of meaning in the dialogue. On another level, when we consider the African map, which occupies the same screen space as Rama, her concern becomes not only her maternal mother but also "Mother Africa." This notion carries an extended meaning when we observe the shot of El Hadji — to his side we see a huge colonial map of Africa. The "wax" and "gold" are posited jointly by a single instance of composition. Two realities fight to command the frame, but finally the "gold" meaning leaps out and breaks the boundaries of the screen.

Low and high angle shots, common connotative devices in filmmaking, abound in XALA. Their use in the film has visual and ideological meaning. I will cite three examples to illustrate how shots acquire ideological signification.

As the film is introduced to us, in a quick visual montage and a voice-over narration on "African Socialism," we see the colonial representatives leave, taking their miniature statues and busts of white figures with them. Immediately following, the new government of Africans enter a huge building — they are shot from a low angle, a shot that connotes power. The next time we see them, shot from a high angle, which diminishes the people depicted, they are opening briefcases full of money, handed to them by the whites we saw leaving just a short while back.

In the high angle shot of the boardroom we see the members of the Chamber seated around what appears to be a pool table. The color is green, the color of money which their business meeting will generate. The six men seated around the table seem to represent the six pool table pockets. In the meeting room, a white advisor stands in the background, like an overseer as in the colonial era, still visible and still calling the shots. The composition makes us realize that any change in power is merely illusory and only cosmetic.

Gorgul, the blind man, the leader of the beggars, does not have many lines (he does not speak until a few minutes before the film ends), but has visual importance. All through the film when the beggars are shown, we see the blind man singled out, shot mostly from a low angle, giving him an appearance of some kind of power and a sense of majesty. When the film's point of view coincides with that of the other beggars, however, we see him shot at eye-level.

So long as there exists a "cultural curtain" falling between peoples and nations, knowing how films articulate space and time becomes crucial to understanding films coming from a geographical and cultural distance. African films (or other Third World films, for that matter) when shown outside of their cultural context tend to lose their message. Therefore, the degree to which films transcend the "cultural curtain" becomes critical to any discussion of film's effectiveness.(6) These matters often depend on the issue of film's spatial-temporal significations.

In XALA, there is one continuous scene which calls attention to itself. It is a scene where Modu, El Hadji's chauffeur, opens a bottle of imported mineral water (El Hadji's favorite drink), empties it into the Mercedes' radiator, discards the empty bottle, and closes the hood. Screen time here is identical to the actual time it would take in real life. Any U.S. film student might be tempted to shorten the scene without any loss in "meaning." But the issue is not what the film lacks, but what it possesses. We must interpret the scene as it is coded. We need to remember that of all the characters in XALA, Modu is the only person engaged in any kind of labor. Sembene, a man understanding Marx and Lenin, does not want the scene's implication to go unnoticed. The scene, therefore, forces time to become space and space to become time to emphasize these elements, and the comedy, inherent in the character's labor.

Another instance of Sembene's use of time and space occurs in the last few scenes, when El Hadji submits to the beggars who spit on him. First, the camera pans (a shot that maintains integrity of the space) around the proud figure of El Hadji standing half-naked, the spittle covering his shoulders and chest. The camera then registers a medium shot of his son and daughter standing by watching their father's humiliation and lingers on an intimate image of Awa in tears. Then time is stuck, frozen — the image of El Hadji is caught as in a freeze frame. And we too must stop for a moment to ponder the meaning of this man and his suffering. Since we cannot rely on El Hadji to "stay put" in the predicted space offered by the changing world of the screen, we are denied any easy identification with his fate. We skip to a different period — the time of the Independence celebration. Time has played a cruel trick on El Hadji and the class he represents. We watch and reconstruct a picture of Africa which allows us to be analytical and objective and demands of us that we take sides.

XALA is not simply another film made by an African which treats African themes and elements. It does not rely on the concepts and propositions of conventional cinema, be it American, Russian or European. XALA uniquely takes African folk-narrative tradition and translates it fully into filmic form.

Cinema does not have to tell a story only one way. It does not have to perpetuate the status quo. The meaningful road to African cinema lies in a cinema that draws from the wealth of its cultural and aesthetic traditions. XALA marks and signals a turning point in the development of African cinema in that folk-narrative tradition and cinema acquire a measure of peaceful coexistence. This requires the establishment of a new cinematic code, one which will evolve its own system, governed by its own set of rules and criteria of excellence. This brief study has attempted to critically appraise the code-in-formation and the direction of a new cinema — a cinema of wax and gold.


1. Ousmane Sembene has directed nine films including XALA. THE SONGHAI EMPIRE, made as a thesis film under Donskoi and Guerassimov in the Soviet Union, has never been distributed. BOROM SARRET (1963) is a nineteen-minute short with no dialogue but a voice-over commentary which documents a day in the life of a horse-cart driver. NIAYE (1964), another short, treats the subject of incest, suicide and murder with a voice-over narration of an African griot. LA NOIRE DE… (1966) is a story of a young African woman who cannot speak French but is taken to France as a maid. MANDABI (1969), a feature film, tells the tale of a simple old man and the ironies of life in modern Dakar, Senegal. Ibrahima Dieng, the lead character, is a person broken; the modern system has outstripped the cultural values that nurtured him. TAUW (1970), a twenty-minute film, presents a young man who cannot find employment in Senegal's dominant neo-colonialist system and depicts the hopelessness and modern bureaucratic maze in Senegal. EMITAI (1971) shows the courageous resistance of the Dialo women against the French in the closing days of the Second World War. CEDDO (1977), Sembene's latest feature, treats the subject of Muslim imperialism. "Ceddo," meaning "outsiders," represents Africans who resisted wholesale conversion to Islam. Except for MANDABI, which is distributed by Grove Press Films, BOROM SARRET, LA NOIRE DE, TAUW, EMITAI, XALA and CEDDO are distributed by New Yorker Films. THE SONGHAI EMPIRE and NIAYE are not available in the United States.

 2. 'Sem-enna-worq" is a favorite form of poetry in Ethiopia. The concept, however, exists in most African languages. For its unique uses and meaning, see, Donald Levine, Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965).

"Because we have understood the political nature of our role, we had noticed that we have far more followers than any political party or any religious faith in Africa. But that was not enough for us, because the masses — which really don't have a face, which are an abstraction — the masses have given us the support that we need. And they have helped us to go beyond the ethnic problems of language and have become our allies. This has come about because we have been moving toward the masses. These were not meetings to get elected, but to give the people an awareness that they were the only ones who could decide their fate and to make them recognize that their own culture and their own languages have as much culture inherent in them as any other culture does in any other language. And cinema itself could replace the traditional story telling activity, the traditional legends, because the filmmaker himself becomes a storyteller. So it is up to the filmmaker to explain his work as much as possible. But once he has completed the work, the work goes beyond him and he loses control of it. So, for us the filmmaker's role appears to be very explicit, very clear." — Taped interview with Sembene Ousmane conducted by Teshome Gabriel, January 1975.

3. Sembene, Ousmane, Xala (Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill & Co., 1976). Xala, the novel, differs significantly from the film version. The book explores interpersonal relations and individual inner states more fully.

For instance, in the novel El Hadji's negative side comes from his own nature and attitudes towards others, whereas the film captures his negative side mostly by a contrast established between his life style and that of the beggars. The film omits many family relationships; for instance, Awa's father is presented as a Christian character in the novel, and Rama has a fiancé, Pathe, a psychiatrist with whom Rama discusses her father's xala. Dimensions of Oumi, Asa, and Rama's personal and family lives are altogether left out in the film version.

4. Most of the dialogue in this study is taken from the film itself.

5. Although I have referred to beggars continuously, Sembene shows a peasant among them (not in the novel) representing the destitute rural workers. When a skillful pickpocket, Thierry (the man who replaces El Hadji as a board member), steals the money his villagers gave him to buy food, ashamed to return to the village, he joins the beggar band in the city. Sembene includes a peasant in an urban setting so that the national issue will not be forgotten.

6. If a spectator's initial introduction to Sembene's filmic work is, for instance, either EMITAI or his latest feature CEDDO, both employing a collective heroism and shot in social space, one might conclude that Sembene does not understand the value of intimate shots. However, in an earlier film, MANDABI, shot with individual space and much camera intimacy, Sembene has shown mastery of close-up shots. In fact, anyone who has seen the film is sure to remember the face, the feet and even the nostril of the lead character, Ibrahima Dieng. The details remain in our visual memory. In each of the above cases, one thing is certain — Sembene's search for an African cinema is evident. In each instance, style modifies subject matter.