Ça Twiste à Poponguine is perhaps the most charming, fast-paced and accessible film in our Library of African Cinema collection. This bittersweet, coming of age story is a kind of African equivalent of George Lucas' American Graffiti, Spike Lee's Crooklyn or Godard's Masculin/Feminin. These Senegalese teenagers living it up on the beach may also remind less discriminating viewers of Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon in Beach Blanket Bingo!
Director Moussa Sene Absa's comedy is set during the weeks before Christmas, 1964, in a seaside village, where the local teenagers are divided into rival cultural camps. The "Ins" (or Inseparables) have adopted the names of French pop stars - Johnny Halliday, Sylvie Vartan, "Clo Clo" and Eddie Mitchell. Their clique attends school, has a female auxiliary, exchanges fervent love poetry - but they don't own a record player. The Kings, on the other hand, style themselves after African American Rhythm and Blues legends - Otis Redding, Ray Charles and James Brown. They work as fishermen, don't have any girls but they do have a record player.
The story of their rivalry is told through the memories of Bacc, a husky-voiced, street-smart little boy who acts as a messenger for the older kids. Abandoned by his father and mother, he's been adopted by the whole village. His grandmother, Madame Castiloor, the keeper of the local tales, predicts: "Someday you too will be a storyteller, who will make Africa famous throughout the world."
Her counterpart is M. Benoit, the gruff but well-loved, French teacher, who continues to propagate French culture in the post-colonial period. He makes his students memorize the fables of Jean de la Fontaine and paddles anyone who speaks anything but French in class.
Beneath its genial surface, Ça Twiste à Poponguine is about the importance and ultimate fragility of dreams and about each person's right to construct whatever dream they need. The film reveals how young Africans' have always created overlapping, identities, blending elements of American and French pop culture into their daily lives. Chubby Checkers' Let's Twist Again, sung in French, wafting over a Senegalese village just emerging from feudalism, offers a quintessentially post-modern moment.
The film is at the same time a fond evocation of the 1960s, the decade when any dream seemed possible, especially for the young. The sound track is full of Soul favorites such as James Brown's "Sex Machine", Ray Charles' "What I Say" and Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay." In retrospect, the gaudy (not to say ghastly) Carnaby Street fashions seem more like costumes than clothing, transforming everyday life into fantasy.
In contrast to the younger generation, M. Benoit seems imprisoned by his memories of France - particularly a lost love, Marceline. As it gets closer to his Christmas vacation, he begins to drink heavily, becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his life in Popenguine but doesn't seem to want to return to France either. Concerned by his depression, the entire village, led by Madame Castiloor, sing a praise song to him in the hope that he will stay.
Meanwhile, the teenagers' schemes lead to disaster: a fight, the arson of the "Ins" clubhouse, a near drowning and the alienation of the girls. "We lost all our illusions that night," Bacc recalls. The village elders, led by El Hadj Gora, the Islamic fundamentalist shopkeeper and father of "Eddie Mitchell", decide to punish the rebellious adolescents. But M. Benoit intervenes, echoing the words of Pres. Leopold Senghor (and, one suspects, the filmmaker's own sentiments): "The children you beat are your future. Should they be humiliated because they dream of other horizons? Civilizations die that reject the Other. Universal civilization is the fruit of give and take."
The "Ins," realizing their exclusivity has divided Popenguine, persuade a visiting French crooner to host a dance party for the whole village. In one of the small epiphanies the film celebrates, old and young dance together to the strains of a James Brown ballad. M. Benoit is introduced to a beautiful Senegalese woman and even Bacc, after his harrowing ordeals, gets a first kiss from his girlfriend. An epilogue tells us that in the years that followed, the "Ins" drifted apart: the girls married managers in the city, "Clo Clo" joined the army, Johnny disappeared and Bacc is living somewhere in Paris - presumably, the filmmaker himself.