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102 minutes, 1999, Mali
Director: Cheick Oumar Sissoko
in Bambara with English subtitles
DISCONTINUED - Cheick Oumar Sissoko marks the coming of the 21st century with a film set at the beginning of time. He discovers insights into one of the most urgent problems facing Africa and indeed the world - fratricidal strife - by returning to the biblical account of its origins. Just as he used an historic allegory to denounce contemporary African dictatorship in his last film Guimba, in La Gènese he uses the story of Jacob and Esau to explore internecine wars from Liberia to Somalia and from Congo to Kosovo. By translating this archetypal story into a distinctively West African context, Sissoko makes it possible for us to see Africans not as an other but as representatives of a universal humanity.

From an anthropological perspective, the leading characters in the film represent three different modes of production coming into contact and conflict. Esau, Isaac's elder son, and his clan (dressed in hides) represent hunter-gatherer man. His younger brother, Jacob and his family (dressed in blue) are tent-dwelling, monotheistic pastoralists, nomadic herdsmen. Hamor and the polytheistic Canaanites (dressed in yellow) live in permanent stone settlements and cultivate the surrounding territory. All three groups are beginning to compete for the same land, especially as the advantages of agriculture become apparent. Sissoko relocates this clash to the spectacular, semi-arid plateaus of northeastern Mali under the looming presence of Mt. Hombori Tondo, a landscape perhaps not too different from the biblical Canaan.

The film begins with a prologue by Esau, played by acclaimed Malian singer Salif Keita. He is embittered and nihilistic because when he was hungry his younger brother, Jacob, forced him to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. He blames fraternal strife on God, specifically on scarcity and the consequent competition for limited resources which has been humanity's lot since Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Sissoko in his complex psychological portrait of Esau makes clear that scarcity can also apply to the supply of love and respect available from parents and communities. Jacob for his part suffers a kind of symbolic punishment for his unbrotherly behavior when his favorite son, Joseph, is sold into slavery by his own envious brothers.

The film's narrative proper begins with the story of the abduction of Jacob's deranged daughter Dinah by Shechem, son of the Canaanite (or Havite) nobleman Hamor. The conciliatory Hamor proposes intermarriage as an answer to their difference, saying they can become one family and share the land. But Jacob's sons insist the Canaanites must first be circumcised in obedience to Abraham's covenant with God; Hamor surprisingly agrees. While his men are disabled from the operation, the duplicitous sons of Jacob launch a genocidal raid against Hamor's followers, slaughtering nearly all their males. This act can itself be regarded as a kind of fratricide since they are all distant descendants of Noah: Hamor of Noah's son, Ham, and Jacob of Ham's brother Shem.

As a result of this carnage, a grand council is called to try to establish the international rule of law, which Sissoko has dramatized as a traditional West African palaver. Reuben, Jacob's eldest son, argues that the best way to prevent conflict is to mark out strict boundaries, and, in particular, to forbid intermarriage between pastoralists and agriculturists, so "we can know who is who." Hamor's spokespersons point out the impossibility of achieving such ethnic purity. They note that Judah, one of Jacob's sons, married Ada, a Canaanite; does that mean his son, Shelah, should be torn in half between the two tribes? Furthermore, Judah has been tricked into siring twins by Tamar, whom he had tried to exclude from his lineage by putting off her marriage to Shelah.

Jacob seeks reconciliation with Hamor, since they now are both in a sense sonless. He says stories are the only thing he can bequeath to his children and, of course, La Gènese could be regarded is part of that bequest. Jacob then tells how his father Isaac found a wife, "in that time before the rift between father and son, God and man." Isaac's father, Abraham, sent a servant to Mesopotamia with instructions to bring back the first woman who would offer a stranger a drink of water. Rebekah not only relieves the stranger's thirst, she agrees to leave her family for a distant land and unknown husband.

Esau, resentful of his brother, his father, Isaac, his fate, denies there ever was such a golden age and proceeds to destroy Jacob's tents and cattle. But after Jacob wrestles with God, winning the name Israel, "strong against god," Esau forgives him. Esau instructs the Israelites, the sons of Jacob, to go to the land of Egypt where grain is plentiful. Jacob tells his sons to obey "my brother." The narrator then supplies the familiar ending to the story. Joseph through his wisdom has risen from slavery to become the pharaoh's chief minister; he will end the fraternal feud by forgiving his brothers and inviting them to bring their families to live in Egypt.

The plot of La Gènese may seem rather convoluted, even confusing, to Western viewers who may have only a vague familiarity with the biblical sources. What's more, the narrative flow is interrupted (or illustrated) at least five times by story-telling - flashbacks which may appear digressive if one is unfamiliar with West African conventions of exposition. The stories have been carefully selected and rearranged from Genesis Chapters 24,25, 34, 37 and 38 to form a compelling moral narrative, an ethical argument for peace and community. Sissoko's may be a rather revisionist interpretation of these scriptural sources since running through the Old Testament is a rather ethnocentric, anti-assimilationist bias to prevent the Jews from following foreign gods.

Sissoko has explained why it was so important for him to retell this seminal story of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths in traditional West African guise, just as Italian artists of the Quattrocento set their biblical scenes in Renaissance Tuscany. "My aim has been to return Africa to the center of consciousness and events, to build bridges between the concerns of Africans and of other people. Because La Gènese associates universal themes with a profound anchorage in African reality, I believe it constitutes a new stage in our cinema."

35mm rental available from KINO International - (212) 629-6880
"Cheick Oumar Sissoko restores to the Bible its universal vocation. Robert Bresson and Terence Malick dreamed of filming Genesis - but a Malian has succeeded in doing it."
Le Monde
"One of the most challenging viewing experiences at Cannes this year...Casting Africans in all the roles certainly puts a new spin on an old story. Sissoko uses his native cultural heritage to advantage."
"Captures the feeling of an ancient tragedy set in the African desert. The actors are energetic and eloquent, the scenery pure, the costumes elegant and the faces and bodies intense."
"An effective use of an ancient story to affirm the universality of human conflict and human reconciliation."
Leon Spencer, Washington Office on Africa


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