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56 minutes, 2001, Senegal
Director: Moussa Sene Absa
in French and Wolof with English subtitles
And so angels die,
As dreams fall under the burden of life
Life, cruel, sensual, beautiful as a flute's song
Disappearing in the distance.
And so angels die
Shrouded in their innocence
Their hair to the wind.
And so angels die
Marveling at the silver river
Eternal angels, furtive angels
In a lightening flash.
Famous angels, forgotten angels
This ode is for all of you.

Moussa Sene Absa's latest work pushes the formal boundaries of African cinema to explore the complex interplay of history and psychology in contemporary Africa. Intensely personal and at the same time deeply political, Ainsi meurent les anges combines the elegiac lyricism of his a twiste Poponguine with the acerbic social critique of Tableau Ferraille. What is perhaps most surprising is that this creative freedom was won precisely by working within the constraints of new low-budget video technology. Appearing the same year as Karmen Ge and Faat Kine, it attests to the continuing vitality of Senegalese filmmaking as it propels African cinema in boldly innovative directions.

Ainsi meurent les anges shows how a "dream deferred" can become a nightmare, how a stolen past can make the present impossible and render modernity untenable, how history can become paralyzed. It is a film about the loss of innocence - by an individual and by an entire generation. These lost possibilities, these foregone selves, irrecoverable yet unforgettable, are the angels of the title. They are not the absolute, unhearing angels of Rilke's Duino Elegies or even the sympathetic onlookers of Wim Wender's Wings of Desire; they are aspects of ourselves, fragile as human hope.

This theme of the penetration of the present by the past, of the narrative by the subconscious, is given structural articulation through the dizzying intercutting of color and black-and-white sequences in the film's bravura opening. Color footage introduces us to Mory, a troubled Senegalese poet (played by writer/director Moussa Sene Absa himself) living outside Paris with his French wife and their children. We watch his marriage fall apart under crosscultural pressures, specifically his father's demand that he take a second wife in Senegal. Homeless in winter, separated from his children, his poems scattered over a Paris street, Mory returns to Senegal, penniless and with uncertain prospects.

At the same time, black-and-white sequences reveal the psychological origins of Mory's present malaise: his belated discovery that he is the stepson of his abusive father, his early love for Kumba, his father's destruction of that love out of caste bigotry and sexual envy; Kumba's subsequent marriage to a rich man and death in childbirth, and Mory's disillusioned departure for France. Interspersed throughout the film, the director's poetry frames the cinematic present within a language of memory and loss - Mory's and Africa's. As in other films in this collection (Faat Kine, Fathers) patriarchy, here seen in the mythic conflict between son and father, takes on historical and political resonance, specifically the theft of Africa's future - first by slavery and colonialism and now by a corrupt post-colonial elite. Mory has lost Kumba, the hope for a post-independence Africa free of traditional authoritarianism, yet he cannot retreat into an alien European modernity as the conspicuousness of his African dress in France symbolizes. In the end, Mory also loses contemporary Africa when his intended second wife, Yacine, frustrated by his indecision and poverty, marries a rich German, in a clear reference to Africa's growing indebtedness to the West.

Director Moussa Sene Absa wants to make further sociological claims for this father-son metaphor. "This film presented me with the question of how to approach the problem of the father in a society where he occupies an untouchable place. African man has not looked his father in the eyes. How else can we explain the violent, fratricidal rage which spreads across this continent? It is a matter of understanding the Oedipal complex in the African context through the experience of an intellectual who has missed his calling."

Mory is the familiar figure of the "lost" African, at home neither in Europe nor in Africa; he is denied a family and a narrative on both continents. He is in the end, literally and metaphorically, a man on the quay, a man in continual transit, an exile from the present. He may remind us of another Mory in Senegalese cinema, the dreamer/hero of Djibril Diop Mambety's seminal Touki Bouki (1973), who was also last seen alone on a dock, without a clear future, watching a ship head away toward Europe.

Ainsi meurent les anges may be a harbinger of the more experimental, more personal "chamber pieces" that comparatively inexpensive video technology will allow African directors to produce. As the cost of production decreases, the number of institutional funders needed to back any project will be reduced, which, coupled with the increased volume of their own oeuvre, may free African directors from the pressure always to speak with an authoritative public voice. They will no doubt continue to treat the central themes of African cinema but, as here, in more personal and speculative forms.

Paradoxically, the emphasis on interiority and the mythic may lead to the assimilation of trans-cultural symbols and themes into these more intimate films - in this instance, for example, the angel and innocence lost. This can be seen as deepening African cinema but also as bringing it closer to characteristically Western concerns with individual psychology and "universal human values." Sene Absa seems to be moving toward a synthesis of public and private, exploring the reverberations of larger historical and sociological forces in the psyches of individuals. In so doing, he moves African narrative toward both essay and reverie.
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"Ainsi Meurent les Anges is one of the most beautiful and challenging films Ive seen in a long time. It is sincere, simple, life-like and it moved me to tears."
Euzhan Palcy
"A formally daring film by a consistently innovative talent which indicates how video technology is changing African filmmaking. One of the most psychologically complex portrayals in African cinema."
Mahen Bonetti, New York African Film Festival
"Echoes of Birago Diop and David Diop?s negritude poems speak to a suffering yet proud Africa . . .The poetic title signals the poignant and dramatic quality of Morys experience, but also Sene Absa?s determination to embrace a ruptured expression of beauty."
Kenneth W. Harrow, Michigan State University


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