by Abiba Coulibaly
Speaking about his final feature, Hyenas (1992), Djibril Diop Mambéty was clear on the adversary he had in sight, stating: ‘My task was to identify the enemy of humankind: money, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank.’ Similarly, money, and the avaricious institutions which guard it, drive fellow Sengalese pioneer Ousmane Sembène’s magnum opus Mandabi (1968). Yet currency takes even more of a centre stage in some of their lesser-known shorts steeped in acute political commentary: Le Franc (1994) and Tauw (1970) respectively, which delve deeper into many of the context-specific issues of cash—and lack thereof—in Francophone Africa, exposing the incomplete nature of the decolonial project.
Sembène’s film accompanies the titular Tauw on the exasperating task of finding work and the means to provide for his sizable family and pregnant partner. Le Franc follows Marigo, a penniless musician behind on rent, whose luck changes when he wins the national lottery. However, claiming his winnings proves to be a comically arduous task, a metaphor for the larger game of chance that all those forced to operate within the global economy are subject to—one in which the formerly colonised are, more often than not, the losers. Wandering Dakar, Tauw and Marigo face multiple absurd and infuriating dealings with authorities at both the domestic and state level in relation to establishing their financial freedom.
Tauw takes place in 1970, 10 years after Senegal’s official independence from France, a celebratory milestone undermined by the lack of evident headway made in the decade following decolonisation. The one time the year and its significance are remarked upon in the film is immediately followed by a disdainful ‘nothing today’, hinting at the failures of fulfilling the many aspirations which accompanied independence. Le Franc takes place in 1994, the same year in which the French government devalued the CFA (Financial Community of Africa) franc, the currency used in Senegal and most of West and Central Africa, by 50 percent. If the 1970 anniversary put into question the degree of sovereignty and progress brought about by independence, 1994’s externally-imposed devaluation provided a resoundingly negative answer.
In exploring these dynamics of political and financial autonomy at multiple scales, both Mambéty and Sembène turn to the sites and instances of transaction which characterise the urban landscape. In Le Franc, this is evident in Mambéty’s lingering gaze on Dakar’s central marketplace Marché Kermel, which features heavily, but is not able to fulfil its symbolic and historical function. A colonial remnant that references the metal foundations of Paris’ Les Halles while incorporating Orientalist interpretations of Maghrebin architecture, it had burnt down shortly before filming, but is visible in its former splendour in Mambéty’s earlier Contras City (1969). In Le Franc however, it appears as an arena of rubble; in close shots we see Marigo forced to navigate the skeletal debris as an obstacle course, and panning out, Mambéty makes a point of framing his Chaplinesque protagonist encircled within this apocalyptic wasteland.
Whilst the physical marketplace also features in Tauw, Sembène chooses to focus more on the embodied labour market; the men who must queue and humiliatingly compete for work, only to be turned away or cheated of their wages, and the movements of those ‘lucky’ enough to find employment at the docks, observing the exertion and choreography of manual labour; loading and unloading ships, hoisting burlap sacks and rolling lacquered barrels, amongst a pyramid of goods destined for the metropole. Sembène, who makes a cameo appearance as a haughty employment clerk, had direct experience of these menial tasks as a labourer in Marseille, the port where many of these ships were destined—a humbling but eventful experience he documented in his novel 1956 Le Docker Noir.
Beyond (yet inextricably bound to) these informal markets in which the labouring classes are both customers and merchandise, is another fixture of urban space: the financial district, with the metallic glint of the towering acronym ‘BCEAO’ employed as a recurring motif in Le Franc, its significance as the Central Bank of West African States most likely lost on many non-Francophone viewers. Twice, Mambéty positions his shot to capture the BCEAO looming behind Marché Kermel; the regional banking system operated by France as its puppet-master, surveying the ruin of the everyman’s place of trade and source of sustenance.
One of the BCEAO’s main functions is to issue the franc—access to which drives both Mambéty and Sembène’s main characters on excruciating quests throughout the city. As the name might suggest, the franc is French in origin but remains dominant across West and Central Africa where it acts as the currency for 14 counties, despite France itself having long abandoned its use after transitioning into the eurozone in 1999. First minted for use in the island of Gorée, a former slave trading post just off the coast of Dakar, the franc was imposed upon France’s vast empire South of the Sahara during colonialism to forcibly integrate these territories into the capitalist mode of production. Upon decolonisation, it was maintained, making France the only former imperial power to preserve its monetary zone in Africa. Not only does France fix the exchange rate, allowing it to devalue the CFA franc (as was the case in 1994, to which Mambéty’s film is a direct response), it also demands the countries which use it deposit 50% of their financial reserves into the French central bank, and enjoys the ability to suspend these nations’ transactions when it sees fit. In light of these dynamics, the neocolonial grip which France retains over Françafrique’s monetary activity has been pointed to by many political economists as the culprit in regards to why the region has ‘failed’ to develop.
In contrast with the built-up areas of urban financial institutions central to both films is Dakar’s extensive coastline. This inescapable feature of the city’s landscape also features prominently in the two shorts, hinting at the world beyond the Senegalese capital, which is equally entangled with the ‘international swindle of supply and demand’, knowingly remarked upon during the radio announcement publicising the lottery in Le Franc. The film ends, somewhat ambiguously, with Marigo cavorting in the foamy expanse of the Atlantic. On the other side of this vast ocean, French ships docked in Haiti in 1825, demanding the island—the first free black republic and the earliest country to abolish slavery—take out a loan of 150 million francs. This was to pay France ‘reparations’ for the loss of human chattel and land, and the exorbitant profits that the two combined produced. It wasn’t until 1947 that this debt was repaid, and earlier this year, the New York Times published the culmination of a year-long investigation into the fallout. It found that, with interest rates and late fees taken into account, the sum of 150 million francs had mushroomed to the value of 21 billion dollars in today’s money, not to mention the corresponding intangible losses to which a price can never be assigned. The reverberations of the franc are not just isolated within the past, but continue to dictate the contemporary fortunes of the African diaspora; in 2019 Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s deputy prime minister at the time, singled in on the currency as ‘prevent[ing African] economic development and contribut[ing] to the fact that the refugees leave and then die in the sea or arrive on our coasts.’ Whilst Di Maio’s comments are an attempt to shift blame and point fingers at France regarding an injustice in which other countries are complicit, his words contain truth, and these examples highlight the financial (and knock-on humanitarian) havoc wreaked by France on the African diaspora extending across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
Tauw opens with a graphic, fleshy blow; a hand slaps the bare bottom of a child bent over their father’s lap. Initially, I took such emasculating acts of humiliation and infantilisation experienced by Tauw and his brother at the hands of their overbearing father to be a direct metaphor for what France’s domineering economic interventions had reduced the Senegalese (and wider formally-colonised) population to. However, at the end of the film, his father says ‘let them make their own way’, ultimately disowning his son and Tauw’s heavily pregnant partner. Recognising he has nothing to lose, no stakes in his ‘hippie’ son, he is able to abandon the young couple coldly, to a future unknown but free from his paternalistic yoke. This is where my assumed analogy fell short; worse than the absent and dismissive father of Tauw, France recognises that its offspring (the French state has made a disconcerting habit of employing mother-child imagery in relation to its former empire) is too precious a possession to ever voluntarily relinquish into genuine independence.
Abiba Coulibaly is a film programmer with a background in critical geography, interested in exploring the intersection between ethics and aesthetics.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider tipping the author and/or supporting Ultra Dogme on Patreon, Ko-fi, or Substack, so that we may continue publishing writing about film + music with love + care.