Film of the Week: Emitai

While Ousmane Sembene’s Xala came four years after Emitai, it’s the first Sembene film I watched and consequently the one that I analyze in relation to his other films. That explanation partially explains why I see a common theme running between this week’s pick, Emitai and Xala. In fact, I don’t think I could have chosen a better comparison due to Xala being the film that Sembene made right after Emitai and how I see Xala as working as a thematic sequel to Emitai.

Emitai takes place in Africa in a small colonized village during World War II. The men of the village are all taken by the French colonists who draft them into the army, so they can fight. Tired of their future leaders being taken, the village elders gather and attempt to discuss a plan of action in order to beat back the colonists. At one point, the colonists demand the village’s rice and when the village withholds their food, the women are taken captive. One elder defies the others when he creates a small force of soldiers in order to fight the colonists, and it is in this act of rebellion that I am interested in.

The rice is wanted by the colonists for sustenance, but the rice is also used by the villagers as a gift to the gods. To give the rice to the colonists then would be an act of not only breaking traditional culture but as the elder sees it an act of dishonor towards their own pride. Yet the gods urge the villagers to give the rice to the colonists and so in one final act of rebellion, the village elder denounces the gods before dying. To me, it seems that Sembene is arguing that in order for the village to liberate themselves, they must create a new form of cultural identity, because the current one only entraps them within the life of colonial slavery.

While Emitai doesn’t answer what that cultural identity is (the film ends rather bleakly), this is where I see Xala coming in as the continuation of Emitai due to its depiction of a successful liberation. Xala explores the new cultural identity that’s formed in a post-colonial country, although there should be a fair warning that Sembene’s portrayal of what emerges as that identity is not necessarily a positive one.

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