A Thousand Suns

09/27/2016

Senegal & France / 2013 / Wolof & French

Directed by Mati Diop

Still from 'A Thousand Suns'We see his cattle before we see him. They move in a line through the city, causing cars on the highway to stop and wait. The animals walk unhurriedly, dipping their snouts into piles of sand at dig sites to cool off. The thin man walking behind them holding a stick, and with a mop of white hair, could never be described as “old” but, always, “aging.” When he reaches his destination, at the processing facility, he totals up the head of cattle, and they are brought to be hung up in the slaughterhouse, a mad cubicle splattered with blood and shit. The men inside work merrily, holding the gigantic beasts by the horns and contending physically to flay them.

Within the dim light of his house, we see the man, Magaye Niang, getting dressed for a big event. It’s what, in cutaway shots, people are dusting off rows of chairs and testing microphones for on a stage. He argues with his wife, who tells him not to wear those rags. Aging, he seems aware of a need to uphold a badass image, exchanging his vest for a denim jacket. “Where I’m going, I’ll be the star,” he scoffs, as though she couldn’t understand. We see, on the wall – and backwards in the mirror before which he’s posturing – a poster from 1973’s Touki Bouki, the film he starred in 40 years earlier. She scolds him from the kitchen that, even if he is a star, he shouldn’t wear rags to a media event.

There’s already a striking parallel between the man we see and his character, Mory, from Touki Bouki, who works as a cowherd. It’s as though the film’s rebel fantasy about escaping both colonialism and traditionalism have continued to play out into the drab banality of real life. All that’s missing is his motorcycle with cow horns attached to the front. He goes outside to haggle with a taxi driver. In the man’s car, he tells him to turn off “the hip and the hop” that he’s playing too loudly.

Still from 'A Thousand Suns'Niang is on his way to a 40th anniversary screening of Touki Bouki but he seems to be taking his time. It took decades for him to become the respected guest, so what are a few more minutes, or hours? On the ride, the young driver berates the older generation for being cowardly, self-serving, and hobbled by the scramble for material goods. He calls them “the generation that danced” – while the power in the country was kept from the people and in the hands of foreigners and plutocrats. He shakes his head, unable to understand the new generation’s antipathy. “I went to university in France,” he counters, but can’t justify having left the country at a pivotal time.

While waiting for the film to finish, he drinks with a group of men who try to fight one another but are too drunk. He doesn’t appear to have any desire to see himself onscreen, preferring to keep nostalgia locked away in the back of his mind, and so too his present life. He seems a man benumbed, altogether indifferent, eyes lost in the middle distance. But at the outdoor screening he is the star once again. Is he meant to be the stark degradation of the character he played at 23, an image of rebel Africa, freak flag flown? No, rather, its flip-side. If director Diop had wanted to know about what had happened in the intervening years, she could have just sat him down and asked.

The presenter asks him what he’s been up to all this time, and he appears mystified. This isn’t about a precipitous fall; Niang must have fallen directly into obscurity after Touki Bouki was shot. Although he was recognized with prizes in Cannes and Moscow, the director, Djibril Diop Mambety, didn’t make another feature film until nearly twenty years later. As Niang says, “I played a part…” But in this context, his mysteries become more compelling than the story of the film in which he appeared. A Thousand Suns is like a deep pool whose surface is busy with the cosmos reflected; it moves too briskly, too unsentimentally (at first, anyway) to let us reflect on the possibilities of Niang’s life. Like a Claire Denis film, it proceeds by way of as many silent passages as it can manage.

Still from 'A Thousand Suns'He hears platitudes from people that a would-be star might hear; boys tell him he doesn’t look anything like the young actor onscreen; friends tell him he was poised to take Hollywood; the presenter of the screening showers him with praise, but looks like he is shaking hands with a dried shell. And then, after Niang has heard these things, he is back in the silence of the night, the sea, and the occasional rumble of a truck.

As he hoofs it in the direction of home, gloomily maudlin, his intellectual friends tell him how Touki Bouki‘s story should have ended differently, or how his life should have turned out differently. Everyone seems sure that the late Mambety, were he stumbling along the highway with them, would concur. Finished with arguing, Niang simply lifts his arms in a revolutionary stance, and they leave him to disappear in the grainy darkness without turning back. He wanders through a large gathering of young people, we see fireworks above, much as he might see them: in a flattening blur, a stupor. Was there ever a center (and is that what we are seeing now, stripped bare?)?

We feel like the film should meditate on fame, but there’s no fame, or success, to contemplate. Diop’s film has bigger, more nebulous fish to fry. Niang is as poignant a figure as any – more so than Mambety, who was a visionary artist of great ups and downs, and also more so than Diop herself, an inquisitive mediator of the first and third world. She is a question still working to be fully articulated, and maybe that is also what is appealing to her about the actor from her uncle’s film. The issues he summons (and generally the most provocative ones are those unspoken) do not entirely become clear. Did he ever have a future? Did time begin to stand still for him at a certain point?

Still from 'A Thousand Suns'Diop’s method of looking at Niang is like surveillance – often from a physical distance that is reserved for clandestine recording. Sometimes he seems to notice the camera as it follows, perpendicular to him, and gazes sadly at it. Not into it, as his soft eyes seem to flatten the world in front of them. No matter whom he’s talking to, the actor always seems to be listening to something far away. It could be the voice of a lost love, or the spent cowboy twang of Tex Ritter that we hear on the soundtrack, refusing to fade out.

This is no ‘where-are-they-now?’ film. But it takes half of A Thousand Suns‘ length for that to become apparent. It’s a poem about loss – a measurable, palpable loss that lingers heavily and intractably, even after all physical things have withered. An immovable loss that blots out the man, rendering him the sliver of a penumbra. At this point the film has become – and undetected – something else, no longer the somber documentary we thought we were watching. It could have all been a blase bit of creative license; maybe he isn’t a cowherd, maybe he doesn’t nurse childish gunslinger fantasies, maybe that isn’t even his wife scolding him in the beginning.

It’s not about knowing any of these things, but about knowing where we stand, and Diop is intent here (and continues to be throughout her work) on constantly tilting the axis in different directions, so we never know for sure. It keeps the viewer in a perpetual state of questioning and investigating, not so much what we see, but how we apply our worldview to what we see in attempts to steady ourselves. The plain of contemporary cinema may be a relatively flat one, but at least in the case of more daring and interesting films like A Thousand Suns, it is never a level one. It’s as it should be.

Still from 'A Thousand Suns'When seeing third-world cinema in general, we’re conditioned to think we’re always looking at a slice of life. It’s something that can never be entirely clean of the lurid and cruel. The poverty of it is tied down to depicting quotidian things. A Thousand Suns interrogates that, causes us, at least for its brief duration and perfect run-time, to consider how we receive cinema as an eye into separate economic spheres, and how the figurative West and the global South face one another through cinema.

Our assumptions are challenged – those that tell us the Niang we are seeing is the real person, and those that tell us that Mory is not based in reality – but aren’t negated. They merely become convoluted as we go. “Mory’s story is mine,” he tells his friends as they leave the screening. But what could he mean? Was the character based on him, or did he continue to live on as the character? (He also claims to have long since lost the emblematic steer horns used in the film). Throughout A Thousand Suns, he becomes as symbolic as Mory, as much an image, to be used to reflect a purpose, a feeling. Once his short scrap of renewed fame is over, he begins narrating a life as the character, but the depth and the sadness that he imbues it with go beyond the scope of Mambety’s film.

He has a sadness that traverses seas. It could be about a missed chance to leave Senegal, but it could be an even more powerful sadness that kept him bound in the first place. It seems Diop is examining her own life’s puzzle in looking at Niang, and where she crosses paths with him in surprising ways. Maybe it’s only one piece, but it’s a striking one. It could be that she sees some the ambivalences, the absences of her own life, reflected in him. It’s as though she’s found a lost root from a tree that was transplanted long ago. This film isn’t about revealing moments, or about hidden connections. She’s not interviewing him about working with Mambety. Rather, the broadly-drawn scenes, the silences, go into its rough sketch.

Still from 'A Thousand Suns'One of the panelists at the screening (Mambety’s brother and Diop’s father, musician Wasis Diop) lauds the film as showing “our past lives” and holds up Niang as a living artifact. While everyone else has grown up, gotten wiser and more corrupt, the actor has stayed behind on the pier. A holdover from the generation of ’68. And that is very much what Touki Bouki is about: not leaving ’68 behind, being variously unwilling and unable to do so. Because it doesn’t resemble European art, the intellectuals in Senegal and France hold the film up as a founding text of indie Africa. Yes, the film is about rebellion and individualism, but what do the rebel couple ultimately want to do? Get on a boat bound for France; they need a postcolonial dream to begin; they must discard the countercultural clothing. And the dream remains just that.

In the harbor, Mory is chasing after the ship that is about to depart, his coattails flapping as he runs. In the scene he is running to make the ship ferrying expensive people and their shiny possessions to France, and his love, Mareme, who has become indistinguishable from those things. This happens on a loop; he is forever running, breathless, focused, towards it but never reaches it. In Touki Bouki things turn out differently, but this is the image of it that remains, that extends outward from the screen and then into the churning Atlantic water. Similarly, the ship never leaves port.

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2 Responses to “A Thousand Suns”

  1. hg said

    An intriguing addition to the “movies about movies” category.

  2. Mary Ann said

    Glad you are posting again!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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