La petite vendeuse de Soleil
(The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun)

The cinema world's sense of loss at the untimely death of Djibril Diop Mambety in July, 1998 was mitigated by rumors that he had left behind a masterpiece. Now that La petite vendeuse de Soleil has confirmed those hopes, it is even harder to accept that this is the last we will hear from the most passionate voice in all African cinema.

La petite vendeuse de Soleil, was originally conceived as the second part, after Le Franc, of an unfinished trilogy of dramatic shorts entitled Tales of Little People. It finds Mambety working in a simpler, almost fabular style in contrast to the more operatic "Afro-pessimism" of his1992 masterpiece Hyenas. In this last film, Mambety moves beyond merely documenting Africa's centuries' old victimization towards envisioning the continent's recovery. Without sentimentalizing the ubiquitous poverty and corruption, he saturates each frame with vibrant sunlight and a memorable score by his younger brother, Wasis Diop. In this moving epilogue to his life's work, Mambety affirms his belief that film can do more than represent the world; it can actually participate in reimagining and hence remaking it. As he said: "Making a film is more important than conceiving it since it shows the children that dreams can be made a reality."

Mambety begins his last film with a prologue which could be seen as recapitulating the preceding forty years of African filmmaking in just a few minutes. A woman is accused of theft, humiliated and arrested in front of the entire market. She protests that she is a princess not a shoplifter but the crowd can see her only in her present fallen state; they jeer rather than support her in a scene disturbingly reminiscent of the collective cannibalism at the end of Hyenas.

La petite vendeuse de Soleil begins not so much by introducing its individual characters but with a mini-documentary on Dakar going to work at dawn. This becomes a study of the very unequal means people have to make their way through an increasing globalized economy: La petite vendeuse on her crutches, a legless boy in his wheelchair, horse carts, bicycles, jitneys, Mercedes all heading to the market. Mambety's ultimate symbol of this contrast is a man methodically splitting a pile of rocks with a hammer while jumbo jets take off over his shoulder. In fact, Mambety intended to call the third, never completed part of his Tales of Little People, La tailleuse des pierres (The Woman Who Chipped Stones) and Flora M'bugu Schelling made this mind-numbing task the sole content of her remarkable documentary, These Hands.

Mambety had a genius for constructing allegories for comparatively abstruse economic issues out of everyday human dramas. In Hyenas, Africa sells its soul to international lenders in exchange for credit for cheap consumer goods, while in Le Franc Africa finds itself a loser in the lottery of world currency markets when the CFA is devalued. In La petite vendeuse de Soleil Dakar's bustling central market becomes a metaphor for the unchallenged free market orthodoxy embraced by most governments and international financial institutions today. Mambety doesn't romanticize the dog-eat-dog competitiveness of the teenage bullies who terrorize la petite vendeuse, even though he describes this film as a "hymn to the courage of street children." The hoodlums may even suggest the anomic bands of teenagers pillaging and terrorizing countries like Sierra Leone, Liberia and Somalia.

Mambety finds a force which can transform the hegemony of the marketplace in the unlikely shape of Sili Laam, la petite vendeuse, a 12 year old paraplegic who begs for alms with her blind grandmother in the market. Her name suggests that she is from the leather workers' caste, one of the most reviled in Senegal, so she is an outcast on multiple grounds. Sili Laam's strength is her purity and resilience, her refusal to accept the demeaning roles society assumes it can place on her and others. Rather than be intimidated by the teenage boys, for example, she decides to become the first female newspaper vendor herself since, "Girls can do anything boys can do." When she is unjustly stopped by a cop, she improbably marches him back to the police station, accuses him of shaking her down and successfully demands the release of the woman arrested in the first scene. Thus Sili Laam is the latest in a long line of Mambety's heroic rebels - from Badou Boy to Mory to Marigo, but she is less self-destructive because she has a broader social vision than any of the others.

Since Sili Laam refuses to see the world simply as it is but also sees it as it should be, her presence seems capable of transforming events. For example, the last headline of Soleil we see "Africa Leaves the Franc Zone," is, for example, proleptic, that is, it describes a future event which has not yet happened. Africa in fact remains inextricably tied to a world financial system where it competes on very unequal terms. Mambety presumably advocates a more self-reliant development strategy based on nurturing the economic potential of Africa's most oppressed as represented by La petite vendeuse - the poor, the young, the female.

In the film's final sequence, the other news vendors steal Sili Laam's crutches. Babou Seck, an older boy who has protected her throughout and represents a cooperative alternative to marketplace competition, asks what they can do now. Sili Laam responds unhesitatingly: "We continue." When he lifts her onto his back and carries her down a crowded arcade of the market; the other vendors scatter before them; the raucous sound of the marketplace fades away until all we hear is his persistent footsteps into the future accompanied by Wasis Diop's homage to African freedom fighters.

In La petite vendeuse de Soleil Mambety experiments with what could be thought of as an "ethical" cinematic space where reality is a continual tension between what is and what could be, where the all too familiar present is permeated with an alternative, though by no means certain, future. This is an Africa seen not solely in terms of its monumental problems but also taking account of the resourcefulness of its people. As in the opening shot in the marketplace, the audience is constantly positioned where it must choose whose stance to endorse - that of the cynical, spectatorial market vendors or the visionary, activist la petite vendeuse. In his last interview Mambety said: "I have focused on the notion of freedom - which includes the freedom not to know, which in turn implies confidence in your ability to construct images from the bottom of your heart."

Now available on-line Mambety's last interview: The Hyenas Last Laugh: A conversation with Djibril Diop Mambety by Frank Ukadike (from Transition 78)

Le Franc

Selected as one of the 10 Best Films of 2000 by the Village Voice

"The last film by Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty (1945-98) is a wondrously affirmative marketplace legend-cum-political allegory about an indomitable crippled girl, granddaughter of a blind street singer, who reinvents herself as a newspaper vendor. The score is infectious, and the metaphor overwhelming."
--The Village Voice

"La petite vendeuse de Soleil is an indictment of a materialism which kills the weakest in a society heavily mortgaged for the benefit of a few....It exudes a bountiful spirit of generosity."
- Sada Niang, University of Victoria

"A memorable essay on humanity, La petite vendeuse de Soleil is profoundly mesmerizing and uplifting. Mambety tells us that disability is not synonymous with hopelessness and that Africa must affirm its own progress."
- N. Frank Ukadike, Tulane University

"The dreams of Djibril Diop Mambety have flown beyond the screens, to glide like whimsical and devouring suns."
- Ecrans d'Afrique

Director: Djibril Diop Mambety Senegal/ Switzerland, 1999
45 minutes
In Wolof with English subtitles. Video and 35mm film

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