THE LITTLE GIRL WHO SOLD THE SUN (Djibril Diop Mambéty, 1999)

Dedicated to street children and their perseverence through incredible hardship, La petite vendeuse de Soleil (The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun) comes to us from Senegal, Switzerland and France. It’s a Third World story whose tone is complex and highly ironical. Djibril Diop Mambéty, the director of Touki Bouki (The Journey of the Hyena, 1973) and Hyenas (1992), a transplantation of Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Visit of the Old Woman, imparts a sunny complexion to the film in order to stress profound social and economic shadows. A mere 45 minutes long, Little Girl is what used to be called a “message movie,” and it packs a considerable punch.

It’s a film about town and village. The city, in Senegal, is Dakar, an urban environment whose sun-baked streets teem with children hustling newspapers and adults begging or trying to earn money by selling from stalls. The film opens in Dakar, and it’s not a pretty sight. A merchant accuses a woman of having stolen some unknown thing from him, and three officers, at his behest, violently arrest her while she protests her innocence and neither merchant nor policemen bother to inspect the bucket she is carrying for the alleged pilfered item. We see her behind bars (in a masterful shot that likens the woman to a caged animal, the camera is pressed against the outside of the bars, which seem enormous), and it appears she has been driven insane by the humiliation and rough treatment. The implication is clear: she was fragile to begin with, poised for the breakdown we witness. She isn’t a thief but a princess, she shouts to the still air.

The film’s title, which refers to a child, not a woman, dissuades us that the prisoner is the protagonist. Rather, we see her as representative of a social vulnerability. Perhaps she is the woman who the girl of the title is in danger of becoming.

Indeed, the scene shifts from city to village, where Sili (Lisa Balera), the film’s main character, appears, and the juxtaposition implies the seemingly indomitable girl’s shared destiny with the mad woman. (The village may be Colobane, Mambéty’s own birthplace near Dakar.) It’s either dusk or pre-dawn, and long shots bathed in a lovely, diffuse blue establish the village where Sili and her family live. By all rights, Sili should be securely asleep, at home, in bed. However, she is on a mission; she must find a way to earn money so that her family can survive. We see her emerge from shadows into the dawn’s light: a girl on crutches, each step a hardship. She reaches the highway, whose few cars at this early, otherwise quiet hour suggest the connection between the village from which Sili, if you will, is commuting and Dakar, her determined destination. One other sound interrupts the silence: that of a man pounding rocks into smaller pieces, to sell for construction work. A closeup of his labor is followed by a more distant shot revealing the mound of broken-up rock that the man has been creating for hours—all night, probably. His making do as best he can, with what’s available to him, becomes a metaphor of the harshness of ordinary existence in this part (and other parts) of Africa (and beyond). Globalization has brought construction, including workers, while those who are native to the region can break up rock. Sili is no less connected to this silent man than to the raving prisoner. He represents where she is starting from, a point of ingenuity, adaptability and resilience, while the woman who has been wrongly jailed as a thief represents where Sili may be headed. In Dakar, Sili also is wrongly arrested as a thief, and, self-assertively, she manages the release of both herself and the strange woman. But Mambéty leaves little doubt that this plucky victory is challenged by the odds against either of these individuals’ prevailing.

A pattern is established early on with the boy who transports Sili in the direction of Dakar. For all her apparent independence and self-sufficiency, Sili is reliant on others. She continually requires rescuing—for instance, when one of her crutches is stolen. Sili’s smiling optimism—she is a little like Federico Fellini’s Cabiria—covers a terrible vulnerability. Sili mentions that her knee was recently injured, hinting that her crippled state hasn’t been of long duration. We speak of people not knowing their own strength. It’s possible that Sili doesn’t know yet her own weakness.

In Dakar, Sili’s blind grandmother sings on the street for the coins of passers-by. But what can Sili herself do to earn money? The sight of swarming boys huckstering newspapers points her in the direction of what she interprets as her immediate destiny. However, Mambéty prefaces this revelation of hers in a disquieting way. The boys nearly knock her down as they go about their business. There are several shots of animals in the film; the animals always appear either passive or tranquil. But these newsboys are like a pack of wild animals. Hyenas. They resent this new seller on their turf, who is a girl, besides. Their first violent encounter with Sili is thoughtless and accidental. All subsequent encounters will be deliberate and confrontational, and even accompanied by death threats. Sili’s vulnerability, encapsulated by her handicap, will prove a magnet for their vicious assaults. They compete energetically with one another, but the competition that Sili poses is something of which they want to rid themselves. Their attitude and actions toward her transform them into a metaphor of unbridled competition—to paraphrase Tennyson, human nature red in tooth and claw.

Mambéty portrays the whole competitive atmosphere as a cauldron of madness. Human beings are debased by this environment; they become beasts or the prey of beasts. The issue isn’t precisely globalization, the integrated global economy, but rather the mechanism of this integration as globalization is currently constituted: capitalism. The part of the world that Mambéty shows cannot withstand the onslaught of forces that competition for survival has unleashed. People should be pulling and working together for the benefit of all (as the kindnesses that a few persons extend to Sili implies), not feverishly working against one another for the sake of the illusion that many, or any, of them will come out on top. Indeed, Mambéty implies, no matter their illusions, the Senegalese are doomed from the start. Those who prevail exist outside the borders of the Third World. They are foreign capitalistic entities, not the hapless individuals whom we see scrambling on the streets of Dakar. (A silent Greek chorus of sorts is the legless boy in a wheelchair who constantly observes, seemingly searching out the truth in everything he sees, but ultimately powerless to weigh in effectively.) Mambéty succeeds in conveying a sense of the manipulation of people’s lives by forces originating outside the upheaved community. The beneficiaries of foreign investment do not appear to be the Senegalese, whose suspiciousness, even hostility, towards one another provides an index of how all their worst impulses are being stirred up. Not that this will help any one of them. We become witness to the destruction of a people’s sense of community and common interest. They no longer seem to inhabit their region but only to rent space there. The “landlord” is the aggregate of corporate interests impinging on the region. According to Tom Zaniello, the author of Working Stiffs, Union Maids, Reds and Riffraff: A Guide to Films About Labor, “it is France’s collusion with the World Bank that keeps former French colonies at the mercy of economic forces they cannot control.” “The street market in Mambéty’s world becomes,” Zaniello writes, “metaphoric for the world market.”

Sili ends up selling copies of the newspaper The Sun, thirteen at a time, because—this is one of numerous indications of her naïvité —she mistakes 13 for a lucky number. She begins her endeavor in a golden dress that visually puns on the loftier sun, but on her second day of labor she is wearing a different dress, green in front and blue in the back. Mambéty thus characterizes his heroine as, unbeknownst to herself, self-divided as she copes with the reality with which she must contend. Perhaps the green represents the financial growth she seeks, while the blue suggests a lingering connection to the sun in the sky. However, the composite—the appearance that she is wearing two dresses at once—is an exacting visual irony: Sili only thinks she knows whether she is coming or going. Even as she succeeds in making a little money, she is losing ground because her persistent optimism is making her increasingly blind to the vulnerability of hers that she is failing to recognize. (The film’s devastating final shot has her disappearing into the distance as a blur; this is correlative, I’m afraid, to her disconnect from reality—an anticipation that she, like the woman at the beginning, is headed for madness.) From the outset, she exudes a sense of being charmed, especially when someone who recognizes her from the village buys all thirteen of her newspaper copies, paying in fact a lot more than they are worth, as an act of charity. (This is the source of her delusion that 13 is a lucky number.) Therefore, she hasn’t really earned the money, and the implication is that her survival remains mostly predicated on luck. It’s part of the capitalistic delusion that the efforts of individuals bring them just compensation; rather, capital goes to capital—that is, to corporate capitalists. Sili is able to sustain her cheerful disposition largely because of her faith that her efforts will pay off. She has no knowledge of the forces that are arrayed against her.

A boy whom Sili befriends sells a rival newspaper, The Nation. At one point she asks him why his newspaper sells so much better than hers. The boy explains that The Nation is “the people’s paper” while The Sun is the government paper. Employing a child’s illogic, Sili says she will stick with selling The Sun because that “will bring the government closer to the people.” The irony is that even the government is powerless, powerless to govern, that is, now that the nation’s destiny is determined by decisions made outside the country by global capitalists.

Finding themselves in an unexpected pressure cooker, the Sengalese who are portrayed in this film are losing their identity, their ties to their culture, which, by definition, is homegrown. They are becoming part of a global village that derives from a vastly different outlook, to say the least. The ties within the community by which people might help one another are being thinned and stressed, and financial (and other) help from the larger outside world now comes as part of a complex package that postpones individual access to benefits until some indefinite future. The world’s poor are getting poorer—most certainly, culturally and spiritually. The unhappy message of Mambéty’s film is that, for all her hard work and positive attitude, Sili doesn’t stand a chance of prevailing.

Message movies occupy an honorable place in cinema. They are disparaged when the examples considered are largely rhetorical (such as films by André Cayatte or Stanley Kramer), not analytical. Italian neorealism, on the other hand, largely consists of message films whose analytical aspect prevails over the rhetorical. While stylistically different, Mambéty’s film follows the latter model. Indeed, it’s very nearly free of rhetoric, as befits a film the target of whose message consists of those forces that are mostly invisibly underpinning the scenes that the film depicts.

A film that takes its zestiness from the lead character’s innocent, can-do personality, Mambéty’s Little Girl Who Sold the Sun was released posthumously. Mambéty, 53, died before he could complete the trilogy to which this film belongs. The first part of the trilogy is Le franc (1994); the third would have been La tailleuse de Pierre. The umbrella title of the trilogy was Tales of Little People.




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