BOROM SARRET (Ousmane Sembène, 1963)

From Senegal, Ousmane Sembène’s The Wagoner portrays a day in the life of a horse-cart driver in Dakar. His primitive bus service in the “native quarter,” the city’s poor part, is marked by his cart’s squeaking wheel. Few who take advantage of his service pay this anonymous wagoner; most cannot afford to. This man worries as to how he is going to support his wife, baby and horse: “Yesterday was the same. And the day before that. We all work for nothing.”
     Anonymous begins the day with a morning Muslim prayer. Is God, who was so unresponsive to suffering in colonized Senegal, any more receptive now? Anonymous, poor, transports the poor. In lieu of speech, writer-director Sembène gives us Anonymous’s voiceover: “Fatou’s up early today. When she’s going to pay me?” This testy concern immediately brings reflection and self-rebuke: “But she has her troubles, too”—and it turns out that Fatou today does pay Anonymous a small part of what she owes. In turn, Anonymous rewards a griot, whose street performance, cut loose from village community, provides a noble connection to Africa’s native past. Meanwhile, another soul hustles to give shoeshines to members of the gathered crowd.
     The Wagoner is a tale of two Dakars, the poor section and the developed section; Sembène gives each a wide-angle overhead pan. At a customer’s behest, Anonymous ventures into the latter part, but he is fined for lacking municipal authorization. While the officer interrogates and humiliates Anonymous, the customer, a stranger, steals away without paying. Anonymous must hock his cart to pay the fine.
     Resnaisian tracking shots through the streets depict daunting, glassy skyscrapers, thus projecting his sense of smallness and inadequacy as Anonymous guides his horse through the streets all the way back home. Still in voiceover, Anonymous says to his wife, “I have nothing for you—not even a cart.” She replies, also in voiceover: “Don’t worry. Somehow we will eat tonight.” But she cannot feed neighborhood children as well.
     What a lovely, expressive technique—all this voiceover. It speaks to the postcolonial hopes that haven’t been realized, the new African life that hasn’t broken into the reality of liberating speech.

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