The Outcast’s Grace

A young Senegalese woman, draped in a midnight-blue boubou and matching headwrap, flaunting heavy gold jewelry and a light, sultry step, glides through a restaurant patio one afternoon in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. The camera offers her an admiring once-over, then pans to the throng of seated men who watch her closely, ardently. Their trance is undeniably comic, and the young woman is well aware; playing on her lips is an airy, knowing smile that will hang around for the rest of Fanta Régina Nacro’s 1996 short film Puk Nini (“open your eyes” in Dioula), showcased as part of a retrospective on the Burkinabe director in this year’s virtual edition of the New York African Film Festival.

Astou, the scene-stealing seductress played by Fatou Seck, is one of many female characters making spellbinding mischief in the festival’s seventy short and feature-length films, which this year highlighted the perspectives of African women, whether as directors or protagonists. The program included four short films by Nacro: her earliest work, Un Certain Matin, which in 1991 made her the first woman from Burkina Faso to direct a fiction film, as well as Puk Nini, Le Truc de Konaté (Konaté’s Gift, 1997), and Bintou (2001).

The thirty-minute Puk Nini is the raucous standout. Salif (Étienne Minoungou) and Isa (Georgette Paré) are a married pair of working professionals. In addition to her day job, Isa also does the domestic chores and helps their young daughter with her homework. When Isa is busy with these tasks, Salif, frustrated by what he perceives as his wife’s sexual unavailability, prowls off to grab drinks with a friend. Enter the gliding, glimmering Astou. In the aforementioned afternoon scene, she catches Salif’s eye, and the two quickly commence a precise and transactional relationship. Astou offers him saccharine sweetness, a submissive manner, and, not least, sex. Salif gives her money when she winkingly mentions “her debts.”

Puk Nini’s humor is gleefully crude. The scenes of Astou pleasuring Salif are not coy—the camera zooms in, unblinking, on Salif’s sighs, grunts, and grimaces—and the financial expectations of their relationship are not subtle. “Salif, my neighbor Mamou lent me 2,000 francs this morning to buy some fish,” Astou coos while sliding her hand up Salif’s thigh, “and 15,000 for the new loincloth. . . .” Where Salif is concerned, the mood is sexual but not sexy, and Nacro wastes no time spinning his lust into foolery. Skulking back home from his first tryst, the unfaithful husband is seen from behind, picking a wedgie and practically tripping over his own clothes. The second time, he is caught by his wife: when she turns on the light, they see that in his haste he put on his mistress’s lace panties instead of his own briefs.

In the film’s most sexually explicit scene, Salif, in bed with Astou, is reduced to slobbering excitement, his rapture grotesque. Astou laughs all the while, as delicately mocking yet indulgent as when she was first introduced. Astou’s lingering giggle is pivotal. To be the wielder rather than the subject of levity is a grace, one that reveals Astou as a central narrator instead of the butt of the joke.

A beautiful dark skinned woman demurely looks down as a man leans in to flirt with her

Fanta Régina Nacro: Puk Nini, 1996, film, 30 minutes.

Because Astou is a sex worker, her status in the community remains undoubtedly vulnerable—at one point, a crowd of mostly men attack her in the marketplace, and the spectacle inspires more laughter than outrage from bystanders—but in the narrative hierarchy, she embodies the prestigious role of the storyteller. After the attack, she returns home and finds Isa there waiting for her. Isa, at wit’s end, has come not to fight but to learn from the woman who has entranced her husband. Astou shares her rigorous rules of seduction, and when she speaks, not only Isa but also the woman who lives next door and the children who play nearby lean in to listen attentively. HIV/AIDS prevention is a persistent theme in Nacro’s films, and Astou becomes a mouthpiece for the director’s advocacy when she informs Isa (and the audience) that she always uses a condom to protect against the virus. Astou has been made a repository of wisdoms both specialized and foundational, a freshly fashioned griot figure refusing the marginalization of sexual taboo and instead cultivating a new center in her community.

Puk Nini is not the only film in the festival that repositions an outcast woman as the protagonist. Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s feature film This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (2019), which this past fall became Lesotho’s first Oscar entry, is a spectral and symphonic portrait of an elderly widow who is first called mad, then hailed as mythic.

To mold this new fable, Mosese assigns the narration to a griot character, an old man playing a lesiba, a stringed flutelike instrument, in a dawn-tinted nightclub that seems removed from the landscape of the rest of the film. Between haunting trills, he recounts the widow’s tale. Upon burying the last of her kin, the eighty-year-old Mantoa, played with a resounding prowess by the late Mary Twala Mhlongo, looks forward only to her own death. She hovers, already ghostlike, at the edges of her village’s public gatherings, trying to entice a young man to start digging her grave preemptively. But her plans are derailed when she learns that developers will soon flood her village and resettle her community in order to build a dam. This act will mean not only the destruction of her home but also the desecration of all the village’s graves, an affront she cannot bear.

Like Astou, Mantoa is a vulnerable figure in the community she disrupts. A solitary, elderly widow, short on political capital, grief-addled and eccentric, she is rendered an outcast even before she challenges the local authorities, all of whom are men. “Take off your cloak for mourning, for your mourning period has long ended,” advises our griot in a low, hoarse voice in the film’s first thirty minutes, “lest they confuse you for a sorceress who is struck by madness.” Nonetheless, Mantoa refuses to distance herself from the dead, and eventually, her community begins to see her resolve as neither mad nor witchy, but rather wisely protective of their spiritual inheritance. Just as her stand against the resettlement is threatening to gain greater legitimacy, someone hidden by night and assumed to be working on behalf of the developers sets her home on fire. Continued looming, faceless violence makes any option other than resettlement untenable for the village.

Laughter, in This Is Not a Burial, comes sparse, strained, or shadowed by foreboding. When Mantoa marches past a group of children at play, their carefree cheer only underscores her marked stoicism. Where Astou’s mischief-making is always accompanied by a twinkle in the eye, a wry twist of the mouth, Mantoa’s acts carry the weight of somber martyrdom. At Puk Nini’s end, all the women—the cuckolded wife, the outcast sex worker, and a beleaguered sister-in-law—are laughing. It is a throaty laughter, at the expense of the men who have vexed or violated them. When This Is Not a Burial nears its end, the village goes silent. Mantoa, refusing displacement, slowly disrobes and walks back toward home. For a moment, all that is heard is the wind. Then, a chilling, thready sound, a mystic’s music. It drowns out the shouts of the men who would dare to forget the grace of her body, her land.

The virtual edition of the New York African Film Festival highlighted the perspectives of African women, whether as directors or protagonists.Read MoreArt in America, Reviews, African art, filmARTnews.comRead More

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