Xalé 2022 ‧ Thriller ‧ 1h 41m

XALÉ Review: Tradition and Tragedy in Senegalese Filmmaker Moussa Sène Absa’s Seamless Genre-Hybrid

“Xalé” was the opening night film at the 2023 New York African Film Festival, which kicked off on May 10. Celebrating its 30th anniversary, check out the festival’s full lineup here.

“Xalé” (2022) is a film that demonstrates Moussa Sène Absa’s skill and sensibility as a filmmaker who is deeply rooted in Senegalese cinema and culture, while still maintaining an eye on the universal, highlighting its place within the rich tapestry of Senegalese filmmaking. As the final installment of a thought-provoking trilogy by Absa — following “Tableau Ferraille” (1995) and “L’Extraordinaire destin de Madame Brouette” (2002) — it further explores the themes and motifs that have woven their way through the filmmaker’s earlier works: the complexities of gender dynamics, societal expectations, and the quest for liberation within a patriarchal society.

“Xalé” revolves around the life of Awa, a determined and spirited 15-year-old girl happily living her teenage years in Dakar, alongside her twin brother Adama who dreams of Europe. The narrative takes a poignant turn when her grandmother’s dying wish — that her aunt Fatou and her uncle Atoumane promise to marry in order to preserve the family union — sets off a chain of events that dramatically reshape Awa’s life. Through her experiences, the film tells of unspoken stories and untold struggles.

One of “Xalé’s” defining strengths lies in its cultural specificity. Absa incorporates Senegalese folklore and music elements, imbuing the narrative with a sense of collective memory and cultural heritage. This deep connection to Senegalese traditions, showcased through storytelling techniques inspired by the griots, enriches the film’s portrayal of a Senegalese experience.

Absa’s trilogy takes its place in the timeline of Senegalese cinema, by honoring the legacy of past cinematic giants and bridging the gap with contemporary voices. It demonstrates the country’s ability to create compelling narratives that captivate audiences both at home and abroad, solidifying its position as a vital contributor to the global cinematic landscape.

“Xalé” draws inspiration from the influential work of Djibril Diop Mambéty, particularly in “The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun” (1999), about a girl who, refusing to be defined by her paraplegia, confidently makes her way through a city of obstacles, becoming the first girl to sell the national daily newspaper in the competitive world of young male vendors. A film Absa has referred to as a masterpiece, both his and Mambéty’s explore the journeys of determined young female protagonists defying societal norms.

“Xalé” also resonates with Mati Diop’s “Atlantics” (2019) with which it shares similar themes and aesthetics, exploring the issues of migration and its impact on Senegalese society and families, addressing the oppression and violence that women face within patriarchal societies, and incorporating elements of fantasy and revenge in their narratives.

In “Atlantics,” young men embark on perilous journeys to Europe, leaving behind loved ones and debts. Similarly, in “Xalé,” Awa’s brother plans to escape his situation by joining friends on a boat to Spain. Additionally, in both films, forced marriages and tragic events shape the lives of the characters. “Atlantics” explores the return of a spirit to reunite with a woman, while “Xalé” delves into a haunting interplay of spirits. The films intertwine ethereal realms with the struggles of their protagonists.

Ibrahima M’Baye and Rokhaya Niang in Xalé (2022)

However, while acknowledging these connections, “Xalé” also forges its own distinct path, exploring contemporary issues in Senegalese society and reflecting Absa’s artistic vision.

Furthermore, “Xalé” carries a universal resonance that transcends cultural boundaries, exploring themes that are universally relatable. The struggles faced by Awa and the women around her — such as gender inequality, the clash between personal aspirations and societal expectations, and the quest for empowerment — resonate with audiences worldwide, challenging viewers to question societal norms and empathize with characters facing systemic oppression.

In addition to its thematic depth, “Xalé’s” technical elements contribute to its impact. Visually, Absa and cinematographer Amath Niane’s work to further enhance the authenticity and emotional depth of the narrative, capturing the vibrancy of Dakar and the beauty of the Senegalese landscapes, even as the story retains a fatalistic outlook.

The performances are convincing, with Nguissaly Barry as Awa, conveying the emotional nuances of her character, drawing the audience into Awa’s journey of resilience and self-discovery.

Barry’s performance is complemented by her supporting cast — Mabeye Diol as the determined Adama, Ibrahima M’Baye as the treacherous Atoumane, and Rokhaya Niang as the vibrant Fatou.

“Xalé” stands as a noteworthy achievement, contributing to the rich tradition of storytelling and highlighting the diverse range of stories that emerge from Senegal. While each film in Absa’s trilogy stands on its own, “Xalé” adds depth and nuance to the overarching narrative. It examines the interconnectedness of the characters and their experiences, offering a multifaceted exploration of the lives of women in Senegal.

“Xalé” was the opening night film at the 2023 New York African Film Festival, which kicked off on May 10. Celebrating its 30th anniversary, check out the festival’s full lineup here.

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