The Seattle International Film Festival begins its 2009 season this Thursday! Stay tuned to the Teen Tix blog for reviews of this year's films by many of our Teen Reviewers.
Princess of Africa
Reviewed by Emma K.
Marem Ndiaye is a dancer. This is the premise on which Juan Laguna’s documentary Princess of Africa is set. Beautifully shot and articulated, the film examines ambition, jealousy, and family against the backdrop of cultural divides. The setting is as big a character as the people themselves from the beginning – opening on a shot of Marem, a young girl, dancing on a beach in her native Senegal, the film sets the stage to examine the marriage between culture and dance, as well as the line drawn between the talented and the untalented.
In the village of Louga lives the family of Pap Ndiaye, an admired “griot”, or musician. Two of his three wives, Kine (Marem’s mother) and Fama, keep his household running while he performs in Europe. The humble home overflows with people – both women’s children and mothers are there laughing, working, and supporting Pap. Everyone praises him and casually describes how life in this plural marriage works: when he is home, Pap alternates between wives every two days. When asked if this lifestyle creates any discord, Kine’s mother shrugs and says, “We are poor, we are black, we agree.”
A question this film examines at length is whether or not this harmony is real. In many ways it is, but as more figures are introduced it reveals itself to be precarious. The force behind any uncertainty is Sonia, the third wife. She is a dancer, she is Spanish, and she is Pap’s self professed true love. Kine and Fama say that the arrangement between the three is natural – when she visits, she understands the Senegalese culture, an attitude “uncommon in a white person”. But is there real understanding between everyone? The passion of Sonia’s dance makes Pap love her, inspires Marem, but plants envy in the hardworking hearts of his African wives. Marem’s aspirations are supported, but they are also a constant reminder that she has the kind of talent that drew Pap to Sonia – that drew him away from Kine and Fama.
Princess of Africa is a documentary but the story has such depth that is sometimes feels as though it was written by someone with tremendous insight. Each person articulates themselves so well that the dialogue feels like poetry in places, and as each figure’s true emotions are revealed so are some fascinating questions – despite being the chosen one, is Sonia in turn jealous of Pap’s other wives? Does dancing in Europe give Marem the liberty she felt when she danced in her own courtyard? Is talent something that cannot be denied?
Director Juan Laguna’s desired connection between a family’s private life and dance does not follow through in every respect. Some of the situations in which he tries to blend the two are not cohesive, but the powerful attention given to the social stigma of being ungifted is intriguing. This theme delivers. Also interesting are the ways in which certain elements are portrayed. In the U.S., where polygamy has become a source of debate as well as an overused punch line, it is refreshing to see the response to plural marriage in a culture that wholeheartedly accepts it. It is given a humanistic meaning as various figures react to it in their own ways – it is the norm, but does that make it easy to live with? Also extremely pertinent is the attention given to ethnicity. Sonia is constantly referred to as the “white person” – even Pap says he finds her mesmerizing because “no other white person” is like her. By developing this theme, the film accentuates the distinction between, but also the beauty of, different races.
This documentary achieves a difficult unification between the burdens and blessings of a culture, and the freedoms and restrictions of art. By incorporating sequences that look like watercolor paintings, and at times ironic music, the film becomes more that an expose on race and marriage. It muses on the life that surrounds Marem, the daughter of an African who aspires to live a life like that of the only white woman she knows. Whether or not what she sees around her will influence Marem towards or away from her dream is the crux of this story. If this film is any indication of the fresh and versatile stories that will presented at SIFF, then you do not want to miss this year’s festival.
Princess of Africa plays at Pacific Place Cinema
June 4th at 9:15pm and June 7th at 1:45pm
visit www.siff.net for more information, and info on how to order tickets.