The Little Girl who Sold the Sun
English Title: The Little Girl who Sold the Sun
Country of Origin: Senegal
Studio: Waka Films
Director: Djibril Diop Mambéty
Screenplay: Djibril Diop Mambéty
Cinematographer: Jacques Besse
Editor: Sarah Taouss-Matton
Runtime: 45 minutes
Language: Wolof, French, Arabic
Volume: African / Nigerian
The Little Girl who Sold the Sun (which will subsequently be referred to as Little Girl) is Mambety’s second short film in his trilogy exploring the subject of money and its perverse effects on society, referred to as ‘Tales of Little [and sometimes Ordinary] People’ (Histoires de petites gens). Le Franc (1994) is the first instalment of this trilogy. Little Girl was being edited at the time of Mambety’s death in 1998 and the trilogy was thus left incomplete. Little Girl is the colourful story of Sili Laam (played by Lissa Baléra), a paraplegic and impoverished child who begs for money until she is trampled by a gang of young newspaper sellers. This physical collision awakens her to her potential and its possible fulfilment: she, like the boys, can sell newspapers and earn a living. Sili embraces this consciousness and from then on builds her future through her own power of determination. Her aspiration is legitimate, yet she is bullied by the boys who see her entering “their” market and territory as unwanted competition, to be kept out by any means necessary. Despite the completely unbalanced battleground and their common need for survival, the taunting of the boys is as relentless as it is unwarranted.
‘We are done for if we have traded our souls for money. That is why childhood is my last refuge’. These grave words are those of Senegalese writer-director Djibril Diop Mambety whose auteurist body of work, spanning three decades, is a critical reflection on Senegalese culture. Explored through the prism of childhood, Little Girl challenges issues of power relations through economic dependence, disability and gender, blending with subtlety fantastical and folktale elements with social realism, to create a moving and refreshingly optimistic story of courage and resilience.
As a beggar, Sili was standing by the roadside, whereas as a newspaper seller she walks through the city’s streets. Long shots are used to emphasise her restriction of action and strikingly jerked movements, this “gesturality” being an effect specifically sought by Mambety. However, the impairment of Sili’s body is subordinated throughout to the power of her will and intellect. Hers is a constant journey forward. Her openness and receptivity to challenges are indicated by her confident “let’s go”, further corroborated by the push forward with her crutch, a recurrent leitmotiv. The spectator is also intermittently reminded of her unfailing determination through the use of sound and the pounding resonance of her crutches on the ground.
The explicit parallel between the young boys’ demeaning behaviour and the practices of the World Bank and IMF is unambiguous, and is articulated through the diegetic announcement of the devaluation of the West African currency, the CFA Franc. Allegorically, the continent’s value is being diminished; literally, it is the importance of money which is itself being devalued. Whereas the former event appears to be negative, Mambety posits the latter as positive inasmuch as relationships may therefore be based on other, more sustainable principles. Literally, Africa grows independent, but this comes at a price, as Sili experiences when, envious of her new independence, the boys finally succeed in impeding her by stealing one of her crutches.
The opening and closing scenes of Little Girl encourage active spectatorship. The opening scene shows a woman accused of theft and taken to a police station. The mise-en-scène is apparent, with passive onlookers lining up an “arena” where the woman is caught. Angrily, she undresses herself in public - a typical form of female resistance to power and oppression in certain African societies. Similarly, when Sili exhibits her ten thousand CFA francs note, a policeman accuses her of theft, and with her characteristic resolve she challenges him. Not only does she successfully argue her case, but she also draws a parallel to the condition of the imprisoned woman, and easily obtains her release. By eschewing realism and the bureaucracy such a decision involves, the spectator glimpses the realm of the fantastic. In the last scene, despite the loss of her familiar support (the crutch), Sili is not deterred, and as her friend carries her on his back, both confidently march into a bright light of aspiration. As the film draws to its conclusion, the voice-over announces “this tale is thrown to the sea”, followed by Sili stating that “the first to breathe it in will go to heaven”, reminding us again of our own gaze.
Whereas Touki Bouki and Hyenas, two of Mambety’s earlier seminal films, express a pessimistic view of postcolonial Senegalese as well as African societies as a whole, Little Girl’s representation of children’s experiences is boldly and defiantly forward-looking. Africa may be dis-abled by historical socio-economic factors, but through gender equality and by adhering to traditional principles of sharing and solidarity, she may stand, fight and thrive. By persistently illuminating Sili’s face by sunshine, her smile and unfailing courage in turn illuminate the screen, the story itself and the way forward. The journey is a difficult one, riddled with obstacles by those whose interests are challenged, but it is an explicit hope which Mambety invitingly “throws to the sea”. His wish that his films are as much his as that of his audience becomes realised: the march’s direction is now in the spectator’s control, and as Sili and Babou leave the screen, we may breathe it in and continue on.
Author of this review: Rosa Abidi