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Cheick Oumar Sissoko, who lives and works in Mali, has looked around and noticed that his fellow filmmakers in sub-Saharan Africa are few--"and due to our financial need (great with regard to our savings, though meager in relation to the international film industry), it seems to me that our films are not allowed the luxury of anecdote." Nothing less than "the deep-rooted realities of Africa" will do--realities that include civil war and genocide, as well as the occasional hope of reconciliation.
So he begins his new film with this dedication: "To all victims of fratricide--to all who make peace."
Set within a parched landscape dominated by a flat, steep-sided mountain, Sissoko's film is a tale of interrelated yet warring tribes: an encampment of nomadic herders, a troop of hunters and brigands, an agricultural community living within a town of rough stone walls. These people and their setting may seem primitive (to a contemporary African viewer, no less than to an American). And yet, as we quickly learn, the characters feel themselves to be anything but timeless. Certainties and restraints have crumbled; a younger generation, respecting no law, piles havoc upon mass murder, mass murder upon rape. The fiercest of the old leaders watches from a distance, waiting only for his chance at plunder and revenge. The wisest retreats to his tent, planning to mourn away what remains of his life.
Such is the Africa that Sissoko depicts in Genesis, his adaptation of the Jacob cycle in the first book of the Bible.
A work of deep conscience and imagination, of great visual beauty and human presences that are indelibly strong, Genesis proves to be a remarkably faithful adaptation, despite the relocation of the action to the southwest. Nor is it a violation of the text that Sissoko (aided by screenwriter Jean-Louis Sagot-Duvauroux) takes liberties with the chronology. Like the ancient rabbis, who deliberately ignored "before" and "after" in their readings of the Bible, the filmmakers reorder events to make Jacob the thoroughly abject figure you see at the start of Genesis.
He is a hunted man, relentlessly pursued by his brother Esau (played by music star Salif Keita). Standing on a hill overlooking Jacob's encampment, Esau narrows his eyes and howls an echoing denunciation of his brother for having long ago taken his birthright--stolen it, to Esau's way of thinking. Now Esau and his men circle like predators, waiting for the prey to weaken.
Yet when we see Jacob (Sotigui Kouyaté), we find he is already helpless and alone. His favored wife, Rachel, has died. Her son Joseph, who was to be Jacob's heir, is missing, supposedly torn to pieces by wild beasts. The real beasts, as Jacob knows only too well, are the sons of his other wife, the unloved Leah, who sits in bitterness outside his tent.
As if to complete the misery, a local prince rapes Jacob's daughter, Dina (Fatoumata Diawara). Although the young man quickly repents and asks to marry Dina--who seems willing to accept this restitution--Jacob is unable to enforce the peace he negotiates. Ignoring their father's wishes, Leah's sons go off and murder every man in the prince's town, down to the howling infants, so that only the chief is left--old Hamor (Balla Moussa Keita), Jacob's distant cousin. He lives to bear witness to Jacob's uselessness, while Dina, driven mad, hangs by Hamor's side, laughing and mocking.
All this, and more that's equally desperate, you may find in the Bible itself. What you won't find is the stampede through the corn, as Leah's sons drive their cattle through crops on the way toward the massacre. In the Bible, you won't find shadows stretching onward in late afternoon, as the killing draws to its close; you won't see how characters scoop handfuls of dust onto their faces, to demonstrate their grief. Some of Sissoko's inventions seem to spring directly from African storytelling: for example, an episode of burlesque playacting, which later calls to account one of Leah's miscreant sons. Other devices are purely cinematic, such as the color-coding of the costumes. The mournful Jacob dresses in blue and keeps his head wrapped in a turban; Hamor is in white, topped by a tasseled hat that is surely meant to evoke a limp penis; Esau, who rages beneath a broad, arrowlike cap, wears the color of baked clay and dried blood.
And then there is the flight of brilliance with which Sissoko brings the film to its climax. With Esau closing in and redemption apparently out of his grasp, Jacob passes the night wrestling with God, or an angel, or (as the Bible says) "a man." Rather than show the face of any of the above, Sissoko has a swarm of small boys scurry out of the brush, to surround Jacob with an accusing chorus. The effect is stunning--not least because, in a single gesture, it moves Genesis from the primitivism of Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew to the high modernism of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron.
For those who have seen his 1995 feature Guimba (another film that uses a long-ago setting and bigger-than-life characters for sophisticated, contemporary purposes), Genesis will confirm that Cheick Oumar Sissoko is a very rare artist--and not only because he's from Mali. After being featured in New York City in the 7th African Diaspora Film Festival, the picture is now having a brief theatrical run at Anthology Film Archives. Hurry down.