A gender-bending farce set among the cliff-dwelling 18th century Dogon people, makes serious points about the status of women in Africa. It shows how ancient mythology can still shed light on modern issues.
Director Adama Drabo has devised a gender-bending farce set among the 18th Century Dogon to make some serious points about the status of women in Africa today.
This proleptic tale about a comic revolution in which women's and men's roles are reversed was, in part, inspired by the actual role women played in Mali's 1991 revolution. Drabo surprisingly found the germ for his domestic comedy from a program on Dogon mythology he heard over Malian radio. He then wrote a script which provides a stunning illustration of Marcel Griaule's observation that, "In the Dogon system of myth, social life must reflect the working of the universe, and conversely, the world order depends on the proper ordering of society." (Griaule, Marcel and Germaine Dieterlen 1954 "The Dogon", in African Worlds: Studies in the Cosmological Ideas and Social Values of African Peoples, edited by Daryll Forde, P. 83.)
Therefore Taafe Fanga's story of sexual politics in a Dogon village necessarily involves the interpenetration of cosmogeny, history and the still unfolding present. The Dogon believe that all difference in the universe began with the splitting of the primal fonio seed into an ever-expanding spiral of space-time which can only be held together by a careful balancing or "twinning" of opposing energies. In Taafe Fanga, this tension reappears in the parallel stories of four women who challenge male supremacy among the Dogon's legendary elf-like andumbulu spirit ancestors; their semi-historical human descendants, the indigenous, cave-dwelling Tellem; the Dogon who invaded and massacred the Tellem in the 17th century (leaving them a place only in folklore;) and finally their present-day listeners to this tale.
Myth, storytelling and now film link past and future, as symbolized in the opening scene by the arrival of a traditionally robed griot at a contemporary urban compound. He flips off a television program (some fatuous Hollywood musical) and decides to tell a Dogon tale about the "battle between the sexes," when a proud woman pushes aside an arrogant young man to sit in the "men's section" of the courtyard.
Ambara, a village elder, impulsively decides to marry a younger woman because his wife, Timbe, hasn't gathered firewood to heat his bath. Her younger friend, Yayeme, is beaten by her husband, Agro, when the other men accuse him of being "a woman's slave" for bringing home the firewood. An infuriated Yayeme defies his warning about the evil andumbulus and sets off in the dark to forage for brush. There she encounters and overwhelms what she takes to be one of these bush spirits and makes off with its powerful mask.
Yayeme has unwittingly stumbled onto the rare Sigi ritual, and has stolen the mask from a young Tellem woman, Yandju, who in turn has stolen the mask to protest women's exclusion from the ritual. The Dogon believed the Tellem held the Sigi ritual every 60 years to expiate the transgressions of their andumbulu forebearers. This woman who stole the earth's powerful raffia skirt, stained red with its menstrual blood or mud, thus brings death on her husband and all her descendants. In the Sigi ritual, (which women are still strictly forbidden to view) men dressed as women in these red fiber fertility skirts bind the dangerous spiritual energy unleashed by death which threatens to rip apart the normal spiral of life. The ceremony is presided over by the powerful Albarga mask which symbolizes social harmony and the proper balance between the sexes.
Timbe convinces Yayeme that the mask has been sent by Anma, god of justice, in answer to her prayer for revenge against Ambara and all male arrogance. The next day Yayeme, disguised in the mask, demands that the terrorized Dogon men from now on exchange roles with the women. Drabo exploits the full comedic possibilities of this "triumph of the skirts over the shorts" as the men prove predictably clumsy homemakers and are so exhausted by the end of the day they feign sleep to stave off their wives sexual advances. These scenes are met with uproarious responses from African audiences, because traditional gender roles remain largely unchanged.
The women soon recognize that their purpose was not simply to perpetuate gender stereotypes and injustice in reverse or to imbalance the world in the opposite direction. Timbe says: "Men and women are here to complement each other. Let's use our power now to bring equality among us. Let's share everything: work, happiness and misfortune." Later in a pointed reference to contemporary African development, Timbe points out that both sexes will be needed for an irrigation project which can again make the earth fertile: "The purpose of taking power is to make a better world...No nation is built without hard work - but it can't be done by excluding men" - or women.
In Taafe Fanga, Drabo has revised the Sigi myth (which seems originally to have expressed male anxiety over female control of fecundity) into a myth about women's right to resist patriarchy, in the griot's words, "to fight for the right to be different and equal. This film, along with Drabo's 1991 feature Ta Dona provide important examples of how contemporary African artists are freely reappropriating traditional belief systems to illuminate pressing social issues.
"This blend of folklore and social realism, bolstered by spirited acting, doesn't skirt the issues or bang viewers over the head with them...Solidly entertaining." - Variety "Taafe Fanga, through humor and imagination, offers a masterful and utterly involving introduction to the Dogon worldview. It shows how this ancient mythology still sheds light on modern issues through a wry tale of women's continuing struggles against male power." - Cherif Keita, Carleton College "A remarkable achievement . . . Drabo employs reversal to reveal and provoke rethinking of established notions of tradition, gender and desire at the same time he suggests alternatives." - Mbye Cham, Howard University
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