Borom Sarret opens to the stark emptiness of a black screen, evocatively filled by the sound of a solemn, mystical tribal chant incanted amid the asynchrony of a blunt, rhythmic beat. The darkness subsequently reveals a high contrast, daylight shot of the impoverished native quarters, cutting to a shot of the supplicant (Ly Abdoulaye) praying for benediction in the foreground with his wife silently toiling in the background, as the pair assiduously perform their disparate (and intrinsically revelatory) rituals at the break of dawn. Retrieving his family’s sole possession – the horse Albourah – from a clearing, the unnamed man then leaves to fetch his wooden cart in order to earn a paltry income as a borom sarret, (a derivative of the French term bonhomme charret), a horse-cart driver for hire operating around the native quarters of Dakar, often picking up equally destitute passengers who can only offer an indebted (and indefinite) promise of payment or a wordless, ambiguous handshake in lieu of the fare. Nevertheless, the day seemingly turns auspicious as actual paying customers begin to hire his services – an overloaded delivery of construction concrete blocks and an expectant couple hurrying to the hospital for the birth of their child – begin to replace the destitute early morning commuters (and presumptuous hitchhikers) catching a free ride to the main town square. With earned money in hand, he decides to stop at an intersection in order to enjoy the idyllic morning, eat his meager kola nut lunch, and tend to a persistently squeaking wheel on his cart before being distracted by the uplifting voice of a traditional singer performing on the street. The singer’s ancient tales enhearten the borom sarret, evoking images of his ancestral family’s nobility and former glory, and in an act of impulsive and negligent pride, magnanimously hands over his entire earnings to the charismatic singer. Now running out of time and anxious to recuperate his lost income, the desperate borom sarret begins to accept a series of desperate and dubious passengers, and soon finds himself driving his outmoded, derelict cart into the modernized – and forbidden – hillside colonial-era community appropriately called the Heights.
Marking the cinematic debut of Senegalese novelist and Moscow-trained filmmaker Ousmane Sembene – and also representing the earliest film directed by an indigenous filmmaker in sub-Sahara Africa – Borom Sarret is a spare and distilled, yet lucid, innovative, and socially incisive portrait of poverty, marginalization, servility, and exploitation. Filming in high contrast black and white and implementing an asynchronous soundtrack and narrative voice-over (in order to work around equipment limitation), Sembene creates an implicit dichotomy between words and images – between a disenfranchised person’s seemingly assertive thoughts and his contradictory, compliant actions – that illustrate the ingrained – and largely self-perpetuated – cultural behavior among the poor and working class that continue to foster social stratification even under the egalitarian ideals of the nation’s post-colonial, native sovereignty. Sembene further conveys socio-economic polarization through visually recurring point-of-view shots taken from the exaggerated perspective of an acute angled camera that figuratively reflect class disparity: the disfigured beggar’s humble plea for alms as the lazing borom sarret feigns unawareness; the peripheral activity of a crouching shoeshine boy who helplessly allows a customer to leave without paying (as the singer panders to the gullible borom sarret on the street corner); the defeated image of the borom sarret bowing down to reclaim a souvenir medal as the police officer deliberately steps on the article while issuing a ticket. It is this dysfunctional and inextricable entanglement between covetousness and idle ambition, condescension and self-pity, braggadocio and moral defeatism that is ultimately reflected in the transitional shots of the iconic, towering edifice that looms over the road leading away from the native quarters – a delusive symbol of unity and exclusion, self-authority and corruption, empowerment and emasculation.
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