Director/Screenwriter: Alain Gomis
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I recently had the pleasure of meeting African-American storyteller Michael D. McCarty when he came to the Chicago area to bring his mostly African tales to eager audiences at the Fox Valley Folk Music and Storytelling Festival. His performance was a reminder of how rich in wonder and home truths the world’s stories are and why films that tap these ancient fables are so compelling.
I received a reminder of this fact yesterday as I watched the Senegalese film Tey. Director/screenwriter Alain Gomis introduced the film by asking us not to worry about the confusing premise too much and just focus on the present. Good advice, because Tey tells the story of one day—the last day—in the life of a young man, a fact known, celebrated, and mourned throughout his community.
The opening moments of Tey put us directly into the doomed man’s shoes. Satché’s (Saul Williams) eyes flutter open and we see what he sees—his bare stomach and the top of his pants. His hands pat his stomach, and then we hear some crying and wailing. Satché emerges from the bedroom to the hugs and tears of his family and friends as they mourn his impending loss. They go into the courtyard of the compound and sit in a circle. Satché’s father praises God that his son was chosen, and the assembled offer testimonials both kind and cruel about Satché. His mother (Mariko Arame) has the final word, a heartbroken mother telling how much she will miss him. Then it is time for Satché’s best friend Sélé (Djolof Mbengue) to take him out and ask him, “What do you want to do?” The rest of the film chronicles how Satché chooses to spend his final day of life.
Satché’s fate echoes through many stories I’ve heard over the years, particularly from Joseph Campbell, including the grace killing of the noble hostage well told in the Brazilian film How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (1971). Christians might see the story of Christ in this tale of a man chosen by God to die, but it’s hard to know if Satché’s death will be a transformative sacrifice for his community despite the honors bestowed upon him and joy surrounding him. There is something of the heroic soldier here, a man who has seen “the fear,” as the people he encounters call it. Yet, we also see a child soldier in camoflage fatigues carrying a weapon as Satché scans the streets of Dakar, somewhat undercutting the notion of the bravery society assigns to state-sanctioned violence.
What is most important, and what director Gomis emphasized in the post-screening Q&A, is the familiar admonishment to live each day as though it were your last. For Gomis, this is not a call to achieve as much as you can in whatever time you have, as it is in many Western societies. Indeed, Satché is chosen in the prime of life, before he has been able to put his American schooling into practice to help rebuild Senegal; he will never have the chance to rush to achievement as the fictitious Mozart did in Amadeus (1984).
Instead, Gomis focuses on connection, on living completely in the moment. This realization creeps up on Satché, coming to fruition when he finally grieves for himself after Uncle Thiemo (Jean Mendy), the man he has asked to wash him for burial, demonstrates on Satché in both a chilling and oddly reverential moment what he will do to prepare Satché for paradise. After this, Satché’s life force weakens, and he must be helped as Sélé walks him to his home and gives him the left-handed handshake that signals they will not see each other again for a very long time. Gingerly, Satché pushes open the metal doors portentously marked with Xs and goes into the courtyard of his home to see his wife Rama (Anisia Uzeyman) and two young children for the last time and lay down that evening to die.
With handheld and stationary cameras, Gomis’ cinematographer Christelle Fournier shoots extreme close-ups and scanning shots as Satché takes in his surroundings and the people in his life. We see leaves and the shadows the leaves make on the ground. We watch Satché drink the milk out of a coconut from a young man who is heavily in debt to a missionary school, and we wonder who is more unfortunate—the educated young man who will be in servitude to a debt for many years to come or the one who will not wake up the next morning. Uncle Thiemo tells Satché that he will actually live longer than someone who does not know when he will die because Satché has the awareness to really take in the most important aspects of his life in his final day. Indeed, Gomis recreates the feeling of all times converging in a single moment of being completely alive when Satché sits in his compound with Rama and sees his children, now teenagers, say good-bye and walk out the gate.
During the Q&A, Gomis commented on the positive changes Senegal has been undergoing slowly as more of the young people who went abroad to get educated and find opportunities are returning to the country, a detail he added to Satché’s story. We were shocked to learn that there are no movie theatres left in Senegal, and therefore, this film will not be seen in its own country outside of a cultural center or two that might set up a screening. He said he cast American actor Saul Williams as Satché because he admired Williams’ acting abilities, because he looks so Senegalese, and because his lack of knowledge of the languages spoken by the other cast members would give him an aura of standing a bit outside of the everyday world.
Gomis’ instincts were dead-on in every aspect. Tey is a hauntingly beautiful film that confronts our peculiarly human tragedy of knowing we will die, and gives us a few answers about coping with that frightening inevitability.
Tey screens Tuesday, October 16, at 2:30 p.m. Alain Gomis is scheduled to attend the screening. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago.
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