Spoilers in this review.
Sango Malo by Bassek ba Kobhio is one of my favorite films from Africa to use for introducing African economic development issues. The film was released in the heady days of 1991 when a new generation thought there might be a possibility of transition from the one-party dictators who had taken over after independence and stifled the aspirations of the earlier generations. Late in the film a narrator recites a poem by Charles Ngandé, Indépendence, about the uncertain promise of the end of the colonial era.
In the film, Malo, a young radical teacher, tries to apply a Paolo Freire pedagogy of the oppressed to the schoolchildren of his class in Lebamzip. Sango, the headmaster, was also once young and idealistic and stubborn, but has seemingly turned into everything that Malo despises: selfish, authoritarian, uninterested in the well-being of the next generation, unwilling to change. The results of Malo’s experiments are predictable in the context. At the end of the film the village chief (represented almost as a caricature) defeats the upstart Malo, who is taken off to prison. What I like along the way is that all of the characters eventually get represented as humans, with complicated personalities and lives. Sango’s wife turns out to be quite wise, and their children, it seems, turned out to have gone astray. Sango is bitter for personal reasons. Vois-tout (See-all) turns out to be the village drunk because his entire family was killed in an accident. Even the chief is humanized: he is feared and ridiculed all at the same time, sometimes right in front of his face. And he knows he is also just a pawn in a larger, national stage. Towards the end of the film ba Kobhio nicely illustrates in a series of vignettes how the political is personal. The villagers especially remind Malo that his self-righteousness (“You think we are children?”) is often counter-productive. When his father-in-law commits suicide after Malo insists on not paying any dowry and not seeking approval for his marriage, the viewer is reminded, in a tiny scene, of the legitimate role of the chief (someone needs to decide what to do), the complexity of change, and the autonomy of the village deep in the forest where important things are local.
Don’t get me wrong. Sango Malo is not a great cinematic experience. Too didactic, little real acting. Too many B roll shots of people walking in the landscape. But it is an authentic cinematic experience, in the sense that a good storyteller has crammed a lot of interesting ideas into 90 minutes. My favorite line? Sango rebukes Malo: “You sound like Sekou Touré in 1958.” If only Stokely Carmichael had seen the film, somehow, back in 1971.