Series of reviews on the work of directors Safi Faye and Khady Sylla

Co-editors of the series: Tabara Korka Ndiaye and Rama Salla Dieng

Khady Sylla and Safi Faye, names that should resonate in our collective imagination as they were pioneers in their art and in their lives because for them, art is life. Their life and their work have particularly moved us. However, they seem to carry within them the mark of those destined to be muses ahead of their time! The toll is heavy. So heavy! And so dramatic. We remain hungry. On the promise of a potential. We remain on the regret of what they could have been, should have been, so celebrated as the monstrously gigantic Sembène. We remain on the si…on the flower of the whole work of which they were fruitful.

Safi Faye has directed thirteen films in all: La Passante (1972), Revanche (1973), Kaddu Beykat (Peasant Letter) (1975), Fad’jal Goob na nu (The Harvest is Over) (1979), Man Sa Yay ( 1980), Souls in the Sun (1981), Selbé and So Many Others (1982), 3 Years 5 Months (1983), Nourishing Embassies (1984), Black Roots (1985), Tesito (1989), Filming Mossane (1990 ) and Mossane (1996).

She was especially interested in the rural world, the emancipation of women as well as economic independence and the weight of traditions, all in Serer country.

Khady Sylla, for her part, was keen on self-exploration, to theorize from her own experience. First that of the marginalized of society with Les bijoux (1998), Colobane Express (1999) which captures the experience of urban transport with a fast bus driver and his apprentice, then his own with An open window (2005) in which she talks about mental health and finally Le monologue de la muette (2008) which talks about the working conditions of ‘maids’. Previously, in 1992, Khady Sylla published a superb novel with L’Harmattan: le jeu de la mer. Khady juggles words as she clings to them because they keep her alive. As she acknowledges in An Open Window: ‘we can heal by walking’.

In this series, we offer you our shared views on the work of Safi Faye and Khady Sylla, those of a curator, creative and researcher Tabara Korka Ndiaye whose project is called ‘Sulli Ndaanaan’ and that of an author , creative and academic, Rama Salla Dieng, passionate about documenting the life and work of the forgotten, marginalized and silent, both fond of film, music and literature.

The game of the sea: Khady Sylla, spin the dream machine

Author: Rama Salla Dieng

Le jeu de la mer by Khady Sylla is a novel published in the ‘Encres noirs’ collection of L’Harmattan Paris in 1992. Of Khady Sylla, a multi-talented author, you remember the films more today than the writings.

When you finally hold the book in your hands, it’s first this black and white image of Khady, captivating and mysterious gaze, discreet lipstick, shaved head and large hoop earrings, that catches your attention. . You imagine this photo in color because Khady’s writing is sparkling, sublime, unexpected. What words then inhabit this young woman of twenty-nine when her novel appears? Above the photo, the description promises a story, an enigma in reality, inhabited by three names: as many characters: Rama, Aïssa and Assane.

Then you wander your gaze over the cover. You admire the sublime photo of an empty boat facing the sea, taken by Stéphane Weber in July 1990 in Nianing. The poetic and promising title like an invitation: the game of the sea written in large black characters, intrigues you just like this canoe which faces eternity.

You discover over the pages that Rama and Aïssa, the two young girls with the magic words, live in a house on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Their square courtyard, surrounded by casuarinas, eucalyptus and bougainvilleas which lived their most vivacious oranges, pinks and reds, is the scene of their games, songs and laughter.

And you also realize that the polysemy of the word ‘game’ inhabits all the scenes of this superb story. Indeed, when evening comes, facing the lively and living sea whose eddies lick the foundations of their shelter, Rama and Aïssa play wure (Awalé), this game of strategy and calculation accompanied by a verbal jousting, in an ebony boat. It’s the moment of truth: ‘wure wa dem na këŋ, wax i ma dem na ndeeñ taale‘. The game can begin: ‘Game of the sea!’ And the dream machine is on!

The elements of nature conspire to make the setting conducive to the unbridling of their extraordinary imagination. This game of creation is done according to the play of the sea and the play of the halo of light from the lamp which ‘projected an excessive shadow on the table’ p.9. The sea then becomes the bed where their fantasies are projected, fruits of their fertile imagination: ‘The house seized with unreality, took on the artificial appearance of a setting lit by invisible projectors’ (p.7) or: ‘ the black sheets of the night spread over the house’ (p.9).

During the day, Rama and Aïssa become masters of the word and create tales. Installed on the end of a cliff overlooking the ocean as if at the end of their world, they reveal themselves as demiurges by the power of their harvest of pearls from the evening game, in turn, and according to well-defined rules. ‘The place favored the daytime flowering of speech. The tales could emerge on this limit and the day extend its dreams’ (p.24). In this enchanting setting at the border of fantasy, speech, link and binder between Rama and Aïssa, becomes the bridge between reality and fantasy: ‘Free and full speech traveled from one throat to another, bringing together ‘a thin thread, the fragments of a foreseen universe’ (p.12).

Of Rama and Aïssa, you know nothing else except their fascination for the game of the sea. Moreover, their surprising physical resemblance seems to give meaning to the expression ‘like two drops of water’. Indeed, they both come from the same mould, fleeting black statuettes. Only the gaze distinguished them’ (p.24). Are they twins? Sisters? You don’t know anything about it and you won’t know any more, at least not yet, not right away because Khady Sylla, poetess and prophetess looking like Rama and Aïssa, creates a world where speech creates worlds and beings in the world. No, the word itself isshe is a world and a character in her own right… giving birth to other small characters, from tales to myths to farandoles!

So many worlds, endlessly!

A cosmogony of the novel!

Ah! It’s a story !

Narrated admirably in the tempo of speech.

Always placing themselves face to face, their power of creation unites their destiny, they who play, laugh, dance and wander according to their stories. Their world pitches on the crest of words, entirely contained on the tenuous yet overflowing thread of imagination with wide shores. However, beyond the twin singularity and this common destiny, a different being in the world seemed to separate them and threatened their precarious balance. Rama respects mysteries and questions with equal gentleness, likes to take refuge at times in the world of memories, follows the rules of creation to the letter. For her part, Aïssa cherishes nothing more than breaking them, in her quest for clarity and answers: the mystery exasperates her.

So you keep wondering about Rama and Aïssa, characters as fascinating as they are enigmatic. Just like Assane, intrepid detective and ‘head of the unreal department’, on their heels and yet having no other clue than their beauty. Assane makes surprising encounters and collects testimonies as incongruous as they are disconcerting.

And yet, you discover stunned that the calculated disorders that the twins sow on their way are a prodrome of confluences between the protagonists. The mystery deepens before being resolved for the three beings whose lives are ineluctably entangled.

And how !

Your breath is short and hissing, your irises dilated, your heart pounding wildly. Then the denouement frees you in a way that is as beautiful and captivating as it is unexpected.

You come to the ultimate conclusion that Khady Sylla had a gift: that of double vision conferred by uncreated speech. But pregnant, Khady, like Assane, also has a grip on words. Freed speech, which possesses them and of which they make a whole world, Rama and Aïssa also have the gift and the power.

It is that at the turn of the words, exist worlds, created by the same words.

Genesis and generation.

Living and happy prophetesses have the intuition and the vision.

Khady Sylla, daughter of water, had the gift of speech.

A simple word.

Here’s what Khady had to say about the sea game:

‘After the publication of my novel The game of the sea in 1992, a friend advised me to send it to Jean Rouch. I did and a week later Jean Rouch called me. I then heard his very particular voice, this slightly singing voice of the great dreamer. Jean told me that my book had enchanted him because the two main characters, the two twins Rama and Aissa were water girls. I had heard of the water girls before. My grandmother once told me that my mother was a water girl and we had a hard time keeping her alive.’[1]

Later, you will watch the film ‘Une simple parole’ by Khady and Mariama Sylla. You will then realize the ultimate fascination of Khady, her sister Mariama and their mother for the sea. So you know that Khady defined herself as a water girl: a pure and introverted person who is not attached to material things …but for Khady, as for Rama and Aïssa, this definition is literal.

No other empire interests them than that of speech. Because it is the key to the myth of their creation; in fact of all creation.

Later, one day, perhaps, you will also come across Jean-Paul-Sartre’s poem: ‘I am a boy who does not want to grow up‘ and you’ll ask, what if, what if…

But damn it yes!

Khadi, tragic angelwill remain a girl of the water that growing up made sick.

Ultimate poet, she gave us the gift of literature.

From his simple word.

His sincere word.

Pictures 1-4: Stephane Weber

Photo 5: Rama Salla Dieng

[1] Testimony collected from Mariama Sylla, director and sister of Khady.