CAPSULE: A museum docent in Goree, Senegal tells museum visitors about how people were collected, imprisoned, and sent to the New World, but he has never seen the New World himself. Then a dream sends him on a quest to the United States to help a relative he has never meant. Through him we see the United States and especially West Harlem through the eyes of an outsider as we see how life is different. He forms a relationship--shaky at first but later warm--with a cousin who does not know he is a relative. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Alloune (played by Sotigui Kouyate) is an elderly docent at a museum of slavery in Goree, Senegal. The building, a prison really, was once a holding pen for slaves being kidnapped and sent to sea to be sold in other parts of the world. He begins to have strange dreams that he must go to the United States and find a relative, relation unknown, and to save him. Alloune believes he has to fulfill the demands he was given by an ancestor. With little understanding of how different the United States is from the land he has known, he travels to South Carolina. But too much time has passed, too many of the old family names have been changed, and this is not where his distant cousins would be. The search takes Alloune to New York City and the Senegalese community in the area of West Harlem called Little Senegal.
Alloune finds a distant cousin, Ida (Sharon Hope), running a newsstand, and he goes to work for her as a watchman and helper without revealing his mission or even that she is a relative. At first Alloune cannot please Ida. She wants nothing to do with anything in the past. She does not even like Africans. But Alloune realizes she is a woman of the New World with her eyes on the present and the future. Alloune lives more in the past. With patience Alloune forms a bond with his cousin. Eventually the two become warm friends, as he is able to see how family relationships are different in the United States than back in his home country. Meanwhile Ida's young granddaughter shows up at the newsstand one day, at least seven months pregnant and unwilling to name the father. Alloune realizes he must bring harmony to a family that does not want any part of their African heritage.
Kouyate seems a little mystified by the whole experience of dealing with reality out of Senegal. His performance is a little flat, but he is more than made up for by the human thunderstorm that is Ida.
LITTLE SENEGAL is an Algerian-French-German co-production shot on location on what appears to be a very modest budget. It received a release in France in 2001, but beyond film festival showings it was not available the United States until August 30, 2011. Cinema Libre has released it on DVD. Director Rachid Bouchareb had already been nominated once for an Academy Award for his 1995 film POUSSIERES DE VIE when he made LITTLE SENEGAL. In the interim he was nominated again for his OUTSIDE THE LAW (2010). Bouchareb coauthored the screenplay with Olivier Lorelle. He is concerned with ethnic tensions of white and black, but the tensions he is dealing with are from three hundred years ago. More engagingly, he deals with tensions and distrust between African-Americans and African-Africans.
I rate LITTLE SENEGAL a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0268424/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/little_senegal/
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2011 Mark R. Leeper