A Sengalese man struggles to shake off his grief after the death of his wife in this striking second feature


Source: Berlinale


Dir/scr: Mamadou Dia. Senegal/Germany/Qatar. 2024. 119mins

The fragmented mind and soul of a grieving widower takes possession of US-based Senegalese director Mamadou Dia’s edgy, striking second feature. It hijacks the story structure, it disrupts the edit, it even plays games with the focus pull. This is bracing experimental filmmaking, but it is grounded by an unmistakable commitment to the people, traditions and values of a close-knit community. It comes as no surprise to discover that the setting is a place the writer-director knows well – his native town of Matam in northern Senegal – and that most of the actors are local people.

Bracing experimental filmmaking

Demba is a more challenging prospect than Dia’s 2019 debut, the Locarno prizewinning Nafi’s Father, which created drama from the power struggle between two brothers whose competing claims as local religious leaders were based on very different takes on Islam. Offering little in terms of narrative coherence, the NYU Tisch School alumni’s follow-up, which premieres in Berlin’s Encounters, will appeal to committed, resilient cineastes searching for fresh new voices in African cinema – or fresh new cinematic voices, period. 

The rather dilapidated town hall that is framed squarely in the film’s opening shot acts as both workplace setting and societal microcosm of the town it is supposed to guide. It’s here that tall, rake-thin Demba (Ben Mahmoud Mbow) is employed, ostensibly in the records department, but his desk has been pushed out into the corridor, away from the office of a former schoolfriend who is now the mayor. Demba isn’t at ease in his seat, his job, or his head; he’s an obstreperous misfit whose scrawny neck juts out of a too-big shirt that he pairs with a selection of clashing ties. That’s a mirror of his mental state – but also his commitment to old-school formality and analogue values.

Demba’s rootless, restless adult son Bajjo (Mamadou Sylla) doesn’t quite know what to do with his difficult dad, and in any case he’s distracted by his blossoming relationship with Oumy (Aicha Talla), which seems poised to tip over from friendship to something stronger. As so much about the film hews to Demba’s increasingly unstable point of view it is not easy to judge his condition, but it’s clear that the death of his beloved life Awa a year and a half previously has begun to unhinge the widower. Played by Awa Djiga Kane, Awa wanders in and out of the cluttered house Demba shares with his son – though at first she’s visible only to her bereft spouse.

Writer-director Ba scatters a basketful of thematic crumbs for the audience to gather as the mood takes them. One is displacement and shifting identities. Demba is pushed out of his job because all the civic records are being digitalized. Meanwhile a kid who earns a few coins by carrying Demba’s battered attaché case for him is in bureaucratic limbo because of a lost birth certificate, while Demba helps provide a young wrestler with a new identity thanks to the recent death of a boy his age.

It is not just the ageing widower who is adrift; in a film that is at least in part a ghost story, the whole town seems to exist in some liminal state. Dakar is, we learn, a day’s drive away, but it might as well be in a parallel universe. Gender identities shift too in a carnival-like procession towards the end when Demba and Bajjo don female wigs – called Tajabone, this night of misrule is a peculiarly Sengalese spin on the Sunni Muslim holiday of Ashura.

There is so much more crammed in this fever dream of a film. It does not always make sense, perhaps partly because it’s not supposed to. Shot with handheld warmth and given emotional ballast by a soundtrack that veers from ominous jangles to elegiac piano breaks, there is sympathy in amongst the Brechtian alienation and the confusing temporal leaps. Sympathy for a man undone by grief, and for his altered vision of a small town that doesn’t quite know what to do with him. 

Production companies: Joyedidi

International sales: The Party Film Sales, sales@thepartysales.com

Producer: Maba Ba, Oumy Djegane Niang

Cinematography: Sheldon Chau

Production design: Caterina Da Via

Editing: Alan Wu

Music: John Corlis

Cast: Ben Mahmoud Mbow, Awa Djiga Kane, Mamadou Sylla, Aicha Talla, Abdoulaye Dicko