« Why did you create brothers if only for this dry wind and thirst to return with each generation? »
Images of the genocides in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, of all the countries where brothers fight, immediately spring to mind. Right from its prologue, La Genèse, the tale of the dawn of humanity, is poignantly and painfully relevant today. But it is not Saving Private Ryan, nor the sordid imagery of the television: it is not just about juxtaposing testimony and using emotion to write History in a Spielbergesque style. This tale does not content itself with exploring humanity at its origins, it ausculates the innermost depths of man. There, it unearths the violence inherent to human fraternity. And it is not just the stating of this that makes the film so pertinent today, but rather the analysis of what violence is used to accomplish. In order to work towards a solution.
The Bible begins by describing the fall of Adam and Eve. They give birth to Cain and Abel. The farmer Cain kills Abel the shepherd. « The human family begins badly », Jean-Louis Sagot Duvauroux, the scriptwriter of La Genèse, comments in his book Héritiers de Caïn – Identités, fraternité, pouvoir (Editions La Dispute, 1997). Men have always fought over their elders’ heritage. Their fraternity is not a goal but a fact: it is because they are brothers that they fight. The accumulation of unhealed wounds gives rise to the misunderstandings and fears which culminate in killings. The more we are brothers, the closer we are, the greater the emotion in the conflicts, and the more cruel the confrontation…
It is thus that La Genèse helps answer the burning question of why such horror.
If Cheikh Oumar Sissoko fell for the Biblical universe, it is thanks to its parallel with the Malian agricultural and pastoral context, and the recent conflict with the Tuareg. But, it is also undoubtedly due to the accent the story places on the patriarchs and their guilty blindness. It is here that the director develops his reflection on the nature of power, be it domestic and patriarchal in Finzan, or political in Guimba. And adds a dimension that is essential at present, namely the surpassing of the conflict. Jacob seeks to be reconciled with Esau, but it is with God that he has to fight, and thus with himself. Without spirituality, without a questioning of the self, there is no reconciliation. Especially as racism is first and foremost a projection on the Other of what frightens me in my self: that stranger who disturbs me in my divided self. For, as the Rwandan proverb puts it: Nta wiyanga nk’uwanga undi (No one hates himself more than he who hates others).
By placing the emphasis on the patriarchs, Sissoko avoids the psychologizing shortcoming of reducing the horror to a death wish, and broaches what permits and organizes it: the dictatorial bent of the leaders. And thereby reminds today’s patriarchs of their duty to work for the cohesion of their communities.
The message is rich and complex, and at the same time political, human, and spiritual. It was the script’s duty to respect the Word of the Bible, the images’ to highlight it. The use of the voice-over magnifies the Word, and is enriched by the magnificent visuals (cameraman: Lionel Cousin). The narratives respect the gestures and the form of the oral traditions, which the subtitles cannot unfortunately render in their entirety. The whole may seem verbose. A scriptwriter more used to film might have conveyed the message better. However, can’t the spectator be asked to make an effort? Is it impossible to count on his/her intelligence today? Is a film hermetic because it is badly made, or because I am unable to listen to its density? Complex does not mean confused. If La Genèse accords such importance to the word, it is because words are of capital importance in African narrative. The strength of arguments and the impact of words makes dialogue the prime route for resolving conflicts. As is the case under the palaver tree.
This film is worth the effort it asks of us. The decors and costumes are the fruit of an impressive effort, and admirably serve the narrative. The village of Hamor was reconstructed stone by stone under the direction of Baba Keïta and his assistant Boubacar Doumbia. It combines the traditional Songhai houses and their hallways and covered alleys with imaginary forms, such as the monumental entrance that recalls Kurosawa’s Ran. The stones of the villages, and those strewn on the slopes form a graduation of tones which change in the sun depending on the time of day. The unity of nature is manifest, and demands a different kind of behaviour. The triangles inscribed in the architecture, whose repetition forms a broken line, recall the undulating movement of reptiles in Bambara tradition, the zigzags of life…
The costumes by Kandioura Coulibaly are a living portrait of the relation between man and the environment that surrounds and feeds him. It is water that lacks the most in the desert, and it is of little surprise, therefore, that the indigo tunics worn by the extras in the film deliberately form such a contrast with the ambient aridity. « It is blue », Coulibaly explains, moreover, « which dominates the untamed part of man, which dilutes the animosity in the gaze of the other ». Each patriarch is a living sculpture. Although Salif Keïta (Esau) seems very rigid, Sotigui Kouyaté (Jacob) and Bala Moussa Keïta (Hamor) manifest an impressive interiority.
The sacred mountain, the Hombori Tondo, « the Hombori stone », is omnipresent: it is Noah’s arch, the eye of Cain. It is the place at which to unite, and the symbol of a harmony between the men despite their differences of origin, religion, colour. It is the hope which this profoundly beautiful film manages to convey.
The script of La Genèse
1) Esau’s bitterness
Esau resents the fact that his father has made his younger brother Jacob (Yacouba) head of the family. He prepares his revenge in the mountains with the hunting populations.
2) Jacob’s mourning and the kidnapping of Dina
Jacob the herder cannot get over the loss of his favourite son Joseph (Youssouf), and pays little attention to his daughter Dina. She is kidnapped by Sichem, son of cousin Hamor, head of the Canaanite farmers. Sichem rapes Dina, but falls in love with her and asks Jacob for her hand in marriage. In order to avoid a conflict with his powerful neighbours, he accepts.
3) The murderous ploy of Jacob’s sons
Jacob’s sons will only agree if all the Canaanites are circumcised. However, this is a ploy to weaken and attack them. A real genocide ensues.
4) The grand outpouring
Hamor, who has escaped the massacre, and Jacob, disgusted by his sons’ behaviour, order the herders and farmers to come together beneath the toguna, the palaver shelter built by the Dogon people as soon as they found a village. This grand outpouring reveals the profundity of the enmity, and ends in an all out fight.
5) The nostalgia for ancient times and the vengeance of the hunters
Forewarned, Jacob goes there and evokes the time of his fathers, Isaac and Abraham, and their harmonious relation. Esau, however, who is not far away, remembers the injustice he was a victim of. His hunters slit the throats of Jacob’s cattle and encircle the village.
6) Jacob before God
Jacob goes to meet Esau in order to seek reconciliation, but has to affront God for a whole night. At dawn, God names Jacob Israël (strong against God)
7) The resolution
When they go to look for their father, Jacob’s sons find him with Esau and Dina, who sends them to Egypt where they find harmony and prosperity. Divine intervention enables them to surpass their quarrels. Joseph becomes one of the Pharo’s ministers.///Article N° : 5378