29 April 2003 | relias
Interesting look at plight of African women
African films rarely play in U.S. theaters. That's one reason why `Faces of Women' is worth seeing. The other is that writer-director Désiré Ecaré's award-winning 1985 film (subtitled) puts us inside a culture few people ever directly encounter. The title announces the theme. Ecaré, from Ivory Coast, presents two stories set in a village and in the coastal city of Abidjan. The movie opens in a village festival where men and women dance while local musicians beat a drum and squeeze an accordion. We encounter Brou, his wife N'Guessan, and his brother Koaissi, a city dweller who refuses to join villagers in digging up manioc roots, a foodstuff. Koaissi lingers in the village because he is sexually involved with N'Guessan, culminating in an extended, explicit scene. (`Faces' is unrated but would get an NC-17 for that scene.)
Like a cuckold in a folktale, Brou plots to discover them together. He need not have bothered. Everyone in the village knows what is going on already. For Ecaré, that is the important point. The wife is trying to assert her independence of rules villagers expect women to follow. Brou makes this point when he says, `You are my slave.' `Faces' shifts abruptly to Madame Costas, an older woman who owns a fish drying business in Abidjan. She seeks a bank loan to open a restaurant, but can't get approval despite a profitable balance sheet. Her two grown daughters, city slickers, question why she wants to be in business at all. That is man's work. A woman's real assets, says the elder, are her breasts, buttocks, and thighs. The daughters vamp the banker into reconsidering the request. `Faces' shifts to a family gathering in which the father, who lives off his wife's income, is chided for neglecting village obligations as head of the family. When his wife refuses to send her hard-earned money back to their village, they resolve this impasse by deciding to visit the village festival, dance, and forget about their problems. `Faces' ends where it begins. The stories are joined by Ecaré's polemical concern to document the predicament of women in a male-dominated traditional society. Values represented by the village are the source of conflict in the first story. Yet those same values, still powerful even in the city, resolve, at least momentarily, Madame Costas' troubles with her money-sucking family.
Unlike Hollywood tracts on the `new woman,' `Faces' doesn't see female independence and self-assertion as unmixed blessings. The movie diagnoses, often vocally, the problems these two women face. The straitjacket of inherited culture cannot be thrown off easily, even for city dwellers whose modern life (three cars, cosmetics, banks) resembles our own. Sexual power becomes, by default, the only true power they can use, but this is not enough. The resolution goes back to the village and the sense of connectedness it provides. This is where Ecaré's film, often awkwardly, grounds her characters' predicament. Change, though necessary, implies loss. The stories in `Faces' were reportedly filmed ten years apart. Ecaré's movie has a patchwork feel. Film technique is different in both sections. What interested me was narrative method, which is closer to African folktales than to a Western character arc that typically asserts the unqualified independence of a character versus a community. Here, communal values, though questioned, remain real, a problem and source of consolation, especially in the face of urban modernism. Technically, `Faces' is a blotchy film. Some scenes look like out-takes from National Geographic specials shot on a low budget. The sex scene is daring, but could make the same point in less time with less flesh. Nonetheless, `Faces' offers a worthwhile perspective on the problems of African feminism in post-colonial society.