Contras’city Review

AKA: City of Contrasts
Genre: Docufiction/Satire/Experimental
Year Released: 1969
Distributor: The Criterion Collection
Origin: Senegal
Running Time: 23 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Taxi, Touki Bouki, Mandabi, 3 Faces, Badou Boy
Notes:
-Contras’city was featured as a bonus on The Criterion Collection’s DVD/Blu-Ray release of Touki Bouki.
Fun Facts:
-Contras’city was the debut film ever from Djibril Diop Mambety. He was the director, screenwriter, and even voiced the unseen Senegalese narrator in the film.

-Dakar’s name in Wolof is actually Ndakaaru. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t always the capital city of Senegal. It was originally Saint-Louis until it was moved in 1902 during France’s colonial reign of that country. Dakar is actually twinned with two American cities: Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Washington DC itself.

We’re going back to Senegal again. After watching the avant-garde Touki Bouki film, I was compelled to know about Djibril Diop Mambety’s filmography in his short life. I don’t know if it’s too early to give myself a pat on the back, but I’m positive that I’ve covered for Senegalese films from multiple filmmakers than most film reviewers whether they are professional or other lowly bloggers like myself. Keep in mind, I’m just talking about that country alone and not the rest of Africa although I have definitely given representation to several nations on that continent. The quickest way to research Mambety’s portfolio would be to look at the Touki Bouki extras. Anyone who’s rented or owned a Criterion Collection DVD might know that there is usually a bonus documentary or short film associated with the director who made the feature presentation.

Time to take the opportunity to go to the extras section, right?

Contras’city films a tour involving the city of Dakar, Senegal. There are two travelers who narrate this tour who are unseen. There’s a French woman who is there on vacation (most likely from a wealthy area in that country) alongside a jaded Senegalese man who’s blunt about what is happening in the city or the culture within. As the title of the film suggests, there are loads of contrasts shown during their Dakar tour. Some examples include Muslims praying in the streets while down the block and some people attending a fancy church. There are some shantytowns in the same city with gaudy gated communities. Their tour offers some commentary while also seeing the low-key wacky things happening in a country that hasn’t been independent of France for that long during the time it was made.

It’s good to see certain filmmakers starting somewhere and I could see that raw potential with what Mambety would be capable of when Touki Bouki was released years later. It still blows my mind how he never got any film production training and this looks competently shot. I liked the opening credits using the clapperboard as the title and credits for all the people involved. It was resourceful, yet very creative instead of using titles with whatever editing programs that existed in 1969. Let me put this in perspective: Contras’city came out the same year the moon landing happened. This was an interesting docufiction because it uses real-life city life in Dakar at the time, but the narration comes from invisible characters providing commentary about what they see. Surprisingly, the commentary isn’t as frequent as one would think since there are long stretches of no dialogue. During those periods of no narration, there was music or on-site sounds happening. One hilarious piece of audio was some chants of “Rococo!” during the scene with the architecture influenced by that art movement. The commentary that is there was direct enough for most viewers to understand what’s happening but abstract enough to give more interpretation. I liked how it wasn’t preachy with the satire and lets the imagery speak for itself. There was a brilliant piece of dialogue where the French tourist woman almost believes he’s in Paris despite traveling in this West African nation because there are French ads, architecture, white people living there, and signs in that language as opposed to Wolof (you know, the most-spoken language in Senegal!). The Senegalese man calmly yet sardonically retorts “This isn’t Paris. This is your dad.” WOW! That is amazing writing with a line like that. For me, I interpret it as the city of Dakar, much less Francophone African nations who were former colonies (Mali, Madagascar, Congo-Brazzaville/Republic of Congo, Cote D’Ivoire, etc.) had their original resources shipped up to France while the people in that country act like spoiled children to their hard-working father. Another interpretation is how Africa is the cradle of civilization and how you had nations and kingdoms millennia before France even existed. The level of dry humor was effective and only gets wacky in subtle ways with some of the situations presented in the film.

Contras’city isn’t always so sharp. The most obvious aspect would be the dated looks of the film. This was clearly made in the late 60s with the technology, fashion, and environment at the time. The film does show some age despite the remastering job that Criterion did. While this was competently shot, to be honest with you, most of the footage was B-roll if you think about it. One could argue that the film is framed from the perspective of people looking at Dakar as they’re traveling by a horse-drawn wagon and one doesn’t need to know what they look like, this isn’t framed like other films including that in the docufiction genre. While Contras’city is more straightforward than Touki Bouki (which is definitely saying something), I wouldn’t consider it to be something for everyone. It’s not an offensive movie by any means and there aren’t too many things as far as objectionable content is concerned, but the presentation could go over some heads and I know some people won’t get some of the concepts. The observation of post-colonial Africa or the concept of neocolonialism could be lost on some viewers since it’s not trying to spell everything out to everyone. The humor can be too deadpan at times, so people may not realize the satirical elements because it’s not laugh-out-loud funny or trying to incite a laugh riot. The subtlety is effective, don’t get me wrong, but there are times when it can be too covert to those who aren’t familiar with colonialism or African cultures. Don’t worry, I’ll ignore the low-hanging fruit that stems from why most people in the West (especially here in America) wouldn’t get why such a satire would exist, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.

This was a good debut from Djibril Diop Mambety even though I wouldn’t call it an outstanding work. The satire about Dakar’s culture less than a decade after independence is quite sharp and lets the images do most of the talking. The dialogue is sharply-written and adds to the contrasts of the imagery with the Senegalese man noticing the neocolonial trappings of his hometown while his Caucasian traveling companion is confused why some parts of the city still looked like France. Unfortunately, it is obviously a product of the 60s and the satire can be too subtle for most viewers in the Western Hemisphere. Contras’city is worth watching regardless and if you have a free twenty-three minutes, then you can give this a shot.

Adjustable Point System:
-Add 1-2 points if you like your satire on the subtle side.
-Add 1 point if you enjoy African cinema.
-Subtract 1 point if you aren’t a fan of docufiction movies.
-Subtract 2-3 points if you prefer your satire or comedy to be more in your face.

Pros:
-Effective satirical aspects about Dakar, Senegal
-Nice cityscape traveling shots
-Witty dialogue

Cons:
-Unintentional period piece aspects
-The humor can be too dry and subtle for many
-The footage is mostly b-roll even in the context of this movie

Final Score: 7/10 points

Content Advisory: Contras’city is nowhere near as mature as Touki Bouki, but I wouldn’t call it a G-rated short film. There are discussions of alcohol including people allegedly trading their Qurans for bourbon in passing (keep in mind that Senegal is a Muslim-majority country). The topics of colonization and cultural enforcement from their then-former French colonizers are there but handled in an understated way. The most overt aspect would be scenes of poverty as opposed to some of the opulent French mansions in the same city.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos are property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Contras’city is the property of The Criterion Collection. The screenshot is from YouTube and is the property of The Criterion Collection.

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