About face: film "Wrestling Grounds" follows Senegal’s street life and sports gods
Senegalese director Cheikh Ndiaye calls his film "Wrestling Grounds" ("L’Appel des Arenes") a hybrid, based on fact and novel a "free adaptation" of a narrative set in Dakar, a city known as the wrestling capitol of Senegal.
His film is one-part ethnography and one-part fiction, he says.
At the helm of "Wrestling Grounds’"story are two Dakar men, Nalla, a serious wrestler and Sory, a gambling addict. While Sory gets wrapped up in the underbelly of Dakar, scalping tickets to competitions and fixing matches, Nalla finds the call to the wrestling arena a call of national identity. Sory trains with Andre, a champion wrestler who tells him, "In the old days, wrestlers fought to marry the king’s daughter."
Instead of actors, Ndiaye says he cast professional Senegalese wrestling stars in the roles of Andre and Malaw in Senegal, the sports heroes have the same status as movie stars.
"Unlike other parts of the world where wrestling is a sport, in Senegal, there are many elements to it that incorporate artistry, spirituality and mysticism, as well as the physical side," he explained in an e-mailed interview to The Park Record.
Ndiaye says he made the film for his fellow Senegalese people, but also for foreign audiences. Next week he will fly to Salt Lake from Paris for a Tuesday screening of "Wrestling Grounds" at The Salt Lake Film Center as part of the monthly series called "New Face of Africa."
According to the center, this will mark the first time the film series has welcomed an African filmmaker to a screening.
Anticipating the Utah audience’s response to his film, Ndiaye said, "I would like for people to understand that there are many beautiful things in Africa that there are many varied aspects to African cultures, especially in the area of dance, music, the arts I would like them to understand the beauty of the Senegalese wrestling culture."
Ndiaye’s aspiration to reveal a different perspective of African countries through film is an aim he shares with Oakley resident and Salt Lake Film Center’ African film curator Victoria Waldock.
Waldock, born and raised in Kenya, is a documentary filmmaker who last year earned a master’s degree in cultural and social anthropology at Stanford, while remotely helping to bring African films to the center in collaboration with Salt Lake Film Center’s Artistic and Executive Director Geralyn Dreyfous. "Wrestling Grounds" will be the first screening of the second season of the "New Face of Africa" series.
Waldock and Dreyfous launched the series after discussing their mutual concern that American audiences were watching films with a decidedly single-sided perspective on Africa. Waldock notes though war and famine exist in Africa, films like Ndiaya’s show there is much more to the various cultures of the continent aspects seldom seen on American movie screens.
"We decided to launch this series and call it, ‘the New Face of Africa’ because we’re trying to bring new voices and fresh perspectives," she explained. "We do show films [at the center] about the hardships of Africa, but we try to bring new voices in to talk about it and be more nuanced, I think."
The misrepresentation of Africa in film is something Waldock recalls observing from the day she moved to New York nearly 17 years ago and a bias she has attempted to rectify through her own films.
"I am interested in African culture and how it’s transmitted in the media films about social issues, environmental issues or human rights issues and they tend to be about Africa in the past or the present," she said.
Waldock’s 1999 Emmy-nominated film, "Dying to Tell The Story," is about journalists and photojournalists willing to risk their lives in an effort to tell the news in war-torn locations like East Africa’s Somalia. She is currently working on a new project that documents the lives of aristocratic nomads who have moved back and forth across the Sahara desert and are now forced to change their centuries-old culture and move to cities.
"A lot of people are interested in the conservation and safari side of Africa, but not so many people learn about the different ethnic groups, art and music and all the various sides," she says. "Each section of the big continent of Africa which is a huge place has a different flavor to it."
The challenge that faces many African is the limited access to new technologies or professional studios, she notes.
While South African directors have tools and equipment, Nigeria, for example, has very little, Waldock says. Yet he film culture there, known as "Nollywood," has thrived despite the lack of resources Waldock cites the 2007 Sundance Film Festival’s feature "Ezra," as a shining example. Instead, Nollywood thrives on "down and dirty" filmmaking, all shot on digital cameras without much attention to "high aesthetics," she says.
In West Africa, filmmaking has blossomed because of France’s encouragement and funding, giving African filmmakers the opportunity to move to Paris and launch their careers, Waldocksays which is where she was able to track down Ndiaye.
In fact, at the discussion after the film this Tuesday, French-speaking translators will accompany Ndiaya on stage to help him respond to questions in English.
"Unfortunately, there is no well-established film industry in Senegal there are no casting agencies there are no film schools," Ndiaye said. "Many of the great Senegalese filmmakers go to Paris to train and practice their craft I went to France to enroll in film school there and stayed for 15 years working in the industry as a camera technician and other roles. Then I began to make my own films."
"Wrestling Grounds," Ndiaya’s first feature-length film, has been shown at film festivals in Berlin, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, and screened in Tanzania, Poland, England, Canada, Sweden, but next week his visit to the Salt Lake Film Center will be his first time in the United States.
"Wrestling Grounds" will be screened this Tuesday, April 3 at 7 p.m. at The Rose Wagner Theater at 138 West 300 South in Salt Lake. For more information, visit http://www.slcfilmcenter.org.
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