It's hard to imagine a more vivacious Carmen than the one played by Djeïnaba Diop Gaï in Joseph Gai Ramaka's Karmen Geï. The Senegalese filmmaker, who now lives in New Orleans, adapted Bizet's opera to the coastal capital Dakar, and blended traditional African drumming and Western jazz in what is considered Africa's first film musical, featuring songs in both French and Wolof. His focus on the beauty and power of love is most potently expressed whenever Diop is on screen.
Taking up the opera's most common refrain, "Love is a rebellious bird you can not tame," Ramaka opens his film in prison, as an ebullient Karmen dances for the warden, Angelique, seducing her and gaining her freedom as a result. It's not that either woman is a lesbian, but Ramaka portrays the free-spirit of love as being so powerful that it rises above any concerns about the form it takes. Ramaka adds two characters to the story: Angelique, and Karmen's mother, who is magnanimous in her affection for her daughter regardless of the trouble she sometimes causes.
Karmen also attracts a policeman as a lover. Pursuing her costs him his job and social standing, and he joins her in an illicit marijuana trade. Old Samba is one of Karmen's smuggling partners and also a great friend. Their relationship is never sexual, but it is one that Ramaka uses to further illustrate the allure of Karmen.
Ramaka describes his film as being solely about love, and the futility of trying to restrain it. But he believes it has transcendent meaning — opposing both government corruption and the vestiges of French colonialism seen in the film.
"There's a political dimension," he says. "Love is subversive. It's not compatible with injustice. ... Are you for chains in life or against chains in life?"
Ironically, the film stirred trouble that forced Ramaka to leave Senegal. An Islamic extremist group issued a fatwa (on Sept. 9, 2001) threatening him for using a Muslim funeral song for a Christian character in the film. Ramaka moved to France, and following Hurricane Katrina relocated to New Orleans.
The African percussion and cinematography are brilliant. The film is in French and Wolof with English subtitles. Ramaka will attend the screening. There will be music by African musicians and local jazz musicians. A reception follows. — Will Coviello
The Mississippi River 9th Ward Film Festival
6 p.m. Sat., Oct. 17
Doullut Steamboat Pitot House, 400 Egania St.; www.neworleansafricanfilmfest.org