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    La Gen¸se

    In the beginning

    This new version of "Genesis" set in ancient Mali is not a novelty concept — it's what biblical life must really have been like.


    "In the beginning, God created the earth — but no water. Then God created man. Still no water."

    Original title: Genesis.
    Directed by: Cheick Oumar Sissoko.
    Written by: Jean-Louis Sagot-Durvaroux.
    Cast: Sotiguy Kouyate, Salif Keita, Balla Moussa Keita, Fatoumata Diawara, Maimouna Helene Diarra.
    In Bambara with English subtitles.
    With these opening words from Esau (played by the Malian singer Salif Keita), we are on notice that this will not be a typical biblical epic. "La Genèse" tells the stories of Jacob, Esau and Hamor (that's Genesis Ch. 23-37, especially Ch. 34, for those who want to do a little homework) set in the Mali desert.

    Fatoumata Diawara as Dinah. in La Gen¸se  
    Fatoumata Diawara as Dinah.
    The story focuses on the abduction and rape of Jacob's lovely daughter Dinah (Fatoumata Diawara) by a son of Hamor. The patriarch Hamor (Balla Moussa Keita) comes to make peace with Jacob (Sotiguy Kouyate), but a vicious feud ensues between the village-dwellers who are contemptuous of the low-class nomads and the nomads who can be ruthless toward the soft villagers. A somewhat confusing inter-clan council is convened to settle the blood feud. All the while, Esau is lurking in the heights with his men, awaiting a chance to swoop down and settle his score with Jacob.

    The film is a wonder to look at — everything from the grand "Searchers"-style desert vistas to household utensils is in solid, bold colors, as if painted by Sargent or Rousseau. The people move dramatically in sweeping robes of deep blue or peach, and their stone homes and canvas tents glint in the sun.

    But the most extraordinary thing about the film is this: You'll never see the Bible the same way after seeing it. Mali is not precisely the Middle East, but the culture that gave us the Old Testament is surely closer to this ancient desert culture than to the biblical figures that our modern minds create in our own image.

      Salif Keita as Esau. in La Gen¸se
      Salif Keita as Esau.
    Consider the simple giving of a gift. If you bring your aunt Enid a fruit basket, it's simply a nice gesture. But when Hamor brings Jacob baskets of yams and peanuts as a peace offering, he's surrounded by a vast expanse of infertile sand — this food is precious, and the giver is almost putting his very life in the recipient's hands.

    Now consider how different these people's clan life is from our well-ordered modern city. Wrong behavior doesn't land a person in court — the matter gets settled either through a discussion between the patriarchs or through smiting one another. Suddenly we can see graphically why entire books of the Bible are full of detailed instructions on what to do if one man steals another man's goat or mismarks the boundary of his land, and why standards of behavior were so crucial. These are life-and-death matters in a way that we don't fully understand as modern people.

    Part of the magic of "La Genèse" is that we can begin to fathom just what the Bible stories —' and this new thing called Judaism (plus Christianity and Islam) — meant to the people who created it in the year Y0K and before. If you're interested in the Bible, it will change everything you thought you knew.

    DECEMBER 5, 1999

    Reader comments on La Gen¸se:

  • one of the best   from Morell Jones II, Jan 30, 2001
  • Re: one of the best   from victoryyah, May 22, 2005

  • Post a comment on "La Gen¸se"