"I embodied the most arrogant and admired kind of femininity," Katoucha had said. "I who was supposed to be diminished." It is this admired, contrived hauteur you see in Ramata, the title character (as played by Katoucha) of Leandre-Alain Baker's film. Just below the surface, however, the diminished self, the suppressed rage prowls this glacial exterior. Of Katoucha, following her death at forty-seven years, her lover had said: "She was such a fragile, complicated and difficult person, never satisfied with herself." I'd disagreed when a female producer - incorrectly referencing Leandre's initial reluctance to accept Katoucha as Ramata - said the model was wrong for the role. No other black African actress would have brought to the role what Katoucha did: the artificially glacial exterior of a woman of the bourgeois and the reckless rage of a sexually-frustrated woman. Katoucha, Leandre said, "could go right from laughter to anger. But she always came back, and I attribute that to her past, what she... lived through."
Katoucha Niane was a French model of Guinean descent who worked, and later wrote, under the single name "Katoucha". She was the daughter of Guinean author, playwright and historian Djibril Tamsir Niane. As a child, Katoucha's family was forced into exile after her father came into conflict with Guinean President, Sekou Touré. In France, Katoucha began modeling; first for Thierry Mugler, then for Paco Rabanne and Christian Lacroix, and became known as Yves Saint Laurent's "muse".
Katoucha stopped modelling in 1994 to focus on activism. She had been an outspoken activist against female circumcision, a rite she underwent at the age of nine. In her autobiography, Dans Ma Chair (In My Flesh), she recalled the experience. "I will never get the incomparable pain out of my head," she wrote. "At that moment, I became a rebel. I remained so all my life." The book seemed an exorcism of sorts, as if she was trying to understand her excision - what her mother had done and why - and her sexual abuse and rape. As if she was finally confronting the pain and fear from her childhood that had made her self-destructive - abusing alcohol and drugs and losing custody of her three children. In the book, which she dedicated to her three children, Katoucha talked about wild nights of partying, alcohol and drugs. She had allowed her inner demons to construct her haute couture persona - and her movie character.
In an interview with Fatou Kiné Sene and Thierno Ibrahima Dia right after Ramata wrapped, Katoucha had said she only had the script that the director, Léandre gave her. "They did not want me to read the novel, especially since the story was so similar to my own life." Paradoxically, this similarity almost denied her the role. "Initially," Leandre said, "I was a bit reluctant about the idea of having her interpret the character Ramata because of this nefarious reputation that was attributed to her - even if this reputation was often exaggerated.
Ramata - adapted from a novel by Abasse Ndione - is the story of a hauntingly beautiful woman in her fifties, who is married (for the past thirty years) to Matar Samb, a former prosecutor now turned Minister of Justice. They live in Les Almadies, an elegant neighbourhood of Dakar. One evening, Ramata enters a taxi that Ngor Ndong (25), of no fixed address and an occasional petty crook known to the police just happens to have stolen. Ngor takes Ramata to the Copacabana. This encounter unleashes the repressed desire lurking, like a tangible thing, just beneath Ramata's cultivated upper-class reserve. Thereafter, Ramata becomes obsessed with Ngor and submits to her own awakened and raging desire, even though her desperate obsession and desire for this thug is luring her into self-destruction. "Ramata is a deeply wounded woman," Leandre said. "A wound that dates back to her childhood and thus is constitutive of who she is. This encounter with Ngor Ndong, her young lover, will awaken in her the grief that had been dormant...the hidden chapter of her past comes back to haunt her."
There is in this film, in Ramata's yearning, a seeming physical and emotional impossibility of the satisfaction of [sexual] desire. There is intensity and honesty, shamelessness and self-sacrifice in Ramata's deep longing and desire for Ngor. This "emotionally irrational need for Ngor plunges Ramata into an emotional abyss that unravels into self-destruction." However, Ngor's response betrays a running away, an inability - masked by male posturing, that is really infantile - to meet this need. In this first encounter, at the Copacabana, Leandre walks a thin line: the danger of a woman's willing submission to rape. There is also the notion of the orgasm as cure-all. This encounter is, however, counterposed to the sterile emptiness of Ramata's bourgeois existence, a sterility and emptiness expressed by faked passion. The trappings of Ramata's marital life is, thus, a gilded cage - shattered by the liberating power of orgasm. Satisfaction (especially sexual ones) comes, not from owning things, but through person-to-person contact.
But then, nor does it come from repeated orgasm. In this regard, Ramata's obsessive quest becomes a desire for more than mere physical satisfaction: it becomes also a desperate quest for emotional and intellectual orgasm. It is precisely this that Ngor cannot give. Thus, sexual desire - with its tendency to become an obsession - becomes self-destructive. Ramata self-destructs due to her awakened refusal to settle for sexual dishonesty, to continue living a lie, to reject the imposed definition of herself as wife and mother so long as it's based on self-deception and denial of who she is. I'm inclined to accept this. Society is inclined to accept and respect an unhappily-married person, than a happily-single person (especially one who is female) that boldly seeks fulfilment.
How consciously do we deny and suppress the deep longing and desire that lie unsatisfied, intangible and smouldering within us? It is, of course, true that desire is irrational. What do these more-or-less conscious irrational longings reveal to us about ourselves, our needs as humans? How does a male person deal with the destructive power of sexual revelation, viv., his revealed inability to pleasure his woman for thirty years of bourgeois married life? It is this that is this film's less-believable scene: Ramata's spouse's suicide after she throws his failure of thirty years in his face. It lacks conviction and takes the power out or Ramata's decision to walk away from the marital lie.
In the words of Leandre, he wanted "to break free from certain archetypes of African cinema, the anthropological side that is seen all too often in its films." If one feels obliged to write at all about this film, it's because despite its flaws it is beautiful in many ways. Ramata, as Katoucha astutely observed, is not an African film, in the traditional use of that term. It's a human story set in Africa. All at once, this film feels like a painting, a visual novel and poetry, like intimate theatre. Leandre, I think comes from the theatre.
From the outset, there is a tragic tone to the films narrative, an elegiac beauty. The staging is at once austere and elegant. The austerity lends extra burden to Ramata's tragic solitude. There is something deeply moving about Katoucha's face. It is a face that'd been whipped by the wind, burnt severally by the sun, by life. The arrogant beauty cannot quite hide this. She seemed to be in the grip of an inner, primitive struggle. None of the other characters are fully drawn. Not Ngor, the object of Ramata's desire. Not DS, Ramata's sister-in-law [actress Mame Ndoumbé Diop, editor's note] nor Ramata's daughter, Dieynaba. Not Yvonne, the club owner and her daughter. Their absent presence heightens the cold colours of this movie and starkly isolates Ramata in her quest for self-recovery or self-destruction. (There can only be the one or the other, not both.)
On 28 February 2008, Katoucha's body was found in the Seine River - as if her real life was immitating her reel life. The 47-year-old model was believed to have died from an accidental drowning: police believed that no foul play was involved, and that she was likely intoxicated and fell into the Seine. On the night of February 1st 2008, she had returned to her houseboat from a party. This was the last time she was reportedly seen alive. The Seine is reputedly a favorite dumping ground for the bodies of murder and suicide victims.
Ramata will screen in Lagos, this April at Afridance - a week-long screening of films from Africa as part of a conversation on'African Cinema' - under the sub-theme, Film As A Subversive Art - subversion in the sense of a protagonist's (who is invariably female) transgressive awakening to and exploration of sexuality.
Didi Cheeka is a Marxist critic, writer and filmmaker