'A Single Word' ('Une Simple Parole'): Toronto Review

A Single Word
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Personal ethnography for students of African traditions

Two Senegalese sisters document their grandmother's rural life

A combination of personal essay and ethnographic documentation, A Single Word was started by Senegalese writer and filmmaker Khady Sylla, then completed by her sister Mariama Sylla after her death late last year of cancer. Following the two sisters as they travel from the city to the rural hometown of their grandmother, Penda Diogo Sarr, the film is more than anything an observation of village life. Its disinterest in explaining itself to Westerners substantially limits accessibility outside Africa, but fest auds with a serious interest in traditional folkways will be appreciative.

Sarr is a griot, a practitioner of oral traditions meant to keep a family's history alive. Westerners whose familiarity with griots is limited to recording artists like Youssou N'Dour and Toumani Diabate should be advised that Sarr's craft is considerably less melodic: She chants without instrumental accompaniment, rattling off long lists of names and occasionally recounting some of the things these ancestors did. The Syllas marvel at her memory, occasionally asking her to explain how she orders her genealogies. As the second generation of people in their family who can read, they're eager to document these skills before they are lost.

Sarr isn't the sole focus of the film, which spends ample time observing the course of daily life in this drought-struck village. Folk remedies are discussed, millet is pummeled, young girls dance and a man explains why he has moved back to this place, after trying his luck in Dakar and finding the city much too hard. What narration there is avoids literal explanations in favor of poetic musings — a tendency Khady and Mariama likely inherited from their grandmother, who has a stock of enigmatic sayings like "the egg does not play with the stone."

Production companies: Guiss Guiss Communication, Al Jazeera Documentary

Cast: Penda Diogo Sarr, Doudou Dieye, Anta Sarr

Directors-Screenwriters: Mariama Sylla, Khady Sylla

Producer: Mariama Sylla

Director of photography: Joris Lachaise

Editor: Rodolphe Respaud

Music: Bogol Niang, Wasis Diop, Daly Ba

Sales: Guiss Guiss Communication

No rating, 65 minutes