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The Future of Mud: A Tale of Houses and Lives in Djenne

by Susan Vogel
First Run Icarus Films, Brooklyn, New York, 2007
DVD, 58 mins, colour
Sale/DVD: $390; rental/DVD: $125
Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


I found this film both charming and challenging. Susan Vogel has created a work that functions on three levels and does so in a subtle, non-confrontationalist manner.

The film focuses on the mud buildings of Djenne a small city in the African Republic of Mali. The main character Komusa Tenepo is a master mason and a devoutly religious man. The predominant religion of the region is Islamic, and the film shows how belief in the Koranic teachings, influence not only everyday life, but the art and "way" of masonry and building practice.

The Future Of Mud, which is presented by Le Museé National du Mali, is in colour and runs for 58 minutes. The camerawork is excellent, as is the soundtrack which features some of the traditional music of Mali. The narration is in English, together with clear, easy-to-read subtitles that are used when the characters are speaking in a language other than English, which is mainly French.

As previously mentioned the film functions on three levels. Firstly, it is simply a delightful visual documentary showing the beautiful, extraordinary mud and mud brick architecture of Djenne, together with the people who create it. Secondly, the film highlights the challenges facing the traditional values of the people of Djenne. Tenepo wants his son to follow in his footsteps and become a master mason. The boy has other ideas, as has Tenepo’s sister, who constantly nags him to allow the boy to leave Djenne and get a serious education. Tenepo’s sister lives away from Djenne and is doing well in a more Western lifestyle in the capital Bamako.

The situation is even more complicated as Tenepo’s other young helper Amadou, from a poor family near Timbuktu, is also being pressured by Tenepo to become his apprentice. Tenepo would be considered an obsessive-compulsive workaholic in Western society 0151— he calls it a passion for mud. As in all good films the words not spoken, but shown in facial expressions, are more important than the sometimes superficial dialogue. I’m not going to spoil the film by detailing the conclusions of these tensions — suffice to say the outcomes reflect a universal dilemma which brings me to the third layer of the film.

In a subtle, quiet and non-judgemental way the film highlights a number of poignant cultural issues: the oppression of many women in African countries; the challenges of tourism, which can destroy or preserve traditional values and crafts; the father-son, master-apprentice dichotomy; rural versus city life; and religious versus secular modes of existence.

Djenne is a UNESCO world heritage city in Mali. This means the traditional mud architecture will remain unchanged, particularly the unique style and exterior. Tourists seem to want this, so it appears Djenne will survive economically, whereas many other traditional rural communities without this protection are more or less consumed by the tantalising, often false promises of a Western gadget filled, technological future. This listing together with strong religious beliefs are the only things keeping the chrome, neon and mostly soul-less Western architecture from destroying an important and unique piece of African cultural history.

Each year the mud mosque gets a replastering, this building is quite astonishing both in its scale and beauty. Thousands of people from the city under the informal supervision of the master masons, who are perched precariously on crudely constructed timber ladders (no Work Place Safety Rules and Regulations here), plaster the entire mosque in one day. This is the main traditional festival of Djenne. It is hoped it will become an event that tourists will enjoy, and they will perhaps take away a little of the beauty and simplicity of a traditional lifestyle based on Allah and mud.

I highly recommend this film for both general interest viewing, and specifically for cultural anthropologists, government officials who have influence in the changes effecting traditional villages, and for tourists who have considerable responsibilities towards the places and people they visit.



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