Haitian-American/African-American actor Saul Williams has a deep resonate voice that can hypnotize, a great combo with his well-honed acting skills. The lead in the Senegalese film “Tey” [Wolof for Today], Williams is the first non-African to win the Golden Stallion (best actor award) at the FESPACO Film Festival–the Cannes of African films. “I am African,” he protested at the film’s premiere screening, Sunday, Oct. 6 at MIST Harlem. “Tey” is screening at MIST Harlem, 46 W. 116th St., through Oct. 13.
Visually engrossing cinematography, shot in the city of Dakar amidst the capital’s bustling center with high rises, its impoverished hovels, working-class residential neighborhoods, and streets with its markets, the film is a poetic parable.
“Tey” completely revolves around the character Satché, chosen by gods, stars, or destiny, to die by the end of that day, a life condition that Satché and most of his family and friends have come to amicable terms with. In this community–an outer neighborhood of Dakar–customs abound for the one, so chosen. At waking and when he goes to sleep that night, the viewer experiences these moments through the eyes of Satché. And during the day, the viewer completely lives life with him, his last day.
Satché communes with his family, sets out to the center of the city to revisit–with much complexity–his friends from the past, walks and engages with the streets, a simultaneous hello and good-bye.
Satché particularly desires to visit “Uncle” who he requests to prepare his body. In their banter, Uncle is matter-of-fact as he describes all the types who he has prepared before. “Would you like me to demonstrate?” he asks.
With meticulous detail in gesture and stroke, Uncle demonstrates on Satché this body preparation ritual. Esteemed African actor Thierno Ndaye Doss (13 other African feature films) plays “Uncle.” Thierno died in 2012.
Alain Gomis has two other feature films (L’Afrance, Andalucia) to his name. Much of this film was shot in the Dakar neighborhoods that he intimately knows; in fact, the character’s family house is the Gomis family house. At the MIST Harlem premiere, Gomis told how he started off with 20 extras for a neighborhood scene when dozens more from the community joined in the shoot.
As for his choice of Williams as the lead, Alain had seen Williams in the starring role in the 1998 film “SLAM” and had him in mind to play the lead early in this film project’s development.
“Tey” [Today] is released by BelleMoon Productions founded by filmmaker Guetty Felin with her filmmaker husband Herve Cohen. Filmmaker Gomis and Felin (who grew up in Queens and who co-organized with filmmaker Brooklynite Michele Stephenson the first New York Haitian Film Festival in 2004) have been friends for years. He asked her if she wanted to distribute the film in the U.S.
“I found the story beautiful; it was seamless and very visual.” Felin says. “The timeless eerie feeling that you are experiencing all throughout the film, it’s all there in the script.”
Felin explains that mentoring the next generation is important to both her and Gomis, “Our first screening was with Brooklyn Young Filmmakers sponsored by MOCADA in the Fort Greene projects.” She was amazed by people’s reactions, “They are having a dialogue with the film and with themselves about their own perception of life and cinema and how to tell stories without all the superficial artifice they are bombarded with. That’s the most rewarding part of my job.” Plans are to do more community screenings across the country.
“Tey” also won, the first Senegalese film to do so, FESPACO’s best film Golden Stallion. The film is Senegal’s official entry to the 2014 Academy Awards for consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category. “Tey” screens through Saturday at MIST Harlem.