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An African Genesis: The Bible Envisioned in a New Setting

The biblical tale of the rape of Dinah--which was central to the enormously popular and compelling novel The Red Tent by Anita Diamant--is also pivotal in a new film, Genesis, from the African nation of Mali.

Genesis, which retells parts of the first book of the Bible that are common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is set in Africa. The biblical characters are depicted as African tribesmen and women, and seeing Jacob, Rachel, Leah, Dinah, Sichem and Hamor as Africans in their tribal huts made the biblical stories more imaginable and gave them more resonance. This visual depiction, combined with the thrill of seeing the African scenery, was for me the main attraction of a film whose story line was at times difficult to follow.

The film focuses on the themes of sibling rivalry and on man's inhumanity to man. It begins with the clans of Esau and Jacob at war with each other, and then jumps to the future, when Jacob is in mourning for Joseph. There is a poetic feel to the film, which at times worked and at other times left me confused about location, situation and time. The narration of key excerpts from the Bible helps viewers know which story is being depicted.

A large part of the film deals with Jacob and his descendents. We see his wives discussing how Jacob has cut himself off during his prolonged and extreme mourning for his son Joseph. At some point Dinah, one of Jacob's daughters, goes to a neighboring tribe's encampment, where she flirts with Sichem. Apparently she has done this before, as the young men there laughingly recognize her as she approaches, tease her and call out to Sichem. Dinah and Sichem talk briefly, and then, egged on by the others, he grabs her and pulls her into a tent. This interpretation of that pivotal event in the Bible, putting the rape of Dinah in the context of peer pressure, was interesting and believable. While It differs from Anita Diamant's imagining of the scene in The Red Tent, it is an event about which the Bible says little, and about which there are few, if any, historical facts. As with rapes in real life, this one has major repercussions. Sichem's parents are not pleased with his actions and perceive Dinah as unworthy of their son. Ultimately, however, his family decides to permit a union of the two tribes, and Hamor, Sichem's father, goes to Jacob to arrange the marriage.

Dinah at first appears to feel that she is not being treated with significant respect, but ultimately seems satisfied with the terms of her marriage, terms that include a requirement that the men of Sichem's tribe become circumcised. The women of Sichem's tribe are not happy about this requirement, but Hamor, Sichem's father, is determined to comply. After the circumcisions, we see the men uncomfortably moving about their camp. Then, Dinah's brothers brutally murder Sichem and most of his fellow tribesmen, taking advantage of the fact that they are temporarily disabled.

A distraught and unhinged Dinah is caught between the two tribes, with nowhere to go where she feels comfortable. Finally, Jacob begins to emerge from his depression,  converses with Hamor, and the two patriarchs arrange for a conference to prevent more suffering and death among their families.

The film was directed by Cheick Oumar Sissoko, whose feature film Guimba, won first prize at the Panafrican Film Festival in 1995, and who also directed Nyamanton--Garbage Boys (a 1986 film about the problems of poor children); Finzan (a 1989 film about the oppression of women, both within and outside of the family), the 1992 documentary on the problems of young people finding work, Etre Jeune a Bamako and the 1997 La Femma Dans la Lutte Contre L'Apartheid. The screenwriter is Jean-Louis Sagot-Duvaurous. Sotigui Kouyate starred as Jacob, and Balla Moussa Keita as Hamor.

For those who would enjoy seeing biblical scenes depicted in African soil, the movie could be appealing.

Ronnie Friedland

Ronnie Friedland was the founding Web Magazine Editor of InterfaithFamily.

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