(Annette Mbaye d'Erneville, right, from Ousmane William Mbaye's documentary, "Mere-bi," which screened at the 6th Syracuse International Film Festival on April 30.)
There is a wonderful scene late in the new film "M re-bi/Mother of All," Ousmane William Mbaye's portrait of the charismatic Annette Mbaye d'Erneville, in which she is sitting with her grandson, Laity Ahmet Mbaye, teaching him to recite poetry. He looks to be about 14. In the poem at hand, she praises her own son -- Laity's father, who's also filming this conversation -- for getting through his circumcision at about age six without crying. She wants her grandson to read one line with more verve and shows him what she means, drawing one phrase out with an elegant sweep of her arm. He reads the line as she did and goes on; when he's done, he asks her about the ceremony.
"This man, the Namane, he puts sand on your lap to see if you're trembling," she says.
Laity listens intently, his eyes wide and the corners of his mouth pulled back a little in apprehension. When she reaches the part where "he cuts it in one go!" and demonstrates with another sweep of her arm -- she adds, "The blood gushes!" -- Laity's head snaps back at the thought of it, after which the old woman and young teen relish a laugh together.
Now 82, d'Erneville says in the film that with grandchildren "you have this feeling of infinity." She still directs the Henriette Bathily Museum of Women, named for her close friend and colleague, which she founded in 1994 at the historic slave port at Gor (c)e Island, and she says her sole ambition now is that her magazine "Cin (c) Culture Afrique" be printed regularly and survive.
Mbaye, 58, distilled this film -- first about 90 minutes long and now 55 -- from 50 hours of footage shot over 15 years. Besides being a poet, D'Erneville was Senegal's first degreed journalist, valedictorian of the program founded by Pierre Schaeffer in 1952 when he headed radio broadcasting for overseas France. That year she began broadcasting to West Africa from Paris, to which she had gone in the late 40s as a student. She continued as a journalist when she returned to Senegal in 1957 with her husband and the first two of four children. L (c)opold S (c)dar Senghor -- poet, major intellectual in the emergence of the N (c)gritude movement, Senegal's first president, and d'Erneville's tutor in Paris -- had exhorted Senegalese ex-pats to go home and build their newly independent country. There, D'Erneville founded Senegal's first women's magazine, "Awa," was Radio Senegal's program head, a prime mover in the film festival RECIDAK, a founder of the national writers association, a poet and writer of children's books and a teacher. The mother of four, d'Erneville divorced her husband, whom she had met in France, when he tried to curtail her many public activities. Mbaye treats this matter-of-factly in his film, including a number of clips of his father during which Ndakhte Mbaye adds his comments.