Alassane Sy’s emotive short film about the plight of talibès in Senegal premieres at Film Africa and Carthage Film Festival

Alassane Sy’s directorial debut, the short film Marabout, follows detective Diagne - played by Sy - as he investigates a group of street children in Dakar. He discovers the dangers they are exposed to in their orphanage, which is run by a greedy and exploitative spiritual teacher (marabout). The film reflects the real life struggles faced by some of the least fortunate youth in Senegal who are sent to religious schools (daras) to be taught the Qu’ran but often end up being forced to beg for food and money by those men whose care they are in.

Having spent his formative years in Senegal, it’s a subject close to Sy’s heart. “I’ve always wanted to talk about these kids (talibès), then two years ago while getting ready to go back to Senegal to work on another film, the idea became clear in my mind and I wrote this script,” he says. “The intention is to create a debate that I hope will turn into real will from everyone to eradicate this child mendacity and start to reintegrate talibès into the society in which they belong and deserve the same opportunities as any other Senegalese child. Successive governments have addressed the situation but it relies on a sensitive approach.”

The London-based actor and Nataal co-founder who has starred in films including Andrew Dosunmu’s Restless City, Jonas Carpignano’s Mediterranea and Joseph A. Adesunloye’s White Colour Black, now sees his own powerful yet ultimately liberating tale debut at two film festivals. The Royal African Society’s annual Film Africa, which runs from 28 October to 6 November in venues across London, has shortlisted Marabout for the Baobab Award for Best Short Film. Meanwhile the Carthage Film Festival, which happens from 28 October to 5 November in Tunis and is dedicated to raising awareness of societal issues across Africa and the Arab world, is screening it as part of its Short Film Competition.  

“The intention is to create a debate that I hope
will turn into real will from everyone
to eradicate this child mendacity
and start to reintegrate talibès into society”

Sy used mostly non-actors for the production including children from his hometown of Rufisque. Gabi Ba plays the marabout. “I am an activist for justice and for well being. It takes films like that to denounce even if it's going be inevitably shocking,” says Ba. “There is an urgent need for a reorganisation of the religious educational system. The general Senegalese consciousness will connect with this story, they talk quietly about what we are saying loud.”

Now Sy looks forward to directing more films with Marabout having formed the foundation of the full-length feature Talibès. It tells the story of a young man called Fallou who has been sent from Senegal to London by a marabout linked to Boko Haram. He makes friends and falls in love and must eventually make a choice: stay faithful to his religion or embrace the exciting life of this new city. “I am still learning, loving the process and don't yet call myself a director. But I have stories that I feel a strong need to tell and share.”