Karmen Geï, Joseph Ramaka’s stunning cinematic interpretation of the Bizet opera (and Prosper Mérimée novel), opens with an explosion of drumming by inmates in the yard of a women’s prison in Dakar, Senegal.
Seconds later, Karmen (Djeinaba Diop Gaï ) bursts into the frame and captures all attention. Tall, slim, the color of bittersweet chocolate, she dances energetically, seductively, pulling up her flowing boubou to entice Angélique, the prison warden, with her long, sensual legs. Angélique (Stephanie Biddle) is instantly smitten. Later, the women prisoners, crowded into their cells, sing their celebration of the heroine’s erotic power over their superintendent.
So goes the rest of the movie, with characters sometimes speaking, sometimes singing their roles. Most musicals, and certainly operas, have splashy production numbers that complement the film but function just as well independently. (Think of the dance hall scene in West Side Story.) Here, music and script are so melded, unraveling them would be near impossible.
Karmen is unique because Ramaka is unique. Music is fundamental to his craft as writer and director. “I heard the rhythm and melodies of the script in my head before I wrote a word,” he says, pounding out a wild beat on a table to demonstrate. “I already hear my next film,” he adds, and changes tempo, his fingers moving more slowly and purposefully. “I can’t separate the music from the film itself. They are integral.”
To bring his vision to the screen, Ramaka used well-known Senegalese musicians, not simply to play background music but as members of the cast. Yande Coudou Sene, Senegal’s blind diva, walks along the beach, singing to the sea. Later, she performs at the concert hall, singing of our heroine, whose independence and love of life brings about her own demise. The camera cuts back and forth between the stage and the overhead flies where Karmen is meeting her death at the hands of her heartlessly jilted lover, Lamine (Magaye Niang). El Hadji N’diaye, whose last CD on Harmonia Mundi won awards in France, plays Massigi, a popular singer and another of Karmen’s many love interests. Doudou N’daye Rose, master drummer, both choreographed all the drumming and provided the internal rhythm of the film. Djeinaba Diop Gaï, as Karmen, shines, and in most cases literally glistens, in every scene she is in, drawing all focus to herself as if by gravity.
What is difficult to believe is that this perfectly cast and incredibly seductive star was neither musician nor actress before making this film. She was a fashion model, an occupation not held in the highest regard in Senegal. “Models are not respected,” she says. She has often refused work because the job description included tasks other than simply posing in the latest clothes.
“I met Joseph at the presentation of his last film, So Be It,” she says. “We were introduced by a mutual friend. When he was searching for his lead, he hired me as the casting director because I knew all the beautiful young women in Dakar.”
A week after he engaged her services, Ramaka called Gaï from Barcelona.
“Stop looking,” he told her. “You are my Karmen!”
“I didn’t even know how to dance or sing,” she says, laughing. “I had to work very hard to learn everything. I had a big job!”
Gaï is nothing like her uninhibited, devil-may-care character, who conquers and discards male and female lovers alike, leaving them mere shells of their former selves. A serious mother of four (a nine-year-old, five-year-old twins and an infant), she is reserved and quiet, although she does admit to having been a “rebel and a tomboy” as a kid. Still, she says, “I<