Ousmane Sembène has long been considered the father of Black African film, both for his filmmaking achievements and for his efforts to promote the creation of a vital, authentic African cinema. He sees himself as a contemporary embodiment of the traditional African griot, a storyteller and chronicler who both preserves and reinterprets the social and cultural heritage of his community.
He was born in 1923 in a coastal fishing village near Dakar. He worked a variety of jobs as a young man (36 different kinds of work, according to him) before being conscripted into the French army at the end of World War II. He then moved to Marseille, where he worked as a stevedore for ten years. He became active in unionism and left-wing politics, and he began to read voraciously. While in France he became acquainted with some of the writers of the African-American Diaspora (including Richard Wright), and he began to write stories and novels. Le Docker Noir (The Black Stevedore) was published in 1957, and Les Bout de Bois de Dieu (God's Bits of Wood) appeared in 1960; both received substantial critical acclaim. Both were written initially in French, to assure publication and to ease distribution throughout Francophone Africa. By the mid-Sixties Sembène had decided that his novels should first appear in his native Wolof, with eventual translation into French, a practice that he still follows in his writings and his films.
In 1962 he was offered a scholarship to the Gorky Film Institute in Moscow, where he was able to study filmmaking under noted director Marc Donskoy. He had always been interested in movies both as entertainment and as art, but had become increasingly drawn to the idea of using film to communicate his vision and his ideas to a polyglot and frequently illiterate population. The rigorous film program at the Gorky Film Institute gave him the ability to translate that vision onto film. The rest of his career would be spent struggling to find the resources to do so.
Sembène returned to Senegal in 1963, formed a production company, and made a short film, Borom Sarett, which won a prize at Tours Film Festival. La Noire de . . . (Black Girl), made in 1966, won the Jean Vigo Prize at the Carthage Film Festival. Manda bi (1968), his first feature film, won the Special Festival Prize at the Venice Film Festival. It tells the story of a village man used to lording it over his wives who finds himself helpless against the new political system when he tries to cash a money order. Tauw (1970), a short film made for the United Nations, focuses on two young brothers living in poverty in contemporary Dakar. Emitai (1972) revolves around the conscription of Black Africans into the French Army during World War II. Xala (The Curse of Impotence), made in 1975, is a biting satire about the discreet charm of the Neo-Colonialist Senegalese bourgeoisie. Then came Ceddo, completed in 1976 but not shown in Senegal for six years (supposedly because he had misspelled the word "ceddo" but obviously there were other reasons).
Le Camp de Thiaroye/Camp Thiaroye (1987) focuses on the fate of Senegalese soldiers who were conscripted into the French Army during World War II. History has hid the fact that a substantial number of the soldiers in the Free French Army during World War II were in fact African. Many Africans were confined in Nazi concentration camps after being left behind by their white comrades on the beaches of Dunkirk; needless to say, they were treated very brutally in the camps. Other conscripts fought with the Allies in Northern Africa, in Italy, and in Normandy. After the war, they were expected to return meekly to the colonialist system back home. (The film makes interesting parallels between these African conscripts and their American brothers, who also fought to "free mankind," then returned to a racist U.S.). Le Camp de Thiaroyetells the story of a group of these conscripts who had been taken prisoner by Germans, then returned to a Senegal that was no less a prison camp for them. This immensely insightful and powerful film won First Prize at the 1988 Venice Film Festival.
In Guelwaar (1992) Sembène returns to the issue of religious animosity in a subtle, life-affirming film about what happens when the body of Pierre Henri Thioune, alias "Guelwaar," a popular member of the anti-establishment resistance and a Catholic, is accidentally given to Muslims who give it a Muslim burial. It opened the 1993 FESPACO festival to great acclaim and honors. Faat Kine (2000), his most recent film, has for the first time a woman as his main character. Here he deals directly with the intersection of gender politics and neo-colonial politics: Faat Kine's treatment by men who only want to take advantage of her becomes a mirror for the inadequacies of the patriarchal society. Faat Kine's steadfastness and ultimate triumph reflect Sembène's enduring optimism and his belief that Africans must become both self-sufficient and socially responsible. New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell named Faat Kine one of the ten best films to play in the U.S. in 2001.
All of Sembène's films have been made under the severe constraints that are typical of Third World Filmmaking, with low budgets and erratic distribution, particularly in their own countries. Every since Manda bi, he has insisted that his films be in Wolof, so as to be true to their subject matter and to their primary audience--despite the fact that producing them in French would help with distribution. In addition, unlike most African filmmakers, he eschews co-financing from European cultural organizations and NGOs; he would rather struggle to raise funds and make films less frequently, rather than be forced to tailor his message and his vision to the expectations of Western funders.
He frequently uses non-professional actors in his films, and he likes to give them a lot of latitude to improvise, particularly the women. He selects them because they feel right for the part, because they represent a type that he wants in his story, then he lets them bring bits of their own reality into the film.
He chooses, however, not to make documentaries. He feels that fictional stories are a better vehicle to engage the attention of audiences, and to get them to think about moral and social issues that they would otherwise never consider. His films, which are frequently adapted from his own novels, tend to be fictional treatments of authentic incidents, sometimes historical, sometimes taken from the "strange facts" sections of newspapers. He stated in an interview with me in 1975, "I have many ideas in my head, because I see things around me, and every event deserves to be recounted, it seems. But aside from that, it's usually a little bit of news, a speck of an event."
From that speck, be it historical, contemporary, or purely fictional, Sembène's story will arise. The creative catalysts for Sembène are the fictional characters who come to live in his head: "There are times when there are people obsessing me, figures whom I didn't expect to find. You see, these people are pressing themselves on me. . . . jostling one another in front of me" (1975 interview). This is true whether his characters are taken from contemporary life or blended from historical personages.
His films almost always contain elements of social critique, of resistance to colonialism or neo-colonialism. For Sembène, "Colonialism" can come in many forms, and the oppressors may be white, black, or brown: French Colonialism in Emitai and Le Camp de Thiaroye; Neo-Colonialism in Black Girl, Xala and Manda Bi; or Islamic Colonialism in Ceddo. He tends to make women the locus of resistance in his works as well as the often unacknowledged pillars of community, notably in his most recent film, Faat Kine. He always tries hard, however, to keep his films from being didactic or propagandistic. He made the following point in an interview with Françoise Pfaff in 1978: "I am in favor of a given ideology but I am against billboard cinema. I am in for films that make us think, discuss and progress. I like for people to think about what I am telling them through my films. They may accept or reject it, but the important thing is to bring about new avenues of thought."
It would be difficult to overestimate Ousmane Sembène's contributions to African Cinema. A profoundly decent, funny, generous man, he has been an inspiration to filmmakers at home, and a compelling ambassador for African Cinema abroad. But he is no idle elder statesman: Guelwaar, which was made when Sembène was nearly 70, reminds us of the vitality and continuity of his creative, moral, and political vision. Faat Kine, made when he was in his late 70s, demonstrates the agility of his vision, the strength of his social analysis and satire, his ability to identify with the young. Not surprisingly, at 80 he is already preparing his next film project.
After years of resistance, Sembène is at last allowing his films to be reproduced on videotape, thereby opening them up to a potentially much larger audience. His prior reticence, he told me in 1994, was due mainly to two reasons: (a) he felt that the quality of video distorted the aesthetic merits of his films; and (b) he didn't want his films to be viewed in solitary fashion--he wanted audiences to view his films as social events, provoking shared reactions, to be followed by discussions. Now that he has agreed to let his earlier films be sold as videotapes by New Yorker Films and by the British Film Institute, and Faat Kine by California Newsreel, lovers of African film will have much easier access to his work.
Moolaadé, made when the director was 81, in a sense continues the story of Faat Kiné, though in a very different setting (a very rural and traditional Bukina Faso village). He conceived it as the second part of a triptych of films begun with Faat Kiné, films celebrating "everyday heroes." (His projected next film was to be set in the city and was tentatively assigned the title of La Confrerie des Rats/The Brotherhood of Rats.) Moolaadé has been the recipient of a number of international awards and placement on a number of "Best Films" lists for 2004.
And as fate would dictate, Moolaadé was to be the director's last film, as the great director died in June of 2007. Before his health went into decline, he was as usual hard at work.
--Notes by Michael Dembrow
L'Empire Sonhrai (1963)
Borom Sarret (1963)
Black Girl/La Noire de... (1966)
Mandabi/The Money Order (1968)
Camp de Thiaroye (1988)
Faat Kine (2000)
NOVELS AND STORIES BY SEMBENE IN ENGLISH
God's Bits of Wood (1960, 1970)
Black Docker (1956, 1987)
Tribal Scars, and Other Stories (1974) (including "Black Girl" and "Voltaique")
The Money Order (Mandabi), with White Genesis (1966, 1972)
Xala (1973, 1976)
Last of the Empire: A Senegalese Novel (1981, 1984)
Niiwam and Taaw: Two Novellas (1987, 1992).
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