"The Problem Is More Mental Than Economic"
An Interview with Ousmane Sembène On the Subject of Moolaadé, April 11, 2004, by Mount Holyoke College Professor Samba Gadjigo
After more than three years of work, Ousmane Sembène has just put the finishing touches on his feature film Moolaadé. This film was selected for the Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), had its press screening on May 14, then its debut on May 15. Several hours after the final post-production on the film, on April 11, 2004, Ousmane Sembène graciously accorded Samba Gadjigo this interview in Rabat, Morocco.
Monsieur Sembène, you have just completed the subtitling of your film Moolaadé at the Moroccan Cinema Centre in Rabat. What in particular does this film mean to you, to your career, to your everyday struggles?
I dont know what this object means, this finished product. I can tell you that in terms of its content, the film is the second part of a triptych which, for me, embodies the heroism of the everyday. It happens that today we have too many wars in Africa, especially in Africa south of the Sahara. But there is also our daily life, the life that continues after all, with our daily actions from which the masses do not hold back. The people do not hold back. Some want to convince us that we are "vegetating." Yet this underground struggle, this struggle by the people, similar to the struggles of other peoples, this is what I call the heroism of the everyday. There are heroes like this in every country; no country bestows medals for it. No one erects statues to them. Here, for me, is the symbolism of the triptych that begins with Faat Kiné .
Moolaadé takes place in a rural setting, in a village that is symbolic of a green Africa. This Africa, all the while living its own life, is linked to "others." Thus, we have some external elements whose arrival allows the African to know herself or himself better. In Moolaadé, two values are in conflict. One is traditional: female excision. It goes back a long time. Before Jesus Christ, before Mohammed, back to the time of Herodotus. Its a tradition. It has been made a value in orderin my opinionto subjugate women. The other value, as ancient as human existence, is the right to grant protection to the most vulnerable. When these two values meet, cross each other, multiply, run up against each otherthere is the symbol of our society: elements of modernity, elements which belong to our cultural subtext. Added to them are the elements that belong to our cultural superstructure, namely religious. This is the ocean in which this group is swimming.
Youve said that Moolaadé is the most African of all your films.
I said it in the sense that here we are in the cultural substratum of Africa. Obviously, with elements that come from the outside. But everything occurs within the interior of a language, of a culture, with its metaphors and symbols. We observe the arrival of two figures from the outside: one is a former soldier. He has, in the name of Humanity, participated in all the peacekeeping efforts. The other is someone who exiled himself to Europe (for his own interest). Thats the son of the village chief, the village big-shot. For me, this is the most African film.
Ever since your first novel, Le Docker noir (The Black Stevadore, 1956), whose first chapter was entitled "The Mother," you have always emphasized the importance of the woman, the African woman. Why does this heroism recur as a leitmotif in your work?
I believe that Africa is maternal. The African male is very mother-oriented. He loves his mother, he swears by his mother. When someone insults his father, the man can put up with it. But if someone casts aspersions on the honor of his mother, the man is going to feel himself unworthy of life if he doesnt defend her. According to our traditions, man has no intrinsic value; he receives value from his mother. This conception dates from before Islam: the good wife, the good mother, the submissive mother who also knows how to manage husband and family. The mother envelops our society . . . I continue to think that African society is very maternal. Perhaps we have inherited this from the matriarchy that preceded Islam. That said, for me, every man loves a woman. We love them. Besides, more than 50% of the African population is female. More than half of the 800 million of us are women. This is a force that we must mobilize for our development. No one works as hard as the rural woman.
Of the approximately50 African countries, today at least 38 practice excision. Why did you choose Burkina Faso and Djerisso?
I could have done it elsewhere, but I wouldnt have had the framework that I was seeking, and that I only could have found there. I was simply seeking a village that answered to my creative desire. Why would I paint a rose black? I traveled thousands of kilometers. I investigated Burkina, Mali, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau. But when I saw this village, I said to myself: Heres my village! But theres more: this mosque in hedgehog style in the middle of the village, its architecture unique in the Sudano-Sahelian zone. But this architecture, it wasnt a person that inspired it; we owe it to the termites, to the termite mound that was the source of inspiration The symbol of Moolaadé ["Protection," and in the film its violation (trans. note)]. Theres the reason for the choice of Djerisso.
Youve often said: "For me, creation is like the Kora [the traditional West African string instrument used by the griots]. It has a number of strings. I play it by ear, and the most important is that Im free." What pleasures did you taste during the making of Moolaadé?
The experience is not yet over. I worked with a team coming from Morocco, the Ivory Coast, Benin, Mali, Burkina Faso, France, and Senegal. Now that I have just finished the film, Im waiting to see the reaction of my people to this film. After that, it no longer belongs to me. The excitement, the difficulties, the tribulations, and the pleasure that I tasted during its creation, all those pleasures are going to leave me from the moment of its first screening. Despite my age, I only think of the future, and I hope that it will be a timeless film.
Why the choice of Morocco for the post-production work?
It wasnt my first experience with Morocco. I had already done the post-production work on Faat Kiné in Morocco. Editing, sound mixing, etc. It makes me proud to say that Moolaadé was born on the continent and from the continent. That is my personal point of pride. Perhaps it could demonstrate to African filmmakers, to the younger ones, that we can create everything that we need to without leaving the continent. We are not a wealthy land, but we are a chosen land. The tell us that the first humans were born in Africa and they speak to us of Lucy [the early hominid fossil discovered in East Africa]. They also speak to us of Egypt. Cheikh Anta Diop [the great Senegalese academic and "Afrocentrist"], in his book which I approve of, shows that all civilizations emerged from the Egypt of the Pharaohs, which was a Black civilization. Even excision came from a Black goddess. Its when Herodotus saw it that excision was spoken of for the first time, in the 4th or 5th Century.
On this continent we have the values of Egypt, of Zimbabwe, the values born in Nigeria. But then what is the origin of this rupture that we are living? We must ask ourselves this question. Not in order to cry after the past. But I think that we can recreate these values, from our own perspective. Im not speaking of excluding the "others." We can accept them. But we live here. We have an enormous history. It is our legacy. Its not a matter of crying after the past; its a matter of taking hold of ourselves and telling ourselves that we can do it. But its a mental problem.
You were active in the union movement. You were a militant in the port of Marseille during the Indochina war. You actively participated in the demonstrations against the war in Algeria, and you were in the ranks during the Korean War. But why, at a given moment in your life history, did you decide to orient your combat to the realm of culture, to the level of art?
As for that, I dont know. I cant really answer. My father was a simple fisherman; my grandfather was a simple fisherman. For his whole life, my fathers life was fishing. He liked to repeat to me the point that he had never worked for a White man his whole life. He only lived off of fishing. I was the first in my family to go to school . . .
Yes, but in the library of the CGT [the French leftist union] in Marseille, you discovered the great writers. Later, you yourself decided to steer yourself towards writing, and later, to the cinema . . .
No, no! Regarding writing, it was in the realm of political action. Because in the libraries at that time, when I was young, they spoke of an Africa of banana trees, exotic Africa, good little Negroes: the Negro child, the child who is never an adult. Me, I knew the stories in which people struggled, in which they affirmed themselves. So, I said no. It wasnt like that in my world. Of course in Africa there are coconut trees, banana trees, but most of all there are human beings. We are not ants. Now, why, how . . . I leave you to your Freudian complex.
Freud, perhaps yes. But Im convinced that at some point you made a conscious choice to orient yourself towards art rather than to throw yourself into politics!
Ah, politics! Yes, but the choice is an empty one. Culture is politics, but another kind of politics. You dont do culture in order to be elected. You dont do politics in order to say "I am." With art, one makes politics, by saying "We are." At each stage of life, people create their own culture, mark their epoch. And move forward! So, when I discovered culture, I used it in that sense. Politicsnot the politicians politics, getting elected deputy, minister, or whatever. But to be able to speak in the name of my people. And its there that I see a contradiction. By what right do you come here to interview me, to speak to me of my work? I wasnt elected; I dont owe you for your vote. The compensation that one receives as an artist is when people come to express their words of encouragement.
In 1975 at Indiana University in Bloomington, you gave a seminar entitled "The Human Is Culture." During the entire week that I worked with you, you were always in search of the exact word, the right word, to express what, for you, is African Culture.
But I was speaking to whom? In that place there are a few who speak Mandinke but there are also people who dont speak Mandinke but who speak French. Its by finding the exact word that Im going to be able to place them and show them what has occurred. Here, were no longer speaking of Academic French or Academic English. Its rather a question of daily usage. Perhaps also it was concern for the exact word led me to literature; the concern to be correctly heard, correctly understood.
You have often said that cinema is something mathematical, as opposed to literature. It is simultaneously artistic and industrial. Where is African cinema today? What direction is it taking?
I cannot tell you. But one thing is sure: we are moving towards success. How and when? I do not know. Will the path be straight, winding, with steep climbs and descents? But we are obliged to succeed. Because in the century to come any people who cannot speak for themselves are going to disappear. An entire continent, 800 million people, are they going to disappear? No! We cannot and we must not!
We have had the experience of slavery, of colonization; now, its globalization and neocolonialism. The African people always manage to rise again from their wounds. Ousmane Sembène, what is the source of our strength?
I dont know, I cant say. But, what you just said demands a lot of attention. Up to now, Africa has always picked itself back up. But the century that is now beginning is the most dangerous century. Slavery was blessed by the Church, accepted by the Europeans. We find it in the Bible, in the Koran, and even in the Talmud. With colonization, it was Europe carving up Africa for its riches. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, Europeans got together several times in order to dismember Africa. France, Italy, England, and Germany shared Africa among themselves. During slavery, each of those countries had its own zone on the African coastline. Now, Europe is in the process of uniting, of reorganizing itself. This is the same Europe that carved us up. This same France which in 1789 spoke of liberty and the rights of man. For them, not for the African. They continued to practice slavery, then colonization.
Once again we are finding ourselves in their grip because of our raw materials, which Europe needs. We are, once again, what is at stake. What Africans think of themselves today is even more serious. Since 1960 more Africans have been killed by other Africans than by 100 years of slavery and colonization. By Africans. At this moment one speaks of globalization; its enough just to look at our so-called "Francophone" zone. Our leadersI would say nearly allhave homes in Europe, are prepared to retire to Europe at the least hint of trouble in their countries. We are not worried by globalization; its not even a question of us lagging behind. The problem is more mental than economic. When Africans cannot trade between themselves, between their neighboring countries, theres a problem. They talk about the market created by the European Union, some 250 million people. In Africa we have a potential market of more than 900 million! Economic and physical laws are the same everywhere, in all cultures, in all languages.
Since 1960, your struggle has also been situated at the level of the rehabilitation of our national languages. During the 70s you, along with others, created Kaddu, a newspaper in Wolof. Boubacar Boris Diop very recently published the first novel in Wolof with Doomi Golo. In the realm of our private radio, people are doing extraordinary work in Wolof, Pular, Soninke, Bambara, and so on. If the political will existed today, couldnt we make the teaching of our languages more widespread?
You say "If." You who are a professor of French, tell me what "if" means. Our leaders dont want it. Imagine an African language becoming the official language somewhere south of the Sahara. Most leaders would no longer be in charge. Its the peasants who would be in charge because the current leaders dont speak their native languages.
Following Faat Kiné (2000) and Moolaadé (2004), what will be the third panel of the triptych?
This time well be in the city: how we are governed. The title of the nedxt filmThe Brotherhood of Rats.
June 12, 2004
Africultures (in French)
Note: Samba Gadjigo did the translation for the English-language subtitles of Moolaadé. Among his many publications, he is the co-editor of Ousmane Sembène: Dialogues with Critics and Writers (UMass Press, 1993).
--Interview translated by Michael Dembrow
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