Ousmane Sembène died in 2007 at the age of 84. In February, New Yorker released his final
film, Moolade, on a two-disc edition, filled with featurettes on Sembene and his work and a 25-minute video interview conducted with the director as Moolade was being released. My review will run in my Tuesday DVD column.
In the meantime, here is an introductory essay I wrote about Ousmane Sembène for a Seattle retrospective sponsored by Northwest Film Forum in 2001, expanded with excerpts from my coverage in the Seattle P-I and updated to include Moolaade.
Ousmane Sembène: Godfather of Black African Cinema
“In response to a student’s question about his background, Ousmane Sembène recalled that he had been expelled from primary school in Senegal for striking back at his French teacher who had slapped him. His fisherman father was not particularly perturbed by this cataclysmic event – cataclysmic because it closed the school door permanently for Sembène. In fact, he was pleased with his son’s strident defense of his invaded personhood.” – from Ousmane Sembène: Dialogues with Critics and Writers
Senegalese born Ousmane Sembène remains the elder statesman of black African cinema and one of Africa’s most important novelists. Practically self educated, Sembene took a succession of jobs, notably soldier and dock worker (where he became active in the unions and became a delegate) before he turned to writing while in his late 30s. He slipped himself into France after WWII to master the language and wrote his poems and first novels in French, spending over a decade in Europe before returning home to Senegal in 1960. Already recognized as one of the leading African novelists, he worked and lived in France, wrote in French, and was published and read primarily in Europe. The contradictions bothered him: even if he chose to write in his native Wolof he wouldn’t be read outside the universities or intellectual circles. To reach a wider audience – and, even more importantly, an African audience – he turned to filmmaking.
He trained for 2 years in a Soviet Union film school before returning again to Africa and after an unreleased documentary commissioned by the Mali government he made his first acclaimed film at the age of 40, Borom Sarret (1966), a devastating look at the poverty of Senegal’s urban slums through a day in the life of a poor cart driver in Dakar. Writing the script after spending a month learning the lives of cart drivers in Dakar, Sembène condensed an entire day’s worth of experiences into 20 minutes of deceptively simple drama, a neo-realist approach transplanted to the devastating poverty of Senegal’s urban slums. Shot on the most meager of budgets and performed by an almost completely non-professional cast, Sembène turns his technical limitations into a powerfully direct and rich style, capturing not simply the life of one man but the social culture of the newly independent Senegal and the problems still to overcome.
“This black woman is someone who has been transplanted from her original environment. She no longer has a name. Before, she was not even aware of the fact that she was ‘black,’ with all the possible connotations associated with this word. She used to function adequately in her own surroundings. But once she left her country, she lost her identity as Diouana. She became somebody’s black maid. She became an object belonging to a white family – their trophy.” – Ousmane Sembène, 1978
Sembène’s first feature, Black Girl (1966) was inspired by a news item he spotted in a French language paper. He turns the brief mention into a harrowing portrait of a young woman who suddenly loses her freedom and her identity when transplanted from her native Dakar to France. Sembène’s attack on neo-colonialism and “the new slave trade” (Sembène’s words) of African workers in Europe won a number of awards and was widely praised, and has since come to be regarded as the first important film of the black African cinema. He followed it in 1968 with Mandabi, also known as “The Money Order,” a cutting, caustic satire of a traditional man whose unexpected inheritance throws him into the corruption and Kafka-esque bureaucracy of the modern world. Sembene captures a culture caught between tradition and modernity, but more importantly he explores that culture with a style sensitive to its rhythm of life and unique social style of interaction.
Emitai (1971) remains, to my mind, Sembene’s greatest masterpiece and his most important achievement. His angry attack on colonialism was inspired by the real life resistance of a Diola tribe who stood against the French soldiers that conscripted their men and took their rice during World War II. Sembene tosses out the conventions of western filmmaking and creates a style that arises from the storytelling traditions of rural Senegal. The contemplative pace, performances more ritual than realistic, and formal “call and response” dialogue create a world from the outside in, giving western audiences a culturally unique perspective and African audiences a sense of their own voice.
“In a given situation, there will always be characters who will say no. It would not be accurate to say that a whole people accepted or refused, but I work with types of characters and I am very sympathetic with those who refuse. Some things are simply not to be accepted. Human beings reach greatness only to the extent that they refuse these things and assume themselves.” – Ousmane Sembène, 1992
Sembène adapts his own novel for Xala (1975), a satire of political and social corruption that also explore one of the director’s most insistent themes: women’s rights in the patriarchal holdover of the rural cultures that linger in the new, modern world.
Sembène’s fifth film Ceddo (1977) reaches back into African history and compresses centuries of events into a few days in an African village. The word “ceddo” means “rebel” or “outsider,” and in the film they represent the traditionalists who remain true to their religion after their king has converted to Islam. Persecuted by the Muslims for their beliefs, one of the ceddo kidnaps the King’s daughter in protest and battles the warriors who come to rescue the Princess and win her hand. Visually it is Sembène’s most spare and bold work, shot on a sparse landscape, structured largely around two or three person scenes and containing very little dialogue.
Like his previous films, Ceddo was critical of foreign intervention in Africa and attacked Islamic expansion into West Africa, the oppression of women under Muslim rule, and the complicity of the Africa elite in the European slave trade. Not surprisingly, it proved to be his most controversial film to date. It was even banned in his native Senegal, where 90% of the population was Muslim, and the film received only spotty distribution over Africa. Ironically, most of its impact was due to a favorable screening at Cannes and a subsequent art house release in the West, where it was praised at Sembène’s most sophisticated film yet.
“I did not make the picture to please the government but to help the African people to think about themselves – not to cry about themselves but to think about themselves.” – Ousmane Sembène
It was ten years before Sembène completed another film. The political drama Camp de Thiaroye was released in 1987, Guelwaar in 1992 and Faat Kine, a smart, sure, politically charged comedy, in 2000. The spirited look at modern day Dakar through the experiences of a liberated, independent single mother combines the social satire and cultural commentary of his past films with a confident, sassy role model in his heroine. His angry attacks on cultural chauvinism and the corruption of Senegalese tradition have the weight of an elder statesman’s experience, but there’s a youthful passion in his sense of hope in the young generation and his pride in a new, egalitarian cultural morality.
His final film, Moolaade, was released in 2004 to great acclaim, shining an international light on the work of a director whose films are rarely seen outside of film festivals and cinemateques. Sembene’s films are as much dialogues and practical lessons in history, sociology, and civil rights. Moolaade is his statement against female circumcision in Islamic Africa, but it’s also about women standing up for their rights, their dignity, and their humanity.
Moolaade brought his feature count up to nine films (plus a handful of shorts) when he died in 2007, and its release on DVD brings the number of available films on home video in the United States to four. It’s a terrible shame, for his films include not merely some of the richest productions of the past 30 years but a challenge to the European conventions of filmmaking. He has addressed contemporary and historical subjects, urban and rural experiences, and in addition to the dramas presented in this showing successfully tackled comedy and satire.
“We are at present making the transition from words to pictures and from pictures to sound…. The transition from words to pictures enables people to see themselves – the cinema reflects their image. This is something literature could not do.” – Ousmane Sembène, 1992
Sembène has tried to reach the people of Senegal, and of Africa as a whole, with an indigenous storytelling style and culturally relevant stories. He has been a pioneering filmmaker, maintaining his own production company and developing an African distribution network as an alternative to the European monopolies. In many ways he is the godfather of such acclaimed filmmakers Souleymane Cisse, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Drissa Toure and the scores of other filmmakers whose productions have appeared in the wake of Borom Sarret and Black Girl.
“In ten years you will see filmmakers all over Africa producing honest documents that will help people live far better lives. We will make you laugh, we will make you cry. And together we will question, discuss, and learn.” – Ousmane Sembène
My original article/festival overview for the Seattle P-I is here.
My review of Moolaade in the Seattle P-I is here.
For more resources, go to:
– A.O Scott’s obituary for Ousmane Sembène in The New York Times;
– GreenCine’s page of Ousmane Sembène links;
– 2005 interview with the director in The Guardian;
– 2004 interview with the director conducted by Ray Price for CinemaScope;
– 2004 interview with the director conducted by Professor Samba Gadjigo;
– 1975 interview with the director conducted by Michael Dembrow and Klaus Troller;
– Ousmane Sembène page at the IMDb