Anjalisa — 2 more texts from Anjali related to Ousmane

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2 more texts from Anjali related to Ousmane
1. Ousmane Sembène, major figure in African cinema, dead at
by Samba Gadjigo
Dear All,
It is with deep sadness that I announce the passing of Africa’s greatest
film makers Ousmane Sembene who died on Sunday.
I was lucky enough to have met him not long ago when he was here
showing Moolaade, his sensitive and deeply symbolic film on female
genital mutilation in Senegal. Due to the hospitality of his hosts here
in London and their kind invitation to us, Kodwo and I were able to
spend time with him and were able to see the great man up close and hear
some of his stories and learn more about his life…. and what a life it
was ….one that moved through and in between so many epsisodes and
political histories . It was an honour and a joy to meet him and I
wonder sometimes what the world will look like when all these kind
gentle, generous and wise people have left us. There are people like
Sembene who always remind me of what is important… sometimes one needs
cinema to see things differently and he did that so well and gave birth
to some of greatest films of the century. For those who haven’t seen his
work I urge you to do so …..
In sadness and with condolences to all his friends and family
Ousmane Sembène, major figure in African cinema, dead at
By Joanne Laurier
13 June 2007
One of the pioneering figures in African cinema, the Senegalese
filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, died over this past weekend in Dakar at
the age of 84. Sembène authored numerous works of fiction and
directed 10 feature films. At the time of the release on DVD of two of
his earliest films, the WSWS posted the following article 17 January
2006 about his life and work.
Ousmane Sembène, Senegalese author, scenarist and film director, has
been making films for over 40 years. New Yorker Video has recently
released two of Sembène’s earliest and most remarkable cinematic
works on DVD: one short film, Borom Sarret (1963), and Black Girl
(1966), which also holds the distinction of being sub-Saharan
Africa’s first feature film.
Born in 1923 in southern Senegal, Sembène, the son of a Muslim
fisherman, migrated as a stowaway to France in 1947 to escape the
ravages of a war-torn colonial economy. Having joined the French
Communist Party in 1950 and the anti-racist movement MOURAP in 1951, he
was working as a dock worker in Marseilles in 1960, the year Senegal
declared its independence. Within a few years, Sembène had
established himself as a novelist and short story writer in France.
On a trip back to Senegal, Sembène was struck by or reminded of the
high levels of illiteracy. This convinced him to turn to film rather
than literature as a means of communicating with wide layers of the
population. In 1962, he enrolled at the Moscow film school, studying
under veteran Soviet director Mark Donskoy, and then worked at Gorki
film studies under the tutelage of Sergei Gerasimov.
An unusual personality, at this point in his life Sembène combined
profound opposition to capitalism and colonialism with a deep feeling
for artistic work. He immersed himself in world literature, including
the work of left-wing (or former left-wing) writers like Americans
Richard Wright, John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway, the Chilean poet
Pablo Néruda, the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, the Jamaican-born,
African-American writer Claude McKay and others. He also became involved
with the left-wing theater Le Theâtre Rouge.
Under such conditions, Sembène began his filmmaking career, viewing
cinema as a means of elevating consciousness, politically and culturally
… as a “liberating art.” Following his earliest films, which
we discuss below, Sembène continued to look critically at Senegalese
society and Western colonialism. For example, his 1974 film Xala
lambastes the hypocrisy and pride of the African ruling elite, while
maintaining a critical stance towards aspects of traditional African
society. The short film Taaw (1972) centers on an unemployed youth who
learns “the bitter truth about the contemporary social order: to
survive one has to be a policeman, a paid informer or a Member of
Parliament” (P. Vincent Magombe, The Oxford History of World
Cinema). Similarly in Mandabi (The Money Order, 1968), a civil
servant’s daily survival depends on adopting corrupt methods.
After the release of Mandabi, Sembène was subjected to a barrage of
attacks for exposing the horrific levels of misery in Senegal, and
throughout his career he faced governmental criticism and censorship.
Ceddo (1977), “which reflected the conversion of the Senegalese
people to Islam [in the 17th century] and the wretchedness of the
political system” (Magombe), was banned by the government for eight
Like other African filmmakers, Sembène has not only faced censorship
within Africa, but as well from without, particularly from France, which
has provided much of the technical and financial resources for the
development of cinema in the former French colonies in sub-Saharan
Africa. Sembène’s 1972 film Emitai, critical of French colonial
rule, was kept out of circulation for five years and then released with
a re-edited ending.
The films newly released by New Yorker Video on DVD (contained on one
disc), Borom Sarret and Black Girl, are starkly realistic films that
mesmerize by virtue of their poetic quality. Both exemplify the richness
made possible when serious art and serious politics encounter one
another. They are examples of the sublime artistic treatment of everyday
life. The urgency of each image—as though life depended on avoiding
the superficial and extraneous—disturbs in the extreme.
Borom Sarret
Borom Sarret was Sembène’s directorial debut upon his return to
Senegal in 1963. The film treats a day in the life of an unnamed borom
sarret (derived from the French phrase “bonhomme charrette”—a
horse-driven cart driver for hire, operating in the poor quarters of
Dakar). The regular passengers of Sembène’s “borom
sarret” include people as destitute as he is. (“When is she
going to pay me? But she has her troubles too.”)
As the day progresses, paying customers begin to hire his services.
Stopping for a meager lunch of nuts and burdened with worries about what
his family is eating, the wagoner becomes enthralled by a storyteller,
or griot, singing about tales of ancestral glory. Swept away (“Even
if this new life enslaves me, I am still noble”), he hands over his
earnings to the charismatic minstrel.
Left desperate by this ill-conceived act, he begins taking riskier
fares. This lands him in a wealthy area of the city with its obvious
French influence. Here, amid modern high-rises and fancy cars, the
horse-drawn carts are not allowed. An arrogant, self-important policeman
stops him and hands him a ticket. Forced to sell his cart in order to
pay the fine, the cart driver returns home with less than when he left.
There is no food for him, his wife, his children or his horse. “I
promised you we would eat tonight,” his wife says to her children
and she leaves with them in tow. His manhood shredded, the wagoner says
meekly: “Where is she going? There is nothing to eat.” A day in
the life of this borom sarret has left him with nothing economically or
In a 19-minute black and white short, Sembène artfully delivers a
world of extreme economic and social oppression. A working class
seething in discontent.
An aspect of the oppression explored by the film is its psychological
impact on the oppressed: the wagoner’s susceptibility to the griot;
his condescension and lack of sympathy for a deformed beggar (“So
many beggars, they are like flies”); a shoeshine boy helplessly
allowing a customer to leave without paying; but above all, the
wagoner’s acceptance of his place in society, his fatalism about his
What begins as a dichotomy between the braggadocio and exploited life of
the wagoner ends with deflated illusions and a political understanding
more in line with the harsh reality of Senegal’s post-colonialism.
While the French colonial overlords have gone, a brutally structured
society remains intact. No amount of praying or the invocation of
ancestors alters the situation.
A painful lesson learned from being swinishly cheated out of his only
means of subsistence—his wagon. “What will I become? It’s
all a lie! It’s the same everywhere…. Who cares about ancestors?
I’m broke. It was the same yesterday and the day before that. We all
work for nothing. There is nothing left except to die.”
Black Girl
Like Borom Sarret, Sembène’s Black Girl is set in the aftermath
of Senegal’s independence, and explores the relationship between a
Senegalese housemaid, Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) and a French
couple (Anne-Marie Jelinek and Robert Fontaine) who employ her. Arriving
from Dakar, Diouana is to resume her employment in Antibes, on the
French Riviera. In Dakar, before her country’s independence, Diouana
worked for the French family as a nanny and expects to perform the same
duties in France.
Flashbacks show her enthusiasm for the upcoming trip to France as well
as the grinding poverty and unemployment she will be leaving behind.
Diouana fantasizes about traveling in the European country and visiting
fashionable stores. She also leaves behind a resentful boyfriend,
obviously an African nationalist, who has a banner painted with
portraits of martyred Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. He has no
interest in France and its attractions.
Upon Diouana’s arrival in Antibes, she discovers that the couple
lives in far more modest circumstances than those they enjoyed in
Senegal. This translates into a much altered relationship between
Diouana and the couple. Looked upon as a servant, the Senegalese girl
goes without regular pay or the opportunity to get out of the
apartment’s cramped confines. Attempting to offset her demeaning
treatment, Diouana dresses stylishly while performing her chores—an
act that further enrages Madame.
Expected to cook, clean and function as a piece of exotica for dinner
guests (“I have never kissed a Negress before!” remarks a
visitor), she is barely seen as human, increasingly becoming the target
of Madame’s frustrations. The latter’s continuous refrain is:
“Get up you lazy, we are not in Africa!” She even strikes
Diouana while the latter is lying down.
A letter from her mother berating Diouana for not sending money is the
final disappointment. She disintegrates when Monsieur tries to assuage
her by paying her overdue wages. She did not come to France to wear an
apron and make money. The soundtrack changes from African to French
music. The camera pans a populated Riviera beach. Is this the
alternative to a wretched life in Dakar?
Finding everything intolerable, Diouana comes to a tragic end,
proclaiming, “I’ll never again be a slave!”
With his maid’s belongings, Monsieur returns to Dakar. Conspicuously
hidden behind sunglasses, he searches a shantytown for Diouana’s
family. In an act of guilty condescension, Monsieur attempts to
compensate Diouana’s mother with a cash offering—it would not
occur to him to do otherwise. The gesture is rejected.
The movie’s final scenes involve Monsieur being driven out of
Senegal by Diouana’s younger brother, menacingly wearing an African
mask. Monsieur departs and the boy is left weeping. The wounds inflicted
by Monsieur and Madame are permanent.
Filmed in black and white, Black Girl is, at first glance, a study in
elegance. Diop’s fluid movements and noble comportment are rhythmic
and beautiful, further embellished by the film’s soundtrack. Critic
Manny Farber described the film as “a series of spiritual odysseys:
through a kitchen; a ceremonial procedure before the bathtub suicide; a
small boy, holding an African mask over his face, following his
sister’s employer across Dakar; in which the imagination of Ousmane
Sembène appears to be covering all the ground that his experience can
Black Girl’s deceptive simplicity is uncompromisingly angry in tone.
There are no frills, yet every moment demands consideration. Some of the
best currents of international cinema are present: certainly traces of
Italian neo-realism, and some elements of Soviet cinema; the film also
breathes the same air, although at a higher intellectual-political
altitude, as the French New Wave. Despite its elevated place in African
cinema, Black Girl’s reverberations are anything but Afro-centric.
The African mask functions as the film’s main motif. It first
appears when Diouana goes to work for the French family in Dakar, a gift
from the girl in appreciation for her employment. It respectfully hangs
in the home among other local works of art.
In Antibes, the mask becomes a trophy on a stark, cold wall, mirroring
the couple’s attitude towards Diouana and her isolation in their
custody. In one pivotal scene, Madame and Diouana fight over the mask.
An overhead camera shot of the women spinning around impersonalizes the
fierce antagonism. It is part of a bigger war.
As a genuine piece of antiquity—the “real thing” says
Monsieur—the mask is congealed history. Therefore, Diouana’s
last act is to retake it from those who disrespect its people and their
culture. The violence of the tug-of-war “unmasks” its
participants, revealing something about the essential nature of victim
and victimizer, something of the struggle for power.
Monsieur returns the mask to Diouana’s little brother in Dakar, its
original owner. This speaks to the failed attempt at subjugating
Diouana. The mask chases Monsieur out of Senegal. He appears frightened
by the militancy the artifact suggests/incarnates. Behind the mask is
the boy’s devastated face. How to deal with the loss of Diouana and
all her aspirations for a better life? What comes next?
Borom Sarret and Black Girl are significant works that continue to merit
audiences forty years after their creation. Both films illustrate the
power that a successful interplay between ideas and artistic technique
brings to the striving for truthfulness. Their stubborn and beautiful
chronicling of reality arouses deep feelings—feelings intimately
connected to the objective need for social transformation.
by Samba Gadjigo, Mount Holyoke College
(an introductory outline of the forthcoming authorized biography of Ousmane Sembene of the same title)
“Of all African film directors, Sembene is the first to confer value to images.”
–Med Hondo
Crossing the geographical and national borders of his native Senegal, Ousmane Sembene’s literary and cinematographic output places him today as the “father” of African films and as one of the most prolific “French-speaking” African writers in this first century of “creative” writing in francophone Africa. From the publication of his first poem in Marseilles in 1956, at age thirty three, to Guelwaar (1996), his lastest published novel, Sembene has produced five novels, five collections of short stories, and directed numerous films, four shorts, nine features, and four documentaries He has granted hundreds of interviews to teachers, researchers, students, and to dozens of film and literary critics from around the world. Scholarly articles on his work have appeared in scores of international journals. Particularly here, in the US, publications and invitations to university and college campuses almost equal those of Wole Soyinka, and Chinua Achebe. Of Sembene’s ten published literary works, seven have been translated into English, and all of his films are subtitled in English, French, German, Japanese, and Chinese. In American universities, the attraction to Sembene’s work crosses disciplinary boundaries. His literary work has entered the curricula of many high schools and universities throughout Africa. Tens of Mémoires de maîtrise ( MA dissertations) and doctoral theses have been devoted to Sembene’s literary and film work.
Undoubtedly, in Africa, more ostensibly in Burkina Faso (the African capital of motion pictures), Ousmane Sembene’s name has also captured the “popular” imagination. Some five years ago, while attending a festival in Ouagadougou, I discovered a restaurant menu labeled “Ousmane Sembene”, and I smiled at a green and black-painted taxi cab self baptized Le docker noir (1956), the original title of Sembene’s first published novel (published in English as The Black Docker in, 1987). In the US, in 1996, his literary and film work also inspired Florence Ladd, then director of Radcliffe College’s Bunting Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her novel Sarah’s Psalm, recognized by Boston Magazine as ” a story (that) has the making of a modern myth. (Emphasis mine). Set in the 1960’s in Cambridge and in Dakar Senegal ( that space sometimes expanding to Europe, and the French Riviera), Sarah’s Psalm tells the story of Sarah Stewart, a young black Harvard graduate during the bourgeoning of the Civil Rights Movement and the first re-discovery of Africa by many African American intellectuals and cultural elites. Although Ms. Ladd warned that all characters in her novel were fictional, for her main character, the yearning to go to Africa, was a journey of self discovery, and arose from reading and viewing the work of a character named Ibrahim Mangane, a Sembene prototype.
Not only has Sembene’s work provided the African American Diaspora with an “alternative” knowledge of Africa, he is also among the most sought after African artists in the Caribbean. The University of the West Indies, at Cave Hill, Barbados was honored by his presence in the fall of 2000. I helped arrange for that event in the course of my one-year tenure at UWI, in 1999-2000. During my last visit to Guadeloupe in the Spring of 2000, I was happy to hear from the owner- managers of Librairie Jasor, the main literary outlet in the French West Indies, that they want to host Ousmane Sembene and to screen his work. During a literary conference organized by the University of Guyana, in Georgetown in the Spring of 2000, when I showed Black Girl (the film that first introduced Sembene to an international audience of writers and artists attending the 1966 Festival Mondiale des arts Nègres held in Dakar), the overflow audience asked for and was granted a second showing, for the same night. In many countries in Africa, high schools, libraries, and amphitheaters bear his name. Even in Paris, where his work is far from meeting official approval, in 1998, a whole week was devoted to a retrospective of Sembene’s work, masterminded and organized by Mauritanian film maker Med Hondo who once told me that “Sembene is the first African director to confer value to African images.” In 1996, a week-long screening of Sembene’s work at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, brought together fervent crowds of students, film critics, and other cultural workers. Sembene is also arguably the most interviewed Senegalese and African film director on the globe.
Born in 1923 in Casamance, southern Senegal, where his “crazy” fisherman father had migrated from Dakar around 1900, Ousmane Sembene has, from a marginalized and a very modest beginning, inscribed his name in world history. Expelled from school in 1936 for indiscipline, his formal education would never go beyond middle school. Also unable to take on his father’s trade because he was always seasick, in 1938 he was sent to his father’s relatives in Dakar, headquarters of the territories of French West Africa. From 1938 to 1944 he worked as an apprentice mechanic and a bricklayer. Although he was denied an opportunity of a formal education, Sembene developed a love of reading – mostly comics – and discovered cinema in the segregated movie houses of Dakar. He spent his days at work as a manual laborer and his after work hours either reading, watching movies or, along with his neighborhood mates, attending evenings of story telling, wrestling, and other “traditional” Senegalese cultural events . As a French citizen, in 1944, like many young Africans of his generation, he was called to active duty to liberate France from German occupation and subsequently was dispatched to the colony of Niger as a chauffeur in the 6th colonial infantry unit. Upon being discharged in 1946 at the end of the war, he went back to Dakar in the midst of charged social and political activism. That same year, for the first time, he took membership in the construction worker’s trade union and witnessed the first general workers’ strike that paralyzed the colonial economy for a month and ushered in the nationalist struggle in French Africa.
In 1947, unemployed in the thick of a war-ravaged colonial economy, Sembene left Dakar in search of a better living and also for the opportunity to feed his unquenchable thirst for learning- “apprendre à l’école de la vie.”(to learn in the school of life), as he put it many times. He migrated to France and lived in the Mediterranean city of Marseilles until 1960, the year Senegal was granted its political independence. As an black African docker who “knows” how to read and write, in Cold War Marseilles, he was soon identified by labor union leader Victor Gagnère (“papa Gagnere”, as Sembene affectionately referred to him) and enrolled in the CGT ( Confederation generale des travailleurs ), the largest and most powerful left wing workers’ union in post-war France. After back-breaking work unloading ships during the day (containers did not exist then), at night and on weekends Sembene enthusiastically attended seminars and workshops on Marxism, joined the French Communist Party in 1950, and the MOURAP (Movement against racism, anti Semitism and peace) in 1951, a political organization born of the resistence movement during WWII. The same year, while unloading a ship, Ousmane Sembene broke his backbone. After a long recovery and now unable to sustain the physical effort required by the work of a docker, with the support of his comrades, he was assigned a post as (aiguilleur), a switchman. A new opportunity was opened to Sembene to rise from a laborer who could read and hardly write, into a well-rounded intellectual, an exceptionally cultured humanist. As his comrade and friend Bernard Worms put it: “He rose to the status of the intellectual aristocracy of the labor movement; he become “un honnête homme.” He spent most of his free time roaming public libraries, museums, theater halls, and tirelessly attending seminars on Marxism and Communism. He read everything: literature on Marxist ideology, political economy, political science, works of fiction, and history. During those Marseilles years with the passion and obsession of a convert to a new religion, Sembene also participated in the protest movements organized by the French Communist Party against the colonial war in Indochina (1953) and the Korean war(1950-1953). He also openly supported (and later wrote about) the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) in its struggle for independence from France (1954-1962), and he vehemently protested against the Rosenberg trial and execution in the United States in 1953. Dreaming of the universal freedom and brotherhood mirrored by communist ideology, Ousmane Sembene also worked to educate and liberate the community of mostly illiterate and “apolitical” African workers shipwrecked at the margins of French society.
It was also in the midst of such an intense political activism that Sembene discovered other communist artists and writers: Richard Wright, John Roderigo (Dos Pasos), Ricardo Neftali Reyes (aka Pablo Néruda), Ernest Hemingway, Nazim Hikmet (Turkey), the works of French Communist writer and resistance organizer Paul Eluart, and, Jean Bruller (Vercors) co-founder of Les Editions de minuit (devoted to the publication of works dealing with resistance), and author of the classic work about the German Occupation and the Resistance, Le silence de la mer (1942) (Silence of the Sea). He also came into contact with the works of the Jamaican Communist writer Claude McKay (whose 1929 novel Banjo would influence his first novel) and the novels of Jacques Roumain, another Communist writer from Haiti and author of the classic Masters of the Dew (1947). Master’s of the Dew ‘s communist vision provided most of the powerful images in Sembene’s O pays, mon beau peuple (1957). In Marseilles he also became involved with the international Communist youth organization Les Auberges de jeunesses (Youth Hostels) and discovered the Communist theater, Le Theâtre Rouge.
However, as Sembene struggled with millions of others for revolutionary change at the international level, he also felt alienated by the quasi absence of “revolutionary” artists and writers from Africa, the voices of the masses of workers, women, and all those exploited and silenced by the combined external forces of colonialism and the internal yoke of African “tradition”. Through activism, Sembene proved that he was deeply aware of the urgent need for political and social change in Africa, but unlike many of his generation ( Sékou Touré in Guinée, Patrice Lumumba in Belgian Congo, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, and Amilcar Cabral in Bissau Guinea who chose the political arena) he, like Palestinian writer Edward Said, strongly believed and still believes that the struggle against colonialism is not solely a fight over who should own the land but it also a contest over who should have the right to represent whom. In the historical context and contest against colonization, for Sembene , the terrain of art and cultural representation are a sine qua none for the freedom and revival of African societies. “L’Afrique d’hier me fascine, L’Afrique de demain m’exalte” (“The Africa of the past fascinates me; the future Africa excites me”) says Sembene. The need to invest in Africa, to contribute to a better self-awareness of the past, present, and future Africa became a passion for him. Africa became what Albert Camus called “Une valeur”, that which transcends one’s own life; that for which one is ready to give his/her life, like South Africa’s Nelson Mandela who once stated: “Democracy is a value I live for, and if need be, for which I am prepared to die.”
Thus, since 1956, while still a dock worker, and upon his return to an independent Senegal in 1960 until today, Sembene’s daily life has been devoted to the production and dissemination of emancipating and restorative images for those Frantz Fanon named the “the Wretched of the Earth”, those Africans disenfranchised and marginalized in their own society, but also whose unsung struggles are a Daily Heroism (The title of Sembene’s latest trilogy of films.) Yet for Sembene, in both literature and film, the work of “art” should not be a mere re-presentation of “reality” “une pancarte” (a political banner), as Sembene terms it. It is a work of art, a symbolic form of representation. In order to capture the imagination of the people they “speak” to and for , those symbols first must be intelligible to them. They must stem from and reflect their cultural universe. What is at work in Sembene’s literary and film creation is an endeavor to capture and project a genuine African film language and aesthetics, that would also entertain a “dialogical” relationship with other world cultures.
Sembene the Writer
Nowadays, in the United States and around the world, Sembene is best known as a filmmaker. However, it should be clear that even Sembene’s use of cinema is nothing but a compromise gesture to bring home what the widespread illiteracy in the continent would not allow him to accomplish in his literary work. It is through literature (or rather, it is because he failed to communicate with African “masses” through literature) that Sembene came to film making, as a last resort. Indeed, most of his film works (except Xala, 1973, and Guelwaar, 1993) are adaptations of earlier novels or short stories. Xala and Guelwaar are rather a re-writing of the original film script’s political, social, and cultural affirmation.
Ousmane Sembene started his artistic career as a poet, a short story writer, an essayist and a novelist. His first published work was Liberté (1956), a long poem in which after an extended panegyric on the a vast inventory of human accomplishment in the area of art, the poet also launched into a heartbreaking lament over his estrangement from universal beauty. The long poem closes on a dream of a free Africa whose children will redirect rivers and build monuments to its beauty. This “programmatic” poem published in Cahiers du sud, a Marseilles-based left-wing review then directed by André Gaillard, also contains the contour of Sembene’s future work.. His novels and short stories since 1956 are: Le docker noir (1956) (The Black Docker), his loosely reconstructed experiences as an black African dockworker in Marseilles; O pays, mon beau peuple (1957) is almost, thematically, a sequel to the 1956 novel. Here the former soldier, after experiencing the war and sojourning through Europe, returns to his native Casamance and in a manner reminiscent of Romanian Communism, spearheaded an agrarian reform (following the model of the Kokhoze, in Soviet Union, but here directed and controlled by farmers themselves) in order to promote economic, political, and social change for the farmers. Les bouts de bois de dieu (1960) (God’s Bits of Wood) is a masterpiece of fictionalized history, conceived from Marxist ideology and yet Sembene’s first genuinely “African” story. It was a move away from the canons of the European bourgeois novel of the nineteenth century. This third novel, a fictional recreation of the second and most comprehensive French West African railroad workers strike against their colonial bosses in 1947 was followed in 1962 by Voltaïque (Tribal Scares), a collection of short stories. In 1963, he released L’harmattan ( a political epic of the later years of the 50’s, in the final struggle against colonial occupation). Le mandat suivi de blanche genèse (1966) (The Money Order with White Genesis), was, to be sure, a first presentation of the post-colonial situation in Senegal. Afterwards came Xala (1973), a sarcastic satire of the new and “impotent” Senegalese bourgeoisie, and Le dernier de l’empire (1981) (The Last of the Empire) which laid bare the internal contradictions and subsequent demise of an impotent and narcissistic political leadership. In 1992, a collection of two stories Niiwam et Taaw explored the despair of the Senegalese peasantry and urban youth. Guelwaar (1996), Sembene’s latest novel, an adaption of a 1993 feature film (reversing the relationship between literature and film), warned against the dangers of religious fundamentalism while showing the ironies and humiliations if a nation relies on international aid for its own economic survival .
In Sembene’s own life, reading and writing took center stage. There has been a long love affair (literally, and figuratively) between Sembene and literature. He once fell in love and married a literary scholar who specialized in his work. Sembene’s rich literary imagination fed on a vast knowledge of world literature and its masterpieces. The success of his literary work around the world flows from his own phenomenal love of reading. In addition to Sembene’s ten published volumes, there are also dozens of manuscripts, some waiting for that spark that will bring them to the public’s attention and thus to life. Sembene also has this infuriating and deliberate habit of burning many of his papers.
Sembene the Film Director
Yet, since 1962, upon returning to Senegal and having visited many other countries in the region, Sembene had to face the endemic level of illiteracy among his intended audience and the paralyzing effect it was having on the dissemination of his work. Already in 1938, when movie going had started to become his passion, Ousmane Sembene realized the magical power of cinema in conveying messages. Ironically, the spark came from the viewing of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympiad, a documentary on the 1936 Munich Olympic games by one of Hitler’s favorite filmmakers.
Touring the continent in 1961, at the moment he was sailing along the Congo River, and in the middle of the short-lived vitality of the Patrice Lumumba era, Sembene is said to have had a vision: landscapes, people, movements and sounds to which no written document could do justice. Then it dawned on him the necessity and desire to make movies – the technology and art of motion, color, and sound. He was not thinking of movies for escapism and dream making in the Hollywood model and paradigm, but movies as “école du soir” (night school). His efforts became aimed at educating the people, in the language of the people, following in the millennia-long tradition of many African oral cultures where, at night, people gathered around a wood fire and listened to stories told by either the griot (a professional storyteller) or by the elders. Although to this day Sembene has a strong personal preference for literature, he also sees motion picture combined with synchronized sound as a necessity, the only medium that could reconcile the African artist with the millions of peasants, workers, and women, whom Aimé Césaire called “les bouches qui n’ont pas bouches” (those mouths without a mouth).
Sembene was nearly 40 when he decided to seek scholarships and go back to Europe and learn the technique of film making. In the context of the Cold War, the Soviet Union (hoping to extend its influence over Africa) was eager to oblige. Thus, in 1962, Sembene spent a year learning cinematography at the Gorki Studios in Moscow, under the tutelage of Soviet director Marc Donskoï. At the end of 1962, he returned to Senegal with his knowledge and an old Soviet camera. In 1963, with Borom Saret , his first short, Sembene ushered Senegal and Africa into the landscape of world cinema, albeit 68 years after the invention of cinematography, and 63 years after the first Lumiere brother’s L’arroseur arrosé was screened in Senegal. His film work would transform Africa from a mere consumer of images made elsewhere to that of a “producer” of its own images. As Borom Saret shows, Sembene was urgently concerned with pointing his camera on the present day, post colonial Senegalese society whose spatial mapping reflects the internal conflicts between the old and the new, between the powerful and the powerless, the changing of the old markers of identity. In 1964, Niaye (an adaptation of the short story White Genesis) a story of incest in a village noble family documented the withering of old moral values. These first two shorts were followed by La noire de… (Black Girl) in 1966, a first and prize-winning feature that put Africa on the map of world cinema. However, it was with Mandabi (The Money Order) in 1968, that Sembene’s dream to reconnect with Africa’s masses came through. For the first time, indeed, an African filmmaker was experimenting by using an African language (Wolof, the dominant language in Senegal), hence setting a new trend which would be followed by all film makers on the continent. In 1969 he released two shorts: Taumatisme de la femme face à la polygamie (Women and the Trauma of Polygamy), and Les dérives du chômage (The Afflictions of Unemployment). Two years later, in 1971 Sembene would adapt the short story Tauw and direct Emitaï, his first historical film, a dramatization of the forced conscription of Senegalese soldiers during WWII, followed by Basket Africain aux jeux olympiques de Munich, RFA (African Basketball in the Munich Olympic Games) in 1972, and L’Afrique aux Olympiades (Africa at the Olympic Games) in 1973. In 1974, Xala, an adaptation of his earlier 1973 novella would be released, followed by a controversial and internationally acclaimed historical film Ceddo, a re-writing of the history of Islam in Senegal. Camp de Thiaroye (1988) a sequel to Emitaï, centers around the massacre by French authorities of returning African soldiers from WWII.The award winning Guelwaar, une légende du 21 ème siècle (Guelwaar, a Legend of the 21st Century) would be released in 1993. Sembene would close the century with two films devoted to the struggle of African women: Héroisme au quotidien (Daily Heroism) in 1999, and Faat Kine in 2000 and open the new century with Moolaade in 2003 a crusade against a century-old practice of female circumcision which still plagues more than twenty-five out of the fifty -four African states recognized by the United Nations.
Importance of Sembene’s Film Work
As can be seen from this brief presentation, Ousmane Sembene’s forty year film work bears an unparalleled social and artistic significance in the context of both world and African cinema. At the international level, Sembene has been unequivocally recognized as the father of African cinema and his has received countless awards and distinctions. His images are intended not only for entertainment and profit (Sembene adheres to Lenin’s prescription that “An artist must make money in order to live and work, but not live and work in order to make money”), but rather as an educational tool. His work is aimed at promoting freedom, social justice, and at restoring pride and dignity to African people. To reach such a goal, Sembene seeks first to “indigenize” the medium by resorting first to the use of African languages (Wolof and Diola, two Senegalese languages, and Bambara, a language spoken in Eastern Senegal, in Mauritania, Mali, Burkina, and Côte d’Ivoire in Moolaade) Secondly, this primary emphasis on language allowed him to specify his public : “Africa is my “audience” while the West and the “rest” are only targeted as “markets”. Thirdly, he borrows from the rich heritage of African oral narratives, handed down by the griots and rejecting a mere imitation of Hollywood’s narrative techniques, Sembene’s cinema ushered in a genuinely African film aesthetics. “We will never be Arabs or Europeans; we are African”, Sembene likes to philosophize. Finally, bent on educating and on liberating the disenfranchised, Sembene’s cinema uses the tools provided by Marxist analysis and the passion of a visionary who profoundly believes, like Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s character, Riviere, (Vol de nuit ; Night Flight) that only creation gives meaning to life. Counter to the hegemonic”official” history of Senegal, produced by its local elite, Sembene’s filmography, which critics have perceived as “A call to action” has given voice to the millions of marginalized and voiceless African peasantry, its workers, women, and children, while often putting him at odds with his country’s powerful. Indeed, most of Sembene’s films have been either banned or censored by former president Leopold Senghor’s regime.
Moreover, since Camp De Thiaroye (1988), through Guelwaar (1993), Faat Kine (2000), and Moolaade (2003), Sembene’s film work has taken on and fulfilled a manifold objective that, symbolically, goes well beyond the strict realm of art as symbolic representation. Indeed since 1957, with the independence of Nkrumah’s Ghana, and the creation of The Organization of African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa in 1963 by thirty newly independent states (and the fifty-three nations making up the current African Union), Africa’s political leaders have failed to reach the triple objective of putting an end to its “balkanization” by political unity, of performing its economic integration, nor of ending its technological dependence on the West.
Indeed, for the financing of Camp De Thiaroye, Sembene, without giving up on the vertical model of cooperation with Europe (North-South axis), took the fresh approach of a hitherto uncharted model of a horizontal, inter-African (South-South axis) cooperation. For the financing of the film Sembene performed a symbolic “economic integration” through a co-production budget between SNPC (Senegal), ENAPROC (Algeria), SATPEC (Tunisia), and his own production company (Filmi Domireew/Filmi Kajoor). For the first time, Sembene also called on the services of a Tunisian lab for post-production of his film. Moreover, a film about a colonial massacre (the killing by French officers of African soldiers who returned from WWII, Camp Thiaroye ) also offers a unified approach to African history by also echoing the 1954 Setif colonial massacre that heralded the war of independence in Algeria. Although Guelwaar (1993) is a co-production with Galatee-Films, a French production company, its post-production was also done in Morocco. As for Faat Kine, the production was the result of a truly international cooperation (France, Germany, Switzerland, USA, Cameroon, and Senegal) and the post-production was again done in Morocco. With Moolaade, for the first time, Sembene has made a film outside Senegal’s national borders, in Burkina Faso, seventeen kms, east of the border with Côte d’Ivoire, and in Bambara (a language spoken in eastern Senegal, in Mali, southern Mauritania, and, of course Burkina Faso). The technical crew was French (camera, sound, lighting), the set designer was from Benin, the production managers were from Burkina Faso and some machinists were from Senegal. The cast was selected by Casting Sud in Burkina Faso and includes Malians and Burkinabe as well as actors from Côte d’Ivoire. Thus, in his project as an artist-film maker, Ousmane Sembene realized the dream of a unified Africa, which its political leaders still have yet to produce.
Sembene’s Filmography
1963 – BOROM SARET – short
1964 – NIAYE – short
1966 – LA NOIRE DE…(Black Girl) – feature
1968 – MANDABI (The Money Order) -feature
1969 – LES DERIVES DU CHOMAGE – documentary
1971 – TAUW – short
1971 – EMITAI – feature
1973 – L’AFRIQUE AUX OLYMPIADES -documentary
1974 – XALA – feature
1976 – CEDDO – feature
1988 – CAMP DE THIAROYE – feature
1993 – GUELWAAR – feature
2000 – FAAT KINE – feature
2003 – MOOLAADE – feature