Ousmane Sembene – The Passing of a Master



The man regarded as the father of African cinema, Ousmane Sembene, died last year at the age of 84

Docker, trade unionist, novelist and filmmaker, Ousmane Sembene was all of these during an extraordinary career that saw him crowned as the father of African cinema.

For it was as a film director that Sembene was best known. With Hollywood dominating the way film tells stories, even Africa’s stories, Sembene was like a breath of fresh air. He saw film as a way of championing Africa’s poor and dispossessed as they struggled against the triple yolks of colonialism, tradition and corruption.

His first feature, La Noire de… (Black Girl), made in 1966, focuses on the plight of a woman from his native Senegal who finds work with a French family in France. Although taken on as a nanny, she finds herself reduced to general dogsbody and falls into despair. His last, Moulaade (2004) was equally hard hitting, dealing with female circumcision and a village woman’s defiance of the brutal practice.

In between were films like Mandabi (The Money Order, 1968), which tells the story of a proud villager who finds himself helpless against the new political system when he tries to cash a money order; Xala (Impotence, 1975), a hilarious dig at post-colonial Senegal; Camp de Thiaroye (1987), which lifted the lid on the brutal treatment of African Second World War conscripts in the Free French Army; and  Guelwaar (1992), a satire on religious hypocrisy.

The use of regional languages like Wolof and Bambara, strong female characters and a biting socialist critique of colonial and neo-colonial society are all hallmarks of his work. His output, aesthetically influenced by French new wave cinema and Russian social realism,  stands in stark contrast to the Hollywood dream factory which even when it focuses on Africa tends to use it as a backdrop to individualised white characters.

‘My first intent is to reach the African public. Europe and America are not my references – they are not the centre of the world,’ he once said.  Sembene described his films as ‘evening classes’  for ordinary people, which have to entertain as well as educate. ‘A lot of people in the film are speaking in their own language, expressing themselves in their own way.’ In this way he  took on the role of a traditional African griot, passing on his insights of the past, present and future to those whom Caribbean intellectual Aimé Césaire called ‘les bouches qui n’ont pas bouches’ (those mouths without a mouth).

But it was as a writer that Sembene first made his mark, starting out first as a poet  in the mid-1950s before going on to produce five novels and five collections of short stories, His early literary works reflect his personal history and his own political awakening as a committed socialist,.

He was born in 1923 in Casamance, southern Senegal, the son of a fisherman. He grew up under French colonial rule, was conscripted as a teenager into French army during the Second World War. He then worked on the Dakar Niger line and helped organise the epic rail strike that  paralysed French West Africa in 1947 and 1948. This became the basis for what is regarded as his finest novel Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu (God’s Bits of Wood, 1960).

Sembene moved to France and worked  as a docker in the Mediterranean port of Marseilles. There he became an active trade unionist and a member of the French Communist Party. This experience inspired his first novel, Le Docker Noir (Black Docker, 1956). the story of Diaw, an African stevedore who faces racism and mistreatment.

Even as he won literary acclaim, Sembene realised to his dismay that his readership was restricted to the minority of Africans who could read, thanks to the chronic neglect of the education system. Deciding that film was a way of reaching the widest possible audience, he took a crash course in at the Gorky Studio in Moscow in the  early 1960s. in 1962 he made his directorial debut with Borom Sarret, a short film chronicling the day in the life of a poor Dakar cart driver. But he continued to write and several of his films were based on his literary works, including Xala and Le Mandat (The Money Order).

Although winning much international acclaim, Sembene’s principled stand against colonialism, corruption and hypocrisy in all its forms meant that he was bound to make enemies from many quarters. For example Xala was heavily censored by the Senegalese authorities while Camp de Thiaroye was not shown in France for ten years.

This did not deter him and he remained  a truly independent filmmaker to the end of his days, producing films on shoestring budgets and without much of the technical back-up taken for granted in Hollywood.

At the same time, he despaired of the lack of governmental support for the cinema. ‘African leaders and politicians are not keen to develop cinema,’ he said.  ‘They work to promote muscles through soccer or bodybuilding, or your butt from dancing! But when it comes to scientific and cultural development they don’t want to touch it.’

African and Caribbean film curator June Givanni worked with Sembene over the years. She said,’ His contribution to African cinema is truly enormous. ‘He touched on so many issues, not just the big issues like Africa’s political development but those concerning the lives of ordinary people. The role of women in his films was  phenomenal.

‘His passing leaves African cinema richer because of the example he set and the roots he laid down. ‘

 Black History 365/Spring 2008/www.black-history-month.co.uk


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