Sembène Ousmane (1923-2007): ‘Father of African Cinema’

Part 1

(These notes are from an evening class at Cornerhouse, Manchester January-February 2008)

Sembene Ousmane on set for Moolaadé

Sembene Ousmane on set for Moolaadé

Sembène Ousmane was a ‘self-taught’ man who was born a fisherman’s son in Southern Senegal but who took manual jobs until he was recruited by the French Army of West Africa. On his discharge in 1946 he became a railway worker and experienced a major strike. In 1947 he moved to France and up until 1960 worked in the Marseilles docks. Sembène became a trade unionist and then joined the French Communist Party. An accident forced him into lighter work and in his free time he educated himself through public libraries and became a committed political activist. He also began to write – poetry, essays and, in 1956, his first novel Le docker noir. On his return to Senegal (after a tour of other African states) soon after independence in 1961, he decided that he wanted to make films and took the opportunity of a scholarship to train at the Gorky Studios in Moscow.

He returned at the end of 1962 with an old Russian camera and a desire to put ‘ordinary Africans’ onto the screen. Over the next forty years his output of both literature and films would eventually come to a total of five novels, five collections of short stories, four short films, ten features, and four documentaries. Next to the output of some long-lived Western filmmakers and novelists, this sounds like a relatively meagre list, but two important aspects of Sembène’s work should be borne in mind. First, the practical difficulties associated with film production in Africa are immense and second, Sembène spent a great deal of time attending festivals, giving interviews and working on the distribution and exhibition of his films to African audiences.

Here is an interesting tribute to Sembène that gives a flavour of his work and why he was so revered:

Influences and themes
Sembène’s early films show the clear influence of Italian neo-realism, and in particular of Bicycle Thieves (Italy 1947). There is no surprise in this. The basic idea of neo-realism – taking stories from the everyday lives of the local community and shooting films inexpensively on location with non-actors – was taken up by filmmakers all over the developing world throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. Sembène would have seen many of the films in France and also encountered them amongst the films discussed during his Russian experience.

The training in Russia marked out Sembène from some of the other West African filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s who were trained in France. The Russian experience was something Sembène shared with some Cuban filmmakers as well as the Malian Souleymane Cissé and some other later African filmmakers such as Abderrahmane Sissako from Mauritania. But he would eventually work with French cultural agencies (though not without conflicts). From the outset, Sembène’s aims were pursued as part of a cultural politics, examining Africa’s history and attempting to influence its future.

The early films

The carter at work

The carter at work

Borom Sarret (1963)
Often cited as the first film from ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ (this has been disputed, but the film’s significance has not), Borom Sarret remains an important and still very watchable film despite its complete lack of production budget of any kind. The title refers to a local name for a cart driver. The central character of this 20 minute short has a bad day when he foolishly spends the little money he has on a storyteller and then proceeds to carry passengers who can’t or won’t pay for his services. Finally he is induced to carry goods into the middle-class part of town which is barred to cart drivers. He is arrested and fined, losing his cart. In what will become a familiar Sembène trope, it is his wife who will have to find money for the evening meal. The idea of the film is very similar to that of Bicycle Thieves. The central character is an ex-soldier and in one ‘Eisenstein’ moment the boot of a policeman comes down on the military service medal dropped by the cart driver. The film was made on 16mm black and white stock without synch sound but with voiceover narration post-dubbed.

Diouana, dressed for a 'glamorous' life in France, but spending her time in the kitchen

Diouana dressed to fit her expectations of France, but finding herself in the kitchen . . .

La noire de . . . (Black Girl) (1966)
Based on a French newspaper article which Sembène first used in a novel during the colonial period, this film draws on Sembène’s Marseilles experience. The film updates the story to the post-colonial period (Senegal gained independence in 1960). It concerns a young woman who seeks work in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, from a French expatriate couple. She enjoys being a nanny to the French children and dreams of visiting France, so when the couple return to the Riviera for a long vacation, the girl is happy to move with them. However, in France, the couple seem less wealthy. There are no other servants and the girl finds herself washing and cooking. She quickly becomes disillusioned and the story has a tragic ending. This film is again in black and white, but Vieyra (1987) suggests that there were five minutes of colour in a 65 minute version. These were cut to allow the film to meet French funding conditions as a short.

The film was shot in sequence and again post-dubbed, the French actors dubbing themselves with the girl dubbed by a Haitian actor. In narrative terms, the film is more sophisticated in utilising a flashback to show the girl’s romance in Dakar and her eagerness to visit France. The original French title conveys the sense of a young black woman who might come from anywhere – such was the treatment of African workers in France, Sembène seems to be saying.

Mandabi (The Money Order) (Senegal 1968)
Mandabi was Sembène’s first film in colour and the first to use one of Senegal’s local languages Wolof. It was also the first to be produced by a Senegalese production company, Films Domireew. Vieyra states that two versions were made in colour, one in French and one in Wolof, with the same actors used in each. The story again has a ‘French connection’. The title refers to a money order sent from Paris by a young man from Dakar to his uncle back home. The nephew asks his uncle to cash the order for 25,000 CFA francs and to give some to the boy’s mother, to take a small sum himself and to keep the remainder safe until the boy comes home. The uncle is unemployed and illiterate, although he maintains a house and two wives. He requires an ID card to cash the order, but he doesn’t have one, so he needs his birth certificate and two photographs, but these too he finds difficult to acquire. Gradually he will be caught between swindlers and cheats and incompetent or corrupt officials on the one hand and relatives and friends begging from him on the other.

Mandabi again draws on neo-realism and it also moves towards the kinds of social satire that were beginning to appear in the 1960s in Cuba and some East European Cinemas when individuals find themselves entrapped by bureaucracies.

Here is the opening of the film, showing the attention of detail in the ordinary lives of people in Dakar and setting up the ‘narrative disruption’ signalled by the arrival of the postman with the money order. I’m not sure where this print comes from, but it is also the source for the news report extract at the head of the blog, so perhaps it appeared on Senegalese TV? Details of the US DVD with English subtitles at the end of this blog entry. (Unfortunately the print is in the wrong aspect ratio and appears a little ‘squashed’.)

After Mandabi, Sembène made some short films for European television and in Senegal a short fiction feature based on his own short story Taaw (he’d earlier adapted another story Niaye for a short before he made La Noire de . . .).

In 1971, Sembène made Emitai, his third feature. Again made in Senegal, this has long been unavailable in the UK. It’s importance is that it is a historical film – an attempt to explore an incident in 1941 when villagers in Senegal refused to provide rice demanded by the French colonial government as a contribution to the war effort. Their non-cooperation is also because the Army has been stealing/press-ganging the young men of the village. Case (1996) suggests that this is a key film in which the collective power of the village women becomes important. The male elders of the village are weak and place importance on traditional divinities that cannot help them stand up to the French. Clearly, this film was a turning point for Sembène, more directly referencing the political stance of his 1960 novel, God’s Little Bits of Wood. It also sounds like an earlier mixture of the same elements that can be found in Moolaadé. This makes it very unfortunate that we can’t currently see the film. Instead, we must turn to Xala, the film that perhaps first introduced Sembène to a wider public, gaining much better international distribution and a popular audience in Africa (although it was censored and had distribution problems in Senegal).

By 1974, Films Domireew were able to finance a longer film in colour with more ambitious scenes. (Diawara argues that Sembène’s insistence on 35mm film and colour restricted the number of films he could make because of the expense). Xala turns its attention to the new ‘neo-colonialist’ bourgeoisie in Senegal – the French-speaking, westernised Africans. In a long pre-credit sequence we see the French leave and the new ‘Chamber of Commerce’ take over and proceed to employ the French as ‘advisers’. The central character is one of the new business leaders, deeply corrupt and attempting to line his own pockets. He is also marrying a (third) young wife. His first is ‘traditional’ and his second ‘modern’, but both are disdainful of the third marriage. The central plot device is the xala or curse which makes the husband impotent and which appears to be a form of revenge by the people he has trodden on to get to the top. This new class of ‘neo-colonialists’ is as the new bride’s mother puts it “neither fish nor fowl, neither a black man or a white man”.

In the extract below, several aspects of the film are highlighted. The satire of the film is focused on the impotence of the corrupt businessman who must now turn to traditional remedies to try to lift the curse. In a meeting with his daughter we see how he has lost status as a father. He drinks imported Evian water – which is used in another scene to wash the car given as a wedding present. Later we see the ostentatious car being pushed through the streets. In the final extract we get a glimpse of the ‘forgotten people’ on whose behalf the curse has been laid and who are present for the final humiliation. (Unfortunately again, this video recording is too dark and facial features for many of the cast are lost – something Sembene tried to correct in his filming, but he couldn’t control how the film would then be projected or used in telecine.)

The 'president' dances with the second wife of the cursed man

The ‘president’ dances with the second wife of the cursed man

Xala is much more sophisticated than the earlier films. It marks a shift away from the form of social realism that Sembène initially developed on the Italian neo-realist model. Manthia Diawara and Férid Boughedir have both offered classifications of the different types of African films and we can locate Sembène’s work in relation to these categories. We’ll take Diawara’s ideas first because they are more general categories:

a) Social realist narratives – “thematising current sociocultural issues”. These are often concerned with conflicts between tradition and modernity, agrarian and urban industrial societies, oral and written culture and subsistence economies and cash economies. The heroes of such films are often marginalised characters who suffer in this transition period. The films are presented in ‘realist’ style (e.g. via neo-realist principles) but also utilise satire, melodrama and comedy. Such films have a real potential to please popular African audiences.

[African popular audiences have been exposed mainly to cheap imports of American, French, Indian and Hong Kong ‘exploitation’ films, mainly action and melodrama. This was the case in the 1950s and it still is today. Middle-class audiences in Francophone Africa would have had more access to quality French films (the audience would be French-speaking, unlike the popular audience). Sembène’s decision to make films in local languages was crucial to his attempts to reach the popular audience.]

b) Colonial confrontation – films dealing with the colonial era. These may be historical reconstructions of the early conflicts between Africans and Europeans or more recent conflicts, particularly around twentieth century wars in which Africans fought for the French, experiencing racism and rejection.

c) ‘Return to source’ films – narratives in which Europeans are not present and which attempt to explore African culture in African terms. The key film here is Souleymane Cissé’s Yeelen (Mali 1987) in which a son seeks his uncle’s help to fight his sorcerer father in a mythical past. Diawara suggests that some filmmakers have turned to this kind of film for various reasons, including a desire to avoid censorship, to seek for ideas in pre-colonial culture which might help with contemporary problems and also to seek a new ‘African’ aesthetic for filmmaking.

Diawara makes the point that although Africans are proud of their filmmakers, the films themselves have to go abroad and win prizes at festivals to gain a profile.

To some extent, these three categories developed over time, so that social realism was appropriate in the 1960s and the ‘return to source’ films couldn’t really develop until filmmakers and audiences felt confident enough about their own post-colonial identities to ‘return’ to African culture. It is also important to recognise that filmmakers were trained in particular approaches which they themselves developed over time. (It’s difficult to judge the extent to which local audiences might also ‘outgrow’ their pleasure at seeing themselves onscreen in the realist dramas.)

Sembène is still operating largely through social realism in Xala, but more elements of African culture are starting to come through. Emitai sounds as if it fits category two as well as broaching aspects of category three. In the film that follows Xala, Ceddo (1977), Sembène plays with the linear concept of history and creates a story in which different aspects of Senegal’s cultural and political/social history appear to exist simultaneously. Although this film too is unavailable, we do have access to some short clips. It demonstrates that Sembène was able to change his approach and to match the modernist and later postmodernist ideas of other African filmmakers. It combines category two with elements of category three.

When we come to Moolaadé, we find a very sophisticated production which includes elements from all the earlier approaches. It takes place in an almost ‘timeless’ world, but is also absolutely about the present, creating a kind of modern category three film. The later films, especially Camp de Thiaroye and Moolaadé, benefit from the relative freedom of not relying on French co-funding. The approach in the earlier films will always have had to take into account the possible restrictions that French involvement might demand.

Sembène’s films (for a complete list see Petty 1996)):

Borom Sarret (short) (1963)
Niaye (1964) (short)
La noire de . . . (1966)
Mandabi (1968)
Tauw (short) (1970)
Emitai (1971)
Xala (1974)
Ceddo (1977)
Camp de Thiaroye (1988) (with Thierno Faty Sow)
Guelwaar (1992)
Faat Kiné (2000)
Moolaadé (2004)

References and further reading
Frederick Ivor Case (1996) ‘Ontological discourse in Ousmane Sembène’s cinema’ in Petty (ed) op cit.
Manthia Diawara (1992) African Cinema: Politics and Culture, Bloomington: Indiana University Press
Françoise Pfaff (ed) (2004) Focus on African Films, Bloomington: Indiana University Press
Noureddine Ghali (1987) ‘An interview with Sembène Ousmane’ in John D. H. Dowling (ed) Film and Politics in the Third World, New York: Autonomedia
Sheila Petty (1996), A Call to Action: The Films of Ousmane Sembène, Trowbridge: Flicks Books
Paulin Soumanou Vieyra (1987) ‘Five Major Films by Sembène Ousmane’ in John D. H. Dowling (ed) op cit


This interesting comment on Xala comes from an African-American writer:

It is quite shocking that of all Sembène’s films, only Moolaadé is currently in UK distribution on 35mm or DVD. Fortunately, there are at least two American DVDs easily available Borom Sarret and Black Girl (two short films on one DVD) and Mandabi. Other films have previously been available in the UK (though not all of them) and VHS videos of Xala may be available secondhand. Xala is also available on a Region 1 DVD. Camp de Thiaroye is scheduled for a US DVD release in October. Six Sembène films are available in a French Region 2 box set (but without English subs).

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