Tagged: sembene ousmane

Sembène! in UK cinemas


Sembène! is the new documentary about the great Senegalese director, Sembène Ousmane. It first showed in the UK at last year’s London Film Festival, but is now getting a limited UK release courtesy of the Africa in Motion Festival, based in Scotland. Screenings are listed on the film’s website and they begin in Edinburgh at the Filmhouse on Thurs October 6th followed by Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle on the 7th, HOME, Manchester on the 8th, Hyde Park, Leeds on the 9th, Showroom, Sheffield on the 10th and Broadway, Nottingham on the 11th. Each screening is accompanied by a personal appearance by the film’s co-director Samba Gadjigo. He then gets a couple of days rest before his London appearances. The website gets a little surreal at this point since he is listed as ‘in attendance’ at both Picturehouse Central and Brixton Ritzy at the same time on Friday October 14th. Perhaps there will be a satellite link between the two cinemas or he will introduce the film in the West End then get the tube to Brixton? Best check the cinemas for the details.

Pictured: Fatoumata Coulibaly as Colle Gallo Ardo Sy and Director Ousmane sembene.

Sembène Ousmane directing Fatoumata Coulibaly on the set of his last feature MOOLAADÉ

I’d like to urge you to see this wonderful documentary. If you know Sembène’s work you’ll discover some fascinating insights into his background and his life behind the camera. If you don’t know his films and aren’t aware of why he is such a revered figure, then this is an excellent introduction. His films themselves use great music and the documentary adds some interesting graphics. These documentary screenings are, in most of the cinemas, part of the BFI-sponsored mini-tour Rebel With a Camera: The Cinema of Ousmane Sembène which comprises the documentary plus three key films from Sembène’s career, Black Girl (La Noire de, Senegal-France 1966), Xala (Senegal 1974) and Moolaadé (Senegal-Burkina Faso-Tunisia-Cameroon-Morocco 2004). These films are showing on various dates at different cinemas, so best to check with the cinema nearest you.

I feel privileged to be able to chair the Q&A at HOME in Manchester which is screening all four films during October – dates here. Sembène has been called ‘The Father of African Cinema‘ and I’ve written a brief survey of his work here. The blog post dates from 2008 and I’ll be updating it when I can.

Here’s the trailer for Sembène! – I hope you can get to see it:

Faat Kiné (Senegal 2000)


Three independent women in Faat Kine

I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to see a Sembène Ousmane film that has never been released in the UK. Sembène’s penultimate film before his death in 2007, the print (from America) was brought into the country by the Africa in Motion Festival based in Edinburgh and then made available for screenings in other parts of the UK. I was able to see it courtesy of Cornerhouse in Manchester. I’ve written about Sembène elsewhere on this blog – and now I must post the second part of our overall history.

Here is an edited version of notes given out in Manchester tonight:

Sembène Ousmane (1923-2007) was the father of African Cinema, as well as its prime social and political activist and its wisest counsel. He is a hard act to follow and it is encouraging to see him in Faat Kiné putting some faith in the younger generation. However, the central focus of the film is Kiné herself, a woman born in 1960 at the same time as Senegal’s independence – and therefore representing symbolically the trials and occasional joys of a country uplifted by independence and brought low by the hypocrisies of neo-colonialism.

The film covers an eventful two or three days. Kiné experiences great joy in the success of her two children in the Baccalaureate exams, but also discovers how she might be trapped by both the past and the future in trying to live as she pleases.

Anyone who has seen one or two of Sembène’s other eight features will immediately recognise some familiar characters, situations and social and political questions. Faat Kiné is a contemporary drama which perhaps most closely resembles Xala (1974) with its high angle shots of Dakar and its focus on the marriages and family disputes amongst the bourgeoisie. Twenty-five years on and there has been some ‘trickle down’ to a focus on business people less directly involved with high level corruption. Corruption and deception are still rife, but Kiné herself is a model of financial rectitude. In another link to Xala, however she enjoys what several startled men describe as ‘vulgar language’. The other contemporary films in Sembène’s back catalogue are all referenced in different ways, especially as in Guelwaar (1992), via the younger members of the family. Crucially, perhaps, the importance of ‘going to France’ is here something that has lost its power to enthrall.

Production background
Sembène began to make films in 1963 when he was already 40 and had established himself as a writer. Films are difficult to make in Africa – partly because money is hard to find and facilities not always available, partly because governments have not always taken kindly to the implied social and political criticism of Sembène’s work. It is also the case that Sembène spent much of his time working on the distribution of his films, attempting to have them dubbed into African languages for local, popular audiences and showing and discussing them at film festivals. In the circumstances, it is amazing that he managed to make as many as nine features over 40 years.

After Guelwaar, which was co-funded by various European film and television interests, Sembène appears to have tried to stay independent. The only production company listed in the credits is Sembène’s own Filmi Domireew and the film was edited in Rabat, Morocco. In an interview at the time of the release of Moolaadé in 2004, Sembène explained that he hoped to complete a trilogy about what he called the “Heroism of Daily Life”. Faat Kiné was intended as the first in the trilogy, followed by Moolaadé and Sembène suggested that the final part, focusing on government bureaucrats, would be called ‘Brotherhood of Rats’ (see the Press Notes for Moolaadé referenced below). Sadly, we’ll never have that film to enjoy.

In some ways it seems odd to have Faat Kiné before Moolaadé (although the problems of distribution in the UK means that much of the audience will have seen Moolaadé first). Moolaadé is a ‘timeless’ film set in a kind of idealised ‘green Africa’, albeit one afflicted by the barbarism of female genital manipulation. Faat Kiné is a thoroughly ‘modern film’.

Story and style
Faat Kiné resembles a familiar European family melodrama and I was reminded of Fassbinder’s ‘BRD Trilogy’ in which he uses the lives of three women to explore what was happening in German society during the Adenauer years. Here, Kiné, like Senegal, faces the 21st century with the legacy of the last 40 years. She is a single woman with two children by different men, both of whom abandoned her when the babies were born. She owes her own survival to her mother who protected her from the wrath of a traditional father presented with a daughter and her ‘bastards’ to house. There is plenty of emotional angst here, but Sembène chooses not to express emotion as melodrama – i.e. through camerawork, lighting etc. In the main, he sticks to a social realist aesthetic leavened by glorious colour and costumes and plenty of verbal humour.

Kiné, who wanted to be a lawyer or a judge, has to work her way up from petrol pump attendant to manager of a filling station. She has now surrounded herself with women she cares for and who respect her and she supervises men who respect her authority. If she wants a gigolo, she pays for one. Otherwise she is wary of men’s devious financial dealings.

Yet, the exam success of her children brings some problems – she has to reassert her authority over returning fathers and also suffer the suggestion by her children that they want to achieve more than just running a filling station.

For many, the central question about the film will be: what does it say about the politics of Senegal and about the condition of women in society?

In one sense, the film straightforwardly critiques the men who formed the generation who took power at the time of independence and failed the country in economic terms and then failed the women who worked so hard to make a better future a possibility. These are the men who abandoned a pregnant Kiné and who now pathetically expect her to help them financially (possibly via a marriage). More intriguing is what Kiné herself represents. Her home (with children, Mammy and a maid) is decorated with large portraits of the political figures that we suspect Sembène admires. (I recognised Mandela and Nkrumah, the others include Amilcar Cabral (Guinea-Bissau) and Thomas Sankara (Burkina Faso) according to Gadjigo.) Samba Gadjigo suggests that for Sembène, not only is it important to recognise revolutionary political struggle, but the situation for African women must be revolutionised too. In one magical moment, Kiné and her two female friends emerge from a ‘Sex and the City‘-style lunch at an upmarket ice-cream parlour, sweeping past two elderly men in traditional clothes and carrying staffs to signify their rural background. They look bemused rather than shocked by the sight of these three assertive women. One of the two men is played by Sembène himself.

Kiné is a modern woman, who has achieved materialist success through hard work outside the corrupt world of privileged public services. She wants the best for her children and will continue to sacrifice herself for their future university education. She rejects the chance to become a ‘userer’ by lending at a high interest rate, she gives to charity, but at the same time is sharp and clear-headed in dealing with banks and crooks alike. She looks after her staff. Overall, she is someone we would all probably like to meet – but are these the qualities that a revolutionary socialist like Sembène would hope to see in the new African woman?

Faat Kiné is not a simplistic film in social and political terms but some of the answers to the questions about politics and feminism might come in the last reel, especially when the ambitious son takes on his failure of a father and when Kiné finds a kind of resolution.

After a hesitant start, I found this film shifted up through the gears and produced an engrossing narrative. I was so caught up in its possibilities that time just flew by. I once worried that I might never see this film, so a big round of thanks to the Africa in Motion Festival in Edinburgh for bringing the American print to the UK (and to Cornerhouse for booking it on tour). Now, can somebody please screen Emitai and Ceddo and give one of the great filmmakers of the last forty years the kind of exposure he deserves?

Refs and reviews

Moolaadé (Senegal/Burkina Faso/Tunisia/Cameroon/Morocco 2004)

Hadjatou with the four young girls seeking the protection of the moolaadé.

Hadjatou with the four young girls seeking the protection of the moolaadé.

Moolaadé stands as a fitting tribute to the career of the first great African director. Sembène was approaching 80 when he set out on this final production and after forty years of struggle to make films – and see them distributed in Africa – it is satisfying to report that Moolaadé includes many of the themes of the earlier work and that it is beautifully made. It will also have pleased Sembène that so many African countries contributed to the production (based in an ‘historic’ rural community in Burkina Faso that Sembène said represented ‘green Africa’).

In one sense, Moolaadé offers another ‘timeless’ African story and bears some comparison with Sembène’s masterpiece Ceddo (1977). As in the earlier film, the village is a microcosm of West African society and the central character is a woman who has the fate of the village pushed upon her. In both cases she takes action which brings her into conflict with the men of the village – both the village elders and the religious authorities. Ceddo is more clearly constructed to explore historical issues, but Sembène argued that they are still relevant ‘now’. In Moolaadé the central issues are more clearly contemporary, but the presentation suggests the ‘timeless’.

The microcosm idea is furthered by having actors (and non-actors) drawn from Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, all speaking forms of Bambara – a language spoken in all three countries. This sense of African communities that ignore boundaries drawn up by colonial and post-colonial administrations goes back to Sembène’s first great novel, God’s Little Bits of Wood (1960), about a railway strike along the line from Bamako to Dakar. It also refers to the ‘Pan-Africanism’ of the 1950s and 1960s, which informed the work of many of the early African filmmakers including Sembène, whose novels had also been influenced in this way. Sembène himself was certainly more concerned to see his films dubbed into other African languages than to succeed as an art film director in Europe and America.

The language issue also has an impact on how scenes unfold in Moolaadé. Sembène explains that in the villages formal modes of address require the repetition of names and greetings during exchanges. He tried to rehearse local actors and non-professionals in more ‘film-friendly’ styles of conversation without losing the sense of spontaneity. However, much of it remains and audiences may find that it slows down the film (but possibly makes it easier to follow the exchanges via the subtitles).

The central narrative strand of Moolaadé concerns the practice of ‘female genital mutilation’ (FGM) or ‘cutting’ (FGC) – the concept of female ‘circumcision’ being no longer acceptable for what is a seriously dangerous as well as morally reprehensible practice. (See Wikipedia: <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_genital_mutilation>) Burkina Faso is one of the countries which still has a high incidence of one or more forms of FGM/C. The practice is found across much of Sub-Saharan Africa and also from Egypt down through East Africa to Tanzania. It is essentially a cultural practice which predates both Islam and Christianity, although it has been ‘accepted’ by both Islamic and Christian communities in Africa. One of the arguments made on the Wikipedia entry is that British attempts to outlaw the practice during their colonial administration in Kenya had the opposite effect in that identification of prohibition as associated with the coloniser increased the use of FMG/C amongst communities wanting independence.

Sembène was a political filmmaker. He wanted his films to be seen by popular audiences and he wanted the audiences to learn from the films and take action. It is therefore quite possible that more entertainment orientated audiences will find his films, especially Moolaadé, to be either overly didactic or idealistic in the optimism of their resolutions. This has certainly been said of Moolaadé. What is important for Sembène is that strong characters emerge to challenge tradition and to build an alliance for change. Often these characters are women, certainly in Ceddo and Moolaadé and in the novel God’s Little Bits of Wood.

The resistance to ‘purification’ comes from Collie who has endured the pain of ‘cutting’ herself and who wishes to protect her daughter. She is determined to protect the four young girls who flee from the purification ceremony and sets up a moolaadé. This traditional form of sanctuary is represented by a powerful social ritual and can only be broken by Collie herself announcing that it is over – the woman whose public utterances are usually deferential has the ultimate power.

Collie receives support from her husband’s first wife, her ‘elder’, even if she is suspicious of her motives. The solidarity of the wives is evidence of tradition. The support of Mercenaire, one of the two characters with knowledge of the ‘outside world’ is important and so is the (limited) support of the second outsider Ibrahima. ‘Outside’ is also symbolised in terms of modernity – television and radio. These alien cultural agencies are seen to be so progressive that their use must be proscribed for the women (yet the men can use them to listen to broadcasts of the Koran). The complex ways in which Sembène appears to endorse both traditional and modern ideas in his attempt to foster change is what gives the film its strength – alongside the vibrant photography and outstanding performances.

The two outsiders are important in several ways. Sembène argued that Moolaadé was his ‘most African’ film – not only in its production but also in its list of characters. There are no European characters in the film, so these two African characters become the carriers of European ideas (and discussions about wealth and globalisation). Mercenaire is a version of the familiar Sembène character of the soldier who fought for France and is not honoured in his own country (e.g. the wagon driver of Borom Sarret). Ibrahima is another recurring character combining the experience of the soldiers in Camp de Thiaroye and the young woman in Black Girl, who experience rather different effects of travelling to France. A similar character is also at the centre of Guelwaar.

The press pack for the US release of the film includes an interview with Sembène (by Samba Gadjigo) in which he gives the context of the film’s production and his overall idea:

I can tell you that, based on its content, the film is the second in a trilogy that, for me, embodies the Heroism in daily life. One finds that nowadays war is rampant in Africa, especially South of the Sahara. There’s also our life; life continues, after all, with our daily actions that are forgotten by the masses. The people don’t retain them. They want to convince us that we ‘vegetate’. But yet, this underground struggle, this struggle of the people, similar to the struggles of all other peoples, that’s what I call Heroism in daily life. These are the heroes to whom no country, no nation gives any medals . . . They never get a statue built. That, for me, is the symbolism of this trilogy. I have already made two, Faat-Kine, this one now Moolaadé, and I am preparing for the third.

Gadjigo: From the time you wrote your first novel, The Black Docker (1956), in which the first chapter was called ‘The Mother’, you have a given a very particular emphasis to women, to the Heroism of the African woman. Why does this heroism recur, as a leitmotif, throughout your work?

Sembène: I think that Africa is maternal. The African male is very maternal; he loves his mother; he swears on his mother. When someone insults his father the man can take it; but once his mother’s honour has been hurt, the man feels he’s not worthy of life if he doesn’t defend his mother. According to our traditions, a man has no intrinsic value, he receives his value from his mother. This concept goes back to before Islam: the good wife, the good mother, the submissive mother who knows how to look after her husband and family. The mother embodies our society . . . I continue to think that African society is very maternal. Maybe we have inherited from our pre-Islamic matriarchy. That said, to me, every man loves a woman. We love them. Besides, more than 50% of the African population are women. More than half of the 800,000,000 that we are. This is a force that we must be able to mobilise for our own development. There’s no one that works as hard as the rural woman.

(The title of the proposed film that would complete the trilogy and which dealt with government officials was meant to be ‘The Brotherhood of Rats’ – Sembène remained politically committed to the end.)


The Artificial Eye DVD carries an interview with Sembène, a ‘making of’ documentary and a campaign piece about FGC by ‘Forward’ (www.forwarduk.org.uk).

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).