|Article by Ogova Ondego
Published June 11, 2007
Ousmane Sembene, the Senegalese filmmaker who passed away on June 10, 2007, believed that cinema was a means of “exposing the problems confronting my people.” So strong was this conviction that Sembene, at 40, set out to learn how to shoot films from Russia. OGOVA ONDEGO pays tribute to this grand old man of African cinema.
While taking dinner in Uganda during Amakula Kampala International Film Festival in May 2007, Burkinabe filmmaker Gaston Kabore commented that though ailing, Ousmane Sembene was a man of his word. That he could not go against a promise once he had uttered it. During the same festival Gambian academic Mbye Cham had screened XALA, the 123-minute film by Ousmane to illustrate discussions during a film critics workshop for journalists in eastern Africa that I co-facilitated with him. Little did we know that XALA, that was taken very well by African journalists, and Kabore’s off-hand comments, would form part of the tribute ArtMatters.Info would pay to Sembene less than three weeks later.
Born at Ziguinchor in southern Senegal on January 1, 1923, Sembene worked variously as a fisherman, mechanic, mason, and docker. He was even a leader in the trade union movement for dockers in France before he took to writing in 1956 and returned to Senegal from France three years later, in 1959.
It is said that Sembene then toured Africa but discovered that hardly any one knew him despite being a good writer. This partly made him realise that to readily connect with the largely oral Africa, he had to make films. So, at the age of 40, he set off to Moscow, the capital of the then powerful Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, to learn how to shoot films in order to pass his messages of liberation to Africans.
Sembene’s 1962 short film, BOROM SARRET, would set him on a journey that would span 45 years and spawn 11 long features:Mandabi (1968), EMitai/ God of Thunder (1971), Xala (1975), Ceddo (1977), Camp de Thiaroye (1987), Guelwaar (1992), Feat-Kine (2000), Moolaade (2004), and shorts Borom Sarret (1962), L’Empire Songhay (1963), Niaye (1964), La Noire de’ (1966), Traumatisme de la femme face a la polygamie (1969), Les derives du chomage (1969), Taw (1970), and L’afrique aux Olympiades: Basket africain aux J.O. de Munich (1972).
Some of Sembene’s novels include Le Docker Noir/ The Black Docker (1956), O Pays Mon Bau Peuple! (1957), Les Bouts De Boisde Dieu/ God’s Bits of Wood (1960), L’Harmattan/ The Wind (1963), and Le Dernier De L’empire/ The Last of the Empire (1981).
So what kind of films did Sembene make and how were they–and he–received?
LA NOIRE DE…/ The Black Girl explores the conflict between traditional cultures and colonialism, adopting an anti-colonial stance in its 60 minutes. The film shows a black house servant being taken to France by her employers. Here, she suffers alienation, loneliness and exploitation that lead her to commit suicide.
In MANDABI/ The Money Order, a polygynous man receives some money from his nephew but French-speaking bureaucrats cheat him out of his money when he goes to cash the money order. The film thus exposes how educated Africans who can speak European languages like French are taking advantage of their ignorant brethren to deceive and oppress them while sacrificing their traditional African values at the altar of westernisation.
XALA appears to be an indictment of the new ruling classes in Africa who, instead of helping liberate their people, adopt the worst qualities of exploitative colonialists and continue to load it over Africans in the so-called independent African nations.
While CEDDO tackles the issue of Africans capturing and selling their own flesh and blood to slave dealers, the 140-minute CAMP DE THIAROYE shows how French colonial troops invade a village to confiscate that year’s entire rice harvest for feeding French troops and to get back an African military officer who has fled into the local forest. The film is set in 1944 during the Second World War but made 44 years later, in 1988.
GUELWAAR, made in 1992, exposes hypocrisy among religious people when a crisis occurs following the burial of a ‘Christian’ in a ‘Muslim’ cemetery.
FAAT-KINE, made eight years later, in 2000, in a soap opera-style, shows how the forces of westernisation, capitalism, globalisation and exploitation are adversely affecting the cornerstone of African society, women.
MOOLAADE, on the other hand, appears to take a stand against women circumcision or female genital mutilation that the late Sembene said existed in 38 of the 54 African nations.
“Whatever the method used (traditional or modern) to excise is a violation of the woman’s dignity and integrity. I dedicate Moolaade to mothers, women who struggle to abolish this legacy of bygone days,” Sembene said at the launch of the 120-minute film in 2004.
True to his former career as a trade unionist and human rights advocate, Sembene denounced French neo-colonial tendencies, westernisation euphemistically known as globalisation, and backward traditional African practices.
Unsurprisingly, the French are said to have hit back by denying Sembene the much needed film funding but the man they had packaged as ‘Father of African Cinema’ trudged on, making films. This made the French come back to their senses and continue supporting this winning horse, if only to be identified with his winning ways. MOOLAADE, for example, was funded by the European Union and the French government.
Sembene was also a leading player in the formation of the Federation Panafricaine des Cineastes/ Pan African Federation of Filmmakers, FEPACI, in 1969. Even when the organisation appeared to flounder under mounting criticism from ‘the-younger-and-restless’ filmmakers for its apparent ineffectiveness in bringing about the much needed change in African filmmaking, Sembene always appealed for the voice of reason, arguing that the African film sector would be better off with only with one united continental body speaking the same chorus.
FEPACI, bringing together national film associations across Africa, is now based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and headed by Seipati Bulane-Hopa since April 2006.
Besides being labelled a ‘committed filmmaker, socially and politically’ after the release of La Noire de, his first full feature in 1966, and also being branded ‘Father of African Cinema’, Sembene won several awards and accolades in his five decade-long career.
BOROM SARET, NIAYE, LA NOIR DE, MANDABI, TAW, EMITAI, XALA, CEDDO, CAMP DE THIAROYE, and GUELWAAR all brought Sembene prizes.
Further Information on Ousmane Sembene and African Cinema is available from the following sources:
ComMattersKenya (publisher), ArtMatters.Info (http://www.artmatters.info/), 2002-2007.
Roy Armes, African Filmmaking: North and South of the Sahara, Indiana University Press, 2006, 224 pages.
Olivier Barlet, African Cinemas: Decolonizing the Gaze, ZED Books, 1996, 316 pages.
Manthia Diawara, African Cinema: Politics and Culture, Indiana University Press, 1992, 194 pages.
Kenneth W Harrow (editor), African Cinema: Postcolonial and Feminist Readings, Africa World press, 1999, 356 pages.