Ousmane Sembène

The Senegalese writer and filmmaker Ousmane Sembène (born 1923) is one of Africa's great contemporary novelists and the father of African cinema. His work is characterized by a concern with ordinary decent people who are victimized by repressive governments and bureaucracies. Several of his films have been censored in Senegal because of their political criticism.

Ousmane Sembène was born on Jan. 8, 1923, at Ziguinchor in the southern region of Casamance in colonial French West Africa, now Senegal. Among Francophone African writers, he was unique because of his working-class background and limited primary school education. Originally a fisherman in Casamance, he worked in Dakar as a plumber, bricklayer, and mechanic. In 1939 he was drafted into the colonial army and fought with the French in Italy and Germany and then participated in the liberation of France. He settled in Marseilles, where he worked on the piers and became the leader of the long-shoremen's union. His first novel, Le Docker noir (1956; translated into English in 1981 as The Black Docker), is about his experiences during this period.

Sembène soon turned to writing full-time. He returned to Senegal a few years before it gained independence in 1960. He became an astute observer of the political scene and wrote a number of volumes on the developing national consciousness. In Oh pays, mon beau peuple!, he depicts the plight of a developing country under colonialism. God's Bits of Wood (1960) recounts the developing sense of self and group consciousness among railway workers in French West Africa during a strike. L'Harmattan (1964) focuses upon the difficulty of creating a popular government and the corruption of unresponsive politicians who postpone the arrival of independence.


Father of African Cinema

In the early 1960s, Sembène studied film in Moscow at the Gorki Studios. He turned to film to reach the 90 percent of the population of his country that could not read. Sembène soon gained an international reputation by directing films based on his movies. His 20-minute long short feature film, Borom Sarat, a simple story about a day in the miserable life of a Dakar cart-driver, was the first film made by an African on a fictional subject to be widely distributed outside Africa. It is remarkable for the cleavages Sembène revealed in contemporary African society between the masses of the poor and the new African governing class who stepped into the positions of dominance left by the French.

His breakthrough film was Black Girl, the first sub-Saharan film ever shown at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. It tells the story of a Senegalese woman who is lured from her homeland by the promise of wealth and becomes lost in a morass of loneliness and inconsiderateness. Sembène's prize-winning work Mandabi (The Money Order) (1968) shows what happens to an unemployed illiterate when he tries to cash a large money order from his Parisian nephew; he is crushed by an oppressive bureaucracy and unsympathetic officials. Michael Atkinson, in Film Comment, called it "a virtual comic flowchart of the traditional tribal world lost in modern-day red tape." It was the first of Sembène's films to be produced in the native Wolof language and targeted at a broader Senegalese audience. Sembène was the first director to have his characters speak an African language.

Many of Sembène's films, including Xala (1974) and Ceddo (The Outsiders; 1976), were censored or temporarily banned by Senegal's government because of their powerful social and political messages. His 1971 film Emitai centered on a wartime French force's seige of a desert tribe, the Diola. Xala is a comic, satiric dissection of the greed of the post-independence Senegalese upper class. Ceddo is set in the 17th century and depicts the conflicts in a village between adherents to the ancient tribal religion and Muslims who are trying to stamp out paganism.


Filming on the Fly

Even after 30 years of writing, directing and producing films, Sembène still was making his movies dirt-cheap, finding actors and settings as he moved across his poor country. Sembène's 1987 film The Camp at Thiarove depicted a 1944 colonial massacre in Africa. It was the first African feature film produced completely without European technical aid or financing. In 1992, Sembène produced Guelwaar, a story about the tangled politics, religious squabbles and bureaucracy surrounding a man's burial. Desmond Ryan of Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service noted the case of the missing body was for Sembène "a means of raising larger issue that Sembène believes are leading Senegal to fratricidal destruction…. His sardonic view of his country as it struggles for national identity and solvency resounds with laughter tinged with deep bitterness." Atkinson called it a "lean and eloquent masterwork."

Writing in Film Comment, Atkinson noted Sembène's reliance on straightforward storytelling: "The best of his work possesses a natural-born faith in the naked austerity of events, expressed via amateurish yet relaxed performances … Camera movement is rare, closeups even rarer, and many of the images have the fading, overexposed tint of aging home movies…. Sembène's modern folk art has all the power and glory of Old Testament myths, while casting an ice-cold contemporary eye at the socioeconomic tarpit of African nations wrangling with their newfound independence and the crippling reverb of colonial control."

In a 1990 interview published in Africa Report, Sembène recounted how he organized "traveling picture shows"—going to a village to show a movie and then moderating a discussion about it. "In colonial times, the cinema was a form of entertainment for foreigners," he said. "Now, however, African filmmakers are raising real issues…. People are thus slowly starting to identify with their history and the cinema is becoming something real." Over the years, Sembène's films have questioned colonialists, fundamentalists, peasants, and the new bourgeoisie. "It's not me, it's my people that evolve," Sembène said. "I live among them; I'm like the thermometer."


Further Reading on Ousmane Sembène

Michael Atkinson's "Ousmane Sembène" Film Comment is one of the best sources on Sembène's films. Claude Wauthier's descriptive summary of a host of black writers, including Sembène, appeared in English as The Literature and Thought of Modern Africa (1964; trans. 1966). A chapter on Sembène is in A.C. Brench, The Novelists' Inheritance in French Africa: Writers from Senegal to Cameroon (1967). An interview with Sembène by Daphne Topouzis appears in Africa Report (November-December 1990).