Literary Zone

African Cinema: Sembene Ousmane

11 October 2012 at 11:11 | 3207 views

Ousmane Sembčne (January 1, 1923 — June 9, 2007), often credited in the French style as Sembčne Ousmane in articles and reference works, was a Senegalese film director, producer and writer. The Los Angeles Times considered him one of the greatest authors of Africa and has often been called the "father of African film". Descended from a Serer family through his mother from the line of Matar Sčne, Ousmane Sembčne was particularly drawn to Serer religious festivals especially the Tuur festival.

Early life

The son of a fisherman, Ousmane Sembčne was born in Ziguinchor in Casamance to a Lebou family. From childhood Sembčne was exposed to Serer religion especially the Tuur festival, in which he was made cult servant. Although the Tuur demands offerings of curdled milk to the ancestral spirits (Pangool), Sembčne did not take his responsibility as cult servant seriously and was known for drinking the offerings made to the ancestors. In adulthood however, some of his work draw parallels with Serer themes. He was brought up by his maternal grandmother who greatly influenced him. This explains why women play a major role in his works.

Sembčne went to an Islamic school (common for many boys in Senegal) and to the French school, learning French and basic Arabic in addition to his mother tongue, Wolof. He had to leave his French school in 1936 when he clashed with the principal. After an unsuccessful stint working with his father (Sembčne was prone to sea-sickness), he left for Dakar in 1938, where he worked a variety of manual labour jobs.

In 1944, Sembčne was drafted into the Senegalese Tirailleurs (a corps of the French Army) in World War II and later fought for the Free French Forces. After the war he returned to his home country and in 1947 participated in a long railroad strike on which he later based his seminal novel God’s Bits of Wood.

Late in 1947, he stowed away to France, where he worked at a Citroën factory in Paris and then on the docks at Marseille, becoming active in the French trade union movement. He joined the communist-led CGT and the Communist party, helping lead a strike to hinder the shipment of weapons for the French colonial war in Vietnam. During this time, he discovered writers such as Claude McKay and Jacques Roumain.

Early literary career

Sembčne drew on many of these experiences for his French-language first novel, Le Docker Noir (The Black Docker, 1956), the story of Diaw, an African stevedore who faces racism and mistreatment on the docks at Marseille. Diaw writes a novel, which is later stolen by a white woman and published under her name; he confronts her, accidentally kills her, and is tried and executed in scenes highly reminiscent of Albert Camus’s The Outsider. Though the book focuses particularly on the mistreatment of African immigrants, Sembčne also details the oppression of Arab and Spanish workers, making it clear that the issues are as much economic as they are racial. Like most of his fiction, it is written in a social realist mode. Many critics today consider the book somewhat flawed[citation needed]; however, it began Sembčne’s literary reputation and provided him with the financial support to continue writing.

Sembčne’s second novel, O Pays, mon beau peuple! (Oh country, my beautiful people!, 1957), tells the story of Oumar, an ambitious black farmer returning to his native Casamance with a new white wife and ideas for modernizing the area’s agricultural practices. However, Oumar struggles against both the white colonial government and the village social order, and is eventually murdered. O Pays, mon beau peuple! was an international success, giving Sembčne invitations from around the world, particularly from Communist countries such as China, Cuba, and the Soviet Union. While in Moscow, Sembčne had the opportunity to study filmmaking for a year at Gorki Studios.

Sembčne’s third and most famous novel is Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu (God’s Bits of Wood, 1960);[1] most critics consider it his masterpiece, rivaled only by Xala. The novel fictionalizes the real-life story of a railroad strike on the Dakar-Niger line that lasted from 1947 to 1948. Though the charismatic and brilliant union spokesman, Ibrahima Bakayoko, is the most central figure, the novel has no true hero except the community itself, which bands together in the face of hardship and oppression to assert their rights. Accordingly, the novel features nearly fifty characters in both Senegal and neighboring Mali, showing the strike from all possible angles; in this, the novel is often compared to Émile Zola’s Germinal.

Sembčne followed Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu with the (1962) short fiction collection Voltaďque (Tribal Scars). The collection contains short stories, tales, and fables, including "La Noire de..." which he would later adapt into his first film. In 1964, he released l’Harmattan (The Harmattan), an epic novel about a referendum for independence in an African capital.
Later literary career

With the 1965 publication of Le mandat, précédé de Vehi-Ciosane (The Money Order and White Genesis), Sembčne’s emphasis began to shift. Just as he had once vociferously attacked the racial and economic oppression of the colonial government, with this pair of novellas, he turned his sights on the corrupt African elites that followed.

Sembčne continued this theme with the 1973 novel Xala, the story of an El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye, a rich businessman struck by what he believes to be a curse of impotence ("xala" in Wolof) on the night of his wedding to his beautiful, young third wife. El Hadji grows obsessed with removing the curse through visits to marabouts, but only after losing most of his money and reputation does he discover the source to be the beggar who lives outside his offices, whom he wronged in acquiring his fortune.

Le Dernier de l’empire (The Last of the Empire, 1981), Sembčne’s last novel, depicts corruption and an eventual military coup in a newly independent African nation. His paired 1987 novellas Niiwam et Taaw (Niiwam and Taaw) continue to explore social and moral collapse in urban Senegal.

On the strength of Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu and Xala, Sembčne is considered one of the leading figures in African postcolonial literature. However, the lack of English translation of many of his novels has hindered Sembčne from achieving the same international popularity enjoyed by Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka.

As an author so concerned with social change, one of Sembčne’s goals had always been to touch the widest possible audience. After his 1960 return to Senegal, however, he realized that his written works would only be read by a small cultural elite in his native land. He therefore decided at age 40 to become a film maker, in order to reach wider African audiences.

In 1963, Sembčne produced his first film, a short called Barom Sarret (The Wagoner). In ’64 he made another short entitled Niaye. In 1966 he produced his first feature film, La Noire de..., based on one of his own short stories; it was the first feature film ever released by a sub-Saharan African director. Though only 60 minutes long, the French-language film won the Prix Jean Vigo,[1] bringing immediate international attention to both African film generally and Sembčne specifically. Sembčne followed this success with the 1968 Mandabi, achieving his dream of producing a film in his native Wolof.[1] Later Wolof-language films include Xala (1975, based on his own novel), Ceddo (1977), Camp de Thiaroye (1987), and Guelwaar (1992). The Senegalese release of Ceddo was heavily censored, ostensibly for a problem with Sembčne’s paperwork, but more probably for its anti-Muslim themes. However, Sembčne distributed fliers at theaters describing the censored scenes and released it uncut for the international market. In 1971, Sembčne also made a film in the Diola language and French entitled Emitai.

In 1977, he was a member of the jury at the 27th Berlin International Film Festival.

Recurrent themes of Sembčne’s films are the history of colonialism, the failings of religion, the critique of the new African bourgeoisie, and the strength of African women.

His final film, the 2004 feature Moolaadé, won awards at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and the FESPACO Film Festival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. The film, set in a small African village in Burkina Faso, explored the controversial subject of female genital mutilation.

Ousmane Sembčne died on June 9, 2007, at the age of 84. He had been ill since December 2006, and died at his home in Dakar, Senegal where he was buried in a shroud adorned with Quranic verses. Sembčne was survived by three sons, from two marriages.

Seipati Bulane Hopa, Secretary General of the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) described Sembčne as "a luminary that lit the torch for ordinary people to walk the path of light...a voice that spoke without hesitation, a man with an impeccable talent who unwaveringly held on to his artistic principles and did that with great integrity and dignity."

South Africa’s Dr. Z. Pallo Jordan, Minister of Arts and Culture, went further in eulogizing Sembčne as "a well rounded intellectual and an exceptionally cultured informed social critic [who] provided the world with an alternative knowledge of Africa."