Filmmaker Who Found Africa’s Voice

By A.O Scott

Ousmane Sembène, by consensus the father of African cinema, was nearly 40 when he started making films. (He was 84 when he died on June 9th 2007 at his home in Dakar). By 1960, the year that Senegal, his native country, won its independence from France, he was already a novelist of some reputation in Francophone African circles.

Ousmane Sembene 1923-2007

He had also played a significant role in political and aesthetic debates that had gathered force as the postwar movement toward African decolonization accelerated. He took a radical, pro-independence line against what he took to be the assimilationist tendencies of proponents of Négritude, the more established literary movement associated with writers like Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor.

Senghor, a poet and scholar (and the first African elected to the Académie Française), went on to become Senegal’s first president. (He died in 2001.) Mr. Sembène, in his role as Africa’s leading filmmaker, would remain a thorn in Senghor’s side, as uncompromising a critic of Africa’s post-liberation regimes as he had been of French colonial domination. ADVERTISEMENT

In a 2004 interview with “L’ Humanité,” the daily newspaper of the French Communist Party (which Mr. Sembène joined as a dockworker in Marseilles in the 1940s), he noted that “in more than 40 years since Senegal’s liberation we have killed more Africans than died from the start of the slave trade.”

In films like “Ceddo” and “Xala” he pointed an angry, often satirical finger at the failures and excesses of modern African governments, Senghor’s in particular, and his unsparing criticism made him a controversial figure.

Nonetheless, it is hard to overstate his importance, or his influence on African film and also, more generally, on African intellectual and cultural self-perception. Mr. Sembène was in many ways not only Senghor’s political and aesthetic antagonist but also his biographical and temperamental opposite. Senghor, who had received an elite education in metropolitan France, believed, at least in the 1950s, that Africans in territories ruled by France could carve out an identity for themselves within the larger cosmos of French language and civilization.

Scene from the film XalaMr. Sembène, whose formal schooling ended in the sixth grade, received his French education not at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, but rather on the Marseilles docks and in the radical trade union movement. Like Sékou Touré and Frantz Fanon, his allies in the radical wing of the anti-colonialist movement, he believed that Africans would experience true liberation when they threw off European models and discovered their own, homegrown versions of modernity.

“What was unique about Sembène was he began to challenge the dominant figure, Senghor,” recalled Manthia Diawara, a professor of Africana studies at New York University who grew up in Mali in the 1960s. “He valorized African languages over French. He began to say that independence had failed. He celebrated the equality of Africa with Europe. And it was very good for us to see a man who was self-taught, who did not come out of the French educational system, who went on to write these books.”

The books were quickly superseded by his films. “I came back to Dakar, and I made a tour of Africa,” Mr. Sembène told L’Humanité, reflecting on his return home in 1960 after nearly 20 years in France. “I wanted to know my own continent. I went everywhere, getting to know people, tribes, cultures. I was 40 years old, and I wanted to make movies. I wanted to give another impression of Africa. Since our culture is primarily oral, I wanted to depict reality through ritual, dance and performance.”

And so he developed a filmmaking style that was populist, didactic and sometimes propagandistic, at once modern in its techniques and accessible, at least in principle, to everyone. He frequently made use of nonprofessional actors and wrote dialogue in various African languages.

“The publication of a book written in French would only reach a minority,” he said. In contrast, he envisioned a “fairground cinema that allows you to argue with people.”

The arguments take place within his films as well as around them. In “Moolaadé” (2004), one of his last movies, a group of women rises up against the traditional practice of female genital mutilation, challenging the authority of the village elders as well as of the priestesses who perform the ritual. The film’s structure is antiphonal (given Mr. Sembène’s Marxist background, you might say dialectical), allowing the defenders and opponents of tradition to have their say before justice and enlightenment prevail.

Like all of Mr. Sembène’s films — he made 10 features in all — “Moolaadé” is grounded in African daily life.

“He showed us a way out of tribalism,” said Mr. Diawara, an expert on African cinema (and the co-director of a 1994 documentary about Mr. Sembène) in a recent telephone interview. “Sembène’s films are translatable. They’re never going to be blockbusters, but you can show one of them in China, in France, in Africa, in the United States, and people will know what it’s about.”

Mr. Sembène was a thoroughly African artist, who achieved global stature by virtue of his concentration on local matters. He may, indeed, have found a bigger audience at international festivals outside Africa than he did at home. But that may have more to do with global conditions of distribution than with the movies themselves, which are lively, funny, pointed and true.

Mr. Diawara recalled a story that Mr. Sembène liked to tell about his travels across Africa in the ’60s. Mr. Sembene had finished showing his film “Money Order” in a small town in Cameroon when he was approached by a local policeman, whose attention made him a little nervous.

“Where did you get that story?” the officer wanted to know. Mr. Sembène replied that the plot, which chronicles the chaotic and corrupting effects of money from France on a Senegalese family, was his own invention. “But it happened to me,” the policeman said.