The legendary Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene (he passed away in 2007) is back in the spotlight thanks to a new documentary film, Sembene! (2015), that addresses his decades-long career as a writer, director, and charismatic exponent of African cinema.
Co-directed by Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman, Sembene! is currently playing in cinemas throughout the United Kingdom, alongside revivals of three of Sembene’s masterpieces: La Noire de… (1966), Sembene’s first feature film, which turns fifty this year; Xala (1975), Sembene’s mordant take on male chauvinism and postcolonial corruption (the two are hardly mutually exclusive in Sembene’s work); and Moolaadé (2005), Sembene’s swan song, which powerfully dramatizes resistance to the tradition of female genital mutilation.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Gadjigo, Sembene’s longtime friend and official biographer (author of Ousmane Sembène: The Making of a Militant Artist), about his film and the recent resurgence of interest in Sembene’s remarkable body of work.
As Sembene’s friend and biographer, how did you approach the challenge of making a film about the director?
Ousmane Sembene’s work had a huge influence on me as a young man, and we recognized that the influence he had was part of his project as an artist. Therefore, we decided to weave my own story — of a young man who rediscovers his African-ness through Sembene’s stories — into the structure of the film. As we later worked so closely together, right until his passing, those two stories intersected in ways that were both practical and, for me and hopefully the audience, very emotional.
Sembene! is at once biographical and autobiographical, as it features some of your own reflections on growing up in Senegal and encountering Sembene’s novels as a teenager. Can you say more about it what was like to discover Sembene’s work at a young age?
Before I went to school, the stories I heard were from my grandmother and elders, stories about the world that I knew, the beautiful world of the small village that I grew up in. Once I was sent away to school, hundreds of miles from the village, I began to lose those stories, and my connection to the land and to my family. They were replaced by stories from places completely foreign to my existence — stories from Europe, from Africa. I was forbidden to speak my native language in my high school. And after a few years, I found myself aspiring to be something I never could: a European. But then I discovered the novel God’s Bits of Wood (1960), by Sembene. It was set in places that I knew, with references to the cultures I had experienced. It even had a character named Samba. Reading that book was a moment that forever altered my life, a moment that a switch was thrown. I realized that, as an African man, I had stories — beautiful, powerful, inspiring stories — that were mine, that were familiar, that celebrated my people. I didn’t need to look to Europe to find meaningful stories. Here they were.
A number of African languages, from Wolof to Diola, can be heard in Sembene’s films. How important was it for Sembene to feature these languages in addition to French and Arabic?
Sembene was deeply committed to the use of African languages in his work. In his first films, due to funding constraints, using Wolof was impossible. But he fought to use them in his later works. For Mandabi (1968), he convinced the French funders to make a Wolof-language version of the film. Thereafter, his films included indigenous languages. He also started the first Wolof-language literary magazine. For Sembene, the loss of African languages meant the loss of African cultures. You can’t have one without the other.
La Noire de… (1966) is perhaps Sembene’s most enduringly popular film, a reasonably accessible introduction to his thematic obsessions and stylistic proclivities. Why does this film continue to speak so powerfully to audiences all around the world?
It is a film that, though steeped in the specificity of a Senegalese woman, touches upon the marginalization that the majority of those on the planet experience. It is a story of a woman who is unseen and unheard, who, due to the color of her skin and her gender, is automatically assumed to be some sort of lesser being. But, of course, Diouana, like all of us, has her own gifts, her own voice, her own power. And the French couple that exploit her in fact also miss an opportunity to grow, to learn, to connect, due to their implicit biases. The film’s themes are entirely relevant today, as we deal, in the U.S., with police brutality, with the invisibility of people of color in the media, and with other less sensational but equally destructive forms of institutional racism.
Sembene was increasingly critical of French funding after the experience of making Mandabi in the late 1960s, suggesting that foreign financing was “tainted with paternalism and neocolonialism.” What are some of the most important lessons to take from Sembene’s experience of cultural and economic imperialism?
A few notes about Sembene: he believed in the Marxist ideology, but ceased to be a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. That’s because he didn’t fully respect the institutions. He came to his Marxism through manual labor and through the unions, rather than through learning about it at university. He came to know exploitation by living in a fully exploitative system, and his lifelong desire was to liberate other workers, and, especially women, from the systems of exploitation. And while Sembene liked to rage against the imperialist machine, he also was savvy enough to use whatever tools he could to get his work done. In fact, all of his films were funded with money from abroad, and he had steadfast and essentially allies around the world. One thing I admire about Sembene is that, despite what he would say in his interviews, he was as much pragmatist as ideologue. He wanted to get his stories told, and understood the importance of those stories. And thus he adopted an “any means necessary” approach to making work. To be honest, he could be equally tough, if not tougher, on the Africans he worked with. The goal was to tell stories that empowered workers and women and the marginalized, and he did it with unprecedented energy and consistency for 50 years.
Far from a hagiographic account of the filmmaker, Sembene! addresses some of the controversies in which Sembene was embroiled, including those related to the production of Camp de Thiaroye (1988), a project that Sembene was accused of having “stolen” from a protégé. Did Sembene see himself as being in competition with other African filmmakers?
I don’t think it was competition. One of the complexities of Sembene is that the work he did necessitated having a very large ego, and that ego at times kept him from giving full support to other artists. He grew quickly impatient with those who did not have the willpower and single-mindedness to get the work of storytelling done. To him, African storytelling was a job one did, just like farmer or leatherworker. And those who did not do the job with what he judged to be full integrity and passion lost his respect. I think he made a mistake in this realm; there were many, many young artists who could have greatly benefited from his tutelage, whom he dispensed with too quickly.
Sembene faced considerable opposition in the late 1970s following the completion of Ceddo (1976), a film that explores the arrival of Islam in West Africa and critiques the religion as a tool of social control—a source of oppression whose proponents were complicit in the spread of imperialism. How do audiences receive this controversial film today, particularly in light of the success of the similarly themed Timbuktu (2011), by Abderrahmane Sissako?
It is a fantastic comparison, and a great question. Unfortunately, Ceddo has not been widely seen in years, and so its message, which is not actually anti-Islam, but anti-oppression, has not been critiqued in this new era of heightened attention to Islam. We are working to have the film restored, and when it is, we hope it will reach audiences throughout the world, and continue the conversation that Sissako’s incredible film re-kindled.
Recently, scholars have drawn attention to contributions to African cinema that predate Sembene’s Borom Sarret (1963), calling into question Sembene’s status as the so-called “father of African cinema.” The Senegalese filmmaker Momar Thiam, for instance, adapted a Birago Diop story as Karim (1963), a film that was completed before Borom Sarret. Surely the designation “father of African cinema” has to do with more than just chronology, however. What does it mean to continue to think of Sembene in this way? Or does his legacy transcend such honorific distinctions?
People love those phrases. And in addition to its potential inaccuracies (we also have Egyptian cinema dating back to the 1920s and before), there is an element of paternalism that some have noted. We also like to consider Sembene in the context of Third Cinema — a global cinema of resistance that is more associated with Latin America than Africa. But I will also defend the concept of Sembene as the defining figure African cinema to date. His example of a cinema that was not only African in theme and subject matter, but which is told with a fierce social conscience, and with a deep sense of African storytelling traditions, remains the standard. You can’t make a film in sub-Saharan Africa without having Sembene as a reference in some way.
What are some of your favorite Sembene films, and why?
I am deeply moved by them all. Xala (1975) has a special place in my soul, because, as a young man who did not understand the have/have-not elements of African society, it opened me up to a new reality of exploitation. And so does Moolaadé (2005), as I was on set with Sembene, seeing him on set, as an 80-year-old man, going blind, but still outworking all of the young ones … It was an example of focus, determination, passion and heroism that has kept me inspired every single day for the past 13 years.
Finally, what should audiences new to Sembene know before approaching his films?
What is amazing about Sembene is that you really don’t need much context. Watch the films, and you will feel them in your heart and soul. They were made out of a true sense of urgency, and that sense of urgency never goes out of style.