Saturday, March 11, 2006

Ousmane Sembene: a Father of African Cinema

Ousmane Sembene is often called the father of African cinema. Not only was Sembene actually African, instead of European directing in Africa, Sembene, unlike many previous Africa directors, had complete creative control over his films. Sembene’s films deal with important issues for people from his native Senegal. Poverty, the status of women, the lingering effects of colonialism, and the lives of ordinary people are all covered in his films. Sembene was one of the first African directors to receive world wide acclaim for his work. To say that Sembene is the only father of African cinema would disregard other important contributors, but Sembene is definitely one of the most important early pioneers of African film.

Film in Africa is an imported phenomenon. European colonists would make films to teach Africans how to act. The films were unapologetically pro-colonialist, and it wasn’t until after independence that many Africans were able to play any role in film production. Sembene played an important and influential role as a well known African director.


Sembene was born and raised in Senegal, a west African country that has been populated for thousands of years. The Senegal, Saloum, and Casamance rivers, connect the interior of the country with the Atlantic ocean and formed important trade routes. Early residents of the region practiced various forms of animism, until traders brought Islam to the area. Years later when the French dominated the region, they attempted to import Catholicism, but were met with little success.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans imperialists to land in the region known today as Senegal. In 1444 they began creating military forts, and trading in gum, gold and slaves.

France however came to the region in the 1600’s, and came to dominate the region. They abolished the slave trade in 1848, but allowed man slaves to still be owned. In 1905 all the slaves were freed and franchised (Clark, 1999).

In 1960, Senegal obtained independence from France and elected socialist leader Leopold Senghor president. After independence, there was an attempt to form a federation with English speaking Gambia, but it didn’t work out. Today Gambia is surrounded on three sides by Senegal with access on it’s eastern side to the Atlantic. It looks like the tongue of Senegal’s mouth (Roberts, 1974), (Institute for Security Studies, 2006).

Sembene’s Life

Ousmane Sembene was born in Ziguinchor, Senegal, a small fishing village in 1923. His father was a poor fisherman and Sembene learned very early on that he had to work hard to survive. He attended both French and Islamic schools where he learned to speak French, Arabic and Wolof.

During World War II, in 1944, Sembene was drafted in the French army. After the war he stowed away on a ship to Paris. There he got a job on the docks, and became active in the trade union movement. He also became active in communist struggles in France.

Sembene became a published writer while in France. He published many short stories such as God’s Bits of Wood and Le Docker Noir that dealt with issues of racism and humanism. He was compared to famous French philosophers and authors such as Sarte and Camus (Agular, 2003) (Day, 2006).

However it was a trip back to is native Senegal that would change Sembene’s life forever. After independence, he visited Senegal, and saw how the vast majority of the people who lived there were illiterate. He came to the conclusion that if his social messages were going to reach the masses of his home, he would have to convey his messages through film instead of texts. Sembene was never very concerned with how people outside Senegal would see his films, which is interesting since so few African directors have their work screened in the US anyway (Curiel, 1998).

Sembene received his formal training in how to edit, produce and direct film in the Soviet Union. This is interesting that he choose to be trained there, and the amount of autonomy the Soviet gave directors from colonized countries like Sembene. Sembene would later criticize how much countries like France kept African directors on a leash financially and artistically (, 2006), (Gadjigo, 2006).

Black Girl

Sembene put his training into action right away directing well received movies such as Black Girl. Black Girl, released in 1966 won several awards including a prize at the 1967 Cannes Film Festival.

Black Girl focuses on the life of a woman from Senegal called Dioana. Dioana is hired as a maid for a white French family. When the family moves back to France after Senegal achieves independence, Dioana moves to France with them and works as a maid. Dioana is subjected to numerous forms of harassment, racism and feelings of isolation and alienation. These lead her to commit suicide. (Brody. 2006, 1)

One of the interesting recurring images in the movie is an African mask that Dioana gave to her madame on her first day of work. The mask comes to symbolize Africa in many ways. At first the mask is given to the white wife, who takes it as a gift. However, it seems as though Dioana felt pressured to give the mask to her “Madame.” Dioana probably felt that she had to make a good impression on her employer if she was to keep the job.

As Dioana’s frustration increases, she attempts to take her mask back, and gets in a struggle with the wife of the family over the mask. After Dioana commits suicide, the husband of the family attempts to return the mask and Dioana’s payment to her family. Dioana’s mother rejects the offer, considering it blood money that can not revive her daughter. As the white man walks back to docks to take a boat back to France, he is followed by a little boy who picked up the mask. The boy holds the mask to his face and trails the white man, who is noticeably disturbed by the boy in the mask following him. The boy with the mask obviously represents Africa chasing the white colonists out of the continent. This, Rachel Langford (2001) suggests is a way that Black Girl offers black people a way to avoid domination by white people.

Borom Sarat

An acclaimed short film that Sembene directed was Borom Sarat. Borom Sarat is about a day in the life of a wagoner. In Senegal, a wagoner is the equivalent of a taxi driver. Using a horse drawn wagon the Borom Sarat collects a little bit of money from customers whom he drives to their destination. The unnamed protagonist in this film is not doing well financially and is concerned with making enough money to buy food and other essentials.

The wagoner complains often about people who don’t pay him for the service he provides them, or who cheat him on his money. There is one man whom he doesn’t even stop to pick up since the man has yet to pay him for his services. There is one religious man whom the wagoner gives money to, but later feels that he was tricked by fancy rhetoric that won’t feed his family. That scene shows Sembene’s biting critique of religion, which he is famous for.
The one person who rips the wagoner off the most is a well dressed African man, who is symbolic of the African bourgeois. This business man asks the wagoner to take him to the heights, or the downtown area, and offers to pay him a large sum of money. The wagoner is enticed by the money, and ignores the fact that wagons are banned in downtown. As the wagoner approaches downtown, he becomes more and more agitated. He’s worried that he will be caught. Soon enough, a police officer stops him and starts asking him questions about why the wagoner is downtown. Meanwhile, the business man gets off the wagon and into a motorized taxi, without paying the wagoner. The wagoner was given a ticket from the police officer. Since he was not paid by the business man, and had no other money, he was forced to pawn his wagon.

Sembene is skillful at showing how greed and poverty affect people in their everyday lives. His protagonists are usually normal people who struggle to survive, not politicians or war heroes who triumphantly march all over the movie screen. The wagoner in Borom Sarat is a great example of this. He represents more than just himself, he represents a whole class of people in Senegal who are trying to survive while being ripped off by religious figures businessmen and the police.


Another film that Sembene directed which focuses on ordinary people is Mandabi. Mandabi is Wolof for money order. In this film a practicing Muslim in Senegal, Ibrahim, received a large money order from his nephew in France. The film follows how greed and debt force Ibrahim to decide whether he will live a life of honor and respect or an immoral life of deception and theft.

The main focus of the movie is Ibrahim attempts to cash the money order. First he went to the post office to cash it, but was told he needed a photo ID. Then he went to the police station to get a photo ID, but they told him he needed a birth certificate. Then at city hall he attempted to get a birth certificate, but being illiterate, he didn’t know when he was actually born. The bureaucracy of the state left Ibrahim almost completely unable to cash the money order. He desperately needed to cash the money order to pay off the debts that were piling up.

To resolve this crises, Ibrahim hired a lawyer to do what it took to get the money order cashed. However the lawyer cashed the money order, and kept it all for himself. Sembene is once again criticizing the greed of upper class Africans.

Sembene’s distaste for the African bourgeois is also shown in Borom Sarat with Ibrahim’s relationship to beggars. At one point in the film, Ibrahim gave a beggar woman change for her bus fare. He offered a prayer to Allah for her and then goes to a banker. The banker riped him off, taking more franks than he told Ibrahim he would. Later Ibrahim sees the same beggar in the park, and asked him for money again. Ibrahim scolded her for lying to him before and for being a beggar who doesn’t contribute to society. However this raises an important issue. Why is it that Ibrahim lashed out at the beggar for not contributing to society, but not at the banker, who stole much more money from him?

One of the other important themes in the movie is the role of patriarchy in society. Ibrahim has two wives whom he attempts to exercise complete control over. He bosses them around, and makes them cook him food. However as we see, his wives have more power than it would seem. When the money order is first delivered, they receive it, and knowing that they have money coming their way, borrow some food, promising to pay the grocer back. When Ibrahim finds out that they made this decision without his say-so, he is incensed and scolds them. Later in the film we see his wives making several economic decisions behind Ibrahim’s back. They purchase fancy bras and more food. Other men in the village know how much freedom the wives have and mock Ibrahim, commenting on how they hope Allah will protect them from women taking control of their households.

Sembene is showing the reality of men’s attempts to control women in Senegalese society. It also shows the Ibrahim is not a model person to attempt to be, but is instead a good depiction of the various forces that shape people. While Ibrahim is underprivileged in that he is ridden with debt, he also has the privileged of being a man in a patriarchal society. This is symbolic of the dual nature he is forced to deal with in terms of his debt situation. After he is ripped off by the lawyer who stole his money order, Ibrahim went home and cries out that to survive in this modern world, he has to live like a wolf among wolves. To Ibrahim, living an honorable life is not possible.


Sembene’s film Xala picked up on some of the same themes. The film is a rarity for Sembene as it focuses on a member of the new African elite. El Hadj Abou Kader is a politician who marries a third wife younger than his daughter, but finds out on his wedding night that he is impotent. The movie is a satire that raised the ire of the Senegalese government, it was edited several times before being allowed to be shown in Dakar.

There are many tricksters in the film, both good and bad. The bad tricksters are bad because they are wasteful and hypocritical, as in one scene where Kader is washing a new car in mineral water or another where politicians discuss the need for the African road to socialism, before getting in brand new fancy cars. However
the good tricksters are good because they expose the ridiculousness of the elites (Lynn, 2003).

The other major aspect of the film is the role of women. Sembene shows women as strong and masculine characters, and men as weak and feminine. To Mushengyezi (2004), while this is a progressive statement, it is still limited by the constraints of the binary gender system.

One of the stylistic things used in Xala that Sembene used in other films is silence or voice over narration from the main characters. This is a stylistic decision that can masterfully guide the audience towards which characters they have sympathy for (Iyam, 1986).

Sembene the Visionary

One of the recurring themes in all of Sembene’s films is a critical perspective of the bourgeois, whether they be foreign colonists, or native elites. This goes to show the independence that Sembene has as a director. He isn’t making films for Europeans, nor is he making films for state run facilities that newly independent African countries created. Thus Sembene is able to put forward his communist views in all their glory. Sembene is not a nationalist who thinks that Senegalese people are always right, or that the unity of their nation will solve their problems. Rather he is a communist who is against all forms of domination and seeking to create a world without the old traditions of domination (patriarchy, genital mutilation, religion) as well as without the new forms of domination (capitalism, neo-colonialism).

This has made Sembene a controversial director in many quarters. Some of his films have been banned in Senegal and other African countries, because the post-independence elites in those countries feared that his films would inspire people to take action against those elites, which Sembene would argue aren’t that different from the European elites Africa had just disposed of (Perry, 1973).

Recently this criticism of African elites was seen as Sembene participated in the protest against the G8 meetings in England (Wax, 2005). He said that African politicians were begging for aid from the G8 nations, and he didn’t think that this aid would help as Africa needs to be self-dependent. Sembene's communist views led him to think that the G8, the most powerful of global elites, would never do anything to help Africa. The aid these politicians were begging for would have strings attached, and would not help Africa in the long run (Socialist Worker Online, 2005).

Forty years after he began making films, Ousmane Sembene continues to direct new films. His latest is Moolaade. Moolaade is about providing sanctuary to women attempting to avoid having their genitals mutilated. Sembene is taking a controversial stand with this film, but in the process is reclaiming African history. He is showing how African women reject and fight against genital mutilation on their own, without foreign intervention (Forbes, 2005).

Sembene will continue to direct films until he is unable to. His message and his skill as a director are still relevant. Since Senegal doesn’t have many movie theaters, the few that exist show mostly American movies and most people are unable to go to theaters anyway, Sembene often accompanies his films to traveling rural showings. This makes Sembene’s films an interactive experience, he can explain and discuss them with his audience, thus further promoting his views (Carnwath. 2005). Sembene started making films to reach out to these people. Not only has his message and films reached people throughout Senegal and the world, but they are inspirational movies that challenge us to step up the plate and take control of our lives.

Annotated Bibliography for Websites

Gadjigo, Samba. “Ousmane Sembene: The Life of a Revolutionary Artist.” accessed 2006.
This article is a brief biography of Sembene and his politics.

Institute for Security Studies. Sengal- History and Politics. Http:// 2006.
This website contains a lot of information about Senegal’s history and politics. “Ousmane Sembene.” accessed 2006.
A wikipedia article about Sembene’s life and works.

Annotated Bibliography For Newspapers

Brody, Richard. April, 24, 2006. Black Girl Review. New Yorker. (Accessed on May 18, 2006).
This review gives high praise to Sembene’s break out film Black Girl and discusses the film’s exposure of French racism.

Carnwath, Alexander. May 13, 2005. Film: Reflections of Africa. Independent. Global NewsBank (accessed on May 11, 2006.) In this article, Carnwath describes African Director Ousmane Sembene's life as a director, pointing out awards he has won as well as controversies he has faced. The article describes how many of his films, because they mock African elites, are censored and banned. Also of note is how Sembene travels with his movies to do screenings.

Curiel, Jonathan. October 4, 1998. Lost in Translation: Foreign Films Face a tougher Time Breaking
into the US Market. San Francisco Chronicle. Global Newsbank. (Accessed May 18, 2006.) This article describes some of the difficulties directors like Osumane Sembene have in getting their films into the US market. Many movie promoters are reluctant to take a financial risk with a good movie.

Forbes, Clark. July 24, 2005. Dark Homage to Heroes. Sunday Herald Sun. Global NewsBank
(Accessed on May 11, 2006.) This was a review of Ousmane Sembene's most recent film, Moolaade. The film is about providing sanctuary to women who are trying to avoid the female genital mutilation practices of their tribe. The film won the 2004 Grand Prize at the Cannes film festival.

Socialist Worker Online. June 11, 2005. Ousmane Sembene: Father of African Film. (accessed may 11, 2006) This article describes an interview with Semebene, where he discusses the movement to end genital mutilation, protesting against the G8 and his movies.

Wax, Emily. July 3, 2005. Among Ordinary Africans, G-8 Seems Out of Touch. Washington Post.
Global NewsBank (Accessed on May 11, 2006) This article describes some of the protests
against the G8, which African director Ousmane Sembene took part in. The article describes
how Semebene also criticized Afrian politicians who thought they could better Africa through
aid from the G8.

Bibliography for Scholarly Articles and Books.

Agular, Marian. The Smoke of the Savannah: Traveling Modernity in Sembene Ousmane’s Gods Bits
of Wood. Modern Fiction Studies. Summer 2003, Vol. 49 Issue 2, p261-305. This essay examines Semebene’s novel God’s Bits of Wood and comments of the remaking of space and identity between colonized and colonizers as a result of a railway strike.

Clark, Andrew. 1999 From Frontier to Backwater: Economy and Society in the Upper Senegal Valley (West Africa) 1850-1920. University Press of America, Inc. This book describes the various causes and effects of the Senegal valleys rise and decline around the turn of the century. Among the different issues- colonialism, the 1st world war, Muslim resistance, among others.

Day, Patrick. A Comparative Study of Crime and Punishment in Ousmane Sembene’s Le Docker Noir and Albert Camus’s “’Etranger. Africa Today. Spring 2006. Vol. 52 Issue 3, p83-96. This essay explores how Camus and Semebene look at concepts of “the Other” in their writings. While both have an anti-capitalist message, Camus looked at it more universally than Sembene who wanted specific changes to how France treated African peoples.

Fatton Jr., Robert. 1987. The Making of a Liberal Democracy: Senegal's Passive Revolution 1975-1985. Lynne Rienner Publishers. This book explains how Senegal went from being a single party state after it's independence, to a multi-party state.

Langford, Rachel. Black and White in Black and White Indentity and Cinematography in Ousmane Sembene’s La Noire de…/Black Girl. Studies in French Cinema. 2001, Vol. 1 Issue 1, p13. This essay takes a look at identity formation and suggests that Semebene’s film Black Girl gives a way for black to avoid domination by white.

Lynn, Thomas J. Politics, Plunder and Post-Colonial Tricksters: Ousmane Sembene’s Xala.
International Journal of Francophone Studies. 2003, Vol. 6 Issue 3, p183-196. This essay looks at the roles of the trickster, as a hero and as a villain in Sembene’s film and book Xala. It looks at the historical role of the trickster in the oral tradition and

Mushengyezi, Aaron. Reimaging Gender and African Tradition? Ousmane Sembene’s Xala revisited.
Africa Today. Fall 2004, Vol. 51 Issue 1, p47-62. This essay explores Sembene’s depiction of gender in his films in a critical way. In Xala Sembene depicts women who are masculine and men who are femine, raising so while he is in some ways twisting traditional gender roles, there is still a binary system he relies on.

Roberts, T.D., Irving Kaplan, Barbara Lent, Dennis Morrissey, Charles Townsend, Neda, Walpole,
1974. Area Handbook for Senegal. US Government Printing Office, Washington DC. This book is a guide intended for us by US government officials, on Senegal. It covers Senegal's history, culture, and economy among other things.

Annotated Bibliography of Google Scholar Sources

Iyam, David Uru. The Silent Revolutionaries: Ousmane Sembene’s Emitai, Xala and Ceddo.
African Studies Review. 1986. This essay examines how Sembene uses silence to guide his audience towards the favored and unfavored character in his movies.

Perry, G.M.; McGilligan, Patrick. Ousmane Sembene: An Interview. Film Quarterly. Spring,
1973. Vol. 26 Issue 3, p36-42. In this interview, Sembene discusses the importance of film for Africans, as well as the way neo-colonialism controls film in Africa.

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