OUSMANE SEMBENE: THE LIFE OF A REVOLUTIONARY ARTIST
"Of all African film directors, Sembene is the first to confer value
Crossing the geographical and national borders of his native Senegal, Ousmane Sembene's literary and cinematographic output places him today as the "father" of African films and as one of the most prolific "French-speaking" African writers in this first century of "creative" writing in francophone Africa. From the publication of his first poem in Marseilles in 1956, at age thirty three, to Guelwaar (1996), his lastest published novel, Sembene has produced five novels, five collections of short stories, and directed numerous films, four shorts, nine features, and four documentaries He has granted hundreds of interviews to teachers, researchers, students, and to dozens of film and literary critics from around the world. Scholarly articles on his work have appeared in scores of international journals. Particularly here, in the US, publications and invitations to university and college campuses almost equal those of Wole Soyinka, and Chinua Achebe. Of Sembene's ten published literary works, seven have been translated into English, and all of his films are subtitled in English, French, German, Japanese, and Chinese. In American universities, the attraction to Sembene's work crosses disciplinary boundaries. His literary work has entered the curricula of many high schools and universities throughout Africa. Tens of Mémoires de maîtrise ( MA dissertations) and doctoral theses have been devoted to Sembene's literary and film work.
Undoubtedly, in Africa, more ostensibly in Burkina Faso (the African capital of motion pictures), Ousmane Sembene's name has also captured the "popular" imagination. Some five years ago, while attending a festival in Ouagadougou, I discovered a restaurant menu labeled "Ousmane Sembene", and I smiled at a green and black-painted taxi cab self baptized Le docker noir (1956), the original title of Sembene's first published novel (published in English as The Black Docker in, 1987). In the US, in 1996, his literary and film work also inspired Florence Ladd, then director of Radcliffe College's Bunting Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her novel Sarah's Psalm, recognized by Boston Magazine as " a story (that) has the making of a modern myth. (Emphasis mine). Set in the 1960's in Cambridge and in Dakar Senegal ( that space sometimes expanding to Europe, and the French Riviera), Sarah's Psalm tells the story of Sarah Stewart, a young black Harvard graduate during the bourgeoning of the Civil Rights Movement and the first re-discovery of Africa by many African American intellectuals and cultural elites. Although Ms. Ladd warned that all characters in her novel were fictional, for her main character, the yearning to go to Africa, was a journey of self discovery, and arose from reading and viewing the work of a character named Ibrahim Mangane, a Sembene prototype.
Not only has Sembene's work provided the African American Diaspora with an "alternative" knowledge of Africa, he is also among the most sought after African artists in the Caribbean. The University of the West Indies, at Cave Hill, Barbados was honored by his presence in the fall of 2000. I helped arrange for that event in the course of my one-year tenure at UWI, in 1999-2000. During my last visit to Guadeloupe in the Spring of 2000, I was happy to hear from the owner- managers of Librairie Jasor, the main literary outlet in the French West Indies, that they want to host Ousmane Sembene and to screen his work. During a literary conference organized by the University of Guyana, in Georgetown in the Spring of 2000, when I showed Black Girl (the film that first introduced Sembene to an international audience of writers and artists attending the 1966 Festival Mondiale des arts Nègres held in Dakar), the overflow audience asked for and was granted a second showing, for the same night. In many countries in Africa, high schools, libraries, and amphitheaters bear his name. Even in Paris, where his work is far from meeting official approval, in 1998, a whole week was devoted to a retrospective of Sembene's work, masterminded and organized by Mauritanian film maker Med Hondo who once told me that "Sembene is the first African director to confer value to African images." In 1996, a week-long screening of Sembene's work at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, brought together fervent crowds of students, film critics, and other cultural workers. Sembene is also arguably the most interviewed Senegalese and African film director on the globe.
Born in 1923 in Casamance, southern Senegal, where his "crazy"
fisherman father had migrated from Dakar around 1900, Ousmane Sembene has, from
a marginalized and a very modest beginning, inscribed his name in world history.
Expelled from school in 1936 for indiscipline, his formal education would never
go beyond middle school. Also unable to take on his father's trade because he
was always seasick, in 1938 he was sent to his father's relatives in Dakar,
headquarters of the territories of French West Africa. From 1938 to 1944 he
worked as an apprentice mechanic and a bricklayer. Although he was denied an
opportunity of a formal education, Sembene developed a love of reading - mostly
comics - and discovered cinema in the segregated movie houses of Dakar. He spent
his days at work as a manual laborer and his after work hours either reading,
watching movies or, along with his neighborhood mates, attending evenings of
story telling, wrestling, and other "traditional" Senegalese cultural
events . As a French citizen, in 1944, like many young Africans of his
generation, he was called to active duty to liberate France from German
occupation and subsequently was dispatched to the colony of Niger as a chauffeur
in the 6th colonial infantry unit. Upon being discharged in 1946 at the end of
the war, he went back to Dakar in the midst of charged social and political
activism. That same year, for the first time, he took membership in the
construction worker's trade union and witnessed the first general workers'
strike that paralyzed the colonial economy for a month and ushered in the
nationalist struggle in French Africa.
In 1947, unemployed in the thick of a war-ravaged colonial economy, Sembene left Dakar in search of a better living and also for the opportunity to feed his unquenchable thirst for learning- "apprendre à l'école de la vie."(to learn in the school of life), as he put it many times. He migrated to France and lived in the Mediterranean city of Marseilles until 1960, the year Senegal was granted its political independence. As an black African docker who "knows" how to read and write, in Cold War Marseilles, he was soon identified by labor union leader Victor Gagnère ("papa Gagnere", as Sembene affectionately referred to him) and enrolled in the CGT ( Confederation generale des travailleurs ), the largest and most powerful left wing workers' union in post-war France. After back-breaking work unloading ships during the day (containers did not exist then), at night and on weekends Sembene enthusiastically attended seminars and workshops on Marxism, joined the French Communist Party in 1950, and the MOURAP (Movement against racism, anti Semitism and peace) in 1951, a political organization born of the resistence movement during WWII. The same year, while unloading a ship, Ousmane Sembene broke his backbone. After a long recovery and now unable to sustain the physical effort required by the work of a docker, with the support of his comrades, he was assigned a post as (aiguilleur), a switchman. A new opportunity was opened to Sembene to rise from a laborer who could read and hardly write, into a well-rounded intellectual, an exceptionally cultured humanist. As his comrade and friend Bernard Worms put it: "He rose to the status of the intellectual aristocracy of the labor movement; he become "un honnête homme." He spent most of his free time roaming public libraries, museums, theater halls, and tirelessly attending seminars on Marxism and Communism. He read everything: literature on Marxist ideology, political economy, political science, works of fiction, and history. During those Marseilles years with the passion and obsession of a convert to a new religion, Sembene also participated in the protest movements organized by the French Communist Party against the colonial war in Indochina (1953) and the Korean war(1950-1953). He also openly supported (and later wrote about) the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) in its struggle for independence from France (1954-1962), and he vehemently protested against the Rosenberg trial and execution in the United States in 1953. Dreaming of the universal freedom and brotherhood mirrored by communist ideology, Ousmane Sembene also worked to educate and liberate the community of mostly illiterate and "apolitical" African workers shipwrecked at the margins of French society.
It was also in the midst of such an intense political activism that Sembene discovered other communist artists and writers: Richard Wright, John Roderigo (Dos Pasos), Ricardo Neftali Reyes (aka Pablo Néruda), Ernest Hemingway, Nazim Hikmet (Turkey), the works of French Communist writer and resistance organizer Paul Eluart, and, Jean Bruller (Vercors) co-founder of Les Editions de minuit (devoted to the publication of works dealing with resistance), and author of the classic work about the German Occupation and the Resistance, Le silence de la mer (1942) (Silence of the Sea). He also came into contact with the works of the Jamaican Communist writer Claude McKay (whose 1929 novel Banjo would influence his first novel) and the novels of Jacques Roumain, another Communist writer from Haiti and author of the classic Masters of the Dew (1947). Master's of the Dew 's communist vision provided most of the powerful images in Sembene's O pays, mon beau peuple (1957). In Marseilles he also became involved with the international Communist youth organization Les Auberges de jeunesses (Youth Hostels) and discovered the Communist theater, Le Theâtre Rouge.
However, as Sembene struggled with millions of others for revolutionary
change at the international level, he also felt alienated by the quasi absence
of "revolutionary" artists and writers from Africa, the voices of the
masses of workers, women, and all those exploited and silenced by the combined
external forces of colonialism and the internal yoke of African
"tradition". Through activism, Sembene proved that he was deeply aware
of the urgent need for political and social change in Africa, but unlike many of
his generation ( Sékou Touré in Guinée, Patrice Lumumba in Belgian Congo,
Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, and Amilcar Cabral in Bissau Guinea who chose the
political arena) he, like Palestinian writer Edward Said, strongly believed and
still believes that the struggle against colonialism is not solely a fight over
who should own the land but it also a contest over who should have the right to
represent whom. In the historical context and contest against colonization, for
Sembene , the terrain of art and cultural representation are a sine qua none for
the freedom and revival of African societies. "L'Afrique d'hier me fascine,
L'Afrique de demain m'exalte" ("The Africa of the past fascinates me;
the future Africa excites me") says Sembene. The need to invest in Africa,
to contribute to a better self-awareness of the past, present, and future Africa
became a passion for him. Africa became what Albert Camus called "Une
valeur", that which transcends one's own life; that for which one is ready
to give his/her life, like South Africa's Nelson Mandela who once stated:
"Democracy is a value I live for, and if need be, for which I am prepared
Thus, since 1956, while still a dock worker, and upon his return to an independent Senegal in 1960 until today, Sembene's daily life has been devoted to the production and dissemination of emancipating and restorative images for those Frantz Fanon named the "the Wretched of the Earth", those Africans disenfranchised and marginalized in their own society, but also whose unsung struggles are a Daily Heroism (The title of Sembene's latest trilogy of films.) Yet for Sembene, in both literature and film, the work of "art" should not be a mere re-presentation of "reality" "une pancarte" (a political banner), as Sembene terms it. It is a work of art, a symbolic form of representation. In order to capture the imagination of the people they "speak" to and for , those symbols first must be intelligible to them. They must stem from and reflect their cultural universe. What is at work in Sembene's literary and film creation is an endeavor to capture and project a genuine African film language and aesthetics, that would also entertain a "dialogical" relationship with other world cultures.
Sembene the Writer
Nowadays, in the United States and around the world, Sembene is best known as
a filmmaker. However, it should be clear that even Sembene's use of cinema is
nothing but a compromise gesture to bring home what the widespread illiteracy in
the continent would not allow him to accomplish in his literary work. It is
through literature (or rather, it is because he failed to communicate with
African "masses" through literature) that Sembene came to film making,
as a last resort. Indeed, most of his film works (except Xala, 1973, and Guelwaar,
1993) are adaptations of earlier novels or short stories. Xala and Guelwaar are
rather a re-writing of the original film script's political, social, and
Ousmane Sembene started his artistic career as a poet, a short story writer, an essayist and a novelist. His first published work was Liberté (1956), a long poem in which after an extended panegyric on the a vast inventory of human accomplishment in the area of art, the poet also launched into a heartbreaking lament over his estrangement from universal beauty. The long poem closes on a dream of a free Africa whose children will redirect rivers and build monuments to its beauty. This "programmatic" poem published in Cahiers du sud, a Marseilles-based left-wing review then directed by André Gaillard, also contains the contour of Sembene's future work.. His novels and short stories since 1956 are: Le docker noir (1956) (The Black Docker), his loosely reconstructed experiences as an black African dockworker in Marseilles; O pays, mon beau peuple (1957) is almost, thematically, a sequel to the 1956 novel. Here the former soldier, after experiencing the war and sojourning through Europe, returns to his native Casamance and in a manner reminiscent of Romanian Communism, spearheaded an agrarian reform (following the model of the Kokhoze, in Soviet Union, but here directed and controlled by farmers themselves) in order to promote economic, political, and social change for the farmers. Les bouts de bois de dieu (1960) (God's Bits of Wood) is a masterpiece of fictionalized history, conceived from Marxist ideology and yet Sembene's first genuinely "African" story. It was a move away from the canons of the European bourgeois novel of the nineteenth century. This third novel, a fictional recreation of the second and most comprehensive French West African railroad workers strike against their colonial bosses in 1947 was followed in 1962 by Voltaïque (Tribal Scares), a collection of short stories. In 1963, he released L'harmattan ( a political epic of the later years of the 50's, in the final struggle against colonial occupation). Le mandat suivi de blanche genèse (1966) (The Money Order with White Genesis), was, to be sure, a first presentation of the post-colonial situation in Senegal. Afterwards came Xala (1973), a sarcastic satire of the new and "impotent" Senegalese bourgeoisie, and Le dernier de l'empire (1981) (The Last of the Empire) which laid bare the internal contradictions and subsequent demise of an impotent and narcissistic political leadership. In 1992, a collection of two stories Niiwam et Taaw explored the despair of the Senegalese peasantry and urban youth. Guelwaar (1996), Sembene's latest novel, an adaption of a 1993 feature film (reversing the relationship between literature and film), warned against the dangers of religious fundamentalism while showing the ironies and humiliations if a nation relies on international aid for its own economic survival .
In Sembene's own life, reading and writing took center stage. There has been a long love affair (literally, and figuratively) between Sembene and literature. He once fell in love and married a literary scholar who specialized in his work. Sembene's rich literary imagination fed on a vast knowledge of world literature and its masterpieces. The success of his literary work around the world flows from his own phenomenal love of reading. In addition to Sembene's ten published volumes, there are also dozens of manuscripts, some waiting for that spark that will bring them to the public's attention and thus to life. Sembene also has this infuriating and deliberate habit of burning many of his papers.
Sembene the Film Director
Yet, since 1962, upon returning to Senegal and having visited many other
countries in the region, Sembene had to face the endemic level of illiteracy
among his intended audience and the paralyzing effect it was having on the
dissemination of his work. Already in 1938, when movie going had started to
become his passion, Ousmane Sembene realized the magical power of cinema in
conveying messages. Ironically, the spark came from the viewing of Leni
Riefenstahl's Olympiad, a documentary on the 1936 Munich Olympic games by
one of Hitler's favorite filmmakers.
Touring the continent in 1961, at the moment he was sailing along the Congo River, and in the middle of the short-lived vitality of the Patrice Lumumba era, Sembene is said to have had a vision: landscapes, people, movements and sounds to which no written document could do justice. Then it dawned on him the necessity and desire to make movies - the technology and art of motion, color, and sound. He was not thinking of movies for escapism and dream making in the Hollywood model and paradigm, but movies as "école du soir" (night school). His efforts became aimed at educating the people, in the language of the people, following in the millennia-long tradition of many African oral cultures where, at night, people gathered around a wood fire and listened to stories told by either the griot (a professional storyteller) or by the elders. Although to this day Sembene has a strong personal preference for literature, he also sees motion picture combined with synchronized sound as a necessity, the only medium that could reconcile the African artist with the millions of peasants, workers, and women, whom Aimé Césaire called "les bouches qui n'ont pas bouches" (those mouths without a mouth).
Sembene was nearly 40 when he decided to seek scholarships and go back to Europe and learn the technique of film making. In the context of the Cold War, the Soviet Union (hoping to extend its influence over Africa) was eager to oblige. Thus, in 1962, Sembene spent a year learning cinematography at the Gorki Studios in Moscow, under the tutelage of Soviet director Marc Donskoï. At the end of 1962, he returned to Senegal with his knowledge and an old Soviet camera. In 1963, with Borom Saret , his first short, Sembene ushered Senegal and Africa into the landscape of world cinema, albeit 68 years after the invention of cinematography, and 63 years after the first Lumiere brother's L'arroseur arrosé was screened in Senegal. His film work would transform Africa from a mere consumer of images made elsewhere to that of a "producer" of its own images. As Borom Saret shows, Sembene was urgently concerned with pointing his camera on the present day, post colonial Senegalese society whose spatial mapping reflects the internal conflicts between the old and the new, between the powerful and the powerless, the changing of the old markers of identity. In 1964, Niaye (an adaptation of the short story White Genesis) a story of incest in a village noble family documented the withering of old moral values. These first two shorts were followed by La noire de... (Black Girl) in 1966, a first and prize-winning feature that put Africa on the map of world cinema. However, it was with Mandabi (The Money Order) in 1968, that Sembene's dream to reconnect with Africa's masses came through. For the first time, indeed, an African filmmaker was experimenting by using an African language (Wolof, the dominant language in Senegal), hence setting a new trend which would be followed by all film makers on the continent. In 1969 he released two shorts: Taumatisme de la femme face à la polygamie (Women and the Trauma of Polygamy), and Les dérives du chômage (The Afflictions of Unemployment). Two years later, in 1971 Sembene would adapt the short story Tauw and direct Emitaï, his first historical film, a dramatization of the forced conscription of Senegalese soldiers during WWII, followed by Basket Africain aux jeux olympiques de Munich, RFA (African Basketball in the Munich Olympic Games) in 1972, and L'Afrique aux Olympiades (Africa at the Olympic Games) in 1973. In 1974, Xala, an adaptation of his earlier 1973 novella would be released, followed by a controversial and internationally acclaimed historical film Ceddo, a re-writing of the history of Islam in Senegal. Camp de Thiaroye (1988) a sequel to Emitaï, centers around the massacre by French authorities of returning African soldiers from WWII.The award winning Guelwaar, une légende du 21 ème siècle (Guelwaar, a Legend of the 21st Century) would be released in 1993. Sembene would close the century with two films devoted to the struggle of African women: Héroisme au quotidien (Daily Heroism) in 1999, and Faat Kine in 2000 and open the new century with Moolaade in 2003 a crusade against a century-old practice of female circumcision which still plagues more than twenty-five out of the fifty -four African states recognized by the United Nations.
Importance of Sembene's Film Work
As can be seen from this brief presentation, Ousmane Sembene's forty year film work bears an unparalleled social and artistic significance in the context of both world and African cinema. At the international level, Sembene has been unequivocally recognized as the father of African cinema and his has received countless awards and distinctions. His images are intended not only for entertainment and profit (Sembene adheres to Lenin's prescription that "An artist must make money in order to live and work, but not live and work in order to make money"), but rather as an educational tool. His work is aimed at promoting freedom, social justice, and at restoring pride and dignity to African people. To reach such a goal, Sembene seeks first to "indigenize" the medium by resorting first to the use of African languages (Wolof and Diola, two Senegalese languages, and Bambara, a language spoken in Eastern Senegal, in Mauritania, Mali, Burkina, and Côte d'Ivoire in Moolaade) Secondly, this primary emphasis on language allowed him to specify his public : "Africa is my "audience" while the West and the "rest" are only targeted as "markets". Thirdly, he borrows from the rich heritage of African oral narratives, handed down by the griots and rejecting a mere imitation of Hollywood's narrative techniques, Sembene's cinema ushered in a genuinely African film aesthetics. "We will never be Arabs or Europeans; we are African", Sembene likes to philosophize. Finally, bent on educating and on liberating the disenfranchised, Sembene's cinema uses the tools provided by Marxist analysis and the passion of a visionary who profoundly believes, like Antoine de Saint-Exupery's character, Riviere, (Vol de nuit ; Night Flight) that only creation gives meaning to life. Counter to the hegemonic"official" history of Senegal, produced by its local elite, Sembene's filmography, which critics have perceived as "A call to action" has given voice to the millions of marginalized and voiceless African peasantry, its workers, women, and children, while often putting him at odds with his country's powerful. Indeed, most of Sembene's films have been either banned or censored by former president Leopold Senghor's regime.
Moreover, since Camp De Thiaroye (1988), through Guelwaar (1993), Faat Kine (2000), and Moolaade (2003), Sembene's film work has taken on and fulfilled a manifold objective that, symbolically, goes well beyond the strict realm of art as symbolic representation. Indeed since 1957, with the independence of Nkrumah's Ghana, and the creation of The Organization of African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa in 1963 by thirty newly independent states (and the fifty-three nations making up the current African Union), Africa's political leaders have failed to reach the triple objective of putting an end to its "balkanization" by political unity, of performing its economic integration, nor of ending its technological dependence on the West.
Indeed, for the financing of Camp De Thiaroye, Sembene, without giving up on the vertical model of cooperation with Europe (North-South axis), took the fresh approach of a hitherto uncharted model of a horizontal, inter-African (South-South axis) cooperation. For the financing of the film Sembene performed a symbolic "economic integration" through a co-production budget between SNPC (Senegal), ENAPROC (Algeria), SATPEC (Tunisia), and his own production company (Filmi Domireew/Filmi Kajoor). For the first time, Sembene also called on the services of a Tunisian lab for post-production of his film. Moreover, a film about a colonial massacre (the killing by French officers of African soldiers who returned from WWII, Camp Thiaroye ) also offers a unified approach to African history by also echoing the 1954 Setif colonial massacre that heralded the war of independence in Algeria. Although Guelwaar (1993) is a co-production with Galatee-Films, a French production company, its post-production was also done in Morocco. As for Faat Kine, the production was the result of a truly international cooperation (France, Germany, Switzerland, USA, Cameroon, and Senegal) and the post-production was again done in Morocco. With Moolaade, for the first time, Sembene has made a film outside Senegal's national borders, in Burkina Faso, seventeen kms, east of the border with Côte d'Ivoire, and in Bambara (a language spoken in eastern Senegal, in Mali, southern Mauritania, and, of course Burkina Faso). The technical crew was French (camera, sound, lighting), the set designer was from Benin, the production managers were from Burkina Faso and some machinists were from Senegal. The cast was selected by Casting Sud in Burkina Faso and includes Malians and Burkinabe as well as actors from Côte d'Ivoire. Thus, in his project as an artist-film maker, Ousmane Sembene realized the dream of a unified Africa, which its political leaders still have yet to produce.