INTERVIEW WITH OUSMANE SEMBENE

 

By Professor Samba Gadjigo April 11, 2004

 

After more than three years of work, Ousmane Sembene has just completed the final touches on his feature film Moolaade. This film, selected for the Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard section) will be presented to the press on May 14, then to the general public on May 15. A few hours after the completion of the film, on April 11, Mr. Sembene granted me this interview that I conducted in Rabat.

 

S. Gadjigo: Mr Sembene, you have just finished the subtitling of your film Moolaade at the Cinematographic Center of Morocco, in Rabat. Could you tell what this film means to you in particular—to your career, your everyday struggle?

 

Sembene: No, I don't know what this finished product means as an object. I can tell you that, based on its content, the film is the second in a trilogy that, for me, embodies the Heroism in daily life. One finds that nowadays war is rampant in Africa, especially South of the Sahara. There's also our life; life continues, after all, with our daily actions that are forgotten by the masses. The people don't retain them. They want to convince us that we "vegetate." But yet, this underground struggle, this struggle of the people, similar to the struggles of all other peoples, that's what I call Heroism in daily life. These are the heroes to whom no country, no nation gives any medals... They never get a statue built. That, for me, is the symbolism of this trilogy. I have already made two, Faat-Kine, this one now Moolaade, and I am preparing for the third.

 

In respect to Moolaade, it's a film that takes place in a rural space, a village symbolic of a green Africa. This Africa, while living its life, is in contact with "the others". So, we have some exterior influences which allow the African to gather a better knowledge of himself. In Moolaade, there are two values in conflict with each other: One the traditional, which is the female genital excision. This goes a long way back. Before Jesus, before Mohammed, to the times of Heredotes. It's a Tradition. It was instituted as a value in order to, in my opinion, continue the subjugation of women... The other value, as old as human existence: the right to give protection to those who are weaker. When these two values meet, cross, multiply, clash, you see the symbolism of our society: modern elements and elements that form part of our cultural foundation. On top of these add the elements that belong to the superstructure, notably religion. These are the waters in which this group, this film, sails.

 

S. Gadjigo: You have said that Moolaade was the most African of all of your films. Could you tell more about that?

 

O. Sembene: I said it in the sense that, in this film, we are within the African cultural foundation. Certainly, with some elements from the outside, but the

 

whole film takes place inside a language, a culture and its metaphors and symbols. We witness the arrival of two foreign elements. One is an ex-military man. He has, in the name of humanity, participated in all the peace-keeping forces. The other is an exile in Europe (for his own interests), who is the son of the village chief. To me, this is the most African film.

 

S. Gadjigo: From the time you wrote your first novel, The Black Docker (1956), in which the first chapter was called "The Mother", you have a given a very particular emphasis to women, to the Heroism of the African woman. Why does this heroism recur, as a leitmotif, throughout your work?

 

O Sembene: I think that Africa is maternal. The African male is very maternal; he loves his mother; he swears on his mother. When someone insults his father the man can take it; but once his mother's honor has been hurt, the man feels he's not worthy of life if he doesn't defend his mother. According to our traditions, a man has no intrinsic value, he receives his value from his mother. This concept goes back to before Islam: the good wife, the good mother, the submissive mother who knows how to look after her husband and family. The mother embodies our society... I continue to think that African society is very maternal. Maybe we have inherited from our pre-Islamic matriarchy. That said, to me, every man loves a woman. We love them. Besides, more than 50% of the African population are women. More than half of the 800,000,000 that we are. This is a force that we must be able to mobilize for our own development. There's no one that works as hard as the rural woman.

 

S. Gadjigo: Out of the fifty odd African countries, today more than 38 practice the excision. Then, why the choice of Burkina Faso and Djerisso when you could have also made the film somewhere else. Why Djerisso?

 

O. Sembene: I could have done it somewhere else, but I would not have had this setting that I searched for and didn't find except here. I simply looked for a village that responded to my creative desire. Why shouldn't I paint a rose black? I traveled thousands of kilometers. I went to Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and Guinea Bissau. But when I saw this village I told myself: this is the village! But there's more: this hedgehog-like mosque in the middle of the village, its unique architecture in the Sub-Saharan region. This architecture wasn't inspired by outside influences, we owe it to the termite ants, to the anthills, the symbol of Moolaade. That's why I chose Djerisso.

 

S. Gadjigo: You have often said: "To me, creation is like the Kora (musical instrument of 21 strings), it has many threads. I play like I hear it, and the essential thing is that I am free." What pleasures did you derive from the production of Moolaade?

 

O. Sembene: The experience is not complete yet. I worked with a team that included people from Morocco, Ivory Coast, Benin, Mali, Burkina Faso, France and Senegal. Now that we have just finished the film I wait to see the reaction of my people to it. It won't belong to me anymore after that. The joys, the difficulties, the tribulations and the pleasure that I tasted during its making will

 

leave me at the first screening of the film. Despite my age, I only think about the future, and I would wish it to be a timeless film.

 

S. Gadjigo: Had you wanted to do the post-production work in Europe, in France, you would have been able to. So why Rabat, why Morocco?

 

O. Sembene: It's not my first Moroccan experience. I already did all the post-production work of Faat Kine in Morocco—editing, sound, etc... My pride is in being able to say that this film, Moolaadt, was born on the continent and from the continent. That is my personal pride. Maybe I will be able to show African filmmakers, the younger ones, that we can create everything we need within the continent. We are a chosen land. We are not a rich land: we are a chosen land. It's said that the first men were born in Africa, they talk about Lucy. They tell us also about Egypt: the conflict that we have with the Maghreb and the European world. Cheikh Anta Diop, in his book with which I agree, shows that all civilizations originate from the Egypt of the Pharaohs, which was a black civilization. The same with the excision, it comes from a black goddess. When Heredotes saw her it was the first time the subject of excision came up. It was the 4th or 5th century BC. On this continent, we have Egyptian values, those from Zimbabwe, those born in Nigeria. But what is the origin of the breakdown that we're experiencing now? We must ask ourselves this question. Not to cry about the past, but I think that we can recreate these values from our current African perspective. We have a lot of history. It's our patrimony; we must re-seize it and tell ourselves that we can do it. But it's a psychological problem.

 

S. Gadjigo: You've been part of worker's unions. You have fought at the dock in Marseille, during the Indochine war; you have actively participated in the demonstrations against the colonial war in Algeria and you were in the ranks during the Korean War. But why, at a given moment, did you decide to take your battle to the cultural terrain, to the arts?

 

O. Sembene: That I don't know. I can't respond. My father was a simple fisherman; my grandfather was a simple fisherman. All his life, my father only lived to fish. He liked to repeat to me often that he would never work for a white man. All his experience was in fishing. In my family, I was the first to go to school.

 

S. Gadjigo: Yes, however, at the CGT library in Marseille you discovered the great writers. Later, you yourself decided to go into writing and then into filmmaking.

 

O. Sembene: No, no! In respect to writing, it was only on the political action level. Because in these libraries, at that time, when I was young, the books told me about the Africa of banana trees, the exotic Africa, the good Blacks, the black child who never grows old. I knew of stories in which people fought, they were not passive. So, I said "No, it's not like that where I come from. True, in Africa there are coconut trees, banana boats; but above all there are men. We are not ants." And now, as for how and why.. .1 leave you to your Freudian disease...

 

S. Gadjigo: Freud, perhaps. But I am convinced that at a given moment you made a conscious choice and decided to turn more towards art rather than throw yourself towards the political arena.

 

O. Sembene: Ah, politics... Yes, but it's the emptiest choice. Culture is political, but it's another type of politics. You're not involved in culture to be chosen. You're not involved in its politics to say "I am." In art, you are political, but you say "We are. We are" and not "I am." At each stage of life, the people create their own culture, they mark their er,a, and advance/ So, when I discovered culture, I made use of that. Politics. Not the politician's politics, to become deputy, cabinet head or something else; but to speak in the name of my people. And it's there that I see a contradiction. With what purpose have you come to interview me, to speak about my work? I am not elected, I don't owe you the vote. The reward that one has, as an artist, is when people come to express their encouragement.

 

S. Gadjigo: In 1975, at the University of Indiana at Bloomington, you gave a lecture entitled "Man is culture." During that whole week that I worked with you, you were always searching for, I would say, the "right word" to express what is, for you, African culture.

 

O. Sembene: But, I was speaking to whom? In this area there are those who speak Mandingue, but there are also people who don't speak Mandingue but that also speak French. It's by that exact word that I am going to be able to situate them and show them what's going on. Here, it's not about academic French, academic English... it's about language used in everyday life. It could be also that this worry about the exact word comes to me through literature; the worry of being heard well, understood properly.

 

S. Gadjigo: You have often said that cinema is somewhat mathematic, unlike literature. It's also, at the same time, an art and an industry. Where does African cinema sit today? What direction is it taking?

 

O. Sembene: I can't tell you. But one thing is certain: we are close to our success. How, when? I have no idea! Will the path be straight, twisted, uphill, downhill? But we are forced to succeed. Because, in this century, a people who cannot speak of itself is bound to disappear. A whole continent, 800,000,000 people disappear? No! We cannot and we should not.

 

S. Gadjigo: We have gone through the experience of slavery; we have gone through colonization; now it's the experience of globalization and neocolonization. Every time, the people of Africa arise every time from their wounds. Ousrnane Sembene, where do we get our strength from?

 

O Sembene: I don't know, I can't say. But, we must pay a lot of attention to what you have just said. Until now Africa has always risen, but this new century is the most dangerous century, this present phase is the most dangerous one for the continent. Slavery was blessed by the Church, and accepted by the Europeans. You can find it in the Bible, the Koran and even the Talmud. With colonization, it was Europe that divided Africa for its riches. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the

 

Europeans got together again several times to carve up Africa. France, Italy, England, Germany divided and shared Africa. Even during slavery each of these countries had their area on the African coast. Now, Europe is in the process of uniting, of regrouping. This same Europe that divided us; that same France who, in 1789, spoke of liberty, of man's rights, for them, but not for the Africans. They continued to practice slavery and then colonization. Globalization isn't so. Once again we find ourselves squeezed for our primary riches that Europe wants. We are, one more time, the object of the battles. What is thought nowadays in Africa is even more worrisome. Since 1960, Africans have killed more Africans than a hundred years of slavery and colonization. Now people speak of globalization, and it's enough to just take our area called "francophone." Our leaders, I'd say almost all of them, have houses in Europe, ready to retire to Europe as soon as the smallest problem comes up in their country. We are not concerned by globalization, we are not even in tow. The problem is more mental than economic. When Africans cannot exchange between themselves, between neighboring countries, that is a problem right there. They speak about the market constituted by the European Union, about 250,000,000 people. In Africa we are a potential market of more than 900.000.000! The economic laws and laws of physics are the same everywhere, in all cultures, all languages.

 

S. Gadjigo: Since I960, you have also fought for the rehabilitation of our national languages. In the 70's, with some other people, you created KADDU, a newspaper in Wolof. Very recently, this year, Doomi Golo/ by Boubacar Boris Diop, became the first novel ever published in Wolof. In private radio people are doing extraordinary work in Wolof, Pular, Soninke, Bambara... If the political will existed today, couldn't we generalize the teaching of our languages?

 

O. Sembene: You say "if." You, a professor of French, tell me what "if" means. Our leaders don't want to. Imagine for a moment that South of the Sahara, an African language became the official language of the country. The majority of our leaders would not lead anymore. It's the farmers that are going to lead, because the current leaders don't speak their mother tongue.

 

S. Gadjigo: We have spoken earlier about the trilogy. You have made Faat Kine (2000), Moolaade (2004), what will the third be?

 

O.Sembene: This time it takes place in the city, it has to do with our government. The title of this next film is The Brotherhood of Rats.

 

S. Gadjigo: Thank you!