OUSMANE SEMBENE & HIS REVOLUTIONARY IMAGES

 

By Samba Gadjigo

 

From the forthcoming book Ousmane Sembene: The Life of a Revolutionary Artist. Reprinted with permission from California Newsreel and the author.Samba Gadjigo is a Professor of French at Mount Holyoke College and the official biographer of Ousmane Sembene.

 

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. From the publication of his first poem in Marseilles in 1956 to Guelwaar (1996), his latest novel, Sembene has produced five novels, five collections of short stories, and directed four shorts, nine features and four documentaries. He has granted hundreds of interviews to teachers, researchers, students and dozens of film and literary critics from around the world. Scholarly articles on his work have appeared in scores of international journals. 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.

 

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 taxi cab self baptized Le docker noir (1956), the original title of Sembene's first published novel. In the U.S., in 1996, his literary and film work also inspired Florence Ladd's novel Sarah's Psalm, which tells the story of Sarah Stewart, a young black Harvard graduate whose yearning to go to Africa arose from reading and viewing the work of a character named Ibrahim Mangane, a Sembene prototype.

 

Of modest birth in 1923 in Casamance, southern Senegal, where his "crazy" fisherman father had migrated from Dakar around 1900, Sembene has inscribed his name in world history. Expelled in 1936 for disciplinary reasons, his formal education ended in middle school. Chronic seasickness prevented him for adopting his father's trade, and in 1938 he was sent to relatives in Dakar, headquarters of the territories of French West Africa. From 1938 to 1944 he worked as an apprentice mechanic and a bricklayer. Even without 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 doing manual labor and his after-work hours 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, Sembene, like many young Africans of his generation, was called to active duty to liberate France from German occupation in 1944 and subsequently was dispatched to the colony of Niger as a chauffeur in the 6th Colonial Infantry unit. Upon his discharge in 1946, he returned to a Dakar and joined the construction worker's

 

trade union. He witnessed the first general 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 the opportunity to feed his unquenchable thirst for learning. He migrated to France and lived in the Mediterranean city of Marseilles until I960, the year Senegal was granted independence. As an black African docker who knew how to read and write, he was soon identified by labor union leader Victor Gagnere and enrolled in the Confederation generale des travailleurs (CGT), the largest and most powerful left-wing workers' union in post-war France. After backbreaking work unloading ships during the day (containers did not exist then), at night and on weekends Sembene enthusiastically attended seminars and workshops on Marxism and joined the French Communist Party in 1950. In 1951, while unloading a ship, Sembene broke his backbone. After a long recovery and unable to sustain the physical effort required by the work of a docker, he was given a post as a switchman and the opportunity to advance from a laborer into a well-rounded intellectual. 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 honnete homme."

 

Sembene spent most of his free time roaming public libraries, museums, theater halls, and tirelessly attending seminars on Marxism and Communism. He read everything: Marxist ideology, political economics, political science, and works of fiction and history. During those Marseilles years, with the passion and obsession of a new convert, 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, and he vehemently protested against the Rosenberg trial and execution in the United States in 1953. Dreaming of the universal freedom and brotherhood promised by communist ideology, 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 intense political activism that Sembene discovered other communist artists and writers: Richard Wright, John Roderigo (Dos Passes), Pablo Neruda, Ernest Hemingway, Nazim Hikmet. He also came into contact with the works of the Jamaican Communist writer Claude McKay (whose 1929 novel Banjo would influence Sembene's first novel) and the novels of Jacques Roumain, another Communist writer from Haiti and author of the classic Masters of the Dew (1947). Sembene also became involved with the international Communist youth organization Les Auberges de jeunesses and discovered the Communist theater Le Theatre Rouge.

 

However, as Sembene struggled along with millions of others for revolutionary change at the international level, he also felt alienated by the absence of "revolutionary" artists and writers from Africa. Sembene was deeply aware of the urgent need for political and social change in Africa and strongly believed that the struggle against colonialism is not solely a fight over who should own the land it is also a contest over who has the right to represent whom. For Sembene, the terrain of artistic and cultural representation and the need to invest in Africa became a passion for him, what Albert Camus called "Une valeur," that which transcends one's own life.

 

Since 1956, Sembene's daily life has been devoted to the dissemination of emancipating and restorative images for those Frantz Fanon named "the Wretched of the Earth," the disenfranchised Africans 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," or "une pancarte," a political banner. 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. At work in Sembene's art is to project a genuine African film language that also entertains a dialogical relationship with other world cultures.

 

Nowadays, in the U.S. and around the world, Sembene is best known as a filmmaker. However, it should be clear that he uses cinema to bring home what the widespread illiteracy in the continent does not allow him to accomplish through his writing. Sembene came to filmmaking as a last resort, and most of his film works (except Xala, 1973, and Guelwaar, 1993) are adaptations of earlier novels or short stories. Already in 1938, when movie-going had become a passion, 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 filmmaker s.

 

Touring the continent in 1961 he was sailing along the Congo River in the middle of the short-lived vitality of the Patrice Lumumba era Sembene is said to have had a vision: there are landscapes, people, movements and sounds to which no written document can 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 paradigm, but movies as "e'cole 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 in which people gathered around a wood fire and listened to stories told by either the griot (a professional storyteller) or by the elders. Although Sembene maintains a strong preference for literature, he also sees motion pictures as a necessity, the only medium that could reconcile the African artist with the millions of peasants, workers, and women, whom Aime Cesaire called "les bouches qui n'ont pas bouches" (those mouths without a mouth).

 

Sembene was nearly 40 when he decided to seek scholarships, return to Europe and learn the technique of filmmaking. In the context of the Cold War, the Soviet Union (hoping to extend its influence over Africa) was eager to oblige. In 1962, Sembene spent a year learning cinematography at the Gorki Studios in Moscow under the tutelage of Marc Donskoi'. At the end of 1962, Sembene returned to Senegal with new knowledge and an old Soviet camera. In 1963, his short Borom Saret ushered Senegal and Africa into the landscape of world cinema, 68 years after the invention of cinematography, and 63 years after the Lumiere brothers' L'arroseur arrose was screened in Senegal. Sembene's films transformed Africa from a consumer of images made elsewhere to a "producer" of its own images. As Borom Saret shows, Sembene was urgently concerned with pointing his camera at present-day, post-colonial Senegalese society and its conflicts between the old and the new, the powerful and the powerless. In 1964, he adapted his short story White Genesis with Niaye, a story of incest in a village noble family. These first two shorts were followed by La noire de... (Black Girl) in 1965, a prize-winning feature

 

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, an African filmmaker used an African language (Wolof, the dominant language in Senegal), hence setting a trend to be followed by all filmmakers on the continent. In 1969 he released two shorts: Taumatisme de lafemmeface a la polygamie (Women and the Trauma of Polygamy), and Les derives du chomage (The Afflictions of Unemployment). Two years later, Sembene would adapt the short story Tauw into Emitai (1971), his first historical film, a dramatization of the forced conscription of Senegalese soldiers during World War II. He followed it with African Basketball in the Munich Olympic Games in 1972, and Africa at the Olympic Games in 1973. In 1974, Xala, an adaptation of his earlier 1973 novella was released, followed by a controversial and internationally acclaimed historical film Ceddo, a rewriting of the history of Islam in Senegal. Camp de Thiaroye (1987) a sequel to Emitai, centers on the massacre by French authorities of African soldiers returning from World War II. The award-winning Guelwaar, a Legend of the 21st Century, was released in 1993. Sembene would close the century with two films devoted to the struggle of African women, Daily Heroism (1999) and Faat Kine (2000), and open the new century with Moolaade (2004), a crusade against the century-old practice of female circumcision that still plagues half of the African states recognized by the United Nations.

 

At the international level, Sembene, unequivocally recognized as the father of African cinema, 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 also as an educational tool. His work is aimed at promoting freedom and social justice and restoring pride and dignity to African people. First, using African languages (Moolaade includes Wolof and Diola, two Senegalese languages, and Bambara, a language spoken in Eastern Senegal, in Mauritania, Mali, Burkina, and Cote d'lvoire) allows Sembene to specify his public: "Africa is my 'audience' while the West and the rest are only targeted as 'markets.'" Sembene also borrows from the rich heritage of African oral narratives, handed down by the griots. Rejecting a mere imitation of Hollywood's narrative techniques, Sembene's cinema ushered in genuinely African film aesthetics. Counter to the hegemonic "official" history of Senegal, produced by its local elite, Sembene's filmography has given voice to the millions of marginalized and voiceless African peasantry - workers, women, and children - while often putting him at odds with his country's powerful. Indeed, most of Sembene's films were either banned or censored under former president Leopold Senghor's regime.

 

For the financing of Camp De Thiaroye, Sembene performed a symbolic "economic integration" by building a co-production between SNPC (Senegal), ENAPROC (Algeria), SATPEC (Tunisia) and his own production company. For the first time, Sembene also called on the services of a Tunisian lab for post-production of his film. For his Faat Kine, the production was the result of a truly international cooperation (France, Germany, Switzerland, U.S., Cameroon and Senegal) and the post-production was done in Morocco. With Moolaade, Sembene has made his first film outside Senegal's national borders, in Burkina Faso. The technical crew was French, the set designer from Benin, the production managers from Burkina Faso and some machinists were from Senegal. The cast was selected in Burkina Faso and includes Malians and Burkinabe as well as actors from Cote d'lvoire. Thus, in his project as an artist-filmmaker, Ousmane Sembene has realized the dream of a unified Africa that its political leaders have yet to produce.

 

OUSMANE SEMBENE FILMOGRAPHY

 

2004 Moolaade

2000 Faat Kine

1999 Daily Heroism

1993 Guelwaar

1987 Camp de Thiaroye

1977 Ceddo

1974 Xala

1973 Africa at the Olympic Games

1972 African Basketball in the Munich Olympic Games

1971 Emitat

1969 Tauw (short film)

1969 Women and the Trauma of Polygamy (short film)

The Afflictions of Unemployment (short film)

1968 Mandabi

1965 Black Girl

1964 Niaye (short film)

1964 Borom Sarret (short film)

1963 L'Empire Songhay (short film)

 

MOOLAADE FESTIVAL PLAY r AWARDS

 

2004 Cannes Film Festival

 

WINNER Un Certain Regard