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Sembène, Ousmane

Ousmane Sembène

1923-2007

Filmmaker, writer

Ousmane Sembène was often referred to as "the father of African cinema." Yet even such a grandiose title fails to capture the full impact of Sembène's accomplishments as an author, filmmaker, and social critic. Taken together, his work represents an ongoing literary battle against corruption, colonialism, and hypocrisy in all its forms. Despite the international attention his films and novels received, Sembène ignored the lure of commercial moviemaking, preferring instead to remain in his homeland of Senegal, where he was revered as a champion of working people and other victims of exploitation. Sembène died in 2007 after a long illness. Upon his passing, Manthia Diawara, professor of comparative literature and Africana studies at New York University, told the New York Times that "He really is the most important African filmmaker. The one that all subsequent filmmakers have to be measured against."

Raised in French-ruled Senegal

Sembène was born into a family of fishermen on January 1, 1923, in the village of Ziguinchor, Senegal, which was then a French colony. His parents divorced when he was a child, and the young Sembène was sent to live for varying periods of time with different relatives. Of all the family members he spent time with, the most influential was his mother's oldest brother, Abdou Rahmane Diop. Diop, a teacher, intellectual, and devout Muslim, instilled in Sembène a sense of pride in his African heritage. At the age of eight, Sembène was sent to Islamic school. When Diop died in 1935, however, Sembène moved to Dakar to live with another uncle. In Dakar, he began attending French schools. His formal education ended at the age of 14, when he quit school after a physical fight with a teacher.

During the next few years, Sembène worked at a series of odd jobs to support himself, including stints as a mechanic, a carpenter, and a mason. It was during this period that he became mesmerized by the cinema, where he and his friends would spend as much of their free time as possible. He also absorbed a great deal of Senegalese culture from traditional storytellers (griots) and musicians. In 1938 Sembène had what he described as a mystical experience, resulting in a renewed commitment to Islam. Although his religious fervor was short-lived, it sparked in Sembène a sense of justice and commitment that he carried into his subsequent secular life.

When he was 19, Sembène joined the French colonial forces in their battle against Nazi Germany. After four years in the military, during which he fought in Europe and Africa, Sembène returned to Dakar, where he helped organize the Dakar-Niger railroad strike of 1947 and 1948. His experience in the railroad strike provided the material for his 1960 epic novel God's Bits of Wood, widely considered to be his literary masterpiece. When the strike was over, and with job opportunities in Senegal scarce, Sembène made his way to France as a stowaway on a ship. Arriving in Paris, he worked at a series of factory jobs. He then moved to Marseilles, where he became a longshoreman; he also resumed his activities as a labor organizer and became affiliated with the French communist party.

Took Up Writing in France

By the early 1950s, Sembène had begun writing on a regular basis, mostly as an outlet for his political and philosophical thoughts. His poetry and short fiction began appearing in such magazines as Presence Africaine and Action poetique. In 1956 Sembène's first novel, Le Docker noir (The Black Docker), was published. Le Docker noir incorporated Sembène's experiences as a Senegalese dockworker laboring in Marseilles. Although the novel did not gain widespread attention, it set the tone for much of his later writing in dealing with the difficulties of an African trying to adapt to Western life. Sembène's second novel, O Pays, mon beau peuple! (Oh My Country, My Beautiful People!), was published the following year.

Meanwhile, Sembène traveled the world to connect with writers from different regions. In 1956 he attended the First International Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris. Two years later, Sembène went to the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan to attend the First Congress of African and Asiatic Writers, where he met and was strongly influenced by American writer and social critic W. E. B. DuBois. He also met with other writers and artists in China and North Vietnam during the last part of the 1950s.

Sembène's biggest career breakthrough came with the 1960 publication of Les Bouts de bois de Dieu (God's Bits of Wood). The novel received international acclaim, and after its publication Sembène was finally able to devote himself to writing full-time. It also made him a visible figure among France's leftist and intellectual communities, both black and white.

Told His Tales on Film

Sembène's filmmaking career began in the early 1960s. Traveling in West Africa, he became increasingly aware of the difficulties of reaching out to a population that was largely illiterate. In 1962 he went to Moscow for a crash course in filmmaking technique. Upon his return to Africa, Sembène was commissioned by the government of Mali to make a short documentary, L'Empire Sonhria, which was completed in 1963. He then formed his own production company and made his first important film, Borom Sarret, which won the First Film Award at the 1963 Tours Film Festival in France. His next film, Niaye, won an award at Tours, as well as an Honorable Mention at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. All of these films were shot on a shoestring budget using nonprofessional actors.

In 1966 Sembène cemented his international reputation as a gifted filmmaker with his first feature-length film, La Noire de… (Black Girl). The film, about a Senegalese nanny who accompanies her white employers back to France, won a number of awards, and was the first film by a black African to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. It is generally considered a milestone in the history of African cinema.

At a Glance …

Born Ousmane Sembène on January 1, 1923, in Ziguinchor, Senegal; died on June 10, 2007, in Dakar, Senegal; son of a fisherman; married Carrie Moore, 1974; one other marriage; children: Alain and Moussa, both sons. Education: Attended Gorki Film Studios, Moscow, 1962. Politics: Leftist.

Career : Worked as a laborer in a variety of occupations, including fisherman, plumber, mechanic, and bricklayer, 1938-42; served in the Free French Forces, 1942-46; dockworker, 1948-60; novelist, 1956-92; filmmaker, 1963-2004; Kaadu newspaper, founding editor, 1972.

Memberships: Senegalese Association of Film Makers, co-founder; Pan African Federation of Film Makers (Fepaci), co-founder; African Association of Culture; Pen Club International.

Awards : First Film Award, Tours (France) Film Festival, 1963; Dakar Festival of Negro Arts prize, 1966; Cannes Film Festival prize, 1967; International Critics' prize, Venice Bienale, 1968; Venice Film Festival prize, 1969; Atlanta Film Festival prize, 1970; Silver Medal, Moscow Film Festival, 1971; Paul Robeson Prize, 1978; Nahouri Bronze Medal from the government of Burkina Faso, 1987; Grand Prix, Venice Film Festival, 1988; Gold Medal, Venice Film Festival, 1992; Akira Kurosawa Award for Lifetime Achievement, San Francisco International Film Festival, 1993; Prix un Certain Regard, Cannes Film Festival, 2004; Best Foreign Film, American Association of Film Critics, 2004, for Moolaadé; Lifetime Achievement Award, Chicago International Film Festival, 2005.

Over the next two decades, Sembène worked steadily in both literature and film, often adapting his fiction for the screen. Le Mandat (The Money Order) published in 1965, became Sembène's second feature film, Mandabi, in 1968. Another example was his 1973 novel Xala, which was filmed a year after its print publication. Those two works reveal the lighter side of Sembène. Unlike the socio-realism (picked up in Russia) of some of his earlier writing, they are farcical, poking fun at the bourgeoisie and their bureaucratic allies. The Senegalese government was not always pleased with the point of view expressed in Sembène's work; while the films were applauded all over the world, they were often heavily censored at home.

Xala was Sembène's only novel of the 1970s, but he made a few other important films. Emitai (1971) involves the attempt by French troops to draft the young men of a Senegal village into service during World War II. Ceddo (1977) describes the forced conversion of an African village to Islam. It was banned by the Senegalese government in order to avoid offending the country's 80-percent Muslim majority. Sembène also kept busy during the decade helping establish Kaddu, a magazine in his native Wolof language. Sembène's only film of the 1980s was Camp de Thiaroye (1987), which deals with the problems faced by Senegalese veterans of World War II upon their return to Africa. His literary work of the decade includes a novel, Le Dernier de l'Empire (The Last Days of the Empire, 1980), and two novellas.

Reemerged as the Master of African Filmmaking

In 1992 Sembène reemerged on the scene, to the delight of the international film community, with Guelwaar, which incorporates many of the themes of his earlier work, such as religious tensions, government corruption, the evils of colonialism. Guelwaar was received with worldwide enthusiasm, and its release was accompanied by African film festivals and Sembène retrospectives in many cities. Sembène followed this triumph with the first film in what would become his final trilogy of films examining the role of women in African culture as they respond to colonialism, modernism, and tradition. The short film L'heroisme du Quotidien (1999) examined the ways that women in a small Senegalese village make their first contact with European culture in the early twentieth century. Set in contemporary Dakar, Faat-Kiné (2000) tells the story of a single mother who tries to navigate the demands of her two ex-husbands, traditional expectations of women, and her own desires to establish an independent identity. Though the film was light hearted, it also offered a "penetrating analysis of the interplay of gender, economics and power in today's Africa," according to the California Newsreel Web site.

Sembène's last film—and perhaps his greatest triumph—was Moolaadé (2004), a stirring polemic against the practice of female genital mutilation in traditional African cultures. Told with what New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell called his "trademark empathy," Moolaadé manages to stir viewer outrage while also telling a warm story of human interest. The film was greeted with adulation, winning a variety of awards, including a prestigious award at the Cannes Film Festival, and earning showings at film festivals around the world.

Throughout his career, Ousmane Sembène took the idea of the "independent" filmmaker to its extreme. He never relinquished control of any part of the process. He preferred to work with nonprofessional actors, and the amount of money he typically spent on a film would have barely paid the catering bill for a Hollywood production. Because Sembène remained fiercely loyal to the principles that got him started as a writer, he never had to worry about such mundane matters as funding, censorship, or box office receipts. Diawara noted in the New York Times that Sembène "could criticize Africa, he could criticize racism and he could criticize colonialism. He never spared anybody."

Sembène died at his home in Dakar on June 10, 2007, following a long illness. Sembène will not only be remembered as the "father of African cinema," but, as was once noted in Film Comment, perhaps he was also the "only filmmaker…in the world who cannot be bought and sold."

Selected works

Fiction

Le docker noir, Debresse, 1956 (published in English as The Black Docker, Heinemann, 1987.) O pays, mon beau people!, Le Livre Contemporain, 1957.

Les bouts de bois de Dieu, Le Livre Contemporain, 1960 (published in English as God's Bits of Wood, Anchor Books, 1970.)

Voltaique, Presence Africaine, 1962.

L'Harmattan, Presence Africaine, 1964.

Le mandat, Presence Africaine, 1966 (published in English as The Money Order, Heinemann, 1972.)

Xala, Presence Africaine, 1973 (published in English as Xala, L. Hill and Co., 1976.)

Le dernier de l'Empire, L'Harmattan, 1981 (published in English as The Last Days of the Empire, Heinemann, 1983.)

Niiwam, Presence Africaine, 1987 (published in English as Niiwam and Taaw: Two Novellas, Heinemann, 1992.

Films

L'Empire Sonhrai, 1963.

Borom Sarret, 1963.

Niaye, 1964.

La Noire de…, 1966.

Mandabi, 1968.

Taaw, 1970.

Emitai, 1971.

Xala, 1974.

Ceddo, 1976.

Camp de Thiaroye, 1989.

Guelwaar, 1992.

L'heroisme du Quotidien (short), 1999.

Faat-Kiné, 2000.

Moolaadé, 2004.

Sources

Books

Gadjigo, Samba, Ralph Faulkingham, Thomas Cassirer, and Sander Reinhard, editors, Ousmane Sembène: Dialogues with Critics and Writers, University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.

The Cinema of Ousmane Sembène, A Pioneer of African Film, Greenwood, 1984.

Ousmane Sembène: Dialogues with Critics and Writers, ed. by Samba Gadjigo and Ralph Faulkingham, 1993.

Periodicals

Film Comment, July/August, 1993, pp. 63-69.

Guardian Unlimited, June 5, 2005; June 12, 2007.

Houston Chronicle, February 18, 1996, p. 11.

Los Angeles Times, January 1, 1995, p. 30.

New York Times, December 28, 1972; October 13, 2004; June 11, 2007; June 12, 2007.

Time, June 25, 2007.

UNESCO Courier, January 1990, pp. 4-7.

On-line

"Faat Kiné," California Newsreel,www.newsreel.org/nav/title.asp?tc=CN0125 (July 24, 2007).

Gadjigo, Samba, "Ousmane Sembène: The Life of a Revolutionary Artist," California Newsreel,www.newsreel.org/articles/OusmaneSembene.htm (July 24, 2007).

Ousmane Sembène: "Senegal's Most Admired Film Maker of the Century,"www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/sgadjigo/ (July 24, 2007).

Ousmane Sembène,www.english.emory.edu/Bahri/Sembene.html (July 24, 2007).

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"Sembène, Ousmane." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Sembène, Ousmane 1923–

Ousmane Sembène 1923

Loved Movies and Storytellers

Forged Bonds with Writers Worldwide

Captivated Audiences

Selected writings

Sources

Senegalese filmmaker, writer

Ousmane Sembène has frequently been referred to as the father of African cinema. Yet even such a grandiose title fails to capture the full impact of Sembènes accomplishments as an author, filmmaker, and social critic. Taken together, his work represents an ongoing literary battle against corruption, colonialism, and hypocrisy in all its forms. Despite the international attention his films and novels have received, Sembène has chosen to ignore the lure of commercial moviemaking, preferring instead to remain in his homeland of Senegal, where he is revered as a champion of working people and other victims of exploitation.

Sembène was born into a family of fishermen on January 1, 1923, in the village of Ziguinchor, Senegal. His parents divorced when he was a child, and the young Sembène was sent to live for varying periods of time with different relatives. Of all the family members he spent time with, the most influential was his mothers oldest brother, Abdou Rahmane Diop. Diop, a teacher, intellectual, and devout Muslim, instilled in Sembène a sense of pride in his African heritage. At the age of eight, Sembène was sent to Islamic school. When Diop died in 1935, however, Sembène moved to Dakar to live with another uncle. In Dakar, he began attending French schools. His formal education ended at the age of 14, when he quit school after a physical fight with a teacher.

Loved Movies and Storytellers

During the next few years, Sembène worked at a series of odd jobs to support himself, including stints as a mechanic, a carpenter, and a mason. It was during this period that he became mesmerized by the cinema, where he and his friends would spend as much of their free time as possible. He also absorbed a great deal of Senegalese culture in the form of traditional storytellers (griots) and musicians. In 1938 Sembène had what he has described as a mystical experience, resulting in a renewed commitment to Islam. Although this religious fervor was short-lived, it sparked in Sembène a sense of justice and commitment that he carried into his subsequent secular life.

When he was 19, Sembène joined the French colonial forces in their battle against Nazi Germany. After four years in the military, during which he fought in both Europe and Africa, Sembène returned to Dakar, where he helped organize the Dakar-Niger railroad strike of 1947 and 1948. His experience in the railroad strike provided the material for his 1960 epic novel Gods Bits of Wood, widely considered to be his literary masterpiece. When the strike was over, and with job opportunities in Senegal scarce, Sembène made his way to France as a stowaway on a ship. Arriving in Paris, he worked at a series of factory jobs. He then moved to Marseilles, where he became a longshoreman; he also resumed his activities as a labor organizer and became

At a Glance

Born Ousmane Sembène, January 1, 1923, in Ziguinchor, Senegal; son of a fisherman; married Carrie Moore, 1974; one other marriage; children: Alain and Moussa, both sons. Education: Attended Gorki Film Studios, Moscow, 1962; Politics: Leftist.

Worked as a laborer in a variety of occupations, including fisherman, plumber, mechanic, and bricklayer, 1938-42; served in the Free French Forces, 1942-46; dock-worker, 1948-60; novelist, 1956; filmmaker, 1963; Kaadu newspaper, founding editor, 1972.

Selected awards: First Film Award, Tours (France) Film Festival, 1963; Dakar Festival of Negro Arts prize, 1966; Cannes Film Festival prize, 1967; International Critics prize, Venice Bienale, 1968; Venice Film Festival prize, 1969; Atlanta Film Festival prize, 1970; Silver Medal, Moscow Film Festival, 1971; Paul Robeson Prize, 1978; Nahouri Bronze Medal from the government of Burkina Faso, 1987; Grand Prix, Venice Film Festival, 1988.

Addresses: Home P.O. Box 8087, Yoff, Senegal.

affiliated with the French communist party.

By the early 1950s, Sembène had begun writing on a regular basis, mostly as an outlet for his political and philosophical thoughts. His poetry and short fiction began appearing in such magazines as Presence Africaine and Action poétique. In 1956 Sembènes first novel, Le Docker noir (The Black Docker), was published. Le Docker noir incorporated Sembènes experiences as a Senegalese dockworker laboring in Marseilles. Although the novel did not gain widespread attention, it set the tone for much of his later writing in dealing with the difficulties of an African trying to adapt to Western life. Sembènes second novel, O Pays, mon beau peuple! (Oh My Country, My Beautiful People!), was published the following year.

Forged Bonds with Writers Worldwide

Meanwhile, Sembène traveled the world to connect with writers from different regions. In 1956 he attended the First International Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris. Two years later, Sembène went to the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan to attend the First Congress of African and Asiatic Writers, where he met and was strongly influenced by writer and social critic W. E. B. DuBois. He also met with other writers and artists in China and North Vietnam during the last part of the 1950s.

Sembènes biggest career breakthrough came with the 1960 publication of Les Bouts de bois de Dieu (Gods Bits of Wood).The novel received international acclaim, and after its publication Sembène was finally able to devote himself to writing full-time. It also made him a visible figure among Frances leftist and intellectual communities, both black and white.

Sembènes filmmaking career began in the early 1960s. Traveling in West Africa, he became increasingly aware of the difficulties of reaching out to a population that was largely illiterate. In 1962 he went to Moscow for a crash course in filmmaking technique. Upon his return to Africa, Sembène was commissioned by the government of Mali to make a short documentary, LEmpire Son-hria, which was completed in 1963. He then formed his own production company and made his first important film, Borom Sarret, which won the First Film Award at the 1963 Tours Film Festival in France. His next film, Niaye, won an award at Tours, as well as an Honorable Mention at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. All of these films were shot on a shoestring budget using nonprofessional actors.

In 1966 Sembène cemented his international reputation as a gifted filmmaker with his first feature-length film, La Noire de... (Black Girl). The film, about a Senegalese nanny who accompanies her white employers back to France, won a number of awards, and was the first film by a black African to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. It is generally considered a milestone in the history of African cinema.

Over the next two decades, Sembène worked steadily in both literature and film, often adapting his fiction for the screen. Le Mandat (The Money Order) published in 1965, became Sembènes second feature film, Mandabi, in 1968. Another example was his 1973 novel Xala, which was filmed a year after its print publication. Those two works reveal the lighter side of Sembène. Unlike the socio-realism (picked up in Russia) of some of his earlier writing, they are farcical, poking fun at the bourgeoisie and their bureaucratic allies. The Senegalese government was not always pleased with the point of view expressed in Sembènes work; while the films were being applauded all over the world, they were often being heavily censored at home.

Xala was Sembènes only novel of the 1970s, but he made a few other important films. Emitai (1971), involves the attempt by French troops to draft the young men of a Senegal village into service during World War II. Ceddo (1977), describes the forced conversion of an African village to Islam. It was banned by the Senegalese government in order to avoid offending the countrys 80 percent Muslim majority. Sembène also kept busy during the decade helping establish Kaddu, a magazine in his native Wolof language.

Captivated Audiences

Sembènes only film of the 1980s was Camp de Thiaroye (1987), which deals with the problems faced by Senegalese veterans of World War II upon their return to Africa. His literary work of the decade includes a novel, Le Dernier de lEmpire (The Last Days of the Empire, 1980), and two novellas. In 1992 Sembène reemerged on the scene, to the delight of the international film community, with Guelwaar, which incorporates many of the themes of his earlier work, such as religious tensions, government corruption, the evils of colonialism. Guelwaar was received with world-wide enthusiasm, and its release was accompanied by African film festivals and Sembène retrospectives in many cities.

Throughout his career, Ousmane Sembène has taken the idea of the independent filmmaker to its extreme. He has never relinquished control of any part of the process. He prefers to work with nonprofessional actors, and the amount of money he typically spends on a film would barely pay the catering bill for a Hollywood production. Because Sembène has remained fiercely loyal to the principles that got him started as a writer, he has not had to worry about such mundane matters as funding, censorship, or box office receipts. Sembène is not only the father of African cinema, but, as was once noted in Film Comment, perhaps the only filmmaker left in the world who cannot be bought and sold.

Selected writings

Fiction

Le docker noir, Debresse, 1956 (published in English as The Black Docker, Heinemann, 1987.)

O pays, mon beau peuple, Le Livre Contemporain, 1957.

Les bouts de bois de Dieu, Le Livre Contemporain, 1960 (published in English as Gods Bits of Wood, Anchor Books, 1970.)

Voltaïque, Présence Africaine, 1962.

LHarmattan, Présence Africaine, 1964.

Le mandat, Présence Africaine, 1966 (published in English as The Money Order, Heinemann, 1972.)

Xala, Présence Africaine, 1973 (published in English as Xala, L.Hill and Co., 1976.)

Le dernier de lEmpire, LHarmattan, 1981 (published in English as The Last Days of the Empire, Heinemann, 1983.)

Niiwam, Présence Africaine, 1987 (published in English as Niiwam and Taaw: Two Novellas, Heine-mann, 1992.

Film

LEmpire Sonhrai, 1963.

Borom Sarret, 1963.

Niaye, 1964.

La Noire de.1966.

Mandabi, 1968.

Taaw, 1970.

Emitai, 1971.

Xala, 1974.

Ceddo, 1976.

Camp de Thiaroye, 1989.

Guelwaar, 1992.

Sources

Books

Gadjigo, Samba, Ralph Faulkingham, Thomas Cassirer, and Sander Reinhard, editors, Ousmane Sembène: Dialogues with Critics and Writers, University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.

Periodicals

Film Comment, July/August, 1993, pp. 63-69.

Houston Chronicle, February 18, 1996, p. 11.

Los Angeles Times, January 1, 1995, p. 30.

New York Times, December 28, 1972.

UNESCO Courier, January 1990, pp. 4-7.

Robert R. Jacobson

Cite this article
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"Sembène, Ousmane 1923–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Sembène, Ousmane 1923–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/sembene-ousmane-1923

"Sembène, Ousmane 1923–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved December 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/sembene-ousmane-1923

Sembene, Ousmane

SEMBENE, Ousmane



Nationality: Senegalese. Born: at Ziguinchor, Senegal, 8 January 1923. Military Service: Joined Free French Forces fighting in Africa, 1942, demobilized at Marseilles, 1946. Career: Worked as mechanic, 1937–38; after military service, returned to Senegal, then moved to France, 1948; docker in Marseilles, and Secretary General of black workers organization in France; published first novel, Le Docker noir, 1956; returned to Senegal, 1960; studied cinema in Moscow under Sergei Gerasimov and Mark Donskoi, 1962; made first film, L'Empire Sonrai, 1963; founding editor, Kaddu newspaper, 1972. Awards: Dakar Festival of Negro Arts prize, 1966; Cannes Film Festival prize, 1967; Venice Film Festival prize, 1969; Atlanta Film Festival prize, 1970.


Films as Director and Scriptwriter:

1963

Songhays (L'Empire Sonrai) (documentary, unreleased); BoromSarret

1964

Niaye

1966

La Noire de. . . (The Black Girl from. . . )

1968

Mandabi (The Money Order)

1970

Tauw (Taw)

1971

Emitai

1974

Xala (Impotence)

1977

Ceddo (The People)




1987

Camp de Thiaroye

1992

Guelwaar



Other Film:

1983

Camera d'Afrique (Boughedir) (role)



Publications


By SEMBENE: books—

Le Docker noir, Paris, 1956.

O pays, mon beau peuple, Paris, 1957.

Les Bouts de bois de Dieu, Paris, 1960.

Voltaïque, Paris, 1962.

L'Harmattan, Paris, 1964.

Vehi Ciosane ou blanche genèse suivi de Mandat, Paris, 1965.

Xala, Paris, 1973; Westport, Connecticut, 1976.

Le Dernier de l'Empire, Paris, 1981; as The Last of the Empire, London, 1983.

Niiwan; Taaw, Paris, 1987.

Xala, translated by Clive Wake, Chicago, 1997.

God's Bits of Wood, translated by Francis Price, Westport, Connecticut, 1996.


By SEMBENE: articles—

Interview with Guy Hennebelle, in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), November 1968.

"Film-Makers Have a Great Responsibility to our People," interview with H. D. Weaver Jr., in Cineaste (New York), vol. 6, no. 1, 1973.

Interview with G. M. Perry, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Spring 1973.

"Ousmane Sembene, Carthage et le cinéma africain," and "Problématique du cinéaste africain: l'artiste et la révolution," interviews with T. Cheriaa, in Cinéma Québec (Montreal), August 1974.

Interview with C. Bosseno, in Image et Son (Paris), September 1979.

Interview with A. Tournès, in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), November/December 1988.

Interview with M. T. Oldani, in Filmcritica (Rome), June 1991.

Interview with E. Castiel, in Séquences (Montreal), July/August 1993.


On SEMBENE: books—

Vieyra, Paulin Soumanou, Ousmane Sembene, cinéaste: Premièrepériode 1962–71, Paris, 1972.

Vieyra, Paulin Soumanou, Le Cinéma africain: des origines à 1973, Paris, 1975.

Martin, Angela, editor, African Films: The Context of Production, London, 1982.

Moore, Carried Dailey, Evolution of an African Artist: Social Realismin the Work of Ousmane Sembene, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1984.

Pfaff, Françoise, The Cinema of Ousmane Sembene, Westport, Connecticut, 1984.

Armes, Roy, Third-World Filmmaking and the West, Berkeley, 1987.

Downing, John D. H., editor, Film and Politics in the Third World, New York, 1987.

Pfaff, Françoise, 25 Black African Filmmakers: A Critical Study, Westport, Connecticut, 1988.

Gadjigo, Samba, editor, Ousmane Sembene: Dialogues with Criticsand Writers, Amherst, Massachusetts, 1993.

Tsabedze, Clara, African Independence from Francophone andAnglophone Voices: A Comparative Study of the Post-Independence Novels by Ngugi and Sembene, New York, 1994.


On SEMBENE: articles—

Ghali, N., "Ousmane Sembene," in Cinématographe (Paris), April 1976.

Van Wert, William, "Ideology in the Third World Cinema: A Study of Ousmane Sembene and Glauber Rocha," in Quarterly Reviewof Film Studies (Pleasantville, New York), Spring 1979.

Armes, Roy, "Ousmane Sembene: Questions of Change," in CinéTracts (Montreal), Summer-Fall 1981.

Landy, M., and others, "Ousmane Sembene's Films," in Jump Cut (Berkeley), July 1982.

Landy, M., "Political Allegory and 'Engaged Cinema': Sembene's Xala," in Cinema Journal (Champaign, Illinois), Spring 1984.

Turvey, G., "Xala and the Curse of Neo-Colonialism," in Screen (London), May/August 1985.

Dauphin, G., "Into Africa," in Village Voice (New York), 18 September 1990.

Diawara, M., "Camp de Thiaroye," in Black Film Review (Washington, D.C.), vol. 6, no. 3, 1991.

Rosen, P., "Making a Nation in Sembene's 'Ceddo,"' QuarterlyReview of Film and Video (New York), vol. 13, no. 1/3, 1991.

Kindem, G. H., and M. Steele, "Women in Sembene's Films," JumpCut (Berkeley), May 1991.

Atkinson, Michael, "Ousmane Sembene: 'We Are No Longer in the Era of Prophets,"' in Film Comment (New York), July/August 1993.

Cervoni, A., in Cinémaction (Courbevoie), no. 4, 1996.

Vos, J.M. de, in Film en Televisie + Video (Brussels), April 1997.


* * *

Ousmane Sembene is one of the most important literary figures of sub-Saharan Africa and, at the same time, its premier filmmaker. Born in 1923 in Senegal, he received little formal education. His first literary work, autobiographical in nature, dates from 1956. It featured as its backdrop the port city of Marseilles, where he worked as a docker. Sembene came to film by necessity: painfully aware that he could not reach his largely illiterate compatriots by means of a written art form, he studied film in Moscow in 1961 and began to work in this medium shortly thereafter.

It is interesting and important to note that four of Sembene's films are based on texts, written by Sembene, which first appeared as novels or short stories. Between 1963 and 1977 he produced eight films while publishing three works of fiction. Following Borom Sarret and Niaye, Sembene made La Noire de . . . , the first feature-length film to come out of sub-Saharan Africa: it received several awards. While technically flawed, it is still a powerful piece dealing with the issue of neocolonialism in post-independence Africa, a common theme in Sembene's work. His next film, Mandabi (The Money Order), marked an important breakthrough for Sembene: it is his first film in color, but, more importantly, it is the first work to use an African language—in this case Wolof, rather than French—and this allowed him to reach his primary audience in an even more direct manner than previously possible. His use of African languages continues with the creation of Emitai, which is made in Diola. Emitai was the first full-length film by Sembene which was not an adaptation of a written text.

The conditions of filmmaking in Africa are difficult and the lack of trained personnel and financial support have discouraged many African artists from working in this medium. Sembene has managed to overcome these problems and has even made a virtue of certain necessities: his almost exclusive reliance on non-professional actors and actresses, including those playing leading roles, is an example of this. He is thus able to increase both the general force of the film—the audience can more easily identify with his actors than with "stars"—and testify to his belief in the common man and the collective heroism of the masses.

Sembene's films are not innovative in a technical sense; instead, their power and critical success stem from their compelling portraits of Third World men and women struggling against forces, both internal and external, which threaten their dignity and, in fact, their very existence. Sembene clearly sees himself as a Marxist-Leninist and sees art as necessarily both functional and politically committed. But this does not mean that he is a mere propagandist and, in fact, his art transcends narrow definition. His art is clearly African in character despite his extensive contacts with the West: the filmmaker is the descendant of the traditional griot, recording the history of his society, criticizing its faults, finding strength in its people in the face of the denigration of African society and culture inherent in all forms of colonialism.

—Curtis Schade

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Ousmane Sembène

Ousmane Sembène

The Senegalese writer and filmmaker Ousmane Sembène (born 1923) is one of Africa's great contemporary novelists and the father of African cinema. His work is characterized by a concern with ordinary decent people who are victimized by repressive governments and bureaucracies. Several of his films have been censored in Senegal because of their political criticism.

Ousmane Sembène was born on Jan. 8, 1923, at Ziguinchor in the southern region of Casamance in colonial French West Africa, now Senegal. Among Francophone African writers, he was unique because of his working-class background and limited primary school education. Originally a fisherman in Casamance, he worked in Dakar as a plumber, bricklayer, and mechanic. In 1939 he was drafted into the colonial army and fought with the French in Italy and Germany and then participated in the liberation of France. He settled in Marseilles, where he worked on the piers and became the leader of the long-shoremen's union. His first novel, Le Docker noir (1956; translated into English in 1981 as The Black Docker), is about his experiences during this period.

Sembène soon turned to writing full-time. He returned to Senegal a few years before it gained independence in 1960. He became an astute observer of the political scene and wrote a number of volumes on the developing national consciousness. In Oh pays, mon beau peuple!, he depicts the plight of a developing country under colonialism. God's Bits of Wood (1960) recounts the developing sense of self and group consciousness among railway workers in French West Africa during a strike. L'Harmattan (1964) focuses upon the difficulty of creating a popular government and the corruption of unresponsive politicians who postpone the arrival of independence.

Father of African Cinema

In the early 1960s, Sembène studied film in Moscow at the Gorki Studios. He turned to film to reach the 90 percent of the population of his country that could not read. Sembène soon gained an international reputation by directing films based on his movies. His 20-minute long short feature film, Borom Sarat, a simple story about a day in the miserable life of a Dakar cart-driver, was the first film made by an African on a fictional subject to be widely distributed outside Africa. It is remarkable for the cleavages Sembène revealed in contemporary African society between the masses of the poor and the new African governing class who stepped into the positions of dominance left by the French.

His breakthrough film was Black Girl, the first sub-Saharan film ever shown at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. It tells the story of a Senegalese woman who is lured from her homeland by the promise of wealth and becomes lost in a morass of loneliness and inconsiderateness. Sembène's prize-winning work Mandabi (The Money Order) (1968) shows what happens to an unemployed illiterate when he tries to cash a large money order from his Parisian nephew; he is crushed by an oppressive bureaucracy and unsympathetic officials. Michael Atkinson, in Film Comment, called it "a virtual comic flowchart of the traditional tribal world lost in modern-day red tape." It was the first of Sembène's films to be produced in the native Wolof language and targeted at a broader Senegalese audience. Sembène was the first director to have his characters speak an African language.

Many of Sembène's films, including Xala (1974) and Ceddo (The Outsiders; 1976), were censored or temporarily banned by Senegal's government because of their powerful social and political messages. His 1971 film Emitai centered on a wartime French force's seige of a desert tribe, the Diola. Xala is a comic, satiric dissection of the greed of the post-independence Senegalese upper class. Ceddo is set in the 17th century and depicts the conflicts in a village between adherents to the ancient tribal religion and Muslims who are trying to stamp out paganism.

Filming on the Fly

Even after 30 years of writing, directing and producing films, Sembène still was making his movies dirt-cheap, finding actors and settings as he moved across his poor country. Sembène's 1987 film The Camp at Thiarove depicted a 1944 colonial massacre in Africa. It was the first African feature film produced completely without European technical aid or financing. In 1992, Sembène produced Guelwaar, a story about the tangled politics, religious squabbles and bureaucracy surrounding a man's burial. Desmond Ryan of Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service noted the case of the missing body was for Sembène "a means of raising larger issue that Sembène believes are leading Senegal to fratricidal destruction…. His sardonic view of his country as it struggles for national identity and solvency resounds with laughter tinged with deep bitterness." Atkinson called it a "lean and eloquent masterwork."

Writing in Film Comment, Atkinson noted Sembène's reliance on straightforward storytelling: "The best of his work possesses a natural-born faith in the naked austerity of events, expressed via amateurish yet relaxed performances … Camera movement is rare, closeups even rarer, and many of the images have the fading, overexposed tint of aging home movies…. Sembène's modern folk art has all the power and glory of Old Testament myths, while casting an ice-cold contemporary eye at the socioeconomic tarpit of African nations wrangling with their newfound independence and the crippling reverb of colonial control."

In a 1990 interview published in Africa Report, Sembène recounted how he organized "traveling picture shows"—going to a village to show a movie and then moderating a discussion about it. "In colonial times, the cinema was a form of entertainment for foreigners," he said. "Now, however, African filmmakers are raising real issues…. People are thus slowly starting to identify with their history and the cinema is becoming something real." Over the years, Sembène's films have questioned colonialists, fundamentalists, peasants, and the new bourgeoisie. "It's not me, it's my people that evolve," Sembène said. "I live among them; I'm like the thermometer."

Further Reading

Michael Atkinson's "Ousmane Sembène" Film Comment is one of the best sources on Sembène's films. Claude Wauthier's descriptive summary of a host of black writers, including Sembène, appeared in English as The Literature and Thought of Modern Africa (1964; trans. 1966). A chapter on Sembène is in A.C. Brench, The Novelists' Inheritance in French Africa: Writers from Senegal to Cameroon (1967). An interview with Sembène by Daphne Topouzis appears in Africa Report (November-December 1990). □

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Sembene, Ousmane

Ousmane Sembene (ŏŏsmä´nĕ səmbĕ´nĕ), 1923–2007, Senegalese author and film director who wrote and made films in French and Wolof, often regarded as the father of sub-Saharan African cinema. He left school at 15 and after being drafted into the French Army in 1939, joined the Free French forces in 1942, accompanying them to liberated France in 1944. After World War II, Sembene became a dockworker in Marseilles, joined the Communist party, and drew on his experiences for his first novel, Le Docker noir (1956; tr. The Black Docker, 1981). He became disabled, and turned to literature as his primary occupation. His books from this period include Les Bouts de bois de dieu (1960; tr. God's Bits of Wood, 1962), which chronicles a Senegalese railroad strike of the late 1940s. In the early 1960s, he studied film at the Gorki Studios in Moscow.

Returning to Senegal in 1963, Sembene wished to reach a larger and more diverse audience and to develop a truly African style. He soon turned to filmmaking, producing a number of feature and short films that ranged from satirical comedies to serious dramas and documentaries. In general, his films explore the lives of ordinary Africans, treat women's stories and issues with particular sensitivity, and view such larger themes as colonialism, racism, and social class from a populist and leftist point of view. In 1966 he directed La Noire de … [black girl], which uses a combination of realistic Western narrative and traditional African storytelling to follow a young African woman's mistreatment by a French family. A landmark in film history, it was the first feature ever produced by an African filmmaker and won a prize at the 1967 Cannes Film Festival.

Beginning with Mandabi [the money order] (1968), Sembene produced films in the Wolof language, taking his work to cities and villages throughout Senegal. Angry and often bitingly satirical views of modern African regimes, his subsequent films, including Xala (1974) and Ceddo [outsiders] (1977), were temporarily banned or censored in Senegal because parts of them were deemed offensive to government standards. His later films include Guelwaar (1992), a groundbreaking satire on Muslim-Christian conflicts in a small village; Samori (1994); and his final films, Faat-Kiné (2000) and Moolaadé (2004), both of which again reflect Sembene's profound concern for African women.

See F. Pfaff, The Cinema of Ousmane Sembene (1984); R. Faulkingham et al., ed., Ousmane Sembene: Dialogues with Critics and Writers (1994); S. Petty, ed., A Call to Action: The Films of Ousmane Sembene (1996); D. Murphy, Sembene: Imagining Alternatives in Film and Fiction (2001).

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