Sembène, Ousmane 1923-2007 (Sembene Ousmane)

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Sembène, Ousmane 1923-2007 (Sembene Ousmane)


See index for CA sketch: Born January 1, 1923, in Ziguinchor, Casamance, French West Africa (now Senegal); died June 9, 2007, in Dakar, Senegal. Filmmaker, director, novelist, screenwriter, and short-story writer. Sembène did not set out to be a filmmaker, a prize-winner at prestigious film festivals, an international celebrity, or the father of African film, as he is called by many. He was a writer who preferred the printed word. Sembène turned to film because it would enable him to reach more of his Senegalese audience, many of whom could not read or lived in remote areas without access to books. Films and projectors were highly portable, and when he wrote in his native Wolof dialect, the films were accessible to all. The filmmaker and novelist achieved international acclaim because of his skill, both with the pen and behind the camera. Sembène was the son of a humble fisher, born in what was then the colony of French West Africa. After serving in the French Army and the Free French Army during World War II, he returned to Africa to work on the railroad. His experiences during the Dakar-Niger rail workers' strike in 1947 and 1948 would later provide the backdrop for the 1960 novel Les Bouts de bois de Dieu, which, translated as God's Bits of Wood in 1962, introduced him to English-speaking readers. Sembène returned to France and worked on the docks of Marseilles as a longshoreman and communist trade unionist until a back injury ended that grueling career. He wrote his first novel, Le Docker noire (1956), about a black dock worker, who writes a novel that is later stolen by a white woman, and what happens to him after he tracks down the thief and confronts her. After that, Sembène traveled rather widely through the communist world, studying filmmaking at the Gorky studios during a trip to Moscow. His first film, La Noire de … (1966), was based on a short story he had written earlier about a young African girl whose degrading treatment by the French family that employs her as a maid eventually drives her to suicide. The film, generally considered to be his first feature-length effort, premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival and was awarded the Prix Jean Vigo. That was one of many awards that Sembène would collect in his lifetime. His work as a director elicited the praise of critics, who appreciated his reserve in allowing the story to tell itself without his directorial interference or moralizing. In the 1960s Sembène began making films in his own Wolof dialect. His films and novels run the gamut from comedy to irony to uncompromising realism. The subject matter varies widely as well, but critics have pointed to some recurring themes: the plight of minorities (including blacks) and the need for social change, the Muslim-Christian conflict in Africa, and the effects of colonialism and postcolonial excess and corruption. In fact, Sembène's comic satire was often directed against the postcolonial bourgeoisie. His work was controversial at times, even censored in his homeland, but rarely for the official stated reason. Sembène's last film, Moolaade, which premiered at the Cannes festival in 2004, treated the very serious and sensitive topic of female circumcision.



Los Angeles Times, June 14, 2007, Dennis McLellan, p. B8.

New York Times, June 11, 2007, p. A21.

Times (London, England), June 21, 2007, p. 69.

Washington Post, June 13, 2007, p. B7.