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Remembering Ousmane Sembene

By Phil Nugent
Published February 21, 2008

For 40 years, the late Ousmane Sembene was the pride of African Cinema. His last film, Moolaade, took on the harrowing subject of female genital mutilation—a poignant statement reflective of the director's amazing career.

Senegalese writer-director Ousmane Sembene, who died this past summer at the age of 84, is often referred to as the father of African cinema his 1966 film Black Girl is generally regarded as the first movie made in sub-Saharan Africa by a native African. But if anything, that might sell him a little short. As far as Western audiences are concerned, Sembene literally embodied African cinema for most of his 40-year fi lm career. Even today, no African director has forged an oeuvre or built a reputation even remotely comparable, which is all the more remarkable given that the man himself liked to tell interviewers that he never principally regarded himself as a filmmaker.

After leaving school in the sixth grade, Sembene worked as a manual laborer, served as a member of the French Army during World War II, and was a trade union activist, but years of practice led him to consider himself a novelist. In the late 1950s, his early novels, such as Le Docker Noir (The Black Docker) and O Pays, Mon Beau Peuple! (Oh Country, My Beautiful People) were published in French and established him as an angry, politically conscious voice attacking the last vestiges of colonialist racism. By his own account, Sembene turned to film not because he was especially drawn to the medium, but because he wanted to make his ideas accessible to the largest possible audience among his fellow Africans. To him, that meant reaching them as moviegoers rather than readers.

This description of Sembene’s career arc might make it sound as if he’s an African John Sayles—a literary craftsman with no special feeling for movies who nonetheless sucked up his pride and tried his hand at creating popular art in order to reach a mass audience for political reasons rather than aesthetic ones. While it’s true that many of Sembene’s movies have their didactic side, it soon became clear that in grappling with the possibilities of the new medium, he found the work exhilarating. He started taking chances as a director, and as the colonial era receded deeper into Africa’s history, his politics evolved too. He began to focus his satirical anger less on the outside countries that had traditionally meddled in African affairs, and more on the comparatively new enemy of independent but corrupt African political, military and business leaders. In this light, he also began to address the lingering effects of tribal culture that he felt were holding back ordinary Africans.

The irony of Sembene’s film career is that, in terms of his reasons for embarking on it, he may have subverted himself. He wanted to use film to talk directly to the mass of lower-class Africans—to persuade them to throw off the yoke of tribalism and religious superstition and lack of economic empowerment, and to embrace modernism and all it had to offer, including feminism and labor rights. But he had always been a radical political thinker, and as he became a more assured and daring filmmaker, the combination all but guaranteed that his movies would have less and less appeal for a mass audience—and not just in Africa, but anywhere else. In the end, his most hardcore followers tended to be non-African movie nuts who flocked to see his work at international festivals and limited art-house runs. As small as that audience was, it was probably more than he had among the ticket-buying African public.

Sembene’s work has never been widely available even on video in the West, so it’s a happy coincidence that, just a few months after his passing, New Yorker Video is bringing out his last film, 2004’s Moolaade, on DVD. This story of “heroism in everyday life” (to use the director’s phrase) was meant to serve as part of a loose trilogy, along with 2000’s Faat-Kine, that will now sadly never be completed. The happy news is that Sembene went out in a blaze of glory this story of how the women of a village come together to fight the ongoing cultural atrocity of female genital mutil