Sembene, Ousmane: Director Profile

I have met the distinguished African filmmaker Ousmane Sembne twice, on both occasions at the Cannes Film Festival.

Sembne has developed an indigenously African-Senegalese cinema that's celebrated in international film festivals and the global arthouse circuit, but, unfortunately, holds limited commercial appeal outside those venues.

However, like other filmmakers, his points of reference are often American films. He once noted about the impact of Hollywood: The picture they impose on us is one of violence and blood. They do not even show that people are working. Theyre only interested in violence, or in the fact that a woman has a nice ass. That fascinates a lot of people. Ive tried to fight the influence of U.S cinema in Senegal and have succeeded in taking some films off the screen.

Sembne is considered one of the worlds most political filmmakers. He has been militant since his youth–when he was only 12-years-old he was expelled from school for punching his principal. As a young man, he became committed to opposing the economic and social injustices practiced by Africas former colonial oppressors.

Born in 1923 in Ziguenchor, Senegal, Sembne came from a peasant background. First, he triedt to follow his fathers path as a fisherman, but he realized he was susceptible to seasickness. He then resorted to manual work as a bricklayer, plumber and mechanics apprentice. In 1942, he joined the Free French army, and two years later, he was drafted into World War II.

Sembne turned to activism when he moved to France, in 1948, and started working as a docker in Marseilles. There he became a union leader and joined the French Communist Party in 1950. Inspired by his experiences, he started writing novelsthe first of which was titled Le Docker Noir. The book depicts the life of black dockers in France. By the 1960s, he was already an established writer with six books to his name.

Although he has been labeled the Father of African cinema, the Senegalese filmmaker began making films quite late in his life, after establishing a career as a writer. He directed his first short at the age of 40. I realized that in Africa you could only reach a very small number of people through literature, he once noted. I decided to ask for a scholarship to study film directing. I wrote to a lot of embassies, and the Soviet Embassy was the first to reply. Thats how I became one of Mark Donskois pupils at the GorkyInstitute.

Sembne often expressed his idea of what filmmaking is about in the following way: Ideas come by finding, by meeting, by listening to someone; there are thousands of ways to get ideas. Its how to develop them, voil! You can make movies with just about any idea but its how to elaborate and make a film coherent from beginning to end that matters.

Because of Sembnes late start as a filmmaker, and due to the economic and political difficulties he encountered in completing his films, he made only seven features and three short films between 1963 and 1992.

“Black Girl” (1966), Sembnes first feature, is perhaps his most well known. The film is the first African feature ever made by an African director and brought the worlds attention to African filmmaking and Sembne himself. Exploring the neo-colonialist mentality, the film follows an African girl sent to France to be a maid only to become a kind of slave. The film won the Jean Vigo Prizean award given annually in France to honor the originality and mastery of an upcoming filmmaker.

Focusing his lens on the problems of everyday people and employing nonprofessional actors, Sembne creates stories that concentrate on Africas colonial past and its impact on the African present. Sembne has infused his work with an openly political stance, primarily addressing the need of Africans to break not only the political but also the cultural yoke of colonialism.

Sembne also explores and comments upon the role of women in his films. Man is the supreme master, because he believes this, the filmmaker explained in an interview to Cinaste. In the context of polygamy in my society, I just see the man as a progenitorthe only role he has is to make babies. He has to satisfy his own sexual appetites, but he also has to satisfy the three womens sexual needs. Hes just a sex machine, so to speak.

The influence of the socialist-realist tradition of the Soviet School on Sembnes work is evident in films like Emita and Ceddo. In these period features, the Senegalese filmmaker, not focusing on any specific hero, portrays the people in their unity as powerful. Given the current situation in Africa, I dont think you can feature one main character in a story, Sembne explained in the same interview. I think this communal approach to filmmaking enables my audiences to understand the films better when we are engaged in discussion. With a communal approach people can see themselves on the screen.

But Sembne does not only deal with groups of people. Borom Sarret, Niaye, Mandabi (The Money Order), and Tauw are all films that focus on individuals. The films explore the injustices and hardships that are brought upon the private lives of their characters by external forces like the government or greedy fellow citizens.

Im trying to create what Id term militant cinema, Sembne told Cinaste. My main activity is to attend screenings in villages and conduct conversations with spectators in those villages. I try to convince people that we should take responsibility for our own predicaments.

In 1993, Sembne explained his opinion on the Islam/Christianity conflict and the negative influence these two warring religious perspectives have had on Africa (a conflict depicted in his films Ceddo and Guelwaar). They are religions that were not born on the African continent but, which weve adopted, Sembne stated. African religions have no concept of sin. I would love to live in a society where sin did not exist.

Sembnes interest in the social impact film can exert on society was revealed once more in his response to a question asked at the discussion. When a member of the audience asked the director why his films were not available on tape, he responded, Because I prefer to sit in a big room like this, with an audience, to smell different perfumes, to see people smiling, to know that people will go to dinner afterwards and talk about what they have seen. Thats what Im after. So thats why I told my distributor, for the time being, no videos.