Sembene Ousmane, Father of African Cinema, Dies at 84

June 12, 2007–Sembene Ousmane, who died over the weekend at age 84, was a fisherman who taught himself to read and write, a car mechanic, a dock worker, a bricklayer and a union organiser–all before he began write.
The man credited with launching African cinema was buried Monday in Dakar.

Ousmane penned several novels before 1966, when he turned one of his short stories into a 60-minute movie, often referred to as Africa's first feature film.

Sembene's cinema gave voice to the voiceless in Africa. Those who knew him say he turned away from literature because he believed film could reach a larger share of the continent's illiterate masses. Like his novels, his films dealt with issues of social justice in Africa– from the story of a young woman whose out-of-wedlock pregnancy scandalises her community to a cart driver, whose daily life brings into stark relief the exploitation of the poor. What made his work stand out is that it offered an alternative to the official discourse on African history.”

His 1966 feature The Black Girl tells the story of a Senegalese girl hired as a maid in a French household. Released four years after Senegal's independence, the movie is widely seen as a metaphor for the nation's continued enslavement to its colonial master. In exile on the French Riviera, the African maid commits suicide.

Ousmane worked hard to dismantle stereotypes of Africa, not just in the characters he portrayed but also in the techniques he used. In his early films, he refused, for instance, to use the “tam-tam” drum as the musical backdrop, using stringed African instruments instead.

Among the ways he tried to reach out was through language, making the first film in an African tongue, Mandabi in 1968, a film in Senegal's Wolof. Sembene's last film, 2004's Moolade, which won a prize at Cannes Festival, is set in a small African village where four girls try to escape the brutal practice of female circumcision.

He was also instrumental in trying to create an infrastructure for the art in Africa. He is a founder of the FESPACO film festival, often referred to as the “Cannes of Africa,” held biannually in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

He helped create a regional filmmaking organisation that fought the sale of old cinema halls, a trend that has left almost no local venues for seeing African films in Africa.

It's one of the ironies of Ousmane's work. Although pirated DVDs of Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland are readily available on street corners throughout Africa, the movies of the man who struggled to reach out to Africans are difficult to come by – especially in his native Senegal.

Born on January 1, 1924 in southern Senegal's Casamance region, Sembene was destined to become a fisherman like his father, but could not keep from getting seasick. He was sent to live with relatives in Dakar, where he worked as a bricklayer and mechanic by day and taught himself to read and write at night. He also fell in love with cinema watching movies in one of the dozen-or-so cinema halls in Dakar that have long since been shuttered.

After being drafted as a soldier in WWII, he moved to Marseilles, where he unloaded ships as a dock worker, joined the Communist Party and became a union organiser. He began to write novels, many with political subjects, including one of the masterpieces of African fiction, God's Bits Of Wood, about a railroad strike in Senegal.

Ousmane's death is “an immense loss,” said Baba Hama, the director of the FESPACO film festival. “It's the fall of a baobab,” he said, referring to the thick-trunked tree, one of the most recognisable symbols of Africa which is venerated for its ability to survive drought.