Why this might not seem so easy
Famously stating “Europe is not my centre”, Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène was always extremely clear about the audiences he cared for. He saw cinema as an engine of transformation, a ‘night school’ for the exploited masses of the African continent.
It’s impossible to disentangle his films from the contagious spirit of rebellion that coloured his life: as the kid expelled from colonial school for indiscipline; the railway, docks and factory worker and labour organiser in Senegal, Marseille and Paris; the conscript of the French colonies; and, perhaps foremost, as a novelist.
His struggles with what he called the “mathematics of cinema” – in other words, funding – are reflected in his use of non-professional actors, his focus on single situations, often unfolding over the course of a few days, and his ingenious use of non-sync sound, monologue and background music. Yet, Sembène excelled at creating visual feasts and profoundly textured miracles out of this economy of means. His versatile style is marked by a social realism inspired by Soviet cinema, but also by Expressionism, satire, epic elements and the African oral tradition.
Sembène’s militant cinema is a testament to the cultural vitality of continental and diasporic Black art in the 1960s. This was at the dawn of independence for many African nations, when the promise of a new world seemed to be on the horizon. He belonged to a generation of Black Francophone filmmakers – alongside his mentor and friend Paulin Vieyra, Oumarou Ganda, Sarah Maldoror and Med Hondo – who were the first to engage with the medium. This was before and after the overturning – in 1960 – of the infamous Laval Decree of 1934, which prevented the colonised from filming in the colonies.
Yet, he never took part in the euphoria of decolonisation. From the start and until the very end, he remained a mordant critic of neocolonialism and the complicity of the African middle classes.
The best place to start – Black Girl
La Noire de… (Black Girl, 1966), Sembène’s first feature-length film, is a powerful exploration of immigrant experience. Thérèse Mbissine Diop – who recently returned to acting for Maïmouna Doucouré’s coming-of-age film Cuties (2020) – delivers a stunning performance as Diouana, a young Senegalese girl moving to France to work for a married couple, only to find herself incarcerated in their apartment, silenced and subjected to harrowing racial abuse.
Influenced by Black postcolonial literature, the French New Wave and Italian neorealism, Sembène captures the psychic violence of anti-Blackness, contrasting the on-screen silence of Diouana, as imposition but also refusal, with a stream-of-consciousness voiceover.
The English title ‘Black Girl’ loses some of the ambiguity of the French, which is typical of the difficulties of accessing Sembène in translation. ‘La Noire de…’ means ‘the Black girl of/from…’ signalling both ownership and belonging, two consequential themes in the film.
What to watch next
The features Mandabi (1968) and Xala (1974) – both among Sembène’s various adaptations from his own literary work – are two of the director’s most unflinching satires of post-independence Senegal and a ruling class functioning as mere subcontractors for neocolonial powers.
Mandabi marks a significant rupture in African cinema, as the first feature Sembène was able to make in his native Wolof language. The film follows Ibrahim (Makhouredia Gueye), an unemployed and tyrannical polygamous husband, as he tries to retrieve a money order his nephew has sent from Paris from the clutches of a kafkaesque bureaucracy, accumulating many debts in the process. In Xala, an army of beggars exploited by businessman El Hadj (Thierno Leye) force him to reckon with the debts owed by a parasitic bourgeoisie.
Sembène’s poetic early short films are excellent further entry points into the filmmaker’s universe. Short-form filmmaking enabled him to practice his craft and circumvent funding difficulties. Borom Sarret (1963) – considered one of the first African films made by a Black African director – and Tauw (1970), in particular, display Sembène’s agility in capturing the predicaments of an era through the trials of single characters. In the latter, he makes ingenious use of colour filters to express the dreams, fantasies and interior monologues of his protagonist.
In Sembène’s films, the crises of singular individuals are always emblematic of larger structures; the path to change is clearly marked out as collective. Even in the character studies, it’s precisely the geographical isolation of individuals (La Noire de) or their inability to identify with the fellow downtrodden rather than the elites exploiting them (Borom Sarret) that precipitates their ruin.
Sembène’s communal approach to filmmaking is expressed differently in his films centred on entire communities deliberating on their predicaments, rather than the interior voices of individuals. This is the case in his period pieces Emitaï (1971), about the massacres of villagers and conscripts rebelling against colonial rule, and Camp de Thiaroye (1988), about racism perpetrated by the French army. It’s also true of his feminist film on genital mutilation, Moolaadé (2004). This strand of his work verges on the epic, with reverse shots and tracking shots – among other techniques – used to accommodate the riot of an undisciplined chorus rather than the intricacies of one person’s psyche.
As much as he could, Sembène filmed in indigenous languages – Wolof and, to a lesser extent, Diola and Bambara. He also organised in-person screenings and discussions in villages, despite the frequent banning and censorship of his films. His cinema was foremost a call for action. Thus, Sembène has told how Amílcar Cabral and other freedom fighters from neighbouring Guinea Bissau came to the Casamance premiere of Emitaï, and how the screenings in some villages prompted tax strikes.
Where not to start
Films such as Ceddo (1977), Guelwaar (1993) and Faat Kiné (2001) – though no less remarkable in their own right – are less readily available via conventional modes of distribution. Ceddo, located in a distant precolonial past, features a gorgeous musical score by late Manu Dibango. It interweaves oral memory and the speculative tense to reflect on indigenous resistance against the onslaught of monotheistic religions. Guelwaar continues to probe the theme of religious intolerance, alongside a critique of neocolonial aid, while Faat Kiné offers a refreshing, feminist portrait of a Black single mother in contemporary Dakar.
Issues of access to these films speak to a larger, recurring predicament in exploring African cinema. It’s an infuriating situation, especially given the emphasis that Sembène placed on indigenous languages and creating access via screenings across the continent. In spite of political difficulties throughout his career, Sembène created a revolutionary new cinematic vocabulary. Its lasting influence cannot be overstated.