Ousmane Sembene: Senegalese Voice, Universal Vision

Ousmane Sembene

This essay is a brief exploration of the life, times and legacy of one of the most distinguished cultural figures of modern Africa – the Senegalese trade unionist, writer and filmmaker, Ousmane Sembene (1923-2007), whose birth centenary is being observed this year. Sembene made practically all his films out of his own writings, which were often autobiographical in character. Commonly regarded as the ‘Father of African Cinema’, Sembene has also been called ‘A Lighthouse to the African Continent’. I consider it to be a happy coincidence that I should be writing on Sembene a few years after Senegal had celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of its independence from French rule. Imbued with a strong sense of politics and an equally strong sense of pride in his cultural and historical roots, Sembene was keenly aware of the economic loot and socio-psychological damage inflicted on Senegal and other West African countries by the French. All through his long creative life, Sembene made common cause with the peoples of neighbouring countries like Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Chad or Niger. His sphere of influence as a critic of foreign domination extended to all of west and central Africa. Local resistance to that domination is richly reflected in his writings and his films.

Son of a fisherman, Sembene was, however, discouraged from following in his father’s occupational footsteps by bouts of sea-sickness. Instead, his Wolof-speaking Muslim family sent him to not one but two schools at the same time. At an Islamic institution resembling our madrasas, he learnt Arabic to be able to read and follow the Koran. Simultaneously, he attended a lycee to learn the language of the foreign occupier. At home, he spoke the language of his ancestors, Wolof, which provided him with a sound cultural grounding and a spirit of self-confidence which, combinedly, caused him no end of trouble with the authorities in subsequent times. Sembene left home for Dakar, the capital city, at the age of fifteen in search of gainful employment. Without a diploma in his possession, he was compelled to do a variety of manual jobs as and when these came his way. The result of this experience was that he added the value of what he gained as a young worker to the precious little he had learnt at school. The lower depths, as he encountered it in Dakar and later as a migrant labourer abroad, turned out to be both his nursery and his university.

Drafted into military service in 1944 at the age of twenty-one, Sembene had no choice but to serve in the French army during World War II. When the war ended, he returned to Senegal only to find himself embroiled in a bitter, long-drawn strike by railroad workers, which was to provide him with invaluable material for a novel the title of which, translated into English, would read as, God’s Bits of Wood, referring to the wooden sleepers between railway lines. Literary critics are known to admire this novel as one of the finest ever written on the subject of a strike by workers to realize their demands. As it turned out, the strike at home proved to be the beginning of a long and difficult involvement in the trade union movement in France, first at a Citroen car factory in Paris, and later as a dockyard worker in Marseilles, known for its underbelly of crime and violence masterminded by ganglords.

Joining the French Communist Party, one of the largest in Europe in those days, and actively working for its labour arm, gained for Sembene many an insight into the relationship between big capital and the working class, picking up race, religion, and other parameters on the way. As a leading organizer of a strike that succeeded in preventing the shipment of arms to be used by the French in their war against the Vietnamese people, Sembene earned great popularity and a reputation for standing up to the agents of a warmongering State.

On his return home, Sembene devoted himself to writing with a singlemindedness of purpose. Very soon, on the strength of a long line of remarkable novels, short fiction, tales and fables, Sembene came to be regarded as one of the leading figures in post-colonial African literature. In the French-reading world, he came to enjoy a formidable reputation as both a stylist and an articulator of path-breaking political sentiments. But there came a time in the life of the heroic chronicler of the woes of the labouring classes when he began to feel the need for a larger audience. What finally drew Sembene to filmmaking was his belated realization, reminiscent of Ritwik Ghatak’s lifework, that he could reach out to more people and make them aware of the need for social change if he took up the mantle of a film director. He was almost forty when he decided to be a filmmaker, for one thing to move out beyond small, influential circles of elite readers. To prepare himself for the new role, he travelled to Moscow on a scholarship to attend film school there.

In 1966, when Sembene was forty-three years of age, he directed his first film, La Noire de … (The Black Girl), based on one of his own short stories. This story of an illiterate black woman in the employ of a white couple who treat her well initially only to lapse into a familiar pattern of neglect and exploitation was the first fictional feature ever released by a sub-Saharan African director. This black-and-white French language film had a duration of just an hour. It won the prestigious Prix Jean Vigo, named after the iconic French director who died in his twenties. The film brought immediate international renown to both Sembene and African cinema. Sembene had shown in no uncertain terms what an African artist could do if only, gathering courage in both hands, he set himself to the task of setting into motion his genius to tell the experience of the racially oppressed and the economically disenfranchised, with honesty and skill.

The resounding success of La Noire de… was, however, preceded by two short films which had already given one an idea of Sembene’s substance as an auteur. Borom Sarret (1963, 22 min., 35mm, b/w), a portrayal of daily life for the wretched and the wronged in the slums of Dakar, is focused on the tragic experience of the owner of a horse-drawn cart who mistakenly strays into a part of the city where such lowly means of transport are disallowed by municipal law. There is a tragic inevitability about the poor man losing both his horse and his cart that reminds the viewer of the director’s early acquaintance with life in the raw in the big city where different laws operate for different social classes. Borom Sarret was closely followed by Niaye (1964, 30 min. 16mm, b/w), where a griot (traditional African storyteller, a kind of ‘one-man chorus’, resembling what is called ‘bibek’, or conscience-keeper in our jatra folk art) tells a story of incest, parricide, betrayal, and ‘adjustment’ with the French colonizer. Niaye may be said to be an early experiment by Sembene’s involvement in recalling past histories to spell out the evil of later-day pacts between the foreign conqueror and the native comprador. Fusing the follies of the past with those of the present, very often in an earthy idiom, to articulate eternal truths about human existence was a subject close to the director’s heart.

Sembene, the child of the native earth that he was despite having eaten at many tables away from home, had since long wished to make a film in his native Wolof. This wish came to be fulfilled with the making of Manda Bi (The Money-Order) in 1968. In succeeding years, he was to make several other films in Wolof, such as Xala (1975, based on his own well-known novel), Ceddo (1977), Camp de Thiaroye (1987), and Guelwaar (1992). Sembene also worked in the Diola language when he made Emitai in 1971.

Manda Bi was the first colour film to emerge out of Africa. The film is a memorable black comedy where the ‘colonised’ mind existing in two different physical spaces – Dakar and Paris – comes in for critical analysis. Sembene’s unique brand of psychological realism is at work here as he goes about telling the story of one Ibrahima Dieng who lives a quiet life in Dakar with his two wives and several children. The family’s material condition is none-too-good, but Ibrahima’s philosophical bent of mind helps him to put up a brave front at home and in society. However, the arrival of a money-order sent by his nephew who works as a street-cleaner in Paris, causes serious disturbances in Ibrahima’s life. Based on his own story, The Money Order and White Genesis, Sembene pokes fun as only he can, gently but revealingly, at the psychology and behavior inherent in a culture of self-invented lies that the ‘colonised’ have built to justify their claims of social superiority.

Episodic in structure and sarcastic but also sad in tone, Manda Bi shows how the uneducated uncle has to move from pillar to post to follow what his nephew has written in a letter accompanying the money-order. Social realities, including class differences in black society and the vulnerable condition to which many are resigned as a result of being illiterate, come to the fore in an attractive mix of humour and irony. If the ignorant uncle gains ‘enlightenment’ after many personal struggles, it is understandably at a high cost. Thanks to a strong social philosophy favouring the underdog, along with a persistent search to express ideas and experiences in an innovative film language, Sembene is able to bring home to the viewer the hard life and humiliations associated with the black migrant worker’s existence in a distant land. The nephew’s life on the margins of an indifferent white society is juxtaposed, as it were, with the drama happening back home.

There is a history behind the making of Sembene’s next film, Emitai (95min., 35mm, colour), in the Diola language. It was in response to a popular request from ordinary village folk that they wanted to see a film in their own language, that Sembene made Emitai. The film took its name from a Diola spirit revered and feared as the source of thunder and lightning and, therefore, of rice – its abundance or its scarcity, as the case may be. It is around the cultivation and consumption of rice that the lives of the strong and proud Diola people revolve. In the days of colonial rule, the Diola tolerated the French as long as they did not cast their evil eye on the rice they struggled to grow. But when the French governor of Senegal began to requisition the rice to feed his troops engaged in battle, the Diola put their foot down, organizing an attack on the European occupiers. The local combatants include large numbers of women who actively participate in an armed struggle that, interestingly, takes off not from a position of political consciousness, but from an awareness that grows round an article of consumption essential in the lives of the native fighters. Here, rice is a metaphor for struggle, for independence from foreign domination.

(For the Bengali lover of African cinema in general and Sembene’s oeuvre in particular, Emitai is likely to carry extra meanings in the context of the man-made Bengal famine of 1943 which caused the death of millions of men, women and children. The harvest of rice in Bengal that year was particularly abundant, yet people died like flies for want of it. The reason for this was a conspiracy masterminded by none other than the openly racist prime minister of Britain, Winston Churchill, who ordered that the rice should be requisitioned by the government to feed the troops fighting World War II. While the Diola fought and prevailed over the French when the latter sought to rob them of their rice, the Bengalis did not and thereby paid a heavy price for their failure to rise to the occasion. The similarities/dissimilarities in the two narratives of colonial despotism and local response to it should agitate any lover of cinema with a strong sense of political history.)

Three years after Emitai, Sembene directed Xala (The Accursed) from his own story of a successful, arrogant, hard-hearted, middle-aged Senegalese businessman who comes to suffer a sudden attack of impotence whilst in bed with his just-married third wife, considerably younger in age. Unable to consummate the union, the businessman thinks that, perhaps, he is a victim of a curse put on him by a rival or an enemy. He neglects his business as he spends his time, money and energy consulting healers and witch-doctors in search of a cure. This once visible and successful man is soon reduced to a wreck and a caricature who has no reply to the scorn and public ridicule he has to face. His sexual failure and resultant loss of face is the talk of the town, so to say.

Sembene treats the story of the misfortunes of the businessman as a fable for what is likely in store for the local bourgeoisie for its many sins, big and small, against less fortunate sections of society. In this startling dark comedy, the businessman is critiqued at times by the use of suppressed anger, but more frequently in mirth, as a representative of a decadent order that came to rule Senegal after it gained independence in 1960. The impotence of the man is symbolic of the impotence that characterized the ruling class of the day which inherited the negative tendencies of the just-departed white rulers. And yet, the humanist in Sembene makes him end the story of the obnoxious character on a note of redemption. The finale is likely to remind the viewer of the manner in which the curtain comes down on a Christian morality play.

The sequence showing the former businessman’s victims, reduced to vagrancy by his acts of highhandedness, spitting on him energetically, has such cathartic force as to make it unforgettable. The spitting sequence may be said to denote the final humiliation and sorrow of the fallen man. If the protagonist’s physical impotence marks the beginning of his sufferings, showing up the psychological vulnerability hiding behind his monetary success and social standing, his helplessness in the face of the vengeance exacted by his victims points to his submission to the inevitability of the social laws governing crime and punishment. The process of ‘rehabilitation’ that the man is made to go through reveals the humanism contained in Sembene’s radical politics, which does not suffer one jot on account of the momentary ‘sympathy’ shown him. Rather, it saves him from a fate reserved for unidimensional cardboard characters. The viewer is not expected to overlook the man’s injustices to his fellows, or take lightly the crimes against humanity committed on a routine basis by the class to which he had once belonged. Rather, Sembene was perhaps asking us to have a closer view of a rightly condemned man who might be discouraged to repeat his past misdeeds as a result of the trials of body, mind and conscience he has had to go through. If Xala is a powerful analytical essay in individual villainy, class character and the strength of the subaltern to strike back at the power structures that are deceptively all-conquering, it is no less moving as a moral and human document.

Sembene was a keen student of African (read especially west African) socio-politico-religious history. Ceddo (155 min., 35 mm, colour) was the Senegalese master’s first period piece which transports the viewer to the second half of the 18th century and the first two decades of the 19th century when two ‘foreign religions’ – Islam and Christianity – were fiercely engaged in gaining converts at the expense of African spiritualism, which is not to be confused with terms like ‘fetishism’, ‘animism’, or ‘paganism’. By now, it should have been common knowledge that these terms were invented by White European commentators to denigrate the strength and substance of traditional indigenous forms of lifestyle, belief and worship. As one critic has put it whilst discussing the colonial agenda of the nomenclaturists: “For both religions – Islam and Christianity – any means were acceptable in order to fill up the mosque or the church”.

The imam in Ceddo succeeds in converting the royal family and some dignitaries, but faces opposition from common people when he tries to impose his will and his ways on them. But the imam is not a person to give up easily, so he usurps the throne and forcibly converts the population. One has to be a thoughtful viewer to be able to enter the film and grasp the complex process that caused the substantive, but mercifully, not complete elimination of traditional religious ideas and modes of worship from the social and cultural lives of the African peoples. The film explains in its own historically verifiable way, the religious divide in Senegal – a fact that the present powers-that-be in that country are not willing to concede – as also the emotional wounds that followers of traditional forms of worship have had to bear for generations. Thanks to Sembene’s wise and searching journey through the history of his people, Ceddo turns out to be an extremely important document informed by a fearless and truthful depiction of past events with an unfortunate bearing on present-day happenings. In the bitter battle for supremacy between Muslim imams and White Christian missionaries (in course of time to be actively supported by State power), the losers were the upholders of faith in the sanctity of the natural elements, or reverence for dead ancestors. Neither of the two ‘foreign’ combatants left any stone unturned to marginalize at best and eliminate at worst, the followers since time immemorial of different expressions of what may be called the ‘grassroots faith’.

The naming of the film speaks for itself – Ceddo means the farmer. Perhaps, Sembene wants us to believe that the farmer, who belongs to the oldest profession on earth, is the most productive member of society as long as he is left in peace and allowed to do what he wishes to in the best interests of society, but once outraged by the  unjust ways of ‘foreign’ elements, he can show another face to his personality. Here, it may be worthwhile to recall from an interview that the late Professor Dhruba Gupta of Calcutta University had in 1988 with Sembene at the Festival of Three Continents in Nantes, France. At one point of the interview, whilst expressing his admiration for Ceddo, Professor Gupta had said: “I believe it is absolutely wrong to say that Ceddo is an anti-Muslim film. Though you (Sembene) attack the Imamet as one of the pillars of oppression of the African peasantry, your criticism of Catholicism is equally strong. For me, the film is about the oppression of the Ceddo (farmer/infidel) by various institutions, religious, economic and political”. Sembene was in full agreement with Professor Gupta: “Absolutely so. Ceddo is an anti-establishment film. It also protests in its own way, against male chauvinism. That is why the film was banned by several Arab countries, due to its alleged anti-Muslim stance”.

Twelve years after Ceddo, Sembene made Camp Thiaroye (147 min., 35mm, colour) about an uprising by Senegalese soldiers against their French superiors on their return in 1944 to Senegal after fighting the Germans in France. The film is based on actual events. The soldiers are proud to have bravely fought the Nazis, and are waiting for their demobilization and unpaid wages. But hope turns to rage when promises made by the French colonial army are not kept. In retaliation, a battalion stationed at the transit camp of Thiaroye rises in revolt with bloody consequences. A lifelong critic of French dishonesty and cowardice in Senegal, as indeed in other colonies in Africa, most notably Algeria, Sembene depicts how the French used force and deception to make Senegalese soldiers fight their wars in Europe and elsewhere. Many a white man’s war was won in different theatres of conflict by shedding the blood of black, brown, and yellow combatants drawn from colonies in different continents. Sembene’s enraged sense of history comes effectively to the fore in Camp Thiaroye.

Guelwaar (115 min., 35mm, colour) is, in a sense, a throwback to Sembene’s concern over religious rivalries and tensions as depicted in Ceddo. Although brought up as a Catholic, Guelwaar is a major resistance figure and a defender of an Africa uncorrupted by impositions from without. When the hero dies, his body is kept in a morgue from where it is mistakenly removed by a powerful Muslim family and buried in a Muslim cemetery. Discovering the administrative lapse that had caused the mix-up, efforts are made by the Catholics to set the matter right, but the Muslims will not allow their dead to be disturbed. The two communities are tense over possession of the dead body. In Guelwaar, Sembene critiques religious animosities bred by what can be described as ‘organised oneupmanship’ in a style bordering on the absurd. It is not difficult to understand and support Sembene’s unstated vote in favour of what was in vogue as ‘religion’ in Africa before the advent of competitors and adventurers from across the waters.

Sembene’s last two films, Faat Kine (1999) and Moolade (2003), revealed his life-long preoccupation with emphasizing the status of women in society, both within the family and out in the open. In Faat Kine, the director tells the story of a deserted woman with children who gives sense and meaning to her own life as also to those of her descendants, by bringing into play her fearless, independent, modern spirit. Sembene gives emphatic artistic expression to his belief that faced with adversity, the best of women can more than take care of themselves independent of male company or support. Faat Kine is a robust male feminist’s reply to a society held to ransom by rampant male chauvinism.

In his last film, Moolade, which Sembene directed when he was past eighty years of age, he is to be seen coming to grips with a subject of burning shame to generations of African women, namely, female genital mutilation. This timeless practice still claims thousands of young lives across the continent even as the number of women raising their voice against it is increasing every day. The film shows with a chilling clarity a village in turmoil, deeply divided between those who support the ancestral tradition of excision known as the salinde, and those who value the system called moolade where respect is given to the right to grant asylum to those who wish to avoid excision. Sembene tells the story of four young girls about to be mutilated who take shelter with an elderly woman who wants an end to the practice. Till the last days of his long and distinguished life, Sembene courted the mindless opposition, verging on hatred, of social obscurantists, thereby proving the relevance of his writings and his films in no uncertain terms. Perhaps, what kept him going for as long as forty years, doing the kind of work he wished to do, was the fact that his admirers across Africa far outnumbered his detractors. Moolade is a case in point, attracting as it did massive support, especially from women of varying age, occupation and social position, even as advocates of the status quo gave it the thumbs-down.

In the death of Ousmane Sembene in 2007 at the age of eighty-four, not just the world of cinema, but also of literature, lost a wise old chronicler of the African story in its infinite variety which, in effect, reflected causes, concerns and conditions of a universal nature. Sembene was both the griot (traditional storyteller) and the modernist of African cinema whose style ranged from the cinema verite to the grotesque and the absurd. What added to his stature as an artist was his pan-African vision of how to grapple with the evils of the past and prepare for an honourable, if needed defiant, future. From his perch in Dakar, which had seen him rise from an obscure youth struggling for a living to an artist of enormous weight and a statesman of principles, Sembene carried out his responsibilities as much to himself as to his people with deep conviction and an imagination that rarely, if ever, failed to soar. Such was the measure of the man that his interest in art, culture, society and politics was not confined to Senegal or other parts of Africa, but overflowed to other continents with similar histories of suffering in the hands of colonialists, imperialists and neo-colonialists.

(Vidyarthy Chatterjee writes on cinema, society and politics. He is based in Kolkata.)

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