Unlike many postcolonial artists and intellectuals, Africa’s “first” director did not travel to the metropole for an elite education. Born in 1923 in the Casamance region of Senegal, he left school early, worked as a fisherman, learned masonry and carpentry, fought with the Free French in Africa and Europe, participated in the strike on the Dakar-Niger railway in 1947-8 (the subject of his superb 1960 novel God’s Bits of Wood), and then stowed away to France and became a docker in Marseilles, getting his education from the labor union rather than from the Sorbonne. A 1951 work accident crushed his vertebrae, and he used the long convalescence to write, publishing The Black Docker, the first of his ten books of fiction, in 1956. Moving back to Senegal at independence in 1960 and touring West Africa, he realized how few Africans could read his French novels, and decided he could reach more people through film. He went to Moscow for cinema training with Mark Donskoi at the Gorki Studios, becoming a filmmaker at over forty years of age.
On his return to Dakar, he shot a 22 minute short called Borom Sarret (Cart Master, 1963), whose impact is difficult to overestimate. Heavily influenced in its simple outdoor shooting and its sympathy for the poor by Italian neorealist films like Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, it is crucially new in one respect: for the first time, we see a black African presented onscreen as a fully realized human subject. Because of the Laval decree (named for the Vichy prime minister later executed for collaboration with the Nazis), Africans in French colonies had been forbidden to film in Africa; restrictions in other colonies were also stringent. While European moviegoers were fed a steady diet of stereotypes about Africans through ethnographic shorts and travelogues shown before the feature, Africans were not allowed to represent themselves. As Sembene said to famed ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch in 1965: “What I hold against you . . . is that you look at us as if we were insects.” African cinema, in effect, had missed the first sixty years of this important new art form, but Sembene’s breakthrough changed that.
Soon after Cart Master, Sembene made Black Girl (La Noire de…, 1966), the first black African feature film, which was screened at Cannes, won the Prix Jean Vigo, and received the top prize at the Carthage Film Festival. Based on a Sembene short story, the film follows Joanna, a Dakar maid taken to the French Cote d’Azur by her employers, confined to the kitchen, and treated like an object, in what Sembene regards as an updated form of slavery. Black Girl’s claustrophobic sets and tight camera work emphasize Diouana’s confinement, while artful use of black-and-white film underlines the Manichean racial themes. Joanna’s trajectory as an immigrant worker in the South of France parallels Sembene’s own, inaugurating a long series of African films dealing with immigration, and announcing a director who will continue to create powerful female characters in later films like Emitai (1971), Xala (1974), Ceddo (1976), Faat Kiné (1999), and Moolaadé (2004).
Conditions of funding and production had forced Sembene to dub the interior monologues of Joanna and the cart master in French: he turned this limitation to advantage and showed the psychic violence of their being forced to create their inner selves in a language they do not speak. With Mandabi (The Money Order, 1968), Sembene was finally able to shoot in Wolof, Senengal’s principal African language. This story of a Dakar everyman thwarted by neocolonial bureaucracy was a popular hit, and younger directors remember it affectionately as the film that really opened the door for African cinema.
His most celebrated film, Xala (Temporary Impotence, 1974), selected by the British Film Institute (BFI) for its set of the hundred best films, is a perfect satire on the predatory, Europeanized elite of newly independent Senegal. Sembene’s comic depiction of the social mores of this class is nothing short of brilliant, and he criticizes them severely, but he does not want to “eliminate” them: he wants to help them see themselves and change their ways. Sembene can be didactic—he himself appears as a community teacher in Black Girl and as a scribe helping the illiterate in Mandabi—but he criticizes from among his characters, rather than arrogantly from above. As Senegalese novelist Boubacar Boris Diop put it, Sembene addresses his fellow citizens with an attitude of “between-ourselves-we-can-very-well-tell-the truth.”
In addition to these contemporary films, Sembene made three “historical” works that educate for the present by critically retelling France’s self-satisfied version of its colonial past from an African point of view: Emitai (1971), Ceddo (1976), and Camp de Thiaroye (1988). A planned two-part, 180 minute epic about the life of anti-colonial leader Samory Touré (1830-1900), should have been added to this list, but it was never shot, though there is a massive, fully realized script. Sembene and his collaborator Paulin Vieyra tried through the late 1970’s and early 1980’s to raise money for it, and announced various shooting timetables, but simply could not get financing for an African film on this scale, especially for one that would be critical of European colonialism. (Perhaps similar reasons account for there being no film of his best novel, God’s Bits of Wood.)
Sembene, with his heavy 35mm camera and his solid class analysis, is usually described—correctly– as a social realist, but this is only part of the truth. Ceddo (1977), for example, is extremely stylized and undercuts its own illusion of reality. He resolutely refused to make what he called a pamphlet-cinema, and his camera’s interest in the particularities of Senegalese social life produces a centrifugal effect that complicates “issues.” His features end, not with classic closure, but with a Brechtian freeze-frame that interrupts the ongoing action, forcing viewers to think about their own implication in what they’ve seen. Rather than just imitating reality, his work often tries to invent, to bring into being, a reality that does not yet exist.
He is not at all an African essentialist—when asked at a conference in the 1990’s about whether African cinema could be “indigenized,” he rejected the question and said that what’s important is not where or by whom cinema was invented, but whose interests it is used to serve. Yet his films do refer very delicately to a sort of African X factor (a mask, a carved walking stick, a certain kind of gesture or musical chord, a social practice) that Hegel and Marx and the European Enlightenment cannot quite explain
In Hollywood, Sembene’s nine features in forty years might seem a slender output, but in Africa, where there was no film industry as such—and no distribution mechanism allowing for profits from one film to finance the next—it is a monumental achievement. Each new project had to be a labor of love by an auteur who wrote the script, raised the money, rounded up the technicians, and trained the nonprofessional actors. In addition to making his own films, he was a tireless activist on behalf of African film, co-founding the African directors’ association, collaborating with Tunisian Tahar Cheriaa to coordinate the alternating biennial festivals in Carthage and Ouagadougou, fighting against censorship and monopoly distribution practices. He also continued to write fiction, basing many of the films on his own books: he frequently said that he personally preferred writing because it allowed him to go deeper and express more, but that filmmaking was a sort of social duty.
Sembene invented the term “mégotage” (building with cigarette butts) instead of “montage” to describe what African directors were forced to do. He sometimes had to mortgage the house he had built with his own hands to start the financing for a new film. Once in the late 1990’s, I was at his office when he was nervously waiting for assistant director Clarence Delgado to return from Morocco with the edit of Faat Kiné. We sat around a table made from one of those big wooden cable spools turned on its side that poor students and hippies used to use for furniture. There was a nail sticking dangerously out of the wooden surface, and as we talked, Sembene moved it back and forth with his fingers in an effort to break it off. The nail was stubborn, so he called to an assistant to bring a hammer. The reply came back that at least at that moment, the famous Domireew Productions film company did not own a hammer! Mégotage.
He had frequently announced that he would consider his career a failure if Samory did not get filmed, but after the painful abandonment of Samory toward the end of the 1980’s, he went on to expose French atrocities in Camp de Thiaroye, to attack foreign aid dependency in Guelwaar, and to offer a sympathetic look at single motherhood in Dakar in Faat Kiné. At the age of 79, he still had the energy to sleep out for weeks on a small camp bed and work through the heat of the day in a sweltering Burkina Faso village to direct his last feature, Moolaadé, showing women’s resistance to the practice of genital cutting. He died in 2007, after enjoying world wide praise for Moolaadé. For over forty years, he entertained people while fearlessly taking on the important issues of his moment; as superstar singer Baaba Maal said, “he touches on the real problems, the ones you’re not supposed to talk about.” In doing so, he made African film a recognized part of world cinema, and opened the way for younger directors follow their own differing paths.
—Charles Sugnet, University of Minnesota