Final credits for Sembene

Ousmane Sembene—novelist, filmmaker and co-founder of the PanAfrican Festival of Film and Television of Ouagadougou—has died.

Born in 1923, Sembene stands out among his peers as perhaps the only writer of his generation who attained fame and critical acclaim despite being largely self-educated. 

An avowed Marxist, Sembene came to the world’s attention with the publication of The Black Docker in 1956, a novel based on his experiences as a dock worker in Marseille. But it was as a filmmaker that he gained popular acclaim, especially in Senegal, the land of his birth.

Explaining the decision to get into film, Sembene said: ‘Literature doesn’t get you very far [as] people go to the cinema much more than they read.
Because cinema is accessible to everyone, I decided it was wiser to turn to cinema.” He was christened the ‘father of African cinema” and his film, Borom Sarret, was one of the first made in sub-Saharan Africa. It was an achievement Sembene then trumped with Mandabi, which came out in 1968 and was the first film made in a local language—in this case, Wolof.

At a time when other African writers were recreating an idyllic, sensual Africa, Sembene came out with the epic God’s Bits of Wood, a class-conscious take on the Senegal railway strike of the late 1940s. Far from painting a picture of a dance-loving populace mourning the vanishing of a pristine Earth, the novel shows an assertive and radical working class.

In a 1981 interview, Sembene firmly dismissed these ‘evocations of a mystical Africa where people sit under the banana tree — and eat the fruit that falls from the branches. I said to myself, ‘No! No! There is an Africa that is defiant, one that doesn’t cry over its past.’”

Yet he did not consider himself a polemical writer, famously saying that ‘works of art that are too committed ... leave only marks ... on the surface of history. But there are works of art that will last forever.

‘I really don’t consider myself in terms of commitment or missions. I have a very important job to do for my society, for my community. But it doesn’t mean I write solely for the Senegalese. I write for a public beyond my country. The state of literature and the struggle to bring it to a wider audience are more pressing concerns for me than the development of a literature of political slogans.”

In his works he punctured the myth of a benign Islam, drawing parallels to marauding Christianity. Similarly, he criticised practices such as polygamy, but did not believe that the solution lay in Western constitutions of family.

‘I am the centre of my world,” he told David Murphy in an interview. ‘Africa is the centre of the world.”

His passing leaves a gap in Africa’s creative centre, for how many artists out there are equally at home with the pen as with the camera?

Sembene: Imagining Alternatives in Film and Fiction by David Murphy (James Currey), from which some of the quotes above are drawn, is a study of Ousmane Sembene’s work

Percy Zvomuya

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