Black Girl (1966), starring Senegalese actress Thérèse Mbissine Diop. Photo: Supplied
January marks the centenary of the birth of Ousmane Sembène, the Senegalese activist, filmmaker and writer called the “father of African film” by many in the film industry.
Through multiple novels and internationally acclaimed films, Sembène’s cinema depicts the cultural spirit of art from Africa and its diaspora in the 1960s. He was the first to shoot a film in a French colony, because it was previously illegal for black people to produce films.
Sembène’s narratives are built on Marxist, pan-Africanist visions of a decolonised world. But as an author first, concerned with social change, Sembène’s literature could not reach the widest audience possible. His filmmaking career is said to have stemmed from realising many Africans could not read or write.
“Cinema is like an ongoing political rally with the audience. I was driven to film as a more effective tool for my activism,” Sembène told a group of students in 1994.
After studying film in Russia — through connections in the French Communist Party during World War II conscription — Sembène returned to Senegal with a camera, enabling him to start work on film made by an African for Africans.
Art as activism
Before his writing and film careers, Sembène was a dockworker in Dakar and France. This time as a labourer under France’s rule made him aware of the exploitation of workers under colonialism’s grip, which infused his activism.
Through literature, Sembène discovered the stark absence of African stories told by Africans. His most celebrated fictional book is God’s Bit of Wood. Published in 1960, the novel recounts the railway strikes in French colonial West Africa in 1947.
In 1994 he said of his films: “To summarise history using our oral tradition, cinema is an important tool for us. Of all the arts, it’s the form of expression that’s most accessible and appealing to a large audience. Unfortunately, it requires a costly investment.”
The 2015 documentary Sembène!, tells the story of the dockworker turned filmmaker who invented a cinema for a new Africa, told from the perspective of his biographer, Samba Gadjigo. The documentary uses rare archival footage that pieces together the story of a Sembène, a creator who becomes a spokesperson for the marginalised.
Throughout the documentary, Sembène is rarely seen without smoking a wooden pipe, and shows how his work gave Africans their stories back through film.
He said: “If Africans don’t tell their own stories, Africans will soon disappear.”
But it is easy to get lost in the legacy of a seemingly untarnished activist and artist who faced little scrutiny. In Sembène!, Gadjigo enlightens viewers that one’s legacy can overshadow deeper inspection when he discovers that the idea for Sembène’s 1988 film, Camp de Thiaroye, was stolen from two young Senegalese filmmakers.
Black Girl (1966)
The best place to start discovering Sembène’s cinematic universe is La Noire De … (Black Girl,) Sembène’s first feature-length film from 1966.
Black Girl follows Diuona, a Senegalese girl who travels to the south of France and works as a domestic worker for a French family. But her work is more of an incarceration filled with anti-blackness. It is this time in France that she is reminded of her positionality as a young black woman in Africa. Through Diuona, Black Girl interrogates France’s colonial legacy in Senegal.
“For me, France is the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom, and my bedroom,” says Diuona, played by Thérèse Mbissine Diop.
Sembène’s depiction of Diuona was a first for portraying the complexity of character not afforded to black women, particularly in film. But the English title Black Girl dilutes the ambivalence of the original French title, La Noire De ... A direct translation is the Black Girl of/From… which points to a sense of ownership as well as belonging, two major themes in the film.
When asked whether his films are understood in Europe — Black Girl premiered at France’s Cannes Film Festival — Sembène said in French, “Europe is not my centre. Europe is on the outskirts … After 100 years I speak their language.”
Even though Sembène’s films focus on experiences of an individual character, the story is emblematic of a larger narrative pointing to the African diaspora. The 20th century films today still hold the mirror to people who have not always been afforded the ability to see themselves through their own lives.
The 1975 satire film, Xala, looks at Senegal’s independence from France when white French politicians are thrown out and African socialists replace them. Xala shows that independence was artificial pageantry when a corrupt businessman — with similarities to Senegal’s first president, Léopold Senghor — is shown accepting a briefcase of European currency when he should be serving the interest of the Senegalese people. The film was widely censored in Africa.
Sembène’s catalogue of films are worth exploring more because many of the themes hold true today. They may seem simple and fable-like, but they are serious films about serious topics and filled with progressive thinking, philosophies, tribal, spiritual and political allegiances.