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Three Revolutionary Films by Ousmane Sembène: History in the Remaking

Essays

May 21, 2024

In an interview for a 1983 documentary, Ousmane Sembène responded to a question about whether his films were legible to European audiences by saying: “Why be a sunflower and turn toward the sun? I myself am the sun.” These words might read as a show of bombastic egotism from the Senegalese filmmaker—who arguably remains the most towering figure in the history of African cinema—but situated within the political landscape from which he emerged, his comments register as a cri de coeur from a continent refusing the ongoing subjugations of colonization. Throughout his four-decade film career, Sembène was committed to African autonomy, and this steadfast devotion led him to become a foundational contributor to the hard-won, dynamic flourishing of an independent cinematic tradition on his home continent.

Before Sembène’s time, cinema had largely functioned in Africa as an instrument of European oppression. The technology had been introduced there by Western colonial forces as one of many mechanisms of domination, regulation, and extraction, and the 1934 Laval Decree had effectively forbidden Africans living in French colonies from making films. It was only with the end of the colonial era, in the 1960s, that what had essentially been a tool of assimilationist propaganda was reshaped by the emergence of countercinematic practices, as African nation-states started subsidizing film production and filmmakers began to engage in collective organizing. Existing within a broader ecosystem of decolonization struggles, this initial surge of cultural production was mostly an effort to represent Africans more accurately, in contrast to the “bad” images and stereotypes that permeated white, Western audiovisual media. But this project soon became consciously political, once it found a more radical, oppositional objective—to use cinema in service of African liberation.

Sembène was in every way emblematic of this effort. Born in 1923 in the town of Ziguinchor, located in the Casamance region of southern Senegal, he had gained a wide range of work experience before he arrived at his cinematic vocation. As a teenager, he lived in Dakar, where he trained to be a mason and a mechanic while also nurturing a cinema-going habit. France’s 1940 defeat by Germany in World War II was soon reverberating throughout the colonies, and Sembène joined the ranks of young Africans drafted into the war in 1944. Not long after completing his service, he moved to Marseille, where he worked as a docker, became interested in Black American literature, and joined the French Communist party—a convergence of cultural 
and political life that both deepened his consciousness and awakened his desire to express it.

In the fifties, Sembène explored his burgeoning artistic inclinations by dabbling in painting and beginning to write, publishing two novels before the end of the decade. Then, in the wake of Senegal’s declaration of independence from France in 1960 and the election of the poet and intellectual Léopold Sédar Senghor as the nation’s first president, he resolved to become a filmmaker. Following the cinephilia of his adolescence, and informed by his Marxist leanings, Sembène headed to the Soviet Union for training, and by the end of the sixties he had already made five films, including the feature Black Girl (1966), a piercing look at the brutalities of colonization through the story of a young Senegalese woman (M’Bissine Thérèse Diop) who goes to work as a nanny for a French couple.

Sembène entered what could fairly be called his most experimental and daring period in the 1970s. The three features he made in this decade—Emitaï (1971), Xala (1975), and Ceddo (1977)—represent the apex of his politically robust and aesthetically virtuosic filmography. By engaging with the past and intervening in the present, he approached history as something active and kinetic, in a constant process of being revisited, rewritten, and revived. In addition to being innovative works of historiography, these three films are also remarkable for their formal experimentation, breaking apart and remaking the cinematic codes of time and spatial cohesion. Moving from revolutionary drama to postcolonial satire to historical epic, Sembène developed a potent anticolonial discourse.


Emitaï
Xala
Ceddo

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