The African King

An octogenarian Senegalese director takes on patriarchal authority, one village at a time

For 81-year-old Ousmane Sembene, the best part of making a movie comes after writing, filming, and editing. In fact, it comes after the movie is finished. "I enjoy showing my movies to people across Africa, and having discussions with them afterward," Sembene says. "Their reaction becomes part of the film." Since May, the Senegalese director has been screening Moolaadé in cities and villages throughout the continent. "People in the villages are tough on me," Sembene says with a chuckle. "Once, someone became agitated about the depiction of authority in the film and wanted to know how he can overthrow his government. What could I say?!"

Seated Indian-style on his hotel room bed, trusty pipe in hand, Sembene projects a mix of the childlike and the avuncular, the jovial and the acerbic. As do his movies: Moolaadé, which screens Wednesday at the New York Film Festival and opens Friday, is a drama about female circumcision that is somehow uplifting and even funny. As in many of Sembene's films, a strong woman occupies the center of the story. "In Africa, women are more powerful than men," he says. "They live closer to the earth and must deal with the concrete reality of daily life." Moolaadé unfolds in Sembene's typically Brechtian style, with declamatory line readings and an absence of sentiment. "I do that so each viewer can see the film in his or her own way," he explains. "It also helps different cultures across Africa to understand the story."

Sembene applies a similar detachment when discussing African politics. Having just arrived in New York from Dakar, where he participated in the first ever Conference of Intellectuals From Africa and the Diaspora, Sembene encourages a meditative approach to the continent's problems. "Reflecting on the current period in Africa, with its sickness and war, you can ask yourself, is it a setback to Africa's development or does it mark the birth of something new?" Sembene is unequivocal about who ultimately holds responsibility for the continent's future: "Change must come from Africans them- selves—men and women. France and the U.S. have no role here. Westerners can give us a lot but we have to decide for ourselves."

While scouting locations for Moolaadé, Sembene found a village in Burkina Faso whose mosque had an ostrich egg sitting atop its spire. "The egg symbolizes the birth of the world," Sembene says, and its place above the mosque shows how Islam can coexist with other beliefs. Such peaceful change suggests the eradication of female circumcision is far from impossible. "In the '70s, African women were still subjected to torture like bodily scarring," Sembene says. "Today, those practices are gone. We are making progress."

 
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