Sembène’s Universal Language


“Tout est politique!” Thus Ousmane Sembène strips down the love-hate argument he has had for 35 years with movies, with the grim facts of African society, and with the guerrilla combat between the two. The seminal force behind sub-Saharan African cinema, and at the same time the world’s most guileless filmmaker, Sembène has never hesitated in reading the riot act, whether to vacated colonialists, contemporary governments, the Western media, or black Africans themselves, so often in his view still miming the absurdities of colonial subjugation. Indeed, Sembène’s Africans have surrendered to a penniless autodestruction just as often as white Europeans have brought hell to the hinterlands. For the rest of the world, movie-captured Africa is a twilit safari park seen through bulletproof glass; for Sembène, it is dead air in your pockets and dust in your mouth.

Holding court during a recent New York visit, the 78-year-old Sembène staunchly defended his pragmatism. “Even when you claim neutrality, you’re making a political statement. But my films are not propaganda—they merely ask that responsibility be taken. I’ve been trying to promote social change with my films—that’s all. To look at my society and to see who is responsible. Now, to tell the truth, the continent is going through a lot of new problems. But are we responsible, did we create those problems? I’m not saying that God created these problems—they are man-made problems.”

From the first mini-feature, Borom Sarret (1964), to the new, vibrant Faat-Kine, Sembène’s work has ached with austerity—as an artist he is virtually style-free, almost unprofessional, but possessed of a voice as clear and uncomplicated as sunlight. The films are simple but never simplistic, lowbrow but unsensational, fastidiously realistic and yet unconcerned with sustaining illusion. The Film Forum miniseries showcases Sembène’s most memorable movies, more or less divided between cool, undramatic autopsies on postcolonial norms and folly (1966’s Black Girl, 1968’s Mandabi, 1974’s Xala) and demi-epics of colonial horror (1971’s Emitai, 1977’s Ceddo, 1987’s Camp de Thiaroye). The burial-day battleground essay Guelwaar (1993) is a precariously balanced admixture of both, while Faat-Kine turns out to be his most hopeful comedy, not so much freed from injustice and poverty as stubbornly locating joy amid the relentless disjunctions of modern Africa despite itself.

The acknowledged tension between political representation—so easily nudged over into the tarpit of exoticism—and style is Sembène’s primary tending ground. “My main purpose is to talk to my people. I don’t have the Western audience in mind—to me, they are merely a market. At the same time, I always keep in mind that Americans are very ignorant of African particularities. But I don’t pay much attention to the stylistic issues. I know there are spectacularly beautiful places to film in Africa, but the most urgent thing for me is the struggle for survival—if visual elements took precedent, I’d lose my focus on my subject. I cannot satisfy that thirst for exoticism. And I’m not blaming Westerners entirely for it—there are many Africans who respond to that thirst, who cater to it. It is truly an infantile way of thinking.”

That Sembène is commonly considered to be representing his continent, not just his nation, may seem shortsighted, but it’s an equation he welcomes. “On one hand, Senegal is Africa. On the other, I show my films all over Africa, and audiences respond even if they do not speak the language. How do you communicate to a people with over 50 distinct languages? That’s why I use the universal language of cinema.” Will he ever address the continent’s late-century tribal warfare? “It’ll come, someday,” he says. “The question is really: Why is there so much trouble of this kind? Here is where you see the ignorance of the West about the interethnic wars, and the results of the West’s propaganda machine. You take some fascist black Africans, you support those leaders with equipment and money, and this generates war. At the same time, the West is eyeing the natural resources of Africa. The real motives are never voiced. The only thing you hear is that Africans are waging ethnic war.”

What about movies? Does the impeccably responsible Sembène have a favorite filmmaker? “No. In American movies, the technique is always brilliant, but the content is useless. My favorites as a child were the classic cowboy movies, but I always enjoyed them from the perspective of the Indians.”

Related article:

J. Hoberman’s review of Sembène’s Faat-Kine.