Ousmane Sembène, the Senegalese filmmaker who died last spring at age 84, was African cinema’s founding father. More than that, Sembène was a political organizer, a novelist, a self-taught intellectual, and the celluloid equivalent of a traditional taleteller, the village griot.
Film Forum’s two-week retrospective includes Sembène’s nine features—the New Wave character studies (Black Girl, Faat-Kiné), comic neo-realist allegories (Mandabi, Xala, Guelwaar, Moolaadé), and long-view period dramas (Emitai, Ceddo, Camp de Thiaroye). One might regret that Sembène never realized a film version of his 1960 novel God’s Bits of Wood, a teeming first-hand account of the late ’40s Dakar-Niger railway strike. Still, taken as a single epic work, his oeuvre evokes centuries of West African history—a backdrop for characters drawn from all classes of Senegalese society and vividly played, mainly by non-professionals.
Sembène, a longtime Communist who received his film education in Moscow, redeemed the hackneyed Soviet concept of the People’s Artist. Beginning with Black Girl (1966), a stark, inventive portrait of colonial displacement, each of his movies has a developed agenda—and, gregarious as these essentially popular films are, they never condescend to their audience. Sembène’s final film, Moolaadé (2005), has to be the most richly entertaining movie anyone has ever made on the subject of female genital mutilation.
Film Forum’s retro opens with the 1974 Xala, Sembène’s greatest popular success, a scathing satire of post-colonial Senegal’s pompous Francophone elite. Sembène had already taken a swipe with his absurdist parable Mandabi (1968), in which a self-satisfied naïf is swindled by a succession of smooth businessmen, any of whom might easily have been Xala‘s protagonist. This time, a Mercedes-driving entrepreneur, inanely proud that even his drinking water is imported from Europe, treats himself to a third wife and is cursed with impotence. Nor is that all: Xala ends when the bounds of bourgeois privacy are breached by an invasion of “human rubbish,” or those whom Sembène’s contemporary Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of earth.”
It’s hard not to read Xala as an attack on Sembène’s ideological enemy, Senegal’s poet-president Léopold Senghor, the first African elected to the Académie Française and the philosopher of Négritude—a neotraditionalist aesthetic that a red (or red, black, and green) griot like Sembène would naturally consider essentialist, ahistorical, and romantic. Sembène’s cinema is fundamentally critical. His characters, however individualized, personify social forces. His Senegal is a land of conflict and contradiction. In Guelwaar (1993), civil strife nearly breaks out when a Catholic is mistakenly buried in a Muslim cemetery. But, even when violent, Sembène’s films are characterized by a distinctive serenity—typically staged alfresco with the action framed in tranquil middle long-shot.
Sembène’s boldest political statement, strategically set in the 16th century, was Ceddo (1977), a film that implicates Africans in a slave trade that is further facilitated by hypocritical white Christian and totalitarian black Muslim missionaries. “Your Allah—whoever he is—you keep him,” a villager suggests, before an imperious little imam topples the local ruler and forcibly converts the populace. Like many of Sembène’s films, Ceddo takes the form of an ongoing argument; it’s filled with speeches that in their fulsome metaphors suggest a form of collective poetry.
Xala was heavily censored by the Senghor government; Ceddo was banned outright. It was 10 years before Sembène made another movie, Camp de Thiaroye (which then had the distinction of being banned in France for exposing a particular colonial atrocity). Not until Senghor was two decades out of office did Sembène make a wholly “positive” movie about Senegal. Faat-Kiné (2000), named for its female subject, celebrates a woman’s mature, postcolonial achievement—the heroine manages a Dakar gas station and lives in a beautiful home decorated with portraits of Pan-African leaders. Her mother may be a devout Muslim, but Kiné’s religion is self-sufficiency—indeed, born the year that French rule ended, she is the embodiment of an independent Senegal.
Delightful as its heroine may be, Faat-Kiné is the least of Sembène’s films; his characters thrive on resistance, as did he. (Each shoestring production surely has a marathon backstory.) Sembène, who as a young man in Paris knew Ho Chi Minh, was formed both by the struggle against French colonialism and, as a soldier in World War II, the struggle to defend it. No less than Fanon, he pondered the psychology of the colonizer and the colonized. Black Girl is not only a definitive but a still-fresh essay on the subject, and Sembène returned to it twice in more epic form.
Both Emitai (1971) and its crypto sequel,
Camp de Thiaroye (1987), are set during World War II and, re-creating specific incidents, show French colonial forces operating in virtual Nazi mode. Emitai, the most experimental of Sembène’s films, has the French authorities forcibly drafting and otherwise brutalizing African villagers. Animism provides one means of collective resistance; the feisty village women are another. But neither is sufficient to thwart the machine. Frustrated by this peasant recalcitrance, the French and their Senegalese soldiers massacre all.
In Camp de Thiaroye, African soldiers returning home from Europe are barracked behind barbed wire until they can be demobilized. Their lone officer is one of the most sympathetic of all Sembène characters, an enlightened French-educated Catholic and aspiring writer, whose ardor for the colonial motherland is undeterred even when he learns that his parents died in an Emitai-like village massacre. This supremely rational man is forced into leadership when French commanders try to cheat his men out of their wages and they retaliate by taking a general hostage. The denouement is as inevitable as it is bloody.
Camp de Thiaroye, co-directed with the younger Senegalese director Thierno Faty Sow, is the most formally rigorous of Sembène’s films. Despite, or perhaps because of this apparent detachment, it also seems the most personally painful, representing as it does the end of reason.
Ousmane Sembène isn’t the only filmmaker to have a retrospective this week. In addition to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Walter Reade show, BAM celebrates Max Ophuls’s cosmopolitan oeuvre, as Anthology Film Archives fetes Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski. The Ophuls show opens with a week-long run of Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), the most heartbreaking of his Hollywood melodramas. If that hooks you on Ophuls’s refined sensibility and virtuoso moving camera, there’s plenty more, beginning with the backstage melodrama La Signora di Tutti (1934) and continuing with his final fou, Lola Montes (1955). Also: Ophuls’s two Schnitzler adaptations, Liebelei (1933) and La Ronde
(1950); his three other Hollywood movies (one starring Maria Montez); and his official masterpiece, The Earrings of Madame de . . . (1953).
Recently seen to sardonic effect as Naomi Watts’s uncle in Eastern Promises, Jerzy Skolimowski was the most nouvelle vague of Polish new-wave filmmakers. He directed a trio of quasi-autobiographical youth films, running afoul of the authorities with the fourth. Anthology is banking on renewed interest—the retro is capped with a week’s run of the unfairly forgotten Deep End (1971), a clammy tale of adolescent obsession, with mod goddess Jane Asher as the object of desire.