One Hundred Years of Ousmane Sembène

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène. His films — dazzling portraits of Senegalese and French society — represent some of the most brilliant attempts to think about the limits and possibilities of political art.

Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène. (Rainer Binder / ullstein bild via Getty Images)

This year marks the hundredth birthday of the prolific Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, deservedly recognized as the “Father of African Cinema.” Despite his reservations against the title that attached itself to him for much of his public life, his devotion toward the people of Senegal — and to the collective flourishing of Africans — places him as one of the most significant filmmakers in the history of cinema.

Sembène was not a storyteller in Africa, but an African storyteller. His life’s work was dedicated to sincerely reflecting the lives of everyday Senegalese people with a consistently critical eye toward capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy. The son of a fisherman, he spent his late adolescence and early adulthood as a manual laborer after a premature expulsion from formal schooling, allegedly for raising his hand against a teacher. Sembène would be seventeen when the collaborationist French government led by Marshal Philippe Pétain capitulated to Adolf Hitler. Occupied by US troops, Senegal would escape Vichy rule, but the future auteur would be sent to the front to fight in North Africa — notoriously where black troops faced the brunt of the fire.

On returning to Senegal, Sembène would take up work on the railways, participating in strikes that spread from Dakar to Abidjan. An unflinching modernist, he saw in the proletarianization of his fellow Africans a transformation in the way they understood the world and thought of one another: “They began to understand that the machine was making of them a whole new breed of men.” A rail strike would provide inspiration for his most famous novel, God’s Bits of Wood. Aged twenty-five, he would leave the railways of Dakar for the docks of Marseille. In France’s Mediterranean outpost he would join the ranks of the communist-affiliated CGT union and throw himself into militancy and study before sustaining a paralyzing back injury while working on the docks.

Though he became known as a filmmaker, literature was, throughout his life, Sembène’s dearest love. A number of his films were first published either as short stories or novels. By thirty-seven he had published two novels and a novella, the last of which, God’s Bits of Wood, emerged on the eve of Senegalese independence in 1960. Ironically, he was the product of cosmopolitan and internationalist energies that had swept him up but left the majority of his countrymen behind. Sembène found that as a result of endemic illiteracy, there wasn’t an audience for his work among the newly independent masses. This left Sembène the Marxist in a position that, perhaps, Sembène the writer may have found less contradictory: he aimed to speak directly to ordinary people through his work, but how could he do so if the medium in which he produced this work was one with which his intended audience could not engage?

Having chosen to take up cinema as a medium, Sembène applied internationally for film schools and was accepted eventually by the Gorky Film Studio to work with the acclaimed Soviet filmmaker Mark Donskoy. On his return he had a single aim: to make the first sub-Saharan movie made by an African, Borom Sarret in 1963. He would work hard to create a popular art form that spoke directly to the citizens of his fledgling nation. He would tour projector screens around remote villages, setting up chairs and hosting discussions until late into the night. These “night schools” aimed to encourage conversations among the Senegalese poor and working class. They challenged patriarchy, critiqued Senegal’s political elite, sought to raise class consciousness, and unashamedly defended the notion that there was a cosmopolitan and pluralist culture indigenous to Africa.

Sembène’s ambitions with cinema were not without precedent. Senegal had built a significant, albeit discriminatory, culture around cinema dating back to 1905. During the colonial era, film served to affirm the French colonial agenda by reinforcing colonial stereotypes of Africans, aggrandizing the superiority of Europeans and their various economic projects in the region. Cinemas were strictly segregated, and the curations of films screened to Africans were heavily censored. Two French companies took sole ownership of theaters and screenings in Senegal and built theaters in major cities for elite (i.e. white) audiences. During this period, however, rural audiences were catered to with traveling mobile cinemas, often sponsored by independent vendors and filmmakers.

After Borom Sarret, Sembène would hit his stride as a filmmaker, producing in nine years a triptych of brilliant films: Black Girl (1966), Mandabi (1968), and Xala (1975). Caught between a French industry that agreed to fund his films but insisted that Wolof be dubbed over in French, and a Senegalese government that sought to censor his work, the early part of Sembène’s career was characterized by a deft attempt to maneuver around varying political and bureaucratic obstacles. Undeniably, Sembène’s rising star inspired the exponential growth of the Senegalese film industry. After local filmmakers mounted pressure on President Léopold Senghor’s government, the French-owned distributions were replaced with the government-owned entity SIDEC (Senegalese Company for Cinematographic Importation, Distribution, and Screening), which would fund some of Sembène’s early films and initiate the start of the Golden Age of Senegalese cinema.

SIDEC bolstered the local film industry through the construction of new cinemas in major and secondary cities across Senegal. At its peak the company could boast to having erected over eighty cinemas across the country. Film production co-funded by the government similarly expanded, giving rise to films such as Djibril Diop Mambéty’s electrifying debut Touki Bouki (1973) and Safi Faye’s poignant Kaddu Beykat (1976), the first film by a black African woman to be commercially distributed.

Sembène would unfortunately be unable to reap all the spoils from the flourishing film industry after critical responses to Ceddo (1977) forced him to take a step back from his craft. The poet-president Senghor, as he was fond of referring to himself, banned the film officially because of the incorrect spelling of its title. Ceddo, which roughly means “those who refuse to surrender,” excoriated Muslim and Christian elites. Taking the position of the animist inhabitants of a local village, the film exposed the complicity of a country’s elites in slavery, colonialism, and the erosion of religious pluralism. For his sins, Sembène would be confined to inactivity for almost a decade before bursting back onto the scene with the ambitious war film Camp de Thiaroye (1988).

In the early 1990s, Senegal, like many other African countries suffering from the long shock of the preceding decade’s debt crisis, sought financial aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. One of the punitive conditions tied to the loans was a set of Structural Action Policies that would severely cripple Senegal’s film industry — namely, austerity measures requiring cuts to government services and the transfer of previously SIDEC-owned theaters to private investors.

These loans served to preserve and fortify foreign interests at the expense of the interests of ordinary Senegalese people. In fashion, Ousmane Sembène would make known his frustrations with these exploitative loans in Guelwaar (1992), a film in which the eponymous protagonist, a tribute Thomas Sankara, is covertly assassinated by the government after delivering a rousing speech denouncing foreign aid.

Ousmane Sembène was among the few filmmakers who were able to leverage their wealth and connections to Europe to finance their films. In his later years, Britain’s Channel 4 and France’s Canal Plus would bankroll his projects. For the rest of the country, however, the injunction would be devastating. Its reverberations are still felt to this day. Previously state-owned theaters were quickly converted into real estate or commercial malls once transferred to private ownership. To date, less than ten theaters are currently operational across the country. Film production would also drastically decrease as filmmakers became almost solely reliant on funding from foreign distributors and producers.

Today, Senegal aims to recuperate the damages to its film industry through the opening of new theaters and increased government funding toward film production. The legacy of the earlier film industry lives on indirectly through the strong presence of French-Senegalese filmmakers on the list of the various global grand jury prizes. From Mati Diop’s (niece of Djibril Diop Mambéty) brilliant Atlantique (2019) to Alain Gomis’s melodic and painful Félicité (2017) — both released to critical acclaim and international award success — there is some continuity in the current film world with the pathbreaking work of Sembène. Both Gomis and Diop would make up two of Senegal’s first submissions to the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film.

From a distance, it could seem as if every door Ousmane Sembène opened for the future of African cinema was slammed firmly behind him. Austerity measures plagued and debilitated film industries across the continent while Euro-American cinema expanded and dominated the remaining film markets. When remembering Sembène, African filmmakers can righteously lament the erosion of his legacy. But central to Sembène’s vision was a strong strain of optimism about the future of African cinema and culture — this is a vision that has dimmed somewhat but has not been extinguished.