In June of this year Sembène Ousmane, my favorite director, who is also one of my favorite writers, passed away. He made it to age 84, so it is not too much of a surprise at that point, but I am very sad nevertheless, in a selfish way, because he was so brilliant that I was hoping he would put out more films before the world was deprived of his genius. He was making films up to the end, his last being “Moolaadé” in 2004.
I am so convinced of his importance to the world that I showed as many of his movies as I could get away with when I taught French at the UO. He wasn’t part of the official program, but since his characters often spoke French (although he also used Woolof, a language indigenous to his native Senegal) I decided to take any lull in the given curriculum to expose my students to his important works. Plus, since part of the curriculum was “French culture and history,” I felt it was essential to expose some of the effects of French colonialism in Africa.
He is generally referred to as the father of African cinema. This is vital, when you think of how much culture is transmitted through film. In fact, this is why he originally decided to focus on directing, after he had taught himself to be a novelist and had written many popular and important books — because so many Africans were illiterate, or at least could not read French, that he realized how many more people could access his ideas on the big screen.
And his ideas are powerful. You could watch his movies purely for entertainment value, since the characters are so intriguing, his storylines so engaging, and the visual details so simple but profoundly important. But if you start to look deeper, you will find serious political critique of colonial and postcolonial power and situations that apply to much of Africa and its relations with the colonial authorities as well as progressive commentary on social conditions and cultural developments. He does it without preaching or finger-pointing, just a laying out of the situation through the medium of story, scene, symbol and character.
If I could recommend only one film (and once you see it, you will want more) I recommend “La Noire de…” (known as “Black Girl” in English), his first feature-length film which also won him awards and recognition. It is a simple and entertaining story but one which I am still reflecting on to realize all the nuances of meaning he might have included. (I have asked a lot of people what they think the mask represents, and they all answer something that is distinct from but equally insightful to all the other answers I have received or thought of myself. It is magic!)
I think my second favorite is “Camp de Thiaroye,” which I have seen in several classes but cannot find a copy of anywhere, but hopefully someone will put it out on DVD and distribute it soon. It is based on history as well as his personal experience as a “Tirailleur Senegalais,” being the story of a group of soldiers from Senegal who fight in WW2 for France, who then proceeds to screw them over. Extremely powerful and important movie.
I could go on but I think I’ve made my point; he was a brilliant artist and a major contributor to African literature and cinema. Anyone who hopes to have any clue to African postcolonialism needs to study his work. Any small part I can play in spreading the word of his amazing legacy would make me feel like I had helped honor him for his revolutionary contribution to the world.