Category Archives: film

New release of a brilliant movie

One of my favorite writers and directors, Sembène Ousmane, about whom I have previously posted when he passed away last year, directed a movie called “Camp de Thiaroye” which is coming out on DVD on November 11th.  I am so excited that I even pre-ordered it.

Normally I wouldn’t shamelessly plug something, I’m a fairly mellow consumer, but to most people, African cinema is so obscure that I feel like if speak up, there might be a couple more people in the world that know they have another choice besides a Hollywood flick for their entertainment.

There are a lot of reasons that these movies stay obscure.  People don’t like subtitles.  Non-Hollywood movies tend to move slower and so spectators used to rapid-fire action can’t sit still ’til the end.  These movies aren’t widely available (I haven’t checked Netflix) but you have to know someone to borrow them from or else order your own copy through Amazon (definitely worth owning!) The budget that an African director works with is so much smaller than what is available for a Hollywood film that the movie’s set, costumes and such sometimes seem amateurish compared to what spectators are used to.  And sometimes, people don’t want to view a new perspective of the world in a movie, they just want the same rehashed plotline with more cleavage and a bigger explosion.

But there is so much that the average American doesn’t know about the history of the world.  Did you know in the 1880’s the big European nations got together for the “Berlin Conference” and agreed who got which part of Africa, so that they didn’t waste their energy fighting each other over parcels but could focus their efforts on suppressing (that is a nice word for killing and enslaving) the indigenous African populations?  Did you know that many African nations got their independence in the 1960’s, but that Europe and the US essentially maintained control over the countries through puppet dictatorships (which Sembène shows clearly at the beginning of his movie “Xala”)?

The movie coming out in a couple of weeks, called “Camp de Thiaroye,” tells another important, and true, story, that of the soldiers from Senegal who fought alongside French soldiers against the Nazis.  The movie exposes what happened when the Senegalese soldiers returned home and were “rewarded” by the French.

I can’t say much else without spoiling the movie.  I wish I could hold a screening in my living room and invite everyone.  I feel it is so important for us to get outside our comfort zones and our narrow points of view and see the world through totally new eyes.  Sembène achieves this result, plus entertaining us, making us laugh, endearing us to characters, and amazing us with things we’ve never seen before.  Making us think and realize a new truth are just the icing.

If you somehow get a chance to see it, I highly recommend this movie.

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Numbers revisited

I finally watched “The Number 23.”  I think it demonstrates a couple of important points about superstition and the human imagination.

First, we interpret.  From religious texts to emails to light conversation over coffee, we filter everything through our necessarily limited sensory perception.  Aldous Huxley’s book “The Doors of Perception” is a great illustration of the idea that humans must screen out almost all of the infinite amount of sensory stimulation coming at us at every second and focus on just the few details that have developed a particularly important meaning for us.  Being animals, we are programmed to watch for the glimpse of a tiger out of the corner of our eye and then spring into action.  Since there aren’t many tigers around in our modern world, perhaps we sometimes subconsciously invent danger signs, like superstitions, to give our systems a chance to rush with adrenaline.

Thus, having an infinite amount of material to filter through, we can always find what we are looking for, such as the number 23.

The other point the movie brought up at its conclusion, although stylistically I did not care for the end much, was the main character’s emphasis on choice.  We can choose our interpretation as well as our reaction to the meaning we have found.  Though we are animals and must deal with all our physical/instinctual programming, as humans we also have the right and responsibility to decide for ourselves.

I cannot argue with its star-and-a-half rating, but it was definitely an entertaining flick.

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Honoring a great man

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.

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