Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sembene: The African Screen

"We must understand our traditions before we can hope to understand ourselves."
--Ousmane Sembene

Though the typical American film goer is largely unfamiliar with the African (and especially the country of Senegal)cinema, nonetheless the name of Ousmane Sembene has emerged to great critical prominence on the international screen. As the leading filmmaker of the surprisingly active Senegalese cinema, Sembene has created a body of works that artistically probes the historic and contemporary problems of Africa. In the process, his films has given an expressive voice to the thoughts and feelings of his fellow countrymen and Africans.

Sembene was born in 1923 in the village of Ziguinchor in southern Senegal. At an early age he choice not to follow in his father's profession as a fisherman. Instead, he drifted through a series of jobs as a mechanic, a mason, and a sharpshooter in the French army during World War Two. By 1948, he had traveled from Senegal to France where he worked as a longshoreman in Marseilles and became a militant union organizer.

It was also during this time that Sembene began to write poems and stories. His first novel, Le Docker Noir, was published in 1956 and earned critical praise in both Africa and Europe. With such other novels as Xala, Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu, and Dombaye, Sembene established himself as a major writer.

By 1961, Sembene had become increasingly interested in film making and he received a grant to study at the Moscow Film Institute under the Soviet director Mark Donskoi. When he returned to Senegal, Sembene began working on a series of short films and, in 1965, made his first feature with the production of Black Girl.

The films in this program represent two specific aspects of Sembene's concerns. The October 10 presentation of Ceddo (1977) is a major example of Sembene's interest in critically reconstructing the events and issues of Senegalese history.

The word "ceddo" refers to the common village people who live under the feudalistic system presented in the film. While the power struggles and revolutions of the film are motivated by the political desires of the various tribal and religious leaders of the film, it is the "ceddo" who are presented by Sembene as the heroes and victims
of historic events.

The October 17 screening of Xala (1974) presents Sembene's caustic view of modern Africa and the problems of the independent African state. The main character of Xala is a successful African businessman who, despite his talk of African heritage and identity, speaks in French instead of his native language, drinks only bottled water from Europe, and can't live without the air conditioner. Then he is struck by the "xala," a curse of impotence which sends him on a panic-ridden search of doctors, soothsayers, and shamans, a journey which forces him to face his own identity. Sembene's unrelenting attack upon hypocrisy and self-deceit has made Xala one of his most controversial films.

The film Emitai (1971), to be shown on October 31, invokes recent African history and tribal mythology and religion. The film is set during the final days of World War Two and describes the clash which took place between the French army and the Diolas tribe in the Casamance region of Senegal.

The word "Emitai" is the name for the god of thunder in the religion of the Diolas people and the unique relationship between these people and their gods is one of the major themes of the film. For the Diolas, the gods and spirits are real and Sembene attempts to capture in Emitai the unique sense of reality as it is felt and seen by these people.

The 1968 film Mandabi concludes the series on November 7. In Mandabi (translation: the money order), Sembene creates a poignant satire in which he details the bizarre clashes which exists between the influences of European culture and ancient African customs. The film's main character quickly discovers that the simple task of cashing a money order can, and does, become a major point of conflict between Third World bureaucracy and the surviving structures of European colonization.

Mandabi also becomes, for Sembene, a study of the vices and virtues of the common people of Africa. Sembene is sharp and bitter in his attacks on the deceptions used by many of the characters in Mandabi. In turn, he finds in his hero an ultimate expression of traditional virtue.

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