Smoking away at his pipe, Sembčne (the “Father of African cinema”) receives the Akira Kurosawa Award at the 36th SFIFF.
Photo: Danny Glover and Akira Kurosawa Award recipient Ousmane Sembčne have a laugh at the 36th San Francisco International Film Festival, 1993.
By Maria Komodore
At the 36th San Francisco International Film Festival’s sold-out Akira Kurosawa Award ceremony at the AMC Kabuki 8 Theatres, a giddy Ousmane Sembčne appeared on stage smoking his pipe and wearing traditional African dress. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Edward Guthman wrote that Sembčne lifted his award exclaiming, “My work is to entertain not one race or people, but the whole world.”
A day before the ceremony, at a Festival roundtable discussion of his films, another audience enjoyed the lively Sembčne in person. “In San Francisco, it seems like it is a crime to smoke,” the filmmaker jokingly griped. “I had to walk to the lobby of the hotel to ask for an ashtray. I told them, ‘I want ashtrays everywhere!’ So now I just lock myself in my room and smoke.”
At the same discussion, Sembčne commented on the influence American films have had on Africa. “The picture they [Hollywood films] impose on us is one of violence and blood,” he said. “They do not even show that people are working. They’re only interested in violence, or in the fact that a woman has a nice ass. That fascinates a lot of people. I’ve tried to fight the influence of U.S cinema in Senegal and have succeeded in taking some films off the screen.”
Sembčne was in 1993 and remains today one of the world’s most political filmmakers. Militant since his youth (when he was only 12-years-old he was expelled from school for punching his principal), he became committed to opposing the economic and social injustices practiced by Africa’s former colonial oppressors. Born in 1923 in Ziguenchor, Senegal, Sembčne came from a peasant background. After his attempt to follow his father’s path as a fisherman failed (he was susceptible to seasickness), he resorted to manual work as a bricklayer, plumber and mechanic’s apprentice. In 1942 he joined the Free French army and in 1944 he was drafted into World War II.
Sembčne turned to activism when he moved to France in 1948 and started working as a docker in Marseilles. There he became a union leader and joined the French Communist Party in 1950. Inspired by his experiences, he started writing novels—the first of which was titled Le Docker Noir. The book depicts the life of black dockers in France. By the 1960s he was already an established writer with six books to his name.
Although he has been dubbed the “Father of African cinema” many times over, the Senegalese filmmaker started making films quite late in his life, only after establishing a career as a writer. He directed his first short at the age of 40. “I realized that in Africa you could only reach a very small number of people through literature,” he told the Sun Reporter. “I decided to ask for a scholarship to study film directing. I wrote to a lot of embassies, and the Soviet Embassy was the first to reply. That’s how I became one of Mark Donskoi’s pupils at the Gorky Institute.”
In an interview that he gave at the Festival, Sembčne expressed his idea of what filmmaking is all about: “Ideas come by finding, by meeting, by listening to someone; there are thousands of ways to get ideas. It’s how to develop them, voilŕ! You can make movies with just about any idea but it’s how to elaborate and make a film coherent from beginning to end” that matters.
Because of Sembčne’s late start as a filmmaker, and due to the economic and political difficulties he encountered in completing his films, the director made only seven features and three short films between 1963 and 1992.
Black Girl (1966), Sembčne’s first feature, is perhaps his most well known. The film is the first African feature ever made by an African director and brought the world’s attention to African filmmaking and Sembčne himself. Exploring the neo-colonialist mentality, the film follows an African girl sent to France to be a maid only to become a kind of slave. The film won the Jean Vigo Prize—an award given annually in France to honor the originality and mastery of an upcoming filmmaker.
Focusing his lens on the problems of everyday people and employing nonprofessional actors, Sembčne creates stories that concentrate on Africa’s colonial past and its impact on the African present. As Michael Srago put it in San Francisco Weekly, “Sembčne has consistently infused his work with an openly political stance, primarily addressing the need of Africans to break not only the political but also the cultural yoke of colonialism.”
Sembčne also explores and comments upon the role of women in most of his films. “Man is the supreme master . . . because he believes this,” the filmmaker explained in an interview he gave to Cinéaste. “In the context of polygamy in my society, I just see the man as a progenitor—the only role he has is to make babies. He has to satisfy his own sexual appetites, but he also has to satisfy the three women’s sexual needs. He’s just a sex machine, so to speak.”
The influence of the socialist-realist tradition of the Soviet School on Sembčne’s work is evident in films like Emitaď and Ceddo. In these period features, the Senegalese filmmaker, not focusing on any specific hero, portrays the people in their unity as powerful. “Given the current situation in Africa, I don’t think you can feature one main character in a story,” Sembčne explained in the same interview. “I think this communal approach to filmmaking enables my audiences to understand the films better when we are engaged in discussion. With a communal approach people can see themselves on the screen.”
But Sembčne does not only deal with groups of people. Borom Sarret, Niaye, Mandabi (The Money Order), and Tauw are all films that focus on individuals. The films explore the injustices and hardships that are brought upon the private lives of their characters by external forces like the government or greedy fellow citizens.
“I’m trying to create what I’d term ‘militant cinema,’” Sembčne told Cinéaste. “My main activity is to attend screenings in villages and conduct conversations with spectators in those villages. I try to convince people that we should take responsibility for our own predicaments.”
Back at the Festival roundtable discussion, Sembčne explained his opinion on the Islam/Christianity conflict and the negative influence these two warring religious perspectives have had on Africa (a conflict depicted in his films Ceddo and Guelwaar). “They are religions that were not born on the African continent but, which we’ve adopted,” Sembčne stated. “African religions have no concept of sin. . . . I would love to live in a society where sin did not exist.”
Sembčne’s interest in the social impact film can exert on society was revealed once more in his response to a question asked at the discussion. When a member of the audience asked the director why his films were not available on tape, he responded, “[Because] I prefer to sit in a big room like this, with an audience, to smell different perfumes, to see people smiling, to know that people will go to dinner afterwards and talk about what they have seen. That’s what I’m after. So that’s why I told my distributor, for the time being, no videos.”