These notes accompany a program of films by Ousmane Sembene screening on February 5, 6, and 7 in Theater 3.
Ousmane Sembene (1923–2007) of Senegal is considered “the father of African film,” and the two films in this program are among his earliest works. By the time he came to film, at age 40, he had a checkered past ranging from deep immersion in tribal religion to Communism, and from military service to being a longshoreman in Marseille. He had also become a prominent novelist, but he decided to go to Moscow to study filmmaking at the Gorki Studios, feeling that, in a country where literacy was less than universal, he could reach a larger audience through cinema.
Borom Sarret (The Wagoner), a short film with a documentary quality, established that Sembene would not be one to pull punches, prettify or romanticize reality, or be uncritical of his society. The deformed beggars who would play a crucial role in his Xala a dozen years later are here at the beginning. Sembene is unafraid that he will fall into the traps set by racists who might seize on the depiction of African problems as evidence of ethnic backwardness. He is matter-of-fact about the disparity in wealth and the tragic human waste in post-colonial Senegalese society. Xala (drawn from his novel) is very direct in depicting the lingering effects of tribal superstition and political corruption. Like Satyajit Ray in India, Sembene has a clear-eyed vision of a “backward” country struggling with modernity and Western values. In this later film, the director’s depiction of a polygamous wedding ceremony, witch doctors curing impotence, and the expectorating humiliation of its protagonist is highly unflattering, but Sembene confronts them head-on. Oscar Micheaux, the first black American director of note (and also a novelist), similarly did not shy away from risking racial ridicule with, for example, his direct depiction of the duplicitous Holy-roller preacher played by Paul Robeson in 1925’s Body and Soul.
La Noire de… (Black Girl) was Sembene’s first feature. It, too, has a kind of documentary quality, reinforced by its use of voice-overs, and it could easily be drawn from today’s accounts of Third World domestics being imported to affluent countries. At times, perhaps, it is overdrawn, with the French woman referring blatantly to the black girl as an animal. (One can’t help thinking, however, of the naked hostility shown toward blacks as depicted a half-century later in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. Of course, there are understandably answering echoes in Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips.) I am also reminded of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude (filmed rather strangely in 1932 by M-G-M), in which the characters’ inner thoughts turn up on the soundtrack. Sembene also does not shy away from Diouana’s suicide when she is confronted with the choice of her present reality in France and the return to poverty-stricken Senegal as depicted in flashbacks.
If the fundamental tenet of “auteurism” is the artistic expression of a director’s innermost thoughts and passionate feelings, then Sembene, somewhat out of the material necessities of his circumstances, emerges as a thoroughly genuine auteur.