OUSMANE SEMBÈNE

Ousmane Sembène is dead at 84. In tribute to the great “father of African cinema,” I have brought together here all my pieces about the Senegalese film artist from elsewhere on my blogsite. They are arranged in the films’ chronological order. A reminder: one of these films, Moolaadé, appears on my list of the 100 greatest films ever made.

BOROM SARRET (1963). From Senegal, Ousmane Sembène’s The Wagoner portrays a day in the life of a horse-cart driver in Dakar. His primitive bus service in the “native quarter,” the city’s poor part, is marked by his cart’s squeaking wheel. Few who take advantage of his service pay this anonymous wagoner; most cannot afford to. This man worries as to how he is going to support his wife, baby and horse: “Yesterday was the same. And the day before that. We all work for nothing.”
     Anonymous begins the day with a morning Muslim prayer. Is God, who was so unresponsive to suffering in colonized Senegal, any more receptive now? Anonymous, poor, transports the poor. In lieu of speech, writer-director gives us Anonymous’s voiceover: “Fatou’s up early today. When she’s going to pay me?” This testy concern immediately brings reflection and self-rebuke: “But she has her troubles, too”—and it turns out that Fatou today does pay Anonymous a small part of what she owes. In turn, Anonymous rewards a griot, whose street performance, cut loose from village community, provides a noble connection to Africa’s native past. Meanwhile, another soul hustles to give shoeshines to members of the gathered crowd.
     The Wagoner is a tale of two Dakars, the poor section and the developed section; Sembène gives each a wide-angle overhead pan. At a customer’s behest, Anonymous ventures into the latter part, but he is fined for lacking municipal authorization. While the officer interrogates and humiliates Anonymous, the customer, a stranger, steals away without paying. Anonymous must hock his cart to pay the fine.
     Resnaisian tracking shots through the streets depict daunting, glassy skyscrapers, thus projecting his sense of smallness and inadequacy as Anonymous guides his horse through the streets all the way back home. Still in voiceover, Anonymous says to his wife, “I have nothing for you—not even a cart.” She replies, also in voiceover: “Don’t worry. Somehow we will eat tonight.” But she cannot feed neighborhood children as well.
     What a lovely, expressive technique—all this voiceover. It speaks to the postcolonial hopes that haven’t been realized, the new African life that hasn’t broken into the reality of liberating speech.

BLACK GIRL (1965). Senegalese writer-director Ousmane Sembène’s first feature is ruefully funny, painfully emotionally descriptive and, ultimately, sharply ironical. Its title, La Noire de . . ., consigns its spirited protagonist, Diouana, to the multitudes of anonymous souls who leave Africa and become stranded, lost in Europe. An also unnamed French white couple have lured Diouana from the breathing fabric of her Dakar community to their Riviera apartment. Their enticement: the job of caring for their children. France itself is a fringe benefit, but Diouana finds herself trapped in the apartment. (Her “escape” is mental—flashbacks of her life back home.) At first, the girl doesn’t even get to see the couple’s children. She keeps wondering where they are. Instead, she is set to washing laundry and cooking. When the three young children finally do materialize, all three jobs remain hers to fill: maid; cook; nanny. For all that, “Lazybones” is constantly scolded by her mistress for, well, everything: wearing the wrong shoes, not keeping her step quick enough, etc. This woman, we intuit, needs her meanness as some sort of outlet, given how completely her possessions and bourgeois comforts have absorbed her existence, and to bolster her wobbled sense of white superiority. (Recently a French colony, Senegal is now independent.)
     We know Diouana partly from her voiceover, which accompanies images of her, including those in the flat, sterile, stifling apartment. We thus get to hear Diouana’s intelligence and sensitivities at work—and as stream-of-consciousness, the twentieth century’s signature mode. Her being underscores and transcends individuality.
     Diouana struggles to maintain her grace, dignity, poise; but the only way to do that, it turns out, is to commit suicide—which she does in the bathtub! A lingering bother for her mistress!
     Diouana’s voiceover: its extinction is a piercing loss.

MANDABI (1968). “Stop killing us with hope!” one of Ibrahima’s two wives says as the postman delivers a money order from Ibrahima’s nephew in Paris. (Most of the money is meant for the nephew’s mother, but Islamic tradition requires that a male handle business transactions.) In their husband’s absence, armed with the gift, the wives buy food and water on credit—a bit of independence for which their spouse will later castigate them. Meanwhile, Ibrahima hasn’t worked in four years, and his small Dakar abode includes seven children. Senegal became independent in 1960, but the removal of colonialism hasn’t given it much success, and the money order, in a way, makes the Diengs once again reliant on France.
     Ousmane Sembène’s The Money Order is a satirical comedy that follows Ibrahima’s manifold attempts to convert the money order into cash. A convoluted bureaucracy confounds these attempts—a series of intersecting runarounds. Will any of the gift’s value remain as Ibrahima’s wives keep making purchases on credit, as Ibrahima himself borrows and borrows while trying to get the necessary documentation to be able to cash in the money order, and more and more people prevail upon him for handouts or money owed? Hope indeed is the measure of what France has left the Senegalese—and contentiousness and suspicion. Everyone assumes that Ibrahima is “selfish”—and why? because his wives rule his house. Someone remarks: “There is no solidarity anymore.”
     Along the way people either overcharge Ibrahima for helping him or rob him outright. Eventually one of the film’s few “haves” succeeds in turning the money order into cash only to steal the cash, giving Ibrahima instead a bit of rice, which starving neighbors descend upon. The film ends with their testimonies of poverty—and Ibrahima’s conviction that it’s a sin to help others.

XALA (1975).

Senegal, in coastal western Africa, had been settled by France, Portugal and Great Britain when the French took possession of it in 1840. According to my Information Please Almanac: “In 1946, together with other parts of French West Africa, Senegal became part of the French Union. On June 20, 1960, it became an independent republic federated with the Sudanese Republic in the Mali Federation, from which it withdrew two months later. In 1973, Senegal joined with six other states to create the West African Economic Community.” Based on his novel, Ousmane Sembène’s satirical Xala (Impotence; The Curse), looks back fifteen years to the time of his nation’s newborn independence from France. People are rejoicing in the streets; but Senegal has not yet come into its own. The implication may be: in 1975, this still hasn’t occurred.

The protagonist is El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye, a food merchant who, like other members of the government-connected businessmen’s group to which he belongs, routinely resorts to the black market and diverts funds intended to help the poor. Enamored of power and influence, he exploits black Africans as eagerly as had the French colonialists, whose smug sense of superiority he has adopted. Here again his example is hardly unique. He is, after all, a capitalist.

The hope is that the new, homegrown government would help the poor, whereas the French had left them to rot. However, El Hadji’s contempt for the poor could not be more complete. There are a line of beggars on the street outside his office. Some have no legs and move about on rolling boards; some others have twisted or atrophied legs and must crawl. El Hadji calls the police to have them all deported “far away,” which is to say, out of sight. There is room in El Hadji’s world only for success—his success.

Senegal’s independence has brought each member of the businessmen’s group an attaché case filled with cash for business use. In this way, the members have a leg up on strengthening the business community. But El Hadji converts his already corrupt stash into verboten personal use. In pursuit of additional status in the community, he decides to take a third wife, using the money for a lavish wedding ceremony. The young bride looks miserable at the ceremony. The first two wives aren’t happy about this new wrinkle in their marital arrangements either. It is true that Wife #1 counsels patience to Wife #2, but we eventually discover what a hard limit her patience really has.

Nor is grown daughter Rama, one of El Hadji’s numerous offspring, well pleased. A nationalist, socialist and feminist, she gets struck hard in the face for reminding her father that polygamists are all liars. El Hadji defends the third marriage for its “Africanity”—its revival of traditional black African practice. This makes El Hadji also a hypocrite, for he resorts to this sort of argument only when it is self-serving. For instance, during a quarrel, when he speaks to Rama in French and she responds in Wolof, he balks. Most of the time he is as little recognizably Senegalese as he can manage, and indeed he is recognizably Senegalese only when it suits his purpose to be so. The same goes for his being Muslim. He is little better than a white colonialist under the skin, shouting at his daughter, “I am the master here!”

Is this not a soul who needs to be taught a lesson? The lesson is hard—er, I mean not hard—in coming. El Hadji cannot “perform” on his wedding night; his bride goes to bed a virgin and wakes up still a virgin. El Hadji’s penis, we are informed, “crumpled like a wet piece of paper” (a comic allusion to the new nation’s Constitution?). There is an explanation, though: someone has put a hex, specifically, a xala on him. A xala is a curse of impotence.

The poor man is beside himself. Who would do such a thing to him? He sees a couple of village wise men—healers, if you will; witch doctors. One has him crawling on the floor, to the marriage bed, on his hands and knees—an activity that makes him suspiciously resemble some of the unfortunates he earlier dismissed as “human trash.” Finally he is “cured,” but his new bride now is having her period. For this cure, he owes the man who effected it a full purse. The traditional healer also now is a capitalist!

El Hadji has overextended himself financially, with the wedding and all, and he has sadly neglected his business while pursuing a stiff erection. He has written bad checks. He goes under, losing his assets and being drummed out of the businessmen’s group. They take away his attaché case. His business folds; it crumples like a wet piece of paper. Not having been paid as promised, the healer reinstates El Hadji’s xala. Out of Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961), the beggars El Hadji once had hauled away have now occupied his residency. They are about to dish out at him a few more just desserts.

This is a great comedy, cunning and brutal, by “the father of African cinema,” who studied film in Moscow under Mark Donskoi, the director of the Gorky trilogy. It is too cerebral to generate many laughs, but the film is sheer pleasure from start almost to completion. The final price exacted from poor El Hadji, however we may loathe capitalists, may prove a bit hard for some of us to take.

CEDDO (1977). Banned by his nation, Ousmane Sembène’s Ceddo is set in Senegal’s past, when the Ceddo—the people; those who resist—were forced to convert to Islam by occupying Islamic forces. The film, by turns a mythical and grimly realistic epic, reflects on the African need to retain native cultural roots against whatever outside forces oppose this: Christianity, colonialism and neocolonialism, as well as Islam. A Catholic priest and a white trader crop up as figures of oppression and exploitation.
     Ceddo is a film of revolt, a cry to rise up against foreign invaders. (It is worth noting that Sembène, “the father of African cinema,” studied film in Moscow under Mark Donskoi, the director of The Rainbow, 1944, about a Ukrainian village occupied by the Nazis.) Its style is minimalist and, at times, semi-abstract; derived from ideas embodied in its images, the film’s force owes nothing to sentimental manipulation.
     Like nearly all of Sembène’s films, this one is feminist, gleaning a connection, a mirror-imaging, between tribal patriarchy from within and oppression from without. The principal agency of this feminism is the character of Princess Dior Hocine, whose kidnapping is the result of her father’s, King Demba War’s, alliance with the Islamic invaders. Communal debate ensues. Ultimately the princess shoots dead the Imam occupying her father’s throne.
     Throughout, the distancing techniques that Sembène marshals do even more than make us think (Brecht); they are correlative to the cultural self-dissociation that Islamic and other oppressors seek to impose on native Africans and which the latter, Sembène feels, must do their utmost to resist. His film is graced with long shots of the people, and it’s reasonable to assume that he was partly inspired by one of the two greatest shots of the 1970s: the closing one of Satyajit Ray’s Distant Thunder (1973).

CAMP DE THIAROYE (1987). During the Second World War, French-colonized West Africans were recruited by the army and fought with distinction. In late 1944, instead of being paid and sent home to their countries and communities, they were detained in a prison camp in Dakar. When they rebelled against the French military’s intention to pay them at half-rate, they were massacred. Camp de Thiaroye, written and directed by Ousmane Sembène and Thierno Faty Sow, ends as the French military congratulates itself and ships a load of new black recruits for military training in France.
     This long, engrossing, occasionally powerful work is serious and substantial; Senegal’s Sembène is incapable of the sort of pop trash that sinks Rachid Bouchareb’s Indigènes (2006), which engages related material. Camp de Thiaroye is, among other things, far-ranging in its consideration of white versus black and Europe versus colonized Africa. For example, after having been ejected from a brothel because he is black African, not black American, Sergeant Major Diatta is stopped on the street by a jeep of American military police. These four men, who are black, beat up Diatta on the pretext that he doesn’t belong where they have found him; of course, they are exercising power that they do not have at home. Diatta’s arm is broken. Later, the lead MP meets with Diatta; they discuss the bond of blacks (versus that of whites) that their confrontation violated. In retaliation for what happened to Diatta, moreover, black soldiers kidnap a white American. What difference? He is an American! But the French military cannot tolerate retribution targeting a white Allied soldier!
     The massacre, launched in extreme long-shot by the stealthy approach of tanks in deep night, shatters. Even as I sat, it took the legs out from under me.

GUELWAAR (1992). Barthelémy, now a French citizen, has returned to Senegal for his father’s funeral. Pierre Henri Thioune, “Guelwaar” (meaning, Noble One), was a district leader whose especial cause was foreign aid, which he inveighed against for costing people dignity. Senegal won its independence from France in 1960, but assistance since then has kept Senegal dependent on the outside world. Yet Ousmane Sembène tweaks the political underpinnings of this psychological concern by showing how reliant on others Guelwaar remains even in death. Someone’s inability to read French(!) has resulted in Guelwaar’s burial in a Muslim cemetery. Guelwaar was Catholic, as are those now mourning his suspicious death. It falls to Guelwaar’s sons to get officials to unbury his father’s corpse so it can be buried where it belongs.
     But things happen slowly in Senegal. Part of the painful comedy of this glorious satire hinges on the pace at which things move. This pace suits the film’s exquisite formality and rigor, as well as the delicate issues involved. The majority Muslim community must be convinced by officials and politicians, all variously motivated, of what’s what. Even the imam initially believes that pesky Catholics are looking for an excuse to violate the Islamic cemetery’s sacred ground. The Muslims insist that the right person, one of their own, is buried in the grave where they are being told Guelwaar is buried. They are poised to shed blood as a result.
     “When a vulture attacks your enemy, that could have been you,” the imam concludes, “so do something to get the vulture off him.”
     A truckload of charitable commodities is discarded. Catholics pass back their cross as they proceed to the truck; the cross thus recedes, releasing irony’s undercutting. The mass activity we see is a tribute to Guelwaar, not a decision.

FAAT KINÉ (2000). Ousmane Sembène has fashioned a brilliant social comedy about three generations. Kiné (Venus Seye, spirited, poised) operates a gas station; tough at business, she is nobody’s fool. Her daughter and son have just graduated high school and, because of her sacrifices, will proceed to college, unlike her. (Kiné had wanted to be a lawyer.) Neither child’s father married Kiné, and neither helped. Indeed, one of them, Kiné’s teacher, impregnated her and then had her expelled just weeks before graduation. Disgraced, Kiné’s father attempted to burn her, but Kiné’s mother interceded, as a result of which Mommy’s scorched back became “stiff as a dead tree.” Kiné supported her family on her own, her independence a reflection of Senegal’s independence.
     There is witty, sometimes hilarious conversation amongst Kiné and two peers. (Kiné, about forty, was born about the time that Senegal became independent from France.) But always there is a serious undertone to the women’s talk. For instance, Kiné advises her friend whose spouse has multiple wives to assert herself in the bedroom by enrobing the man’s organ in a condom—this, on a continent that is ravaged by AIDS. While the film is contemporary, it is riddled with Kiné’s flashbacks. We see the event in which Mommy is burned, and in the present we constantly see Mommy’s unbending back. At a red light, a procession of traditionally garbed women, holding up baskets, walk in front of Kiné’s car after Kiné has dropped off her jean-clad daughter at school and is herself proceeding to the office. Progress: a car radio announces that national school test results are higher than ever.
     Jubilantly optimistic, the film romantically couples Kiné with a man who is not Muslim, but Catholic. They will not marry in a mosque or a church, but at City Hall.

MOOLAADÉ (2004).

The “father of African cinema,” Senegal’s Ousmane Sembène, was 81 when he made Moolaadé, a film both elegant and incendiary. Its topic is tribal female circumcision; its theme is tradition that’s clung to for no other reason than to maintain the status quo, in this instance, male supremacy. This, the best film of 2004, won Sembène two prizes at Cannes, including the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, and, in the United States, the National Society of Film Critics named it the best foreign-language film of the year. The principal language is Bambara. Although Sembène is Senegalese, the film takes place in Djerisso, a village in Burkina Faso, in East Africa. Female circumcision, however, is practiced throughout Africa, in thirty-eight of the fifty or so African countries.

One of the two markers of this tiny village at the edge of nowhere is its bizarre, irregular mosque, which is patterned after the adjacent termite hill. The male elders are shown coming out of its arched doorways, irregular gaping holes that apply a satirical spin to the men’s solemn demeanor and reactionary activities. The scene is also a visual reminder that, for all their disrespect for girls and women, like all other men they originated in women. Their emergence from the mosque is a witty translation of their emergence from their mothers’ wombs. This is the actual mosque in this actual village, and Sembène makes virtuoso use of it.

There is another marker, at the outskirts of the village. It is the stand where Mercenaire, an itinerant peddler, sells his wares at inflated prices. This outdoor department store even sells condoms. Mercenaire is an equivocal figure, as mercenary as his nickname implies, the requirements of globalization providing his rationalization for exploiting the villagers by legally pilfering their pocketbooks. On the other hand, the new day he represents contests the authority of the village males, including the village chief. When the latter gives the second of his three wives a public whipping for also opposing his authority, it is Mercenaire who intervenes to stop the event—at the cost, I might add, of his own life.

The film’s central figure is the village chief’s uppity wife, Collé Ardo, who seven years earlier refused to allow her daughter, Amsatou, to be cut. This act of humane defiance was borne of terrible personal experience. As a consequence of her own genital mutilation, Collé lost two babies in childbirth. Amsatou eluded the same fate by being delivered by Cæsarian section, by a Western-educated doctor. That her husband allowed all this prepares us for the fact that he also is an equivocal figure, a traditionalist who has been nudged in a more enlightened direction by this remarkable wife of his—his favorite, he confesses, among his three wives. When he takes the whip to her for the first time, it is at the instigation of his older brother, who indeed insisted on his brother’s third marriage as a means of keeping Collé in line after she refused to have Amsatou circumcised.

What prompts the whipping is Collé’s declaration of Moolaadé, that is, “Protection,” for four girls who have fled their parents and taken refuge with Collé rather than be cut. In effect, Collé has cast a spell enforcing this protection of the runaways. The children have chosen her as their protector because of the example she inadvertently set by her refusal to have her own daughter cut. What began as a humane stand on Collé’s part, therefore, has become a political stand. Six girls ran away. The other two commit suicide by throwing themselves down a well, choosing death over a fate they regarded as worse than death. The village men react by filling the well with dirt—an act so irrelevant and uncomprehending that it would be comical were it not for the tragic context.

The marker announcing the Moolaadé is a long red ribbon that Collé ties across the point of access to the compound in which her and some other families live. For us, it is a visual symbol of blood—the genital mutilation that the practice of female circumcision imposes.

The issue of female genital cutting is complex. The practice is ancient, but, despite what the older men in this Islamic village insist, it isn’t prescribed in the Quran. Ironically, European colonialism in Africa reinforced the native tribal impulse toward male authority that sought to counter and undo the matriarchal basis of a considerable part of African history and mythology. In independent Africa, the humiliation that black African men suffered under colonialism required their domination of women, with its entrenched tribal roots, to continue as a psychic compensation. Moreover, the practice of female circumcision was retained as a bulwark against Western influence, which is widely seen as a threat to the maintenance of African cultures. Sembène underscores this point when, in addition to insisting on female circumcision, the men confiscate and burn all the women’s radios in the village square. Televisions are also confiscated. However, the film will end with a glorious skyward shot of the power lines ensuring media reception in the future that groups of Africans can forestall but not prevent.

It is women, of course, who perform the circumcisions. This, too, adds to the complexity of the situation. These women, the bastions of traditional morality out of John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), seek the “purification” of girls on the threshold of womanhood as a means of imposing some sort of order on an Africa in what now seems continual upheaval. Sembène also implies a misanthropic, but very human, motivation: “If I suffered this, my daughter, so should you.” But the continuation of such female suffering, as a ritual of initiation into the female lot, runs counter to Sembène’s sense of gender equality—if “gender equality” is even the correct term when applied to a filmmaker who never misses an opportunity to skewer satirically so much male behavior. The grip that the practice of female circumcision maintains is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that an uncut girl is deemed unfit for marriage, and indeed an African man, it appears, won’t marry one.

However, the reactionary women are the key to the future, for they also can achieve the higher consciousness through painful personal experience, as was the case with Collé herself. While Collé’s husband is beating his wife, one of the mothers kidnaps her daughter from the protected compound, thus ending the Moolaadé, and has her cut. The girl dies as a result. The mother, now radicalized, joins Collé in opposing the practice of female circumcision and in confiscating the circumcision knives from those who use them—a parallel act to the men’s confiscation of the radios, but one looking forward rather than back.

Perhaps Sembène’s finest accomplishment in Moolaadé is something that evolves throughout the film, barely noticeably for the most part, but with a tremendous emotional payoff. The film’s distancing techniques gradually dissolve, so that the film achieves a representation of reality so pure and powerful, and so unexpected, that the film becomes like nothing else I’ve seen. Alas, one mistake in judgment on the part of Sembène, who wrote as well as directed, interrupts his exemplary method: a line of dialogue that Collé’s husband utters that is selfconscious movie-speech—something no one would say in reality, and something that didn’t need to be said here. Before he finally turns his back on the other males in order to join his wife in her cause, he tells them, “It takes more than a pair of balls to make a man”—a line manipulating us to applaud. Collé’s husband would have said nothing, just walked away. Cinematically, his doing just that would have been a more vibrant, less rhetorical event. But this may be the only mistake Sembène makes in the entire film.

Intended as the middle part of a trilogy that began with Sembène’s brilliant Faat Kiné (2000) and will conclude with a work tentatively titled The Brotherhood of Rats, Moolaadé is a masterpiece—humane, radical, immensely powerful, as befits an artist who studied under Mark Donskoi, no less, in Moscow. It is also gorgeously color cinematographed by Dominique Gentil (Désiré Ecaré’s Faces of Women, 1985).

I have seen many, many African films, from Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa,Tunisia and Zimbabwe—and perhaps other countries that are slipping my mind. Many of these films are terrific. Nevertheless, for me, Moolaadé is one of the two or three greatest of them all.

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