Rarely do we ever truly appreciate the imprints and gifts of those humanitarian angels who live amongst us until they pass away. Today I am celebrating and uplifting Senegalese Filmmaker most commonly referred to as the father of African Cinema– Ousmane Sembene. Ousmane Semebene has contributed some of the finest African Films to the world of Cinema and was a Pioneer of his craft which influenced great political and cultural movements in West Africa. Sembene passed away from this Earth in his home in Senegal on Sunday June 10, 2007. Suffering from an illness since December of 06’, he made it to the tender age of 84.
He was born in 1923 in Casamance, Senegal in a family of poor fisherman. Sembene did not have much French schooling as a child because his family was in the lower class. As a colonial French citizen in 1944, he was drafted into the French colonial army, the Tirailleurs Sénégalais, to fight for liberation of the French from German occupation. Following his term of service he became a union organizer and joined the French Communist Party in Marseilles.
Sembene participated in the protest movements organized by the FCP against the colonial war in Indochina (1953) and the Korean War (1950-1953). He also supported the Algerian National Liberation Front during its struggle for independence from France (1954-1962). He often yearned for the society of universal brotherhood and justice mirrored by the communist ideologies, which he meticulously studied.
During his stay in Marseilles from 1950-1960 he learned and mastered the French language. He also began to write and publish novels. Several titles are: O, Country, My Beautiful People, (1957), God’s Bits of Wood, (1960), The Money Order, (1965), Harmattan, (1965), and The Curse, (1973). Upon returning to Senegal in the early 1960s he felt alienated by the paucity of revolutionary artists and writers from Africa. He noticed most people in the West African sub-region were illiterate in French and could not understand the messages embedded in his writings.
Thus Sembene decided to attend film school in the Soviet Union. He spent a year at the Gorki Studios in Moscow studying cinematography under the auspices of director, Marc Donskoï. Since his return to Senegal in the early 1960s he has made L’Empire Sonhrai (1963), Borom Sarret (1963), Niaye (1964), La Noire de…(1967), Mandabi (1968), Taaw (1970), Emitai (1971), Xala (1974), Ceddo (1977), Camp de Thiaroye (1988), Guelwaar (1992), L’heroisme au quotidien (1999), Faat Kine (2000), and Moolaade (2004).
Through his films he seeks to resurrect the voices of the masses of workers, women, and “les bouches qui n’ont pas bouches”, those exploited and silenced by the combined external forces of colonialism and the complexities of the rigid African “traditionalist” thought.
Sembene’s leftist views, Marxist influenced philosophies, along with his tension with the successive Senegalese governments beginning with the first president, Leopold Senghor, are well versed in his artistic works . “He believed that Senghor (like the French-speaking African elite) was a puppet [used by France] to perpetuate its economic, political, linguistic, and cultural domination over Africa.”
Sembene was greatly influenced by the women in his life. His two grandmothers were his “wives” according to tradition. He sought to understand them as he observed their daily activities and their strength as powerful forces of resistance to post-colonial forces.
His experiences as youth help to explain his leftist ideologies, his enmity for injustice, and the negative aspects of tradition. Sembene felt passionately about corrupt politicians and governments, North-South relations, false idealism of France, neo-colonialism, forced marriages, the participation of African soldiers in French and European colonial and imperialist wars, and the mistreatment of women, and other marginalized people of the Senegalese society.
Today lets honor this great spirit and his progressive artistic contributions to the world of cinema.