The Films of Ousmane Sembène: Discourse, Politics, and Culture

by Amadou Fofana


*This book is in the Cambria Contemporary Global Performing Arts Series (General editor: John Clum, Duke University).

Ousmane Sembène was a Senegalese film director, producer, and writer whom the Los Angeles Times considered one of the greatest authors of Africa. Often called the "father of African film," Sembène strongly believed that African films should be geared primarily toward educating the masses and making the philosophical quandaries and political issues contested by elites accessible to the poor and those with little to no formal education. In Sembène’s view, African films should tell stories, and African filmmakers are storytellers. In this light, he referred to himself as a modern-day griot, or one who is responsible for reconstructing and learning from the past in order to make sense of the present and prepare for the future. He expected African films, akin to morality tales, to spur critical thinking among viewers.

Sembène’s films offer non-Africans a rich window into another world. They offer Africans an opportunity to reflect on what is taken for granted in daily life. One striking quality about Sembène is his unwavering courage to tackle difficult and controversial subjects head on and in ways that leave audiences contemplative and intellectually stimulated. Examples of the controversial themes he has brought into sharp relief in his films include a critical re-reading of Senegalese and African history; contested perceptions of what constitutes indigenous versus foreign political and economic interests; and the ever-changing terrain of religious plurality on the African continent. His films problematize male dominance, gerontocratic rule, polygamous marriage, socioeconomic disparity, and long-honored cultural practices such as female circumcision. While Sembène was distressed by cultural alienation and implacable in his opposition to abuses of the postcolonial bourgeoisie, he compassionately paid tribute to what he called “the daily heroism of African women.” He tempered his idealism with realism, urging Africans to embrace the inescapable forces of globalization while also preserving fundamentally African social values. Sembène’s films are culturally rich and intellectually thought provoking and although he sometimes sparked controversy, he represented African cultures in inspirational and often prophetic ways.

Although Sembène’s central aim was to reach African audiences and encourage a dialogue within Senegalese society, his films are also extraordinarily effective in introducing non-African audiences to many of the most intriguing cultural issues and social changes facing African people today. The films are not fast paced in the manner of many Hollywood films. Rather, they are deliberately unhurried and driven by the narrative. They show actual ways of life, social relations, and patterns of communication and consumption, and the joys and tribulations of West African people. For people who have never been to Africa, the films offer an accessible first gaze. For those who have visited or lived in an African culture, the films provide a way to explore African society and culture more profoundly.

Sembène was an independent filmmaker, solely and totally responsible for the content of his films, which were inspired by the realities of daily life. This focus on microcosmic social relations and day-to-day politics is so central to Sembène art, his films breed provocative commentary on social, historical, political, economic, linguistic, religious, and gender issues relevant to Senegalese society. Because of his concern with daily Senegalese life, Sembène targeted the common people whose voices are seldom or never heard. In fact, depicting the struggles and concerns of average Senegalese people was a central preoccupation of his films, as he himself has articulated.

This study examines the artistry of Sembène’s films as well as the multitude of signifying elements Sembène uses in them to communicate in less direct ways with his audience. The book interprets the meaning conveyed by images through their placement and function within the films, and it contributes new insights into Sembène’s interpretations of cultural practices and the meanings he ascribes to social behaviors. It examines how Sembène uses language, mise-en-scène, cinematography, and creative editing to evoke the emotions of his targeted audience. Several chapters in the volume also demonstrate how the many ironies and political economic tensions that are so characteristic of Sembène's work are best understood within the sociocultural context of each film’s production. Hence, to make sense of Sembène’s cinema, one must be willing to read beyond the denoted meaning of the storyline and to dig into the cultural significance of the carefully selected and manipulated codes and images.

For those who wish to adopt this book for their courses, the author, Professor Amadou Fofana, has also provided a helpful list of discussion questions for each chapter in the book.


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