I became a socialist in the 1960s largely on the belief that capitalism held back civilization by preventing a large majority of the world’s population from reaching its maximum potential. If the children of Asia, Africa and Latin America could enjoy the same benefits of those in rich countries, especially a top-notch education and the leisure time to develop innate talents, that could enhance the possibility of a great artist like Picasso or the scientist who could find a cure for cancer emerging out of formerly neglected regions.
Saul Bellow once asked tauntingly “who was the Zulu Tolstoy” in an obvious dismissal of African potential. Considering the career of filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, who is the subject of the great documentary “Sembène” that opens on November 6th at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York, you would conclude that the potential is enormous, held back only by what Andre Gunder Frank once called the development of underdevelopment.
Although I have been following Sembène’s film career for decades, “Sembène” offered new insights into what a genius he was. Born in 1923, his father a fisherman, Sembène fell in love with movies at an early age after seeing scenes of Jesse Owens’ track victories in Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Nazi Olympics documentary. “For the first time,” he told the LA Times in 1995, “a black honored us by beating whites. . . . It became the film for the young people of my generation.” We can be sure that this was not Riefenstahl’s intention.
Sembène quit high school after punching out a teacher who had hit him first. He then joined the Free French army during World War II. After the war he became a rail worker, participating in an epochal Dakar-Niger railroad strike in 1947-48. After stowing away in a ship to France, he became a longshoreman in Marseilles and a member of the French Communist Party.
In France he started writing fiction in order to depict the reality of modern African life that could best be represented by the African. As the documentary points out, he was to become a modern version of the griot, the travelling storyteller who was to Africa as Homer was to the Greeks. Indeed, the real question is “who was the African Homer”, not Tolstoy. The answer is that Ousmane Sembène comes pretty close.
His first novel “The Black Docker” was published in 1956. But in the early 1960s, Sembène decided to turn his attention to filmmaking (“the people’s night school”) because most Africans were illiterate and could only be reached with this medium. His films would follow the same road as his writing, to offer an alternative to Tarzan movies and garish epics like “Mandingo.” “We have had enough of feathers and tom-toms,” he said.
After he broke his back hauling a coffee sack on the Marseilles docks, he ended up in a hospital bed for six months, forced to lie on his stomach. During that time, he read voraciously and considered his next steps. Fortunately for film lovers, he decided to go to Moscow, where he studied at the Gorki Institute under Soviet directors Mark Donskoi and Sergei Gerasimov. This was the time when the USSR was not only offering an economic alternative to developing countries, but a cultural one as well. Indirectly, the Soviet Union became a midwife to modern African cinema.
“Sembène” is co-directed by Jason Silverman and Samba Gadjigo. Gadjigo is the author of the authorized biography titled “Ousmane Sembène: The Making of a Militant Artist” and figures prominently in the film. His story is as symbolic as Sembène’s in terms of Africa’s potential. Based on his humble origins, Gadjigo did not appear to be destined to be a Mount Holyoke professor as he indicated in the press notes:
I grew up in a small village in Senegal, with no TV, no newspapers, no radio. All I had was stories told by my grandmother. By the time I was 14, I dreamed of becoming French, like the characters in the books I read in high school. When I was 17, I discovered the stories of Ousmane Sembène, the father of African cinema. Suddenly, I did not want to be French anymore. I wanted to be African.
Smitten by Sembène’s films (who wouldn’t be?), he invited the filmmaker to speak to his class at Mount Holyoke but Sembène told him that he did not want to waste his time with an American academic. From what we learn in the documentary, we can understand why he would have developed a hostile shell. In 1977 Sembène made a film titled “Ceddo” (Wolof for commoners) that dared to attack Islam. The ceddo are the serfs of a small village in 19th century Senegal who are miserably oppressed by organized religion and by their feudal overlords. Although the structures are much more modest than those found in any European feudal system (Islamic services are held on the open ground bounded by pebbles), custom enforces bonds that are just as onerous. The ceddo must pay tribute to their King in the form of firewood bundles. An Islamic caste also takes tribute in the form of slaves, who are exchanged for guns or cloth in a general store run by a white man. To round out the microcosm of feudal society, there is a single white Catholic priest who is barely tolerated by the Moslems.
After daring to challenge Islam, Sembène became a pariah and did not make another film for nine years. He not only antagonized the Senegalese power elite, he allowed his marriage to disintegrate and alienated his friends. Fortunately for Sembène, he finally succumbed to Gadjigo’s overtures. When the professor showed up at Sembène’s doorstep in Dakar, the embittered director finally realized that there was someone who would not take no for an answer. That led to a fruitful relationship lasting until the director’s death in 2007. Gadjigo was a constant companion who organized speaking tours for the celebrated director as well as someone committed to spreading the word about his film achievements.
In my own small way, I have tried to hip people to the importance of Ousmane Sembène, as we used to say in the sixties. This now includes my strongest possible recommendation for this new film that not only tells the story of a great artist but that of a continent struggling to define itself against all sorts of adversity, including from elites that have betrayed the trust that was put in them. Like Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, Sembène fearlessly attacked the postcolonial rulers who were willing to sell out their people for a place at the table set by foreign corporations.
Two years before he made “Ceddo”, Sembène took on Senegal’s pseudo-nationalists in a film titled “Xala”. “Xala” is a Wolof word for sexual impotence, but it might just as well mean political impotence. The film is a scathing satire on his nation’s elite personified by the sexual failure of his main character, a corrupt middle-aged businessman who can’t “get it up” for his brand-new third wife, who is younger than the daughter of his first marriage, on their wedding night.
“Xala” lays bare all of Senegal’s class inequality, built on the bogus principles of “African Socialism” and the heavy-handed rule of “Negritude” poet and President Leopold Senghor, whose name is not mentioned once in the film but whose troubled legacy clearly disgusts the Marxist Sembène.
Before the film’s credits roll across the screen, Sembène establishes the underlying premise. On the day of national independence, the French and the local bourgeoisie are sitting opposite each other around a conference table in the capitol building in Dakar. After the Blacks make a few statements about how a new day of “African socialism” is dawning, the French push attaché cases across the table filled with cash. It is the same kind of penetrating class analysis found in Gillo Pontecorov’s “Burn”.
“Sembène” is a great introduction to the man’s films. For a passionate fan of his work, it offered me new insights into what motivated him. For those who are not familiar with his work, it will be a tantalizing invitation to see his films, a number of which are available online including “Ceddo” and “Xala”. (Make sure to allow “English subtitles” in Youtube for “Ceddo”.)
To put Sembène into context, I would regard him as part of a pantheon of great directors who emerged after WWII and were committed to making films that identified with the ceddo or commoners wherever they dwelled. Much of this has to do with the power of a revolutionary movement that was invigorated by the role of the USSR in defeating Hitler as well as the yearnings of colonial peoples to break free from French and British rule. While Ousmane Sembène is the prime example of this tendency, you can also see affinities with the poor and the downtrodden in Akira Kurosawa’s work, especially “Seven Samurai”.
Despite Kurosawa’s lack of connections to the organized left in Japan, he collaborated with one of the most powerful strikes in the postwar era. Under the leadership of the CP, the workers at Toho film studios organized a movement to win workers control over the studios. They sat in at the large production buildings, determined to fend off the Japanese cops and the American military that surrounded them. For their defense, they deployed huge fans that were used to create wind effects in film at all of the doors. When the cops and soldiers were breaking in, they planned to throw cayenne pepper in front of the fans in order to blind the attackers. (The demise of such struggles in either the film industry or any other Japanese industry might explain why Japanese films have become so trivial even if superficially “edgy” in recent years.)
And even as the Indian left criticized Satyajit Ray for not being sufficiently radical, there is little doubt that the Apu Trilogy expresses the same sort of humanism that informed much of Sembène and Kurosawa’s work.
If there is to be a renaissance of great filmmaking in the humanist tradition, it will probably be a result of a reawakening of the revolutionary movement that helped Sembène find his voice. For aspiring filmmakers who would hope to connect with the great tradition, there’s no better place to start than an appreciation of his work. And in turn, Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman’s “Sembène” is the essential first step in coming to terms with the father of African cinema and an auteur whose esthetic has universal appeal in an epoch of the hastening decline of civilization. It is not only art that is to be discovered in Sembène’s films but a spirit of rebellion that is as potent as a Molotov cocktail.