Pioneering African filmmaker confronts neocolonialism.
One of African cinema’s founding fathers, Ousmane Sembène was born in Ziguinchor, south Sengal. Expelled from school at 15 after striking a teacher he worked in a variety of sectors before being called up to fight in World War Two.
After demobilisation he moved to Marseilles and became a dock worker. Politically active, Sembène campaigned for African independence and joined the local Communist Party. His rejection of colonialist ideology inspired him to write an autobiographical novel that spoke about the then contemporary diaspora experience. Published in 1956 Le Docker Noire depicts a young Senegalese man living in France. Addressing institutionalised racism, economic exploitation, and cultural imperialism Sembène’s debut novel contained themes which he would further explore throughout his career as novelist, poet, and film director.
Conscious of poor literacy levels in colonial era Africa Sembène was determined his pro black liberation Marxist anti-colonialist message should reach a wide audience. Aware of cinema’s mass appeal after attending racially segregated cinemas in Dakar he decided at the age of 38 to enrol in a film school. A scholarship enabled Sembène to study at the Gorky institute in Moscow.
Returning to Senegal he achieved the notable distinction of being the first black African to direct a film. Shot on a second hand 16mm camera with film stock donated by European friends Borom Sarret offers a cinematic glimpse of a culture that had previously been oppressed by French colonial rule. Prior to independence black Africans were legally prevented from making films.
Employing a combination of documentary techniques and fiction Borom Sarret is a short film which captures Senegalese society in a transitional moment as it tentatively becomes a post colonial nation. Critical of urbanisation and ghettoisation of traditional African cultures the stark and unsentimental film attempts to effect social change by drawing viewers attention to the negative aspects of European influence.
An African Bicycle Thieves, Borom Sarret chronicles the day in the life of a cart-driver living in abject poverty. Forbidden from collecting fares in the more prosperous newly built urban region he tries to earn a living transporting passengers and goods in Dakar’s poorer districts. Routinely taken advantage of by his passengers, the driver is frequently tricked out of his fare.
The driver’s turbulent day involves transporting a father who wants to bury his child in the local cemetery. Carrying the dead body in his arms the father is denied access to the graveyard because he does not have the correct paperwork. As official and grieving father argue the driver leaves the child’s body on the ground and departs without his fare.
A well-dressed man persuades the driver to enter the city’s affluent district. The cart is impounded by police officers leaving the driver without any means of earning a living.
Employing non actors Sembène’s cinematic debut is an economically filmed portrait of a society battling against inequality, suppression, and manipulation.
Continuing his rejection of modernity and neocolonialism Sembène’s first feature length film tackled modern forms of slavery, cultural domination, exile, and called for the empowerment of African women. Released in 1966 Black Girl attracted attention at international film festivals and was awarded the Prix Jean Vigo at the Cannes Film Festival. Credited with putting African film on the world cinema map the film communicated post-colonial anxieties to a global audience.
Influenced by the French New Wave Sembène’s debut feature film is a politically charged attack filled with complex visual metaphors and naturalistic performances. A searing indictment of cultural imperialism it is considered by historians to be the first full length film directed by a Sub-Saharan African.
Based on a real life incident that Sembène had previously adapted for a short story before transferring to the big screen Black Girl powerfully equates domestic servitude with slavery.
A young Senegalese woman, Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), relocates to France anticipating a glamorous new life as an au pair. Illiterate she has been reliant on her new employers for information about her new home. The promise of better living conditions and greater freedom are soon exposed as a lie. Entrapped, isolated, and dehumanized Diouana works as housemaid without payment. Exoticised and subjected to intense emotional abuse by her employers and their friends she feels death is the only way to escape this life of drudgery and degradation.
The director’s use of flashbacks contrasts Diouana’s life trapped inside a French apartment with her past in Senegal. Moments of repression are set in opposition to enthusiasm and optimism witnessed in the Senegalese sequences. Symbolically rich the film employs African iconography to illustrate the contrast between European and African perspectives.
Thought provoking and poignant Black Girl is an unflinching exploration of the consequences of colonialism.
An indispensable purchase for world cinema enthusiasts. Alongside supremely restored editions of Borom Sarret and Black Girl the disc contains an interview with Thérèse M’Bisine Diop and a documentary about Ousmane Sembène.
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