Mourning Peerless Film Giant

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Death Of A Peerless Film Legend

Ousmane Sembene who died this past weekend was a rare breed of African
artist--of the emerging days of African independence that used creative
restorative images and cinematic language rooted in African culture for
the social and mental liberation of African people.

The grandmaster of African film died at the age of 84 in Dakar,
Senegal, Saturday. He was one of the last few surviving giants of
pioneers of African cinema who chronicled the lives of the
dispossessed, exposed the inequalities of wealth and power in
postcolonial Africa.

Ousmane never allowed himeself to get swallowed by the Hollywood movie
approach; he used the Afrocentric approach blended with a deep
knowledge of African culture to describe the authentic reality of the
class struggle for dignity and liberty in Africa. Ousmane lived all his
life as a novelist, film director, social critic, activist and

"If there is a message, it is that the future of men lies in their own
hands particularly for the working class and the peasantry," Sembene
once told the writer, Moeletsi Mbeki, who is brother to South African
President Thabo Mbeki.

"I am a writer and I prefer literature to cinema but it happens that I
write in French, a language which is not my mother tongue of the
majority of the population in my country. As most of this population
goes to the cinema is not better to speak to them visually? That is why
I went to films,” the great filmmaker said.

"Cinema allows me a permanent meeting point with my people, a permanent
dialogue. I am not saying that I am always right, but I can discuss the
concrete realities of my country. I have not abandoned literature, I
work in both literature and cinema," Sembene added. "Until now Africa
has been a civilization based on oral tradition. The ear plays a large
part and my aim now is to bring together ear and eye, the audio and the
visual, because in order to appreciate a film one must understand
cinematic metaphor."

Sembene, who had been unwell since December last year, was born into a
fisherman's family in the southern region of Casamance in 1923 in
Senegal. The city lights of Dakar attracted him in the 1930s. He held
several jobs in Africa and Europe as a mechanic, carpenter and builder
and was conscripted into the French army in World War II where he
worked as a laborer and docker.

His experiences provided Sembene with rich fodder for his artistic and
literary works. "I tell stories through film. I am only a
story-teller," was a favorite refrain. "The film itself is the story.
So why waste time discussing it. See the film and you have the

He lived all his life for the people of Africa, for the betterment of
his country, Africa and the African person in the eyes of the world. He
was not apologetic about working on his themes on colonialism,
neo-colonialism, Marxism, cultural imperialism and others deeply rooted
in African culture.

"I would not say that colonialism and neo-colonialism are of the past
but in the evolution of Africa there is the problem of the growth of a
black bourgeoisie, the problem of an oppression which is no longer
racial but based on economic interest," Sembene told Mbeki. "There are
problems of beggars, of the poor, of prostitutes, of the church,
problems which Africa is now going to have to face in their concrete
reality—The new African literature will deal with relations between
men, not between Blacks, but between interest groups. As an artist I am
only sorry that I do not have 10 heads to do work on all these

His collection of books and films he produced, sum up his lifelong
commitment to the cultural industry. His first novel, Black Docker
(1956) is a story about an African dock worker convicted of killing a
Frenchwoman after she has passed off his novel manuscript as her own.
It depicted exploitation.

God's Bits of Wood and The Money Order were some of his successful
works before he went to study film studies at Gorky Studios in Moscow
in early 1960s.

He began his filmmaking career in 1963 with 'Borom sarret,' a short
black-and-white, the first film made in the region by a sub-Saharan
African, followed a day in the life of a Dakar cart driver.

Niaye (1964), based on a short story, looked at the taboo of incest,
while La Noire de ... (Black Girl, 1966), the region's first
full-length feature, was sparked by a news story about a Senegalese
maid brought to the French Riviera who kills herself. Her voiceover
reveals that, though her country is supposedly free, she remains a
possession, film reviewers observed.

Sembene produced more than 10 films and one of his last films 'Moolade'
was a denunciation of female genital mutilation. The film won him an
award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Sembene won two prizes at the Venice Film Festival in 1968 and in 1988.
The first was for 'The Money Order,' the second for 'The Camp of
Thiaroye' which tells about the violent repression by French troops of
protests by Senegalese soldiers demanding their pay.

Africa will remember him most for is contribution to the Pan-African
Festival of Film and Television of Ouagadougou where he was a
co-founder of this festival held every two years.

His most acclaimed film is Xala (1974) which won many international
prizes and looks at the excesses of black bourgeoisie in post colonial
Africa. The film satirizes a new bourgeoisie who wash their Mercedes in
Evian, through the tale of a polygamous businessman struck down by
impotence, and the procession of beggars who spit on him to end the

Many of his films are based on anecdotes of everyday life, exposing the
excesses in material post-colonial Africa. Tributes to Sembene have
been pouring in from all corners of the African continent.

Former Senegalese president Abdou Diouf, now secretary general of the
French-speaking club of states, the Francophone, said Africa had lost
“one of its greatest film-makers" and “a fervent defender of liberty
and social justice."

He wanted Africans to have a sense of their own history and to achieve
their own sense of social, educational, economic, psychological freedom
and mobilize black thought and action to uplift the African

Tsiko is The Black Star News’s Southern African correspondent based in Harare.

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