When Haile Gerima, the acclaimed Ethiopian-born filmmaker of Harvest 3000 Years (1976) and Bush Mama (1979), saw Ousmane Sembène’s film Mandabi (1968) for the first time, he said it almost gave him a heart attack. Perhaps the reason for this excitement is harder to imagine for a contemporary Western audience; what shocked him was that the actors spoke Wolof, their native language, and not French, the language imposed on them by their former colonizers. One of the continents’ first films made in Wolof, this milestone in Africa’s cinematographic and emancipatory history wasn’t Sembène’s first attempt at making a film in which the actors speak in their own language. Some years earlier he planned to shoot La Noire de… (Black Girl, 1966) in Wolof, but was forced to rewrite the script in French in order to get the film financed. This meant that even the internal monologues of the Senegalese protagonist Gomis Diouana (played by Mbissine Thérèse Diop), had to be spoken in the colonizer’s tongue.
The ground-breaking anti-colonialist film La noire de…—one of the first Sub-Saharan feature films made by an African director—was part of this year’s “Black Light” retrospective at the 72nd edition of the Locarno Film Festival. Greg de Cuir Jr, the curator of this program, has said he wanted to showcase cinema that had a huge political impact and that was especially engaged with the question of what black cinema and black spectatorship are and mean. Black as “an aesthetic, which can be comprehended as a history of film form, and which is greater than the sum of its shots and sequences. […] These films entertain, but they also adopt an explicit political position – in the name of a different cinema and a different world.”1 Sembène (1923-2007), who is often referred to as the father of African cinema, clearly deserves a prominent place in the retrospective.
Before he discovered cinema, Sembène was a writer, one among 36 other trades he practiced. He worked in the docks of Marseille, where he, as a devoted communist, became an active member of the French General Workers' Union. Sembène would always keep writing, but at a certain point he realized that cinema offered a better possibility to raise awareness about the past, present, and future of Africa. That is, to liberate Africa and to let the continent speak for itself through the universal language of film. “With a book, especially in Africa where illiteracy is known to prevail, I could only touch a limited number of people.”2 From that moment on, cinema became Sembène’s instrument of choice for political action. It is no surprise that he saw cinema as one of the most powerful means to create a more realistic image of the African continent, as cinematic realism up to that point had predominantly been defined by the images created by the Western colonizer since the invention of the cinematic medium. He strongly believed that cinema could take on the function of a mirror and could educate: “so my people can take responsibility and solve their own problems”.3 Sembène’s use of language – both cinematographically and linguistically – became of vital importance in that respect.
La noire de…, made in the aftermath of the turbulent process of Senegal’s decolonization, has a title with a much more ambiguous meaning in French than in English—the particle de can either be used to indicate where someone is from or to indicate someone’s property. The story, situated in a new post-colonial world, follows the life of Gomis Diouana, a young Senegalese woman who excitedly starts a new job in Dakar as a nanny for a rich white French couple (played by Anne-Marie Jelinek and Robert Fontaine). Her happiness quickly turns sour when she leaves Dakar for France—adding a transnational element to the film—where she has to take care of the household instead of the children. “I spend my life living between the kitchen and the bathroom,” she says. Originally, the now completely black-and-white film included some color scenes in pink, which Sembène had to cut out to shorten the length. These cut scenes took place shortly after Diouana moved to France, when she still saw the world though a pink filter, before realizing the reality was not as pink as she hoped, at which point Sembène switched back to black-and-white.
The film offers a look from a female perspective into both the Senegalese society during the aftermath of French hegemony and into the French society itself, now struggling with a loss of power, wealth, and status. The film in large part consists of images of Diouana wasting away, repeating mind-numbing routines, while being bossed around by her discontented French Madame. The story underlines the futility of a life lived in a dehumanizing colonialist and patriarchal society. It is a reality that eventually leads to Diouana’s radical decision to commit suicide to regain autonomy over herself and her body: “Never again will the Madame scold me. Never will I be a slave. Never will she see me again. Never again Diouana.” The film is both an indictment of the foreign neo-colonialist structures that were still in place in Senegal at the time and the local bourgeoisie, that according to Sembène “uses its knowledge, its position, to keep people under its power and to increase its fortune.”4
Until 1960, the French had imposed “Le Décret Laval” (1934), which made it illegal for Africans in the French colonies to make films.After Senegal’s independence in 1960, this rule was no longer valid, yet the French government tried everything in its power to maintain deep cultural, economic, and political ties to their formal colonies. In 1961, the De Gaulle government created the Ministry of Cooperation in Senegal, followed by the creation of the Film Bureau in 1963, which offered technical and financial aid to African directors. One of Sembène’s first short films, Borom Sarret (The Cart Driver, 1963)— one of the first films that was made by a black African director south of the Sahara—was produced this way. Its characters still spoke in French. However, this bureau was just another example of the extent of the neo-colonialist structures that the French kept intact in Senegal, to keep the reigns on the cinema industry. La noire de…, initially ca. 90 minutes, had to be cut to last around an hour to qualify as a short film, so that Sembène could bypass the Film Bureau’s and the Centre national du cinema’s (CNC) policies.
Linguistic dichotomies play a major role in most of Sembène’s films and clearly show the social separation between those in power and those who are powerless. In La noire de…, for example, Diouana does not speak—she almost literally has no voice, except for her internal dialogues. Her illiteracy and the fact that she does not speak French make her completely dependent on her French employees, whom she understands “instinctively, like an animal”, as one of the white French guests claims in the film. As a lifelong Marxist-Leninist, Sembène believed that this alienation was caused by class distinctions and the exploitation of Africa by the West and by China. Karl Marx said that forms of economic production and the resulting social organization that follows from them are, in every historical period, the base upon which the political and intellectual history of that same period is constructed and therefore is the only lens through which it can be explained.
However, Marcia Landy argued that if “culture assumes a commanding position in Sembène […], it is because [he], in contrast to Marxists committed to a more orthodox position [in regards to the role of economics], saw that social, political and economic transformation is impossible without a corresponding transformation in knowledge, behaviour and belief.”5 Sembène believed that an oppositional culture ought to be created with the explicit aim to reject political and social formations, through making changes on both the cultural and political front.6 A film like La noire de… was a way to challenge the dominant cultural order and to examine the role played by culture in the continuous struggle for power. La noire de… is in that case a film that was meant to enter the cultural collective memory, despite its characters speaking in French.
For a very long time the idea that Africa had no history, no culture, and no political structure was widespread in the West. Cinema, for Sembène, offered a way to alter these misconceptions. He is more commonly seen as the African director that developed African cinematic realism. This was done with a clear purpose, as he wanted to show the history and expose the problems that the people in his home country were confronted with. His representation of realism, is therefore closely connected to the representation of history in his cinema. “The African filmmaker,” Sembène said, “is a man of learning and common sense who is the historian, the raconteur, the living memory and the conscience of his people. […] The filmmaker must not live secluded in an ivory tower; he has a definite social function to fulfill.”7
He made himself a perfect example of this. After studying film at the Gorkey Studio in Moscow, he saw it in the early sixties as a self-evident responsibility to return to Africa to make use of cinema after the independence of Senegal to give expression to his anti-colonist views and to educate the African public. Sembène never saw himself as an intellectual, but he wanted to make use of cinema to “crystallise an awakening within the masses.”8
Curator Greg De Cuir Jr. wanted to create a retrospective consisting of cinema that had a significant political impact—and he succeeded brilliantly. La Noire de… fitted perfectly in this retrospective that, for example, also included Melvin van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) and Med Hondo’s West Indies (1971). Sembène tried to deal with Africa’s contemporary society by looking at problems through a historical perspective: “This is why I want to make a militant cinema that causes an awakening in the spectators. It cannot give ready-made solutions. […] A film is only useful if it allows debates between spectators after it.”9 Not only is La Noire de… one of the films that changed the history of (African) cinema itself, it also influenced the life of many people and changed their perception of their place in the world and in their own history. How best to represent the history and effects of colonialism was a major theme within the retrospective and is also one that Sembène returns to again and again in his cinema. With La Noire de… he managed to retell a single story from a colonial history filled with atrocities conducted by the colonizers, while critically engaging with Africa’s past.
1. Greg de Cuir Jr., “A Note from the Curator of the Black Light Retrospective, Greg de Cuir Jr,” Locarno Film Festival (14th of March, 2019): https://www.locarnofestival.ch/en/pardo/pardo-live/today-at-festival/2019/03/Curators-Note-and-Bio?.
2. Francoise Pfaff, ‘The Uniqueness of Ousmane Sembène’s Cinema,’ in Ousmane Sembène: Dialogues with Critics and Writers, eds. Samba Gadjigo, Ralph F. Faulkingham, Thomas Cassirer, and Reinhard Sander (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993), 15.
3. Maya Jaggi, “Village Voice,” The Guardian (14th of May, 2005): https://www.theguardian.com/film/2005/may/14/books.featuresreviews.
4. Guy Hennebelle, “Ousmane Sembène: For Me, the Cinema Is an Instrument of Political Action, But…,” in Ousmane Sembène: Interviews, eds. Annett Busch and Max Annas (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008), 13.
5. Marcia Landy, "Gramsci, Sembène and the Politics of Culture," in Understanding Film Marxist Perspectives, eds. Mike Wayne (London: Pluto Press, 2005), 59.
6. Landy, 72.
7. Pfaff, 15.
8. Hennebelle, 12.
9. Hennebelle, 16.