"Art is political. Without art there are no free men."
Sembene Ousmane is considered the "father" of African cinema. His La Noire de… (Black Girl) released in 1966 is said to be the first feature film by a Sub-Saharan African director. His Mandabi (1968) was the first film made in a local language, Wolof, rather than in French in his home country, Senegal. He is credited with influencing subsequent generations of filmmakers with his film style and his portrayal of an African identity that asserts the dignity of people.
Sembene Ousmane wrote several novels and short stories before turning to film. His movies and books are renowned for their depictions of ordinary people, their social commentary and their challenge to authority – whether French colonial rule, traditional authority or post-independence government.
He worked as a fisherman, mechanic and bricklayer and served in the French army in World War II, and was also a dockworker and trade union activist. Many of his books draw from these experiences, like his Le docker noir (The Black Docker, 1956). At age 40 he began making films in order to reach more people.
Sembene Ousmane's pioneering work is remarkable, but also noteworthy is the fact that for a long time I hadn’t heard of it. Maybe it was because much of his work is in French and I grew up in an English-speaking environment, but it also raises questions for me. How is it that someone who reached out to and moved so many people, like the filmmakers who subsequently took up his challenge to make indigenous films, or the Kenyan I know and admire who named one of his children after Sembene Ousmane, is not a household name around the world? How is it that my wonderful local library with its over 2 million books and other materials appears to have only one of his works, his last film before his death in 2007, Moolaade?
The library did help me track down a copy of Sembene Ousmane’s 1960 novel God’s Bits of Wood (Les bouts de bois de Dieu). It’s a fictionalised and vivid account of the strikes that took place on the Dakar-Niger railroad line in 1947-48, in which Sembene was involved. Sembene’s characters are complex and sensitively portrayed – the railway workers and their families as well as the railway bosses. The novel is striking also in that it has several significant characters, and dozens of additional characters -- men, women and children -- rather than a single main character. As his African Film Library biography states, "the novel has no true hero except the community itself, which bands together in the face of hardship and oppression to assert their rights." Reading God's Bits of Woods helps understand the enduring appeal of Sembene Ousmane.
(Tribute to Sembene Ousmane by Thiago da Costa)