Widely considered to be one of the most skilled and influential African cinematic storytellers of our modern era, Senegalese filmmaker and author Ousmane Sembene deals with a handful of incredibly powerful themes in his profound oeuvre – from the history of colonialism to the difficulties of religion and the strength of femininity – which staunchly places him as an unfailingly bold and deeply penetrating cinematic voice. Born in the early 1920s in Ziguinchor, situated in Senegal’s southern region of Casamance, to a fisherman and with very little formal education under his belt (having attended school until the age of 13), Sembene has managed to carve out an inimitable career for himself over the span of a mighty five decades.
Sembene began his directorial career in the 1960s with a trio of short films: Borom sarret (1963), The Sonhrai Empire (1963) and Niaye (1964). Arguably the first ever indigenous black film made, the overwhelmingly profound illustration of the dismal poverty experienced by the working Senegalese man in the tale of a single cart driver, set an unmistakably clear jarringly bold tone for Sembene’s sharp, revolutionary work. His French-language, black-and-white drama, Niaye, similarly offers a penetrating probe into the socio-cultural issues implanted in Senegalese society by exploring the reverberations caused in a community following the pregnancy of a young, unmarried girl. The director impressively demonstrated an astute dexterity in seamlessly shifting from portrayals of the the individual the collective, with his historical documentary, The Sonhrai Empire, having emerged as an ode to the rich, complex history of the African continent in its an examination of the 15th and 16th century empire that dominated the western Sahel.
The female experience is a greatly explored feature in Sembene’s work – partly derived from his contact with his maternal grandmother by whom he was raised – making its appearance in his debut film, Black Girl (1966). Seminal in that it marks the first feature film to have been made by a sub-Saharan African director, the French-language, Prix Jean Vigo-winning drama, based on Sembene’s original novella, follows a young black woman who moves from Senegal to France to take the job of a governess for a well-to-do family, before finding her position gradually relegated to that of a servant. Sembene’s internationally acclaim allowed a bold, new beam of interest to be shone on African film and on Sembene’s artistic voice, in particular. This, perhaps, is one of the principal factors contributing to the nature of his follow-up work, Mandabi (1968), which offers a tale of a Senegalese family man whose life is thrown into turmoil after corruption and greed begin to engulf his community. In contrast to his breakthrough film, it is told not in French but in his native Wolof, fulfilling a long-time dream of the director.
Subsequently, the director momentarily returned the short film format in Tauw (1970), another sensitive social drama following a young, unemployed man who attempts to care for his pregnant girlfriend who has been estranged from her family. The following year, Sembene released Emitaï (1971), a transgressive film set in WWII that disregards the turmoil unravelling in Europe and instead places a lens on the tensions which arise between between two distinct tribes in Africa, garnering him the Silver Prize at the Moscow International Film Festival. Sembene readopted the Wolof-language element of his creative work in his comedy drama, Xala (1975), an insightful, satirical social commentary that depicts the experience of El Hadji (Thierno Leye), whose attempts at capitalizing on rife social corruption lands him a curse of impotence. The auteur’s follow-up film, Ceddo (1977), received identical recognition at the 10th edition of the festival for its solemnly astute depiction of the political, social and religious upheaval experienced by the West African Ceddo people in the 17th century, while receiving heavy censorship in Sembene’s native Senegal for its portrayal of the threat of monotheistic religion on traditional African culture.
A decade later, the helmer returned with his semi-autobiographical, Golden Lion-nominated war drama, Camp de Thiaroye, illustrating the trials experienced by a group of black soldiers who are unexpectedly detained in a prison camp while helping to defend France, before being sent back home. A deeply vivid meditation on the consequences of war without portraying any actual battlefield scenes, the drama garnered Sembene an impressive string of awards at the 1988 Venice Film Festival, including the Grand Special Jury Prize. Several years later, the director’s second Golden Lion-nominated work, Guelwaar (1992), dealt with similar themes of religious dissention in a acerbic tale of the conflict the arises following the burial of a Christian political activist in a Muslim cemetery. The auteur’s first conventional, outright comedy since the released of Xala more that two decades prior, Faat Kiné (2001), afforded audiences a socially astute, heartfelt account of of the forty-year-old namesake protagonist’s (played by Venus Seye) obstinacy as she refuses to succumb to the social pressure of marriage before motherhood and instead paves her own way in life.
Three years before his passing, Sembene released his final film, Moolaadé (2004), an intensely poignant and rending drama that highlights the auteur’s preoccupation with the sensitive, nuanced portrayal of the female plight in the tale of a woman who adopts a revolutionary social stance by protecting a group of girls from the prospect of female genital mutilation, consequently catalyzing a profound social disorder. The jarring drama was received amongst audiences and the festival circuit with great acclaim, winning the Un Certain Regard Award at the Cannes Film Festival and garnering a special mention for the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. A final, exalting ode to Sembene’s penetrating, nuanced, stirring voice that, undoubtedly, lives eternally.