Obituary: Ousmane Sembene

January 13, 2024
4 mins read

Writer and African Film Legend
Wednesday, July 4, 2007.
By Shola Adenekan
Ousmane Sembene, the pipe-smoking Senegalese film director and actor who has died aged 84, was widely acknowledged as “the father of African cinema”. In a career spanning five decades, he won several awards across the globe. Sembene brought the African experience to audiences worldwide.
But Sembene said his main priority is Africa. The continent, he said, is his audience. The West and the rest his markets.
His seminal work is arguably Xala produced in 1974, which was a scathing attack on the emerging African political elite who are abusing power and authority bestowed on them in similar fashion to the recently departed colonial masters. The film became the first Sub-Saharan African film to made impact in Britain.
But Sembene was already an acclaimed director, actor and writer by then. Literature was his first love and he had been part of the new generation of African writers narrating the modern African experience in their work. His books have been featured in the now classic Heinemann African Writers Series alongside the likes of Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Peter Abrahams and Ngugi wa Thiongo.
His first literary offering was the 1956’s Le Docker Noir, which largely mirrored his own personal experience as an immigrant docker in Marseilles, France. Afterwards, he wrote novels and poetries which in one way on another reflected in his cinematic work.
Sembene was born in Ziguinchor, a village in the Casamance province of southern Senegal. His father, originally from the capital city of Dakar, was a fisherman from an Islamic scholar family. The young Sembene was something of a rebel. In 1936, when he just turned 13, he was expelled from school for slapping a French teacher.  The incident ended his formal education but he was unable to follow his father into the fishery trade due to constant seasickness. In 1938, Sembene was sent to live with his paternal grandmother in Dakar.
Dakar was a bustling city, a far cry from the laid back lifestyle of Ziguinchor. But it was also a segregated city, where the French colonial masters live in a different world from the native population. The young Sembene spent his days working as a mechanic and the evenings reading comics, imbibing in traditional events and watching films in the segregated movie houses of the city.
In 1944, as a French citizen and like many young Africans of his generation, he was called to serve in the Second World War as a chauffeur in Niger in the 6th Colonial Infantry Unit.
Serving alongside white colonial officers, he witnessed their frailties at first hand. “In the army we saw those who considered themselves masters naked, in tears, some cowardly and ignorant,” he later recalled. “When a white soldier asked me to write a letter for him, it was a revelation – I thought all Europeans knew how to write. The war demystified the coloniser, the veil felled.”
After the war and as the global economic recession reached Senegal, an unemployed Sembene left for France in 1947 to work in the dockyard of Marseilles. His ability to read and write among the largely uneducated dock workers soon brought him to the attention of trade union officials. He later became an active trade union activist, embraced Marxism and joined the French Communist Party in 1950.
Sembene took active part in campaigns against France’s involvement in the war in South Asia and for Algeria independence from France. It was at this period that he discovered the work of such radical writers like Richard Wright, Claude Mackay and Ernest Hemmingway.
Sembene first published work was the long poem, Liberte (1956) followed by Le Docker Noir the same year and O pays, mon beau peuple (1957).
Upon his return to Senegal in 1960, he released what was arguably his first African literary work, Les bouts de bois de dieu (God’s Bits of Wood). 
Touring Africa a year later and sailing along the River Congo in the middle of the short-lived vitality of the socialist Patrice Lumumba government, Sembene said he had a vision: landscapes, people, movements and sounds to which no written document could do justice. He was not thinking of movies in the concept of Hollywood but cinema as “ecole du soir” or night school. He wants to engage Africans in their own language, following the oral-tradition of the continent, where at night, people gather to hear story told by the elders.
Sembene was almost 40, when he returned to Europe to learn the intricacies of film-making. As the then Soviet Union was more than willing to train African artists as it seeks to extend its influence over the continent, Sembene gained a scholarship to study cinematography at Moscow’s Gorki Studios under the tutelage of the famed Russian director, Marc Donskoi. He returned to Senegal a year later to produce the short film Borom Saret.
Another hugely influential film was the 1998’s Camp de Thiaroye, based on an actual event; Senegalese soldiers returning from the war in Europe, where they have been imprisoned by the Nazi German army. Upon return to a French-ruled Senegal, their severance pays was slashed and the men revolt. Later that night, the French Army attacked them, leaving few alive. The film was a portrayal and condemnation of colonial rule and of events not captured by historians. The film later won a special grand prize at the Venice Film Festival.
Some of his recent films have been devoted to the struggle of African women, they include Heroisme au quotidien (1999), Faat Kine (2000) and the 2003 Moolaade.
Sembene was a co-founder in 1969, of the Pan-African Festival of Film and Television, which takes place every two year in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
In later years, he constantly spoke against African leaders, whom he considered corrupt and alienated from the majority of their citizens. For Sembene, the African artist is naturally political in his art.
“For us, African film-makers, it was then necessary to become political, to become involved in a struggle against all the ills of man’s cupidity, envy, individualism, the noveau-riche mentality and all the things we have inherited from the colonial and neo-colonial systems,” he said.
Whether examining gender relations, folklore or politics in his literature and films, Sembene strove to give voice to the inner thoughts of Africa and its people. He used an aesthetics that was largely explainable through consideration of the cultural setting to which his work refers. He was a warm and popular figure, whose generosity knew no bound. At the time of his death, he was working on a new screenplay, La Republique des Rats, an adaptation of his 1981 novel, Le Dernier de l’Empire.
Twice divorced, he is survived by three sons.
Ousmane Sembene, doyen of African cinema and notable writer, born January 1, 1923; died June 10, 2007.
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