[Marxism] African filmaker wins at Cannes

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun May 23 10:25:18 MDT 2004

Roberta Batorsky wrote:
> http://www.emory.edu/ENGLISH/Bahri/Sembene.html
> http://www.news24.com/News24/Entertainment/Abroad/0,6119,2-1225-1243_1531135,00.html
> If you aren't familiar with Ousmane Sembene, Senegalese filmmaker and "father of African cinema", I hope you will become so although his films aren't easy to obtain. His latest film, "Moolade",  won two awards at 2004 Cannes. Semebene,  81, a former dockworker, trade unionist and member of the French Communist Party until the independence of Senegal in 1960, has written novels and written and directed at least a dozen movies spanning 40 years.
> rbatorsky at verizon.net

Ousmane Sembene

Senegal's Ousmane Sembene wrote and directed "Black Girl," the very 
first African film, in 1965. Recently the Film Forum in NYC held a 
Sembene retrospective to run consecutively with his latest feature 
"Faat-Kine." This gave me the opportunity to see the 1971 "Emitai" (God 
of Thunder), which I saw when it first came out, and two other films 
that are closely related thematically: the 1977 "Ceddo" (Common Folk) 
and the 1987 "Camp de Thiaroye". These three films, dealing with 
questions of class oppression, colonialism and racism, are, like all of 
Sembene's work, passionate denunciations of injustice and an implicit 
call to action.

Born in 1923, his father a fisherman, Sembene fell in love with movies 
at an early age after seeing scenes of Jesse Owens' track victories in 
Leni Riefenstahl's pro-Nazi documentary Olympics documentary. "For the 
first time," he told the LA Times in 1995, "a black honored us by 
beating whites. . . . It became the film for the young people of my 
generation." We can be sure that this was not Riefenstahl's intention.

Sembene quit high school after punching out a teacher who had hit him 
first. He then joined the Free French army during World War II. After 
the war he became a rail worker, participating in an epochal Dakar-Niger 
railroad strike in 1947-48. After stowing away in a ship to France, he 
became a longshoreman in Marseilles and a member of the French Communist 

In France he started writing fiction in order to depict the reality of 
modern African life which could best be represented by the African. His 
first novel "The Black Docker" was published in 1956. But in the early 
1960s, Sembene decided to turn his attention to filmmaking ("the 
people's night school") because most Africans were illiterate and could 
only be reached with this medium. His films would follow the same road 
as his writing, to offer an alternative to Tarzan movies and garish 
epics like "Mandingo." "We have had enough of feathers and tom-toms," he 

So he went to Moscow, where he studied at the Gorki Institute under 
Soviet directors Mark Donskoi and Sergei Gerasimov. This was the time 
when the USSR was not only offering an economic alternative to 
developing countries, but a cultural one as well. Indirectly, the Soviet 
Union became a midwife to modern African cinema.

The 'common folk' of "Ceddo" are the serfs of a small village in 19th 
century Senegal who are miserably oppressed by organized religion and by 
their feudal overlords. Although the structures are much more modest 
than those found in any feudal society (Islamic services are held on the 
open ground bounded by pebbles), the bonds enforced by custom are the 
same. The ceddo must pay tribute to their King in the form of firewood 
bundles. An Islamic caste also takes tribute in the form of slaves, who 
are exchanged for guns or cloth in a general store run by a white man. 
To round out the microcosm of feudal society, there is a single white 
Catholic priest who is barely tolerated by the Moslems.

Weary of oppression, a ceddo youth kidnaps the daughter of the king and 
takes her to an isolated wooded glen near the ocean. She will only be 
returned after the ruling classes forsake slavery and forced conversion 
to Islam. The villagers, played by non-professionals as is the case in 
nearly all of Sembene's films, have a simple desire to live as they have 
always lived. No dogmatic Marxist, Sembene would have little tolerance 
for glib remarks about 'rural idiocy' for it is only in traditional 
village life that honesty and humility can be found.

The film's most dramatic scenes pit the hostage-taker against 
aristocrats from the village who come to rescue the princess with rifles 
in hand. Armed only with a bow and arrow and superior cunning, the ceddo 
youth vanquishes them one by one. In the course of his courageous 
resistance, the princess begins to warm to him although he is slow to 
respond in kind. His memory of oppression remains too strong. In one of 
the more gripping images of the film, the gorgeous princess bathes nude 
in the ocean while the young commoner stands on the beach glowering at 
her, bow and arrow in hand. He will not indulge himself in desire as 
long as his people are in bondage.

In a conflict between the King and the Islamic clergy over how to divide 
up ceddo tribute, the clergy seize power. Now that they are the new 
ruling class, they force the village to undergo conversion. One by one, 
the men's heads are shaved as they are given new names. The arrogant 
Imam tells the disconsolate villagers: "You are now Ishmaila", "You are 
now Ibraima", etc. Economic assimilation, whether in Africa or in the 
New World, is always preceded by cultural assimilation. Implicit in 
Sembene's films is the notion that cultural renewal must precede social 
and economic transformation.

Sembene returns to village life in "Emitai." It is in the early days of 
WWII and the French Vichy government is rounding up African youth to 
fight in their war. A village has been occupied by a company of native 
soldiers who are ordered about by a white Frenchman. Not one given to 
romanticism, Sembene depicts the lower-ranking African soldiers as 
passive servants of white rule.

Not satisfied with dragooning young men in a kind of neo-feudal tribute, 
the French demand rice as well to feed their army. With this demand, the 
villagers decide they have had enough. Not only is rice necessary for 
their physical survival, it is their link with their gods. Rice, like 
the rain that nourishes it, is sacred. To retain their links to the 
sacred, they hide the harvested rice from the soldiers.

In retaliation, the soldiers force the village women to sit in the 
brutal sun. They will only be released when the rice is turned over. In 
order to decide how to save themselves and their people, the village 
elders convene a series of meetings in a secluded altar to their gods 
beneath an enormous baobab tree. The gods, including Emitai, the god of 
thunder, instruct them to make sacrifices. So, in an obviously futile 
gesture, the elders sacrifice a rooster and then a goat, sprinkling the 
blood on the earth beneath the tree, after which the carcasses are 
heaved into a hollow in the trunk. Obviously there is an implied 
criticism of one aspect of traditional life by Sembene. Animism is no 
defense against French rifles.

In "Camp de Thiaroye," we meet the same sort of soldiers who passively 
accepted French orders in "Emitai" but who now, after defeating German 
soldiers all across Africa, will no longer be intimated by the white 
man, whatever his nationality.

After serving their tour, they have returned to Senegal where they are 
assigned to Thiaroye, a "transit camp" near Dakar. Supposedly, they will 
be processed there prior to being allowed to return to their villages. 
Their sergeant, an educated man who reads serious French novels and 
listens to baroque music, is visited by his uncle at the beginning of 
the film. From him he learns that his mother and father have been killed 
by the French, and their village torched, after refusing to turn over 
their rice. Thus, the link between "Emitai" and "Camp de Thiaroye" is 
made explicit.

One of the infantrymen has lost the power of speech after spending two 
years in Buchenwald. We identify with him as he strokes the barbed wire 
surrounding the camp in disbelief. Is this the reward given to African 
soldiers, to be interned in a detention camp run by the French rather 
than the Germans? Despite the appearance of freedom (the soldiers are 
allowed to visit a nearby town or kick a soccer ball around on the dusty 
grounds of the camp), they are little better than prisoners. Their first 
meal is virtually inedible. When they demand meat, they are told by the 
chef that meat is reserved for white men. He is only taking orders.

No longer willing to put up with such indignities, the infantrymen 
surround the French officers and demand meat. This begins a series of 
escalating confrontations that culminates in a battle over back pay. The 
French offer to exchange the soldier's francs for African colonial 
currency at half the normal rate. The soldiers rebel and take a general 
hostage. This decision is made after each of the barracks has elected 
men from their respective countries (Senegal, Congo, Gabon, Ivory Coast) 
to represent them on a camp-wide decision-making body. They proclaim 
that they are all Africans and must rely on themselves and not the white 
man. After the general promises--falsely--that the money will be 
exchanged at the proper rate, they release him and begin a jubilant 
celebration. Later that night, when they are all asleep, French tanks 
bomb the camp, killing most of the inhabitants. This, and the incident 
portrayed in "Emitai", is based on a historical event.

Sembene is an extraordinary artist. A modern day 'griot' who synthesizes 
indigenous and Marxist themes in a seamless call for social justice, he 
is unique in his ability to tell the story of Africans as they would 
tell it themselves. As such, he is unstinting in his view of this 
reality. Not content to deliver didactic messages about socialist 
revolution, he strives to show the shortcomings of traditional society, 
even though the collective and solidaristic elements of this world have 
to be reclaimed on a new basis. Sembene's films often appear in 
retrospectives such as the one that finished recently at Film Forum. If 
one is scheduled in your city, take the opportunity to go. It is the 
next best thing to visiting the continent.


The Marxism list: www.marxmail.org

More information about the Marxism mailing list