Nationality: Senegalese. Born: at Ziguinchor, Senegal, 8 January 1923. Military Service: Joined Free French Forces fighting in Africa, 1942, demobilized at Marseilles, 1946. Career: Worked as mechanic, 1937–38; after military service, returned to Senegal, then moved to France, 1948; docker in Marseilles, and Secretary General of black workers organization in France; published first novel, Le Docker noir , 1956; returned to Senegal, 1960; studied cinema in Moscow under Sergei Gerasimov and Mark Donskoi, 1962; made first film, L'Empire Sonrai , 1963; founding editor, Kaddu newspaper, 1972. Awards: Dakar Festival of Negro Arts prize, 1966; Cannes Film Festival prize, 1967; Venice Film Festival prize, 1969; Atlanta Film Festival prize, 1970.
Films as Director and Scriptwriter:
Songhays ( L'Empire Sonrai ) (documentary, unreleased); Borom Sarret
La Noire de. . . ( The Black Girl from. . . )
Mandabi ( The Money Order )
Tauw ( Taw )
Xala ( Impotence )
Ceddo ( The People )
Camp de Thiaroye
Camera d'Afrique (Boughedir) (role)
By SEMBENE: books—
Le Docker noir , Paris, 1956.
O pays, mon beau peuple , Paris, 1957.
Les Bouts de bois de Dieu , Paris, 1960.
Voltaïque , Paris, 1962.
L'Harmattan , Paris, 1964.
Vehi Ciosane ou blanche genèse suivi de Mandat , Paris, 1965.
Xala , Paris, 1973; Westport, Connecticut, 1976.
Le Dernier de l'Empire , Paris, 1981; as The Last of the Empire , London, 1983.
Niiwan; Taaw , Paris, 1987.
Xala , translated by Clive Wake, Chicago, 1997.
God's Bits of Wood , translated by Francis Price, Westport, Connecticut, 1996.
By SEMBENE: articles—
Interview with Guy Hennebelle, in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), November 1968.
"Film-Makers Have a Great Responsibility to our People," interview with H. D. Weaver Jr., in Cineaste (New York), vol. 6, no. 1, 1973.
Interview with G. M. Perry, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Spring 1973.
"Ousmane Sembene, Carthage et le cinéma africain," and "Problématique du cinéaste africain: l'artiste et la révolution," interviews with T. Cheriaa, in Cinéma Québec (Montreal), August 1974.
Interview with C. Bosseno, in Image et Son (Paris), September 1979.
Interview with A. Tournès, in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), November/December 1988.
Interview with M. T. Oldani, in Filmcritica (Rome), June 1991.
Interview with E. Castiel, in Séquences (Montreal), July/August 1993.
On SEMBENE: books—
Vieyra, Paulin Soumanou, Ousmane Sembene, cinéaste: Première période 1962–71 , Paris, 1972.
Vieyra, Paulin Soumanou, Le Cinéma africain: des origines à 1973 , Paris, 1975.
Martin, Angela, editor, African Films: The Context of Production , London, 1982.
Moore, Carried Dailey, Evolution of an African Artist: Social Realism in the Work of Ousmane Sembene , Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1984.
Pfaff, Françoise, The Cinema of Ousmane Sembene , Westport, Connecticut, 1984.
Armes, Roy, Third-World Filmmaking and the West , Berkeley, 1987.
Downing, John D. H., editor, Film and Politics in the Third World , New York, 1987.
Pfaff, Françoise, 25 Black African Filmmakers: A Critical Study , Westport, Connecticut, 1988.
Gadjigo, Samba, editor, Ousmane Sembene: Dialogues with Critics and Writers , Amherst, Massachusetts, 1993.
Tsabedze, Clara, African Independence from Francophone and Anglophone Voices: A Comparative Study of the Post-Independence Novels by Ngugi and Sembene , New York, 1994.
On SEMBENE: articles—
Ghali, N., "Ousmane Sembene," in Cinématographe (Paris), April 1976.
Van Wert, William, "Ideology in the Third World Cinema: A Study of Ousmane Sembene and Glauber Rocha," in Quarterly Review of Film Studies (Pleasantville, New York), Spring 1979.
Armes, Roy, "Ousmane Sembene: Questions of Change," in Ciné Tracts (Montreal), Summer-Fall 1981.
Landy, M., and others, "Ousmane Sembene's Films," in Jump Cut (Berkeley), July 1982.
Landy, M., "Political Allegory and 'Engaged Cinema': Sembene's Xala ," in Cinema Journal (Champaign, Illinois), Spring 1984.
Turvey, G., " Xala and the Curse of Neo-Colonialism," in Screen (London), May/August 1985.
Dauphin, G., "Into Africa," in Village Voice (New York), 18 September 1990.
Diawara, M., "Camp de Thiaroye," in Black Film Review (Washington, D.C.), vol. 6, no. 3, 1991.
Rosen, P., "Making a Nation in Sembene's 'Ceddo,"' Quarterly Review of Film and Video (New York), vol. 13, no. 1/3, 1991.
Kindem, G. H., and M. Steele, "Women in Sembene's Films," Jump Cut (Berkeley), May 1991.
Atkinson, Michael, "Ousmane Sembene: 'We Are No Longer in the Era of Prophets,"' in Film Comment (New York), July/August 1993.
Cervoni, A., in Cinémaction (Courbevoie), no. 4, 1996.
Vos, J.M. de, in Film en Televisie + Video (Brussels), April 1997.
* * *
Ousmane Sembene is one of the most important literary figures of sub-Saharan Africa and, at the same time, its premier filmmaker. Born in 1923 in Senegal, he received little formal education. His first literary work, autobiographical in nature, dates from 1956. It featured as its backdrop the port city of Marseilles, where he worked as a docker. Sembene came to film by necessity: painfully aware that he could not reach his largely illiterate compatriots by means of a written art form, he studied film in Moscow in 1961 and began to work in this medium shortly thereafter.
It is interesting and important to note that four of Sembene's films are based on texts, written by Sembene, which first appeared as novels or short stories. Between 1963 and 1977 he produced eight films while publishing three works of fiction. Following Borom Sarret and Niaye , Sembene made La Noire de . . . , the first feature-length film to come out of sub-Saharan Africa: it received several awards. While technically flawed, it is still a powerful piece dealing with the issue of neocolonialism in post-independence Africa, a common theme in Sembene's work. His next film, Mandabi (The Money Order) , marked an important breakthrough for Sembene: it is his first film in color, but, more importantly, it is the first work to use an African language—in this case Wolof, rather than French—and this allowed him to reach his primary audience in an even more direct manner than previously possible. His use of African languages continues with the creation of Emitai , which is made in Diola. Emitai was the first full-length film by Sembene which was not an adaptation of a written text.
The conditions of filmmaking in Africa are difficult and the lack of trained personnel and financial support have discouraged many African artists from working in this medium. Sembene has managed to overcome these problems and has even made a virtue of certain necessities: his almost exclusive reliance on non-professional actors and actresses, including those playing leading roles, is an example of this. He is thus able to increase both the general force of the film—the audience can more easily identify with his actors than with "stars"—and testify to his belief in the common man and the collective heroism of the masses.
Sembene's films are not innovative in a technical sense; instead, their power and critical success stem from their compelling portraits of Third World men and women struggling against forces, both internal and external, which threaten their dignity and, in fact, their very existence. Sembene clearly sees himself as a Marxist-Leninist and sees art as necessarily both functional and politically committed. But this does not mean that he is a mere propagandist and, in fact, his art transcends narrow definition. His art is clearly African in character despite his extensive contacts with the West: the filmmaker is the descendant of the traditional griot , recording the history of his society, criticizing its faults, finding strength in its people in the face of the denigration of African society and culture inherent in all forms of colonialism.