Africa South of the Sahara


Cinema first came to the French-colonized territories of Africa south of the Sahara in 1900 when a French circus group projected the Lumière brothers' L'arroseur arrosé ( Watering the Gardener , 1895) in a Dakar marketplace. The early European films were admired and even feared for their potential to capture people in real-life situations. Distribution and exhibition expanded accordingly in major cities to meet the demands of this novelty. There was no question, however, of sub-Saharan Africans producing or directing films, even though their continent became a "fashionable" subject for ethnologists, researchers, missionaries, and colonial administrators eager to document Europe's "Other."

In South Africa, newsreels of the Anglo-Boer War were filmed between 1898 and 1902. During the 1910s and 1920s, the Boer and British tensions were overlooked as whites stood together against indigenous peoples in films such as Die Voortrekkers ( Winning a Continent , 1916) and Symbol of Sacrifice (1918). Die Voortrekkers provided inspiration for the American-produced The Covered Wagon (1923).

Most sources claim the 1955 Senegalese production Afrique-sur-Seine ( Africa on the Seine ) as the first film shot by a black African. This short film by Paulin Soumanou Vieyra (1925–1987) focuses on the lives of several African students and artists living in Paris as they contemplate Africa's civilization, culture, and future. However, other early productions include two Congolese short films, La leçonducinema ( The Cinema Lesson , Albert Mongita, 1951), and Les pneus gonflés ( Inflated Tires , Emmanuel Lubalu, 1953). In 1953 Mamadou Touré of Guinea shot a twenty-three–minute short called Mouramani in which he glorifies the friendship between a man and his dog. Ousmane Sembène (b. 1923) of Senegal produced his famous first short, Borom Sarret (1963), which deals with a day in the life of a Dakar cart driver. By 1966, Sembène had produced Lanoirede… ( Black Girl ), the first feature in Africa south of the Sahara. Ghana's first feature, No Tears for Ananse (Sam Aryeetey, 1968), was inspired by a traditional folktale. The first black South African film was How Long Must We Suffer? (Gibsen Kente, 1976).

b. Ziguinchor, Senegal, 1 January 1923

Senegalese writer and director Ousmane Sembène is a pioneer of African cinema south of the Sahara. He has been highly influential in shaping the evolution of African film practices over forty years, including a style of filmmaking known as African cinematic realism.

After working as an apprentice mechanic and bricklayer in Dakar and as a dockworker in Marseille, Sembène published three novels: Le docker noir (translated as The Black Docker , 1987, 1956), Ôpays, mon beau people! (O my country, my beautiful people, 1957), and Les bouts de bois de Dieu (translated as God's Bits of Wood , 1962, 1960). He realized that because of literacy issues few Africans south of the Sahara had access to the literature of their own languages, so he turned to cinema to reach a larger African audience. Sembène trained in Moscow's Gorki Studio in the early 1960s and returned to Senegal in 1962 to work on his first short, Borom Sarret (1963). This watershed film, for which he founded his own production company, Filmi Domireew, won first film prize at the 1963 Tours International Film Festival, and set the stage for many of the themes and political concerns that inform his later work.

In 1966 Sembène's first feature (also the first feature film in sub-Saharan Africa), La noire de … ( Black Girl ) explored one of his major themes: the crucial role of women in Africa's development. The film probes the suicidal despair of a young Senegalese maid who encounters racism in France, thus denouncing the consequences of embracing neocolonialism. In Xala ( Impotence , 1974), multiple female points of view depict the splintered nature of postcolonial Africa. Faat Kiné (2000) and Moolaadé (2004), which focuses on the controversial subject of female genital mutilation, also explore women's issues. Sembène also has undertaken the task of rewriting Senegalese history in Emitaï ( God of Thunder , 1971), Camp de Thiaroye (Camp Thiaroye, 1988), and Ceddo (1976).

Throughout his film career, Sembène has been a socially committed activist, regarding film as a tool for political change. Although all his films provide commentaries on the political and social contradictions of a changing society, Guelwaar ( Guelwaar: An African Legend for the 21st Century , 1992) most compellingly argues that change in Africa can only occur if it is initiated by Africans from within. The film attacks foreign aid as an impediment to true African economic and political independence; and Sembène's narrative strategy of presenting a multiplicity of spectator positions forces the viewer to actively participate in the debate. This is ultimately Sembène's major contribution to African cinema: the forging of a truly indigenous African cinema aesthetic that speaks to a unique vision of what Africa might become.


La noire de … ( Black Girl , 1966), Mandabi (The Money Order, 1968), Emitaï ( God of Thunder , 1971), Xala ( Impotence , 1974), Ceddo (Outsiders, 1976), Camp de Thiaroye (Camp Thiaroye, 1988), Guelwaar ( Guelwaar: an African Legend for the 21st Century , 1992), Faat Kiné (2000), Moolaadé 2004)


Gadjigo, Samba. "Ousmane Sembene and History on the Screen: A Look Back to the Future." In Focus on African Films , edited by Françoise Pfaff, 33–47. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004.

Gadjigo, Samba, et al., eds. Ousmane Sembène: Dialogues with Critics and Writers . Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.

Murphy, David. Sembene: Imagining Alternatives in Film and Fiction . Oxford, UK, and Trenton, NJ: James Currey and Africa World Press, 2000.

Petty, Sheila, ed. A Call to Action: The Films of Ousmane Sembene . Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996.

Sheila Petty

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