Out of the Real Africa : Acclaimed Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene gets a rare retrospective at the Nuart.
Back in 1969, when the first films by Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene to reach this country had their American debut, the reviewer at the New York Times allowed himself a gentle audience challenge. “After all,” A. H. Weiler wrote, “how many African-made movies have you seen lately?” It was a pertinent question then and, regrettably, it is just as pertinent and even painful more than 25 years later.
Despite the good offices of the New York African Film Festival and Los Angeles’ Pan African Film Festival, despite memorable work from directors like Idrissa Ouedraogo, Souleymane Cisse and Gaston Kabore, even committed filmgoers would be hard-pressed to so much as name, let alone be able to say they’d seen, a single film from that continent.
This lack of familiarity is especially unfortunate for Sembene, a filmmaker who is as close to being revered by critics and his peers as any director working today. Acknowledged as the father of African film, a writer-director whose seven features have both set the agenda and served as models for those who came after him, Sembene is still active at age 71, still making films with the kind of passion and commitment he began with.
The Nuart Theater, bless its heart, is about to help remedy this situation and let audiences see what the fuss is about. Starting this Friday, it will offer a one-week double bill of “Guelwaar,” Sembene’s latest feature, and “Samba Traore,” the newest film from one of the rising stars of African cinema, Burkina Faso’s Idrissa Ouedraogo.
Also, on two consecutive weekends, the Nuart will have morning screenings of four of Sembene’s earlier features (“Mandabi,” “Xala,” “Ceddo” and “Black Girl”) plus his landmark short, “Borom Sarret.” Seeing these films is much more difficult than might be expected because Sembene has refused to allow them to be distributed on video.
“I prefer to sit in a big room like this,” the director explained at a San Francisco tribute last year, “with an audience, to smell different perfumes, to see people smiling, to know that people will go to dinner afterwards and talk about what they have seen. That’s what I’m after.”
Clearly, Sembene is not your average careerist; in fact, Film Comment recently called him “the only filmmaker left in the world who cannot be bought and sold.” His path to directing and his reasons for persevering are critical to understanding what his films are trying to accomplish.
Born the son of a fisherman in a coastal Senegalese town, Sembene was movie-struck as a child, remembering Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia,” of all things, as a key influence, especially the scenes of Jesse Owens’ track victories. “For the first time,” he’s said, “a black honored us by beating whites. . . . It became the film for the young people of my generation.”
Leaving high school after striking back at a teacher who had hit him, Sembene served in the Free French army during World War II, took part in a landmark Dakar-Niger railroad strike in 1947-48, stowed away to France and took a series of odd jobs before becoming a docker in Marseilles and a Marxist trade unionist.
Drawn to writing in part because he felt the lack of accurate African depictions of the African experience, his first novel, “The Black Docker,” appeared in French in 1956. Several more followed but in the early 1960s, Sembene decided to turn his attention to filmmaking and attended the Gorki Institute in Moscow, where he studied under Soviet directors Mark Donskoi and Sergei Gerasimov.
This turn to film came for several reasons. He felt, as he had with literature, that non-African films on Africa were a joke; “We have had enough of feathers and tom-toms,” he said. But more important, Sembene knew if he wanted to reach his fellow Senegalese, some 85% of whom were illiterate, film was the only potent medium, in effect “the people’s night school.”
Similarly, Sembene eventually took the then unheard-of step of abandoning French, Senegal’s official language, and making films in his country’s indigenous tongues. His 1968 “Mandabi” was the first film to be made by an all-African crew in a native African language, in this case Wolof, and all his subsequent films have been either in Wolof or another local language, Diola. (The films will be shown subtitled.)
By necessity a master of economy, Sembene has always made his films for very little money; “Ceddo,” his most elaborate, cost all of $260,000. He often takes small roles in them (he’s a public letter writer in “Mandabi”) and has a preference for untrained actors, once telling an interviewer he might use professionals some day because “they do make wonderful gangsters and dead kings.”
Yet for all of this, for all his desire to address political and social concerns, Sembene is so far from being a didactic director that he refuses to make what he calls “poster films.” Yes, he wants to raise awareness, yes his films are savage, often satiric indictments of his country’s and Africa’s problems, but Sembene’s greatness lies in how effortlessly his social concerns flow from his very human plots and stories.
Able to naturally graft the often deliberate pace of African life and speech onto the film medium, Sembene’s pictures confer dignity on the rhythms of the everyday. Confident of what he has to say, his pacing is unhurried, his tales seeming almost to tell themselves. Sembene in part sees himself in the role of a griot, a traditional African figure who is part storyteller and poet, part historian and wise man, wanting above all else to be the voice of his otherwise silent people.
All this is evident in “Guelwaar,” Sembene’s latest feature, completed in 1992. The word is a Wolof sobriquet meaning “Noble One,” and it is attached to one Pierre Henri Thioune, whose death happens just prior to the film’s opening. As we gradually discover, Guelwaar was many things in life: an occasionally unfaithful husband, a father of three who preferred that his only daughter be a prostitute than survive by begging, a political firebrand who railed against the pernicious effects of foreign aid on African dignity and pride.
In death, however, only one of Guelwaar’s characteristics seems to matter: while he was a staunch Catholic in largely Islamic country, a combination of mordant misunderstandings has led to his being buried in a Muslim cemetery. This mistake causes chaos in both the Christian and Muslim communities as a right-thinking policeman attempts against increasing odds to set things right. The result is a commentary on Senegalese mores that is comic, horrific and finally hopeful, a combination of personal and political filmmaking that has a devastating impact.
Making a fine companion piece to “Guelwaar” is “Samba Traore,” winner of a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1993. Director Ouedraogo’s technique utilizes quicker cutting and more camera movement than Sembene, but he shares Sembene’s desire to see larger meanings in humanistic stories told with eloquent simplicity.
“Samba” tells of a man who returns to his village after participating in a robbery in the city and tries to recapture the feeling of his past while simultaneously changing everything by tossing large sums of stolen money around. It is both morality play and unaffected psychological portrait, and it is done with a lean and sure-handed touch.
For reasons that aren’t clear, the Nuart has chosen to show the rest of the Sembene program in a non-chronological order. Starting things off on Saturday at 11 a.m. is “Mandabi” (“The Money Order”), Sembene’s first all-Wolof feature. Adapted by the director from his own novella, it deals with the deranging power of modern life, satirically showing how a small piece of good fortune can unravel a life.
The good fortune is a money order which Ibrahima Dieng, a pompous but likable Dakar resident with two wives, receives from a nephew working as a street-sweeper in Paris. But the attempt to cash it, involving as it does a need for first an identity card, then photographs and a birth certificate, involves Ibrahima in the strangling grasp of his country’s bureaucracy and almost destroys his existence.
“Xala,” which is Wolof for “the curse of impotence,” plays next Sunday at 11. Another indictment of pervasive corruption and perhaps Sembene’s most celebrated film, it was heavily censored in Senegal on its release in 1974 and it is not difficult to see why. “Xala’s” protagonist, El Hadji Aboudkader Beye, is a wealthy and genially corrupt businessman who has his Mercedes washed in Evian and celebrates the good fortune independence brings by taking a third wife. On his wedding night, however, he “crumpled like a wet paper,” and correctly suspecting that a curse has been placed on him, tries all kinds of methods to free himself.
A briskly comic attack on the impotence of official society, “Xala,” Sembene slyly reported, had at least one noticeable effect: “In the first three months after the opening, Mercedes owners showed up on foot. Otherwise there were always people shouting, ‘Opportunist! You have the xala , you thief!’ ”
Sembene’s most ambitious film, “Ceddo,” plays at 11 a.m. on Jan. 14. A historical drama set in a quasi-mythical 17th-Century Wolof kingdom, it involves the resistance of the common people ( ceddo ) to the ruthless imposition of Islam by the ruling class.
Also incorporating attacks on both the oppression of women and African complicity in the slave trade, “Ceddo” was banned in Senegal for eight years upon its 1977 release, nominally over a linguist dispute with political overtones about how the title should be spelled. With a traditional structure combined with daring flash forwards and a modern soundtrack, “Ceddo” is powerful and uncompromising.
Ending the Sembene festival, on Jan. 15 at 11 a.m., are the two films that debuted in New York in 1969. “Black Girl,” a 60-minute 1965 feature that won Sembene the Prix Jean Vigo and announced the emergence of African cinema to the world, is a poignant story of a young woman who arrives in France to work as a domestic and finds herself progressively dehumanized, turned from a person into a thing.
The accompanying short, “Borom Sarret,” Wolof for “cart owner,” was made in 1963 and is considered the first black African film to be widely screened outside the continent. A spare, poetic 19 minutes, it follows a day in the life of a cart driver in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, involving us in the harrowing rigors of his life. It is a clear and troubling voice from another world, a voice that Sembene has been true to from that day to this.