Ousmane Sembene, 84; Sengalese hailed as ‘the father of African film’

Times Staff Writer

Ousmane Sembene, the internationally acclaimed, socially progressive Senegalese writer-director known as “the father of African film,” has died. He was 84.

Sembene, who also distinguished himself as a novelist, died at his home in Dakar, Senegal, on Saturday after a long illness, the Associated Press reported.

Describing Sembene as “the most significant force” in African filmmaking history, Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan wrote in 2004: “In Africa’s Francophone film community, he is ‘l’aine des anciens,’ the elder of elders, someone whose passion and commitment to societal change have inspired filmmakers and infuriated governments in Europe as well as at home.”

At the time, Sembene was presenting his ninth feature film, “Moolaade,” at the Cannes Film Festival.


Deemed the director’s “autumnal masterpiece” by a New York Times film reviewer, the drama deals with a village woman who takes in four young girls seeking refuge from the painful and dangerous ritual of female genital mutilation -- an archaic practice that, according to the World Health Organization, puts an estimated 2 million African girls at risk annually.

“I was born in a milieu where excision is practiced daily and accepted,” Sembene told London’s Guardian newspaper in 2005. “But I was also born into an evolving culture, one, like all African cultures, that’s acquiring new knowledge. ... I came to understand that excision was outdated and outmoded.”

Discussing his role as a filmmaker in a 2005 interview with London’s Independent newspaper, Sembene said: “I create to talk to my people, my country. The priority is that my people can understand me. Africa needs to see its own reflection. A society progresses by asking questions of itself, so I want to be an artist who questions his people.”

The son of a fisherman, Sembene was born in Ziguinchor, Senegal, on Jan. 1, 1923. Dropping out of French school at age 14, he worked as an apprentice mechanic and mason.

After serving in the Free French army during World War II, he participated in the landmark Dakar-Niger railroad strike of 1947-48. He then stowed away on a ship bound for France, where he found work on the docks in Marseille and became an active Marxist trade unionist. (He was a member of the French Communist party from 1950 to 1960.)

Sembene’s first novel, “The Black Docker,” was published in 1956.

Tapping his experience with the railroad strike, Sembene wrote “God’s Bits of Wood,” his epic 1960 breakout novel that received international acclaim.

The novel, published the same year Senegal gained its independence from France, is still in print and has been called a classic.

Concerned with the depiction of Africans by non-African filmmakers -- “We have had enough of feathers and tom-toms,” he once said -- Sembene turned to filmmaking in the early ‘60s after spending a year learning moviemaking in Moscow.

After making a short documentary commissioned by the government of Mali in 1963, he formed his own production company and began making low-budget films.

“Borom Sarret,” a short about a poor Dakar cart driver, won the First Film Award at the 1963 Tours Short Film Festival in France. The 1966 drama “Black Girl” was his first feature.

The drama, which Sembene also wrote, is the tragic tale of a young Senegalese woman who feels dehumanized working as a housemaid for a wealthy white family on the French Riviera.

“Black Girl” was the first black African film to premiere at Cannes and won the prestigious Prix Jean Vigo.

Wrote French critic George Sadoul: “Thanks to Sembene, the Black Continent has at last a say in the history of the moviemaking world.”

Sembene did not intend to communicate to Africans by becoming a filmmaker.

“I prefer books,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2004. But with Africa’s high illiteracy rate, Sembene said he asked himself, “How do you speak to a people? How do you raise people’s consciousness? Through cinema.”

Viewing film as “the people’s night school,” he eventually abandoned French, Senegal’s official language, and began making films in his country’s indigenous languages.

Sembene’s 1968 film “Mandabi” is said to have been the first film made by an all-African crew in a native West African language called Wolof.