To take part in the African revolution it is not enough to write a revolutionary song; you must fashion revolution with the people – Sékou Touré.
At the beginning of Ousmane Sembène’s La Noire de…, Diouana arrives in the French Riveria. She is following the family for whom she had worked as a nanny in her native Senegal; after the country gained its independence, the French couple left their sprawling house, cook, nanny and cleaner in Dakar and returned to their flat in Antibes. We learn that Madame first saw Diouana on a street corner amid other women desperate for work, and hired her because of her submissive and unforthcoming nature. It is this nature that the couple deliberately exploit in France, where Diouana’s role is not limited to being a nanny: she must also clean their house, cook their meals and wash their clothes. For her labour she receives nothing. She is without money, friends or company, and is unable to escape. In France, Diouana is entombed; she leaves the ship and enters Monsieur’s car that takes her to the flat that she doesn’t leave. Through a series of fluidly shot flashbacks, Sembène contrasts these experiences with the openness of her life in Senegal. Diouana’s dialogue in the film is mostly limited to her time in Dakar: in Antibes she only speaks in voiceover. This contrast underscores the way in which, for Sembène, voice and power are intimately connected.
The themes explored by La Noire de … were preoccupations that Sembène studied throughout his work. His early French-language novels drew upon his experiences as a labourer in his native Senegal and in France, to which he migrated in 1947. His most famous novel, God’s Bits of Wood (1960), depicts a railroad strike across Senegal and Mali, dwelling on the solidarity that was shared between the oppressed of both nations. His first novel, Black Docker (1956), explores the racism and exclusion that Sembène encountered during his time in France; it was an experience he shared with Diouana. Worrying that these French-language novels would only reach an elite readership, Sembène turned to film in hope of achieving social change through his art. La Noire de…, his debut feature and the first film by a sub-Saharan African director, was released in 1966. Diouana’s story is based on an account of an African maid that Sembène happened upon in a newspaper. He was drawn by the intersection of colonial and women’s oppression it exposed.
Everything Diouana expects of her new life in France falls through, as, over and over, she runs up against the cultural and social dominance of her employers and their world. While in Dakar, Diouana studies fashion magazines and hopes to replicate the style of the French models, but when she arrives in Antibes, she is ridiculed for wearing dresses and heels. They are not the clothes of a servant; they are not the clothes of an African. In response to Diouane’s misstep, Madame forces her to wear an apron. Her dignity is further echoed when she receives a letter from her family. Monsieur reads her mother’s letter to her and then proceeds to write a reply on her behalf: their subjugation of her extends to control over her communication. (The letter to Diouana was also penned by a male teacher –played by Sembène – her mother being illiterate. Patriarchy is the gatekeeper to reality and communication, in Senegal as well as France.)
Sembène also explores domination through the symbol of the mask. Originally given to Diouana’s employers in Senegal, the mask travels with them to Antibes and, like her, is out of place. The mask is a novelty and, like the Senegalese food that Diouana prepares for guests, serves as a signifier of the French couple’s colonial past: something that they can use to set themselves apart from their fellow bourgeois guests, bringing a borrowed exoticism and mystery. Diouana herself is called upon to play the part of the exotic object – a guest asks for a kiss, noting he has never kissed a black woman before. When Diouana later removes the mask from the white wall, she restates both her agency and heritage. In the ensuing struggle with Madame over the mask, Diouana nearly breaks into a smile – in this conflict with her oppressor, she is more than equal, ridding Madame of her exalted status.
But Diouana cannot escape the flat and only finds freedom in death. Her suicide both confronts her oppressors with their injustices and, allegorically, marks the end of the colonisers’ oppression of the colonised. Monsieur returns to Dakar to bring Diouana’s belongings, including the mask, to her family; Diouana’s mother refuses his money and the mask is taken from him by a young boy. Monsieur is left bewildered by the reality of post-colonial Senegal. As he leaves, he is terrorised by the boy, who chases him out of the village, wearing the now-terrifying mask. Sembène presents us with the power and potential of a people with agency over their labour, culture and history.
It is significant that Ousmane Sembène chose to depict the experiences of a black female worker in France over his own, understanding the further subjugation that women experience in any oppressive system. Diouana is an everyman: her oppression is that of all African workers under colonialism. But more importantly, Diouana is an everywoman.
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Released nine years after La Noire de… and fifteen years into Senegal’s independence, Xala is set at the start of decolonisation. In the opening scene, we see Senegal’s new economic leaders enter office dressed in traditional clothes, hailed by a similarly dressed crowd. They rid the building of colonisers, who leave with handfuls of briefcases, presumably filled with illicit profit. The new leaders proclaim their commitment to the socialism their compatriots demand. In the following scene, the colonisers return with a bribe for each of the officials (who are now wearing suits), as military men clear away the celebratory crowds. El Hadji is one of the newly corrupted officials.
In accordance with his reading of Islamic obligation, El Hadji believes that, to celebrate his economic and social ascendency, he must take a third wife – one who is much younger than him. After a lavish celebration in which we see new officials exploiting their status to secure tenders, El Hadji is unable to consummate the marriage. Aggrieved, he searches out a cure to the erectile dysfunction that he believes is brought by a curse, the xala. After modern medicine fails, he finds a shaman who will cure him for the right price. El Hadji’s impotence is mirrored in the ineffectiveness of the leaders of newly independent Senegal, men (always men) who sideline socialism to capitalise on their new status. As such, Sembène points us towards greed being the ultimate source of these impotencies. But Xala is much richer than a simple political satire about erections. Each scene is filled with imagery that Sembène uses to lament the state of post-colonial Senegal in terms of culture, class and gender politics.
The conflict between Western and African cultures in the post-colonial state is apparent throughout the film. One official proclaims that “modernity musn’t make us lose our Africanity”, but neither word is ever defined. Sembène visualises this ambiguity through El Hadji’s marriages: his first wife is religious and wears traditional clothes; his second, by contrast, is seen wearing a little black dress; he marries his third to satisfy his interpretation of Islam. When he is confronted by his daughter, Rama, about his polygamy, El Hadji defends the practice on the grounds that he is maintaining black African culture. But in other ways, such as in their use of language, El Hadji and the other officials are not so concerned about tradition. Rejecting his daughter’s use of Wolof with rage, El Hadji sticks to the colonially imposed French. For Sembène, El Hadji and Rama represent opposing articulations of post-colonial culture. French and Wolof, polygamy and monogamy, capitalism and socialism, white tie and patterned fabric. Indeed, Sembène visualises this opposition by presenting the characters in front of different maps in Xala: El Hadji and a colonial map, Rama and a Pan-African depiction. For Sembène, Rama is the future that Senegal needs to rid itself of the neo-colonialism embodied by El Hadji.
Just like the colonists of old, El Hadji cares little for the impoverished of the country: in his role as an official he diverts vast government food supplies meant for drought-stricken areas into private slush funds, financing his lavish lifestyle. Eventually El Hadji’s debts catch up with him. Wives two and three leave him, his business is taken over and, most importantly for him, his cheque to the shaman bounces and so the xala returns. Through El Hadji, Sembène portrays the unsustainable nature of neo-colonialism, whose only remedy is the promised arrival of a socialist society. In the final scenes of Xala, we see the people who may bring that change. Arriving back from their desert exile, the poor and infirm, the wretched of the earth, overrun El Hadji’s house and proclaim themselves to be source of the xala. To lift the curse, he must be humiliated by the impoverished. El Hadji agrees. The film ends with the disgraced capitalist covered in the spit of those he had claimed to represent and yet exploited.
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Moolaadé, Ousmane Sembène’s final film, was completed when he was 81 and released in 2004, three years before his death. Shot in village dotted with termite hills in Burkina Faso with a cast from across sub-Saharan West Africa, Moolaadé derives its name from the spell of protection that a woman, Collé, brings over four girls. Escaping their purification ceremony, the central element of which is female genital mutilation (FGM), the girls seek refuge with Collé, whom they know to have forbidden the cutting of her only daughter. The young girls fear the ceremony for its guaranteed pain, the possibility of death and the impact it will have to their sexual and maternal futures. The lasting suffering brought by FGM is shown through Collé, who, we learn, has suffered the death of two children, with a third, Amasatou, delivered only by a life-threatening caesarean. The pain of Collé’s purification returns during the sex she endures. Sembéne’s editing cements the connection, juxtaposing the images of intercourse and the FGM ceremony. The experience of Collé that is explored in Moolaadé underscores the life-long implications of FGM.
Collé’s protection of the girls enrages the Salindana, the elderly women who carry out the cutting ceremony, and the mothers of the children. The mothers’ rage is born of a fear that their daughters will be ostracised – girls who are bilakoro, uncut, are ineligible for marriage. The male elders of the village admonish Collé for standing in the way of tradition (signified by the mythologised termite mounds) and their interpretation of Islam. Fearing disruptive change, the patriarchy confiscates the villagers’ radios and demand that Ciré, Collé’s husband, force his wife to lift the protective spell.
The action is further complicated by the return of Ibrahima, whom Amasatou is arranged to marry. Living in France, Ibrahima is the son of the village king. Bringing the gift of a television, a more potent symbol of modernity than the radio, he is flummoxed by the regressive attitudes of his father and the other elders. Yet Ibrahima also remains conservative when responding to his father’s rule, ultimately siding with the other men. Collé is undeterred by this opposition: she will not utter the word to lift the moolaadé. Under continued pressure from the village patriarchy, Ciré publically lashes Collé. The village splits: the men cry “harder” in the company of the Salindana; the women, on the opposing side, shout their support, begging her not to say it. The brutality is stopped by Mercenaire, a travelling salesman. Through his intervention, he destabilises the sense of male solidarity within the village, an action that means he is run out of the village and presumably murdered.
Collé’s resistance brings the women of the village together. As the men set fire to the pile of confiscated radios, the women stop the Salindana’s procession of girls before the purification ceremony can begin. They take the knives from the Salindana and regain control over their bodies. Collé confronts the men with these knives in the company of another woman, Sanata, who takes up the role of griot (the repository of oral tradition), further emphasising the women’s control of their story and future. She uses the knowledge that she has learned from listening to the radio to confront the men with the inaccuracies in their interpretation of Islam, and throws the knives into burning pile of radios. The women dance and celebrate as Ciré and Ibrahima cross the square, past the symbols of the women’s oppression: the termite mounds, representing tradition; the mosque, with its corrupted religious teachings; and the burning radios, the final attempt to isolate them.
Of course, in Moolaadé, Sembène is talking for women. But the women in the film liberate themselves. It is the strength of their shared experience that makes change possible. Through these women, Sembène reiterates his belief in the possibility of revolution, no matter what the circumstances.
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Ousmane Sembène cited his greatest influence, above all other filmmakers, as Bertolt Brecht. The Brechtian idea of art – that it “is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it” – is expressed throughout Sembène’s cinematic work, which always aimed to influence as a large an audience as possible. For Sembène, cinema was capable of crossing social divides. La Noire de… presents the exploitation carried out by colonial rule, expressing Sembène’s belief that independence must mark the end to all oppressive systems; Moolaadé illustrates the cruelty of female genital mutilation but focuses on women’s struggle, and ultimate victory, over these regressive structures, providing a blueprint for future action. The battle against these systems can also be seen in the changing languages of his films. Sembène moves from the French of La Noire de…, to the mixture of French and Wolof in Xala, and finally to Bambara, a language which transcends colonial borders, in Moolaadé. When the novelist and academic Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o decided – inspired by Frantz Fanon –to write in Gikuyu instead of English, he wrote: “language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world.” For Ngũgĩ, ridding African literature of colonial tongues is a necessary step in the anti-imperialist struggle. Sembène echoed this sentiment in the conflict between El Hadji and Rama in Xala over her use of Wolof. He deliberately left the subtitled translation of Wolof incomplete, emphasising his audience was an African one, not one of bourgeois “world” cinema. Moolaadé was dubbed into a series of languages, engaging a transnational West African audience, creating a cinema of anti-imperialist solidarity.
For Sembène, revolutionary action never ceases. This can be seen in his focus on audience engagement, with the hope of working towards a truly emancipatory cinema. The subject of his cinema evokes a spirit of continual discontent. Though the geographic scope narrows through these films, from international to local, Sembène’s gaze remains wide open, weaving class, gender and race throughout. The intersectionality of his work makes Sembène’s gaze strikingly relevant to all audiences, as the structural oppressions that he examined remain in our time. And though this is the cinema of a man, it is not the cinema of men; it is a cinema for Collé, not Ibrahima.
David Lee Astley is a freelance writer based in London. You can read his blog at davidleeastley.wordpress.com.
A Ousmane Sembène season will run throughout March at Bernie Grant Arts Centre in London. More details can be found on their website here.