Calling Ousmane Sembene merely Africa’s greatest filmmaker is to do disservice to one of world cinema’s finest practitioners and pioneers. With merely nine features and a handful of shorts left behind after a forty year career, the case for canonization might seem thin, but only for the uninitiated. That he started a cinema where there was none largely from scratch is an accomplishment worthy of a place in the history books on its own. But anyone who’s tracked his growth as an artist and social commentator across those nine unique features are more than aware of how the Nouvelle Vague-ish bent of first feature La Noire de… (which carefully, and perhaps more skillfully, probed the same post-colonial legacy Godard was contemporaneously wrestling with back in France) gave way over the course of its brief sixty-six minutes to indelible closing shots in which the repressed literally returned to the fore.
These closing images would reverberate throughout Sembene’s career as he attempted to crack the problem of updating African storytelling traditions (especially that of the Griot) and customs to his modern medium. As if creating an entirely new cinematic language (while also making the first films in Senegal’s native Wolof) weren’t enough of a political project, surrounded as he was by poverty, the ravages left by imperialism and the encroachment of soft colonial power, he also took it upon himself to chronicle and satirize his nation’s myriad ills. His early features Mandabi, Emitai, and Xala, rough-hewn all, represent a devastating batch of critiques in which Sembene berates respectively: the backwardness and corruption marring the newly freed Senegal, the tribal male indecision that helped abet the colonial state, and contemporary politicians who’ve turned their backs on tradition in favor of slavishly aping the customs of the West. His past-present approach across these films straddles a fine line; he’s never equivocating, merely trying to navigate complicated waters and put forward a comprehensive road map for the future of Senegal.
For me, his masterpiece remains the 1977 period drama Ceddo which fuses his core concerns into his most compelling narrative all coupled with simple but rich production design. Its story of kidnapped princess and internecine warfare is a world unto its own, but given that we’re dealing with a most political of filmmakers, its distant history concerning the introduction of Islam to Africa sends out a clarion call to the present moment: beware of interlopers.
His most famous works are probably his final three features: Guelwaar, Faat-Kiné and Mooladé, all of which find tradition and modernity crashing headlong into each other, and in the latter two, washing up at the feet of indomitable femininity. All three represent the maturation of his storytelling—the forced awkwardness of early attempts at re-structuring conversation cinematically (and Sembene’s characters almost never lack for words) has given way to a comfortable often joyous ease. Nothing feels quite like a Sembene film, and it’s hard to put a finger on what exactly that means except by saying that more often than not, he’s placed his camera somewhere unexpected and pointed it at something or someone you wouldn’t anticipate. One should expect a fair bit of humor as well. Unfortunately we won’t be able to experience the pleasure of re-discovering cinema through new Sembene films, but his unique vision is slowly starting to make its way to DVD. If you’re not familiar, you’ve got some homework to do.