The great Senegalese director’s centenary should spur a long-overdue reassessment of his work.
A Film Forum retrospective on Ousmane Sembène’s work, including his picture “Guelwaar,” is a chance to reappraise the director’s somewhat marginal status in film history.Film still from Guelwaar courtesy Film Forum
One of my seminal movie experiences was a college class taught by Gilberto Perez, around 1977, in political cinema, focussing on John Ford, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Sergei Eisenstein. At nearly fifty years’ remove, I’d add a fourth name to that list of essential political filmmakers: Ousmane Sembène, who was then in the middle of his career, having just made the fifth feature of the nine that he completed by the time of his death, in 2007, at the age of eighty-four. This year is his centenary, and Film Forum is offering a retrospective of his work that includes eight of his features, plus three short films. It’s a fitting occasion to assess Sembène’s mighty cinematic achievements and to consider why their very virtues are among the reasons for their undue obscurity.
Born and raised in what is now Senegal, Sembène moved to France in 1947 and worked as a manual laborer, getting involved in labor-union activism and in the Communist Party. He became a writer, publishing the first of many novels in 1956. Even after turning his attention to movies, in the nineteen-sixties, he continued to write fiction, often adapting his novels and stories for the screen. This literary heritage is a crucial aspect both of his greatness and of his somewhat marginal status in film history. Only one of his movies made Sight and Sound’s 2022 list of the two hundred and fifty greatest films: his first feature, “Black Girl” (1966), which came in at No. 95—a result consistent with my notion that when people like a director’s first film best it’s often because they don’t really like the director’s output once her style is fully formed and her insights are at their most original.
“Black Girl” is generally considered to be the first work by a sub-Saharan African director to achieve international attention, but it’s something of an outlier in Sembène’s œuvre. It’s a drama of a young woman named Diouana, played by Mbissine Thérèse Diop, who comes to France from Dakar to work for a white family and finds that, rather than merely caring for two young children as she expected, she must toil day and night as a maid and a cook and tolerate maltreatment from the woman of the house. It’s a vision of subjection, indignation, and despair that culminates in both tragedy and defiance. Its power starts from its very premise, which places the inner life of a marginalized Black woman at its center and uses her experiences to highlight the way that colonial oppression endures in the post-colonial era. (Senegal became an independent country in 1960.)
But it’s with his second feature, “Mandabi” (1968), that Sembène set the tone for the rest of his career. The psychological interiority of “Black Girl” (complete with Diouana’s interior monologue, in voice-over) gives way to a wider societal perspective, and his focus shifts entirely to life as it’s lived in Senegal. An unemployed man in Dakar receives a money order from his nephew in Paris. When word gets around, he’s besieged by pleas for loans and alms; meanwhile, he and his two wives begin to spend their windfall even though bureaucratic corruption and street-level deceit continually stymie his attempts to actually cash the check. (The desperate squabbling of poor people over petty sums comes off as a dire distraction from political organization against large-scale theft by the wealthy.) Sembène’s third feature, “Emitaï” (1971), is a masterwork of historical reconstruction rooted in the director’s experiences during the Second World War, when he was drafted into a Senegalese corps of the French Army. Through the fortunes of a single village, the film depicts the draft—brutally enforced by Black Senegalese soldiers operating under the orders of white French commanders—as a colonial imposition. For the villagers, this is a “white man’s war” that has nothing to do with them. Later, when the French requisition the entire rice harvest in order to feed troops, the women of the village develop a scheme of resistance and bear the brunt of the colonists’ retribution.
It is revealing to compare “Emitaï” with another masterwork of political cinema, Satyajit Ray’s “Distant Thunder,” which came out two years later. Likewise based on real events during the Second World War, Ray’s harrowing film shows the mass starvation that ensues after the British Army commandeers rice from a region in India. But in “Emitaï” rice isn’t part of the villagers’ diet; it’s used only during funeral rites, so the villagers’ retention of it is a matter of dignity rather than survival. Sembène’s story is not one of famine but of an ambivalent encounter between venerable traditions and political progress. He takes no easy positions, preferring to analyze ethically complex crises that give rise to various forms of heroism and of moral failing. Sembène sees Senegal confronting many ills, ranging from the enduring influence of colonialism to the endemic human vices of greed and lust. In his 1975 film, “Xala,” a corrupt and Francophile Dakar businessman nonetheless practices polygamy for his pleasure, spending ill-gotten gains in order to take a third, much younger wife—but, on his wedding night, he finds himself struck by a curse that causes impotence and that turns out to unite the supernatural power of traditional religion with the political redress of long-standing injustices.
The social evil on which Sembène trains his attention most intensely is the tyranny of overbearing religious authority, a concern central to the three movies that I consider his supreme masterworks. The first of these, “Ceddo” (1977), is a historical drama based on events that occurred in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It takes place in a village governed by its Muslim population but where a significant number of people follow an Indigenous religion. (Sembène was raised both as a Muslim and in the practice of Serer, a polytheistic Senegalese religion.) These non-Muslims—known as Ceddo, or outsiders—have always been tolerated, albeit excluded from public life, but there are rumors that the king will force them to convert. Several of the Ceddo kidnap the king’s daughter, Dior Yacine (Tabata Ndiaye), and will return her only with guarantees of continued tolerance. Meanwhile, two members of the royal family are struggling for the right to marry Dior Yacine and to become next in the line of succession. As power frays, the village imam, whose role was previously restricted to advising the king on religious matters, mounts a power grab, pulling the village toward theocracy. Two Europeans are longtime guests in the village—a Catholic priest who has so far resisted attempting to convert people, and a slave trader who plays a grimly predictable role in the ensuing slide toward despotism. (With touches as bold as they are subtle, Sembène launches the historical drama into the future tense, as in the priest’s visions of the village’s adoption of Christianity, the placement on the soundtrack of a Black American spiritual that suggests where some outsiders’ fate will carry them, and the inscription of the filmmaker’s own identity into the story by way of a young convert forced to take the name of Ousmane.)
The village’s conflicts are given their most concentrated expression in a series of extended debates, largely in the village square. Ceddo residents demand freedom; courtiers demand power. The speeches are florid yet direct: debate is punctuated by such phrases as “a lizard that mocks a turkey always makes sure a tree is nearby,” placing public eloquence at the forefront of the political confrontations. Sembène is perhaps the most finely rhetorical filmmaker ever, and scenes of verbal disputation are the most distinctive feature of his work—a dialectical method that proves to be both essentially political and essentially cinematic. In “Ceddo,” Sembène displays a quiet virtuosity in the way he organizes crowds and gatherings and sometimes allows individuals to detach themselves from the group in order to speak in the foreground. This, combined with the cast’s blazingly declarative performances, seems almost to give the characters’ debates a solid physicality—as if their language were embossed on the screen. (There’s also an element of passionate irony in his depiction of decisive and ruthless actions that are accompanied by no discourse whatsoever.) The artistry of such filmmakers as Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Éric Rohmer is similar to Sembène’s in the analytical visualization of language at work. But Sembène, unconnected to the Hollywood styles that the former adhered to and the latter admired, approached the filming of discourse even more radically, in form and in politics alike—a choice that has made the great films of his maturity less revered than they should be. (One sign that they’re overlooked is that they’re not streaming—only “Black Girl” and “Mandabi” are available, on the Criterion Channel.)
“Ceddo” examines fault lines deep in Senegal’s history, but religious intolerance, internecine conflict, and the corrupting influence of European power are just as central to the contemporary story Sembène tells in “Guelwaar” (1992). The setup, under different circumstances, would be comic: two men die on the same day, and, owing to a paperwork mixup at the morgue, their bodies are conveyed to each other’s families for burial. The problem is that one man is Christian, the other is Muslim, and the Christian community—which hasn’t yet buried the body it’s protecting—demands that a newly dug grave in an Islamic cemetery be opened and the body exhumed.
Here, too, religious differences generate civil strife, but more critical differences are revealed within each community. The deceased Christian, nicknamed Guelwaar (Thierno Ndiaye), was a political activist, labelled an “agitator” by the police. In flashbacks, we see him protesting Senegal’s corrupting dependence on foreign aid and hosting meetings for women, encouraging them to be vocal about their society’s chauvinism. Only with the arrival of his son Barthélémy (Ndiawar Diop) do the political circumstances of his death emerge. Barthélémy, who lives in France, radiates an insufferable air of cultural superiority, but by the same token he is sufficiently uncowed to assert that his father died not of natural causes but as the result of an assault, something that the authorities unsurprisingly deny. The debates within and between the families of the deceased, their respective religious communities, and the civil authorities evoke a hopelessly divided society on the brink of violence, and there is a bitter irony in the film’s resolution: peace is eventually achieved through deft and delicate negotiation—and also by recourse to precisely the form of corruption that Guelwaar had denounced. Nonetheless, with a concluding flourish, Sembène offers a hopeful, symbolic vision of a new generation endowed with a new social conscience.
The third of Sembène’s supreme masterworks is his final film, “Moolaadé” (2004). He made it in his eighties, and it’s one of the greatest of late films. In it, he seems to refine the key elements of his world view—the decadence of Senegal’s ruling class, the cynical manipulation of religious authority, and the exalted spirit of youth in revolt—into an agonized, furious clarity. “Moolaadé” is set in a rural, mainly Muslim village, in which six girls flee a ceremony of so-called purification and four of them take refuge in the home of a woman named Collé Ardo (Fatoumata Coulibaly). This purification is actually genital mutilation, a procedure from which a significant number of girls die, and the girls’ choice of protector is no accident: seven years earlier, Collé Ardo defied tradition, her husband, and the community at large by refusing to let her daughter Amsatou be cut. Collé Ardo keeps the four children under the protection of a moolaadé, a symbolic barrier at the household gate that curses with death anyone who dares to cross it. (Those who seek to defy it are, foremost, the girls’ mothers and the Salindana, a sorority of elder women who wield the ritual knives.) Amsatou (Salimata Traoré) is engaged to a promising young man of the community, Ibrahima (Moussa Théophile Sowié), who lives in France and is due to return soon—but his father, a local mayor-like leader, now refuses to let him marry a bilakoro, or an uncut woman.
Collé Ardo’s heroism is born of bitter wisdom and appalling experience, and what she gives voice to, with the sort of urgent rhetorical flair that’s central to Sembène’s view of political power, is matched by what she won’t speak of but which is depicted in a remarkably simple and dramatic sex scene of far-reaching import. “Moolaadé” is Sembène’s most dialectical film, built on paradoxes and reversals, as in Collé Ardo’s sisterly relations with her husband’s other wife, Hadjatou (Maimouna Hélène Diarra)—polygamy here functioning to unite a pair of women against common enemies, not only their husband but also the women of the community and the social order at large. Collé Ardo’s bravery, sealed by a shocking act of violence, is abetted by an itinerant merchant nicknamed Mercenaire (Dominique Zeïda), whose status as a déclassé outsider, the result of a backstory of persecution, sharpens his observations and emboldens his actions. Radio and television, dismissed by many villagers as meddlesome European imports that threaten local customs and religious values, also help Collé Ardo’s cause. Her steadfast resistance sends shock waves through the village’s long-settled system of female subjugation—but it takes more than just a village, Sembène shows, to back her up and save the day. What the village might then need to save itself from the deceptive and propagandizing power of media, Sembène didn’t live long enough to dramatize