Africa in the mirror of cinema

Ousmane Sembène
13 November 2003

Sembene Ousmane

I have made seventeen films in Africa, probably more than any other director. It gets more difficult. If my purpose was just to satisfy the taste of the Euro-American public I would have been able to make a film every other year. But the film distributors are geared towards certain types of film, and I think the European and American public is prepared to see only a certain category of African film. If I really wanted to prostitute myself and sell my country, I would have been able to do that.

But I don’t make my films for foreigners, I make them for my people, and I think I should let my people see what I really think about them.

At this stage in Africa’s development, cinema is a night school. I may not be a good teacher, but I must do my best right now to teach Africans to take responsibility for their own destiny and not to spend their lives begging. It’s not dignified for human beings to beg.

The people who live here in Europe have cinema as a reference. But for me what’s most important is not what people can see in Europe, but what they can see in Africa. And right now films are being made and watched across Africa that make all our leaders, political as well as religious, dead scared of African cinema – because our films reveal the lie behind their ‘wisdom’.

In Senegal we no longer have movie theatres, but we have at least ten young directors who will keep on making films despite the fact that our leaders are doing their best to stifle them. These people go into popular neighbourhoods and show their own films, which is a very dangerous business. They’re not out to make money. One of them is Moussa Sene Absa, who made the film Madame Brouette. He only has one copy of the film. He will screen it in London, then fly with it to Durban and show it there. Think of the risk he is taking, of his courage, his strength.

A trilogy of everyday heroism

Faat Kine is the first film of a trilogy I’m working on. Nothing extraordinary happens in it. It is about daily heroism of a kind that can be found anywhere. It’s about a woman who has children, who is abandoned by men, and who is left to face society alone. She takes responsibility for her life. Everywhere you go, you see women like this, educating their children on their own, facing up to their former boyfriends or husbands.

Faat Kine is a film about urban Africa. The second film in the trilogy is also about a woman, this time from a village. She does not want her own daughter to have to experience what she has endured. The way she manages her life from day to day is exemplary. She resists her society, one which is regulated and controlled by Islamic law. The problems she faces are commonplace in Senegal.

Everyday life of African women

The third film in the trilogy is about a man who also resists the pressures of his society. There is nothing extraordinary about that either, but I feel the need to explain to my people that what has happened to them is their own fault; that ultimately, the solution doesn’t depend on help from outside. That kind of help is a problem as well as a solution. The answers aren’t going to come from Christians, or Muslims, or from some foreign country. Human beings are all the same, and the laws of physics are the same in all languages.

Everywhere you go in the major cities of Africa, you will find households that are being financed and run by women. Our continent is devastated by war. While the men are killing each other, the households are being run and supported by the women. They are the ones who make sure that everyone gets fed every day. In Africa, the men are good for nothing but breeding, and I don’t exclude myself from that generalisation. I’m quite serious.

When I made Faat Kine two years ago, the Association of Senegalese Women arranged the first screening of it in Senegal, and all the proceeds went to the organisation. My heroine is not brave compared to those women. They are far crazier than she is, because actually the problems they face are harder than hers. Films can’t really capture the experience of women living in Africa today. How do you raise children without a family, without a man, without having a trade, or a profession? Those of you who know Africa have seen the women on the sidewalk, selling anything from their own bodies to peanuts and oranges. They are doing it because it allows them to raise their children, to educate them.

The African Manhood

Africa and Europe

We are witnessing the birth of a new Africa. Of course there are lots of problems, but there is a vision, and cinema is an important medium for articulating that vision. You see it in the little things, for example in the way men and women are dressing now in Africa. People used to dress in ways that were specific to their particular culture. Clothes were cut in a certain way. That was their identity, or at least an important reference-point. Now you have a total mixture of styles. Young women are using designs and braiding their hair in styles from all over the world, and coming up with their own synthesis.

When I travel across Africa I meet people who may not share a language, but who share metaphors, symbols. When they see those symbols, they can see what they share culturally.

The cultures are coming together in Senegal, Mali, Guinea, or Gambia. In Faat Kine, for example, there is a moment at the gas station when a Muslim man asks the pump attendant where he can pray. The attendant who shows him is a Christian. When the Muslim sees the cross he is wearing, he says Allah-o akbar (God is great). That’s all. It’s these little things that I enjoy. But making films in Africa isn’t easy, to say the least, because it doesn’t make much money.

But the problem in Africa is that we have this inferiority complex. We don’t know our own cultures, because we can’t be bothered to learn about ourselves. If you go to Africa – and I should confess my ignorance, I’m only talking about French-speaking Africa here – although you can find books by African writers in schools, even in the curriculum, you’ll only find white authors from the United States, England and France.

You can’t force someone to go to see an African movie, and in Africa there are not many cinemas – for instance, in the capital of Guinea, Conakry, there is only one. There are also very few bookshops. The African who has lived in Europe has abandoned his own culture. Yet the supreme contradiction is that it is only when they come and live in Europe that many of them discover their African selves! That is a real issue – it is Europe that makes you explore your own culture.

A space of freedom

The political conflict between generations in Africa, apparent in the post-colonisation period, still exists. When I was young in France I was militantly in favour of independence for Senegal. Those who struggled for independence really did so in good faith, and we achieved our independence in the end. But we had not been trained to run a country. People didn’t know anything about economics. Some African countries did not even have doctors. We in Senegal did not know how to make contracts, and we had no well-trained lawyers or experienced teachers. It’s too easy for a new generation that has had that education to accuse the older generation of ignorance.

However, it is important to understand that many of the elders who led us to independence were not totally honest. Some were corrupt, and that is a problem that still creates tensions between the generations. Our young people are the third generation since independence, but the conflict is still there. You have elders like myself who are still very attached to the old Africa. But that past will never come back, as I keep saying. We have to think of the new Africa.

Making the new Africa

Young Africans who were unable to train for a profession on the African continent have had to travel abroad. Of course they like the comfort. Right now we’re experiencing a brain drain in Africa, as in Asia, and the real beneficiaries of that brain drain are the United States and the United Kingdom. The youngsters also have a freedom that was not there in the past. They are free in body and mind. I think the young are right to claim that freedom. But I think the time has come when the generations can come together and cement something new.

Let me give you an example. Once apartheid was over, the question for South Africa, Namibia and that whole region, was this: who had really won freedom? Was it the black majority of South Africans, or was it really the minority of whites? Of course the apartheid regime was awful. Of course it had to be overthrown. But first and foremost it was a liberation for South Africa’s white minority. They were liberated from the pathology of colonisation, but South Africa’s core problem, that of the apartheid economy and its laws, remained. That is the problem. That is one of the struggles Africa is facing now.

This is an edited extract from remarks made by Ousmane Sembène during an interview with Derek Malcolm on 16 October 2003 at London’s Barbican Centre, at the opening of Africa at the pictures, a festival of African film.

Sembene Ousmane

“My relationship with Sembène is not just that of a biographer. When I went to school in the late 1960s, I read Molière and Chateaubriand, but not until 1972 did I read any book in which I really found myself. I’m referring to Les bouts de bois de dieu (God’s Bits of Wood), in which there is someone called Samba, which is my name – it was the first time I had read a book about a Samba!

Ousmane Sembène is indeed the father of African cinema. A Mauritanian filmmaker, Med Hondo, once said to me that Ousmane Sembène was the first filmmaker to confer value on the image. I did not understand what he meant until I saw Sembène working on his latest film, Moolaade, which has not yet been released. Then I remembered what Nelson Mandela had said about democracy: ‘Democracy is for me a value I live for and if need be I’m ready to die for it.’ Then I understood that images of Africa and the decolonisation of African cinema are the values for which Ousmane Sembène has lived for 80 years, values he is ready to die for.”

- Samba Gadjigo, biographer of Ousmane Sembène



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