For my Black History Month review project, I think this would be the perfect time to make a Top 7 list involving the Father of African Cinema himself. We’re talking about none other than Ousmane Sembene! This writer, poet, and film director from Senegal is massively overlooked even with film buffs who know things about the international cinema scene. How is it that I didn’t know who this guy was until only a couple of years ago? I would like to thank Cameroonian blogger Dr. Y. for introducing me to this filmmaker. Sembene was the first African to direct any kind of film with his debut short Borrom Sarret as well as feature length film Black Girl. His career would span for decades until he passed away in 2007. For 84 years, he lived in his home country during and after French colonization, dealt with censorship with his films (Camp de Thiaroye was a big example, as you may know), but received international recognition. Even though so many film bloggers and critiques may be better writers or have more traffic than me, I doubt many of them would step up to make a list or article like this one. Seriously, this Senegalese filmmaker needs to be taught in classes alongside other such as Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, and Quentin Tarantino for crying out loud. For those scoring at home, this is the third Top 7 list involving “things you didn’t know about…” themes, the second one involving a specific person (the first being Japanese animator/writer/artist Yoshitoshi ABe), and the first one involving a live action filmmaker.
Ready for this? I’m going to hit you with some facts you didn’t know about this late, great, and severely underrated moviemaker.
7. His hometown was Ziguinchor, Senegal
Even though Ousmane Sembene spent a good amount of his life on and off in the capital of Dakar, he was born in Ziguinchor. This city is the 7th largest in the country with just over 205,000 people living there. It’s in Southwest Senegal and isn’t far off from the Guinea-Bissau border. It actually got tons of visitors due to it’s several beaches and architecture. The 1992 African Cup of Nations was hosted there among other venues. Ziguinchor actually has sister city and county status with the Tite Region in Guinea-Bissau, Saint-Maur-des-Fosses in France, and even Prince George’s County, Maryland (Eastern part of the DMV region).
6. Ousmane Sembene actually made a cameo in his movie Mandabi.
I reviewed Mandabi a while ago, and even I didn’t notice this! Sembene actually Alfred Hitchcock’d himself by inserting himself in a random part of the movie. He actually played a letter writer who helps the main character Ibrahima with writing to his family in France since he’s illiterate. This was such a sneaky cameo, but very effective. I liked how low-key it was as the movie focused on the other characters. This is a self-insert cameo done right in hindsight as he never took the shine away. This won’t be the only thing on this list involving literacy. We’ll get to that later.
5. Sembene used to work at a Citroen factory.
This was certainly a change of careers. How many filmmakers do you know that worked on cars as an actual job? Ousmane Sembene moved to France to work for that automatic company in 1947, so there’s a possibility that in the late 40s that someone could’ve been driving around in a car he helped assemble. This actually happened before he directed movies or even writing books. No disrespect to all the car fans out there, but if he was still working at Citroen, we wouldn’t have so many quality stories from him.
4. Ousmane Sembene had knowledge of three different languages.
This might not surprise some of Ousmane Sembene’s fans or those familiar with Senegalese culture, but this is still a very interesting fact. Most of his movies are in Wolof and/or French which makes a lot of sense because those are the two main official languages in Senegal with the former being native to that part of Africa and with France formally colonizing that nation. Wolof is his mother tongue and he was equally fluent in French. Besides that, he actually had working knowledge of Arabic of all things. I could see it being plausible since Senegal is a Muslim-majority nation, so there would be some Arabic vocabulary at mosque services or theologians in that religion knowing how to speak it. Good on him for being a polyglot. Now if you excuse me, I need to go back to learning Lingala and maybe re-learning Japanese again…Maybe a little Spanish wouldn’t hurt either!
3. During his earlier years, he had bread wrapped in French-language newspapers.
Okay, maybe the bread may not have been packaged in THAT snazzy of a way as you see above, but this still happened in his life. Ousmane Sembene’s father was completely illiterate and worked as a fisherman while never attending school. Sembene admitted that every time they would get bread, it would be wrapped in a French-language newspaper. When they would have bread, his father would ask to read it to him. It was even implied that he was the only one who could read French or Wolof in his immediate family. What really didn’t help was that Sembene was expelled from school at age 13 after fighting back against his white teacher who physically abused him (could this have indirectly inspired his anti-colonial motifs in his movies?). He was able to write books and movies after the fact, so he was still determined to read and write while also being inspired to use Wolof as a major form of dialogue so other Senegalese could hear their native language in cinematic form. Credit to Culture Trip for this fact.
2. He served in the French Army
This fact legitimately shocked me especially after watching Camp de Thiaroye and researching things on that movie. Boy, does this give that film a whole other dynamic if one has read my review or read my Top 7 list on banned or sabotaged movies/series. Since Senegal was under French control, Sembene was conscripted into the French Army and even fought during World War II. Want to make this even crazier in hindsight? He fought in the Senegalese Tirailleurs which is the exact same corp that got screwed over by the French Army by not paying them enough. Wow, I can definitely see this affecting his creative processes in that aforementioned war drama and it was an effect on his other film Emitai which dealt with the Vichy government exploiting a Senegalese town.
1. His entire filmography consists of original screenplays or adaptations of his own writings.
I mentioned before that he was a writer and some of his movies were based on his own books. What I didn’t realize is that every movie he directed was something that he created himself. Some of them were based on his own books (Black Girl and Mandabi come to mind) or fully original works that he wrote like Camp de Thiaroye and Moolaade. How many directors can you name where they can say all of their portfolio consists of fully original work? So many others have made either adaptations, remakes, sequels to other pre-existing works, or straight up plagiarize others. This is freaking awesome and I have even more respect for Ousmane Sembene now for being so original during his lifetime. Other directors WISH they could be that innovative and not rely on pre-existing stories they never wrote.
So, what do you think? Have you seen any of Ousmane Sembene’s movies? Did you know about these particular facts? Feel free to leave a comment.
All photos are property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws.
The screenshot of Ousmane Sembene is from YouTube.
The screenshot from Ziguinchor is from YouTube and is property of One Man Wolf Pack.
Mandabi is property of Ousmane Sembene and The Criterion Collection. The screenshot is from Discover African Cinema and is property of Ousmane Sembene and The Criterion Collection.
The screenshot of the Ciroen is from YouTube and is property of Driving.ca.
The Polyglot definition picture is from Effortless Learning and is property of Effortless Learning.
The picture of the newspaper bags is from Pinterest and is property of L’Amande.