06 December 2011

African Aesthetics in the Films of Ousmane Sembene

In the 1960s, several African directors of the francophone region launched their filmmaking careers. Their films mark the pioneering of genre films that portray Africa through African lenses. The most well-known director among them is Ousmane Sembene, who achieved fame through the prominence of his films, 'Borom Sarret' (1963) and 'La Noire de...' (AKA 'Black Girl,' 1967). As we assess Sembene's film practice, it becomes clear that he is a gifted griot, an artist who has developed a unique cinematic method of 'Africanizing knowledge' - to paraphrase V. Y. Mudimbe. Africanization of knowledge hereby implies the creation of indigenous aesthetics, and this aesthetic orientation can be traced to two different traditions: the tradition originating from the conventions of dominant film practices, and that of traditional narrative style indebted to the African oral tradition.

Borom Sarret is Ousmane Sembene's first film, and also the first professional film made by a black African. It achieved international acclaim when it won a prize at the 1963 Tours International Film Festival - the second African film to do so after Mustapha Alassane's Aoure (Marriage, Niger, 1962). At first glance, it is possible to dismiss Borom Sarret for its simplicity and amateurish photography. A closer examination of its structure, however, reveals a uniqueness that is non-Western, non-European and non-conventional, signalling a different mode of representation, and introducing indigenous aesthetics.

Sembene exposes the dichotomy between the urban rich and the urban poor of Dakar by transforming a series of vignettes into a microcosmic representation of African neocolonial society. The film's explicit indictment of neocolonialism, coupled with Sembene's expressively detailed delineation of its virulent impact on society, represents the creation of a unique ethos that has contributed to the film's special place in African film history as an indisputable masterpiece.

Sembene juxtaposes a linear chronology of events interspersed with fragmented episodes presented as coded political messages to illustrate and educate. In this encoded structure, we find an intense critique of the new African elite, who are presented as recreant and even more treacherous than the former colonial administrators. Although the specific content is Senegalese, Borom Sarret represents an African universe; the same story could have been filmed anywhere in black Africa, because  the nature of the socio-economic and geopolitical experiences represented have been a constant feature from the colonial period to the neocolonial present.


Sembene believes that a filmmaker should strive beyond using the medium simply to inform. Rather, a filmmaker should stimulate individual consciousness and political awareness. In effect, the role of film in the African context must be construed as a modern form of enlightenment media capable of transcending, as he puts it, 'artificial frontiers and language barriers.' Sembene began as a writer, and moved to film as a medium for addressing that part of his audience prevented from experiencing his written works by illiteracy in French. Hence, in Borom Sarret, Black Girl, and in many sequences of his other films, he appears to appropriate silent film techniques to achieve clarity This can be seen in his painstaking attention to detail, as when the camera is made to assume the function of sound, a voice-over, or an observer. For Sembene, therefore, cinema is an educational tool, and its content must be made explicit. This strategy of emphasizing image over sound, cutting across 'artifical frontiers and language barriers,' is pertinent to understanding Sembene's coded political messages. By interweaving detailed indigenous images and explicit ideology, Sembene creates a unique aesthetic that his African audience can claim as their own.

Sembene and other African filmmakers, including Med Hondo, Safi Faye and Souleymane Cisse, believe in the reciprocity of ideas: ideas flowing from the artist to the audience and vice versa, unencumbered hierarchical barriers. The manifestation of this tangible objective can be seen in Sembene's filmic process. Borom Sarret and Black Girl, for example, resonate with character delineation, masterful use of monologue, and documentary voice-over narration. The narrative and stylistic component are fashioned to inspire the audience to participate in the experience of a typical routine of the cart driver and those of Diouana. By extension, the viewer is compelled also to think about the ironies of the newly-independent Senegal in transition. This is forcefully presented in Borom Sarret by Sembene's repudiation of formal closure, compelling the viewer to identify and reflect upon the cart driver's ambiguous life and the rapid dissipation of post-Independence promises. It is worth noting that Sembene leaves the endings of all his films open so as not to impose solutions, and to allow viewers so continue the discussion after film has ended.


Both Borom Sarret and Black Girl are structured to produce an emotional impact upon the viewer.This impact, however, derives not only from the historical significance of Sembene's pioneering opposition, but also from ideology - the African filmmakers' commitment to the use of the film medium as a timely and plausible cultural document for posterity. Since what is documented has an historical and a cultural function, there is concern for accuracy in presenting a realistic view of the content. This is what makes African film practice different from many foreign cinematographic representations of Africa that only glorify exoticism.

Third world and African film practices seek to develop an aesthetic deemed appropriate for their own cultural environment. Sembene, for example, usually depends on linear structuring and the explication of minute details, allowing events to happen in a natural time continuum. He has argued that this strategy enables him deliberately to slow the pacing of his films in pursuit of spectator-participation and for the benefit of his audience, who might not experience the full impact of the message if bombarded with a rapid succession of images.

Sembene's works force us to reflect upon the present period, when the Western media continue to expand as an enterprise of acculturation, and to ask: Can Africa be awakened through its own media to recover its own lost cultural heritage? Can this happen when Africans themselves are heartily embracing the cultural assimilation imposed first by colonialism, then by neocoloniaism, while vigorously pursued by the predatory claws of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank? In other words, how can the screen and other channels of information be completely decolonized to serve African interests? Who and what are the priorities?

[This is a slightly edited extract from the chapter 'The Creation of an African Film Aesthetic/Language for Representing African Realities,' originally published by Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike in the book A Call to Action: The Films of Ousmane Sembene, edited by Sheila Patty (Praeger Publishers, 1996), pp. 105-107, 110, 115. For further insights into the work of Ousmane Sembene, readers may wish to consult Ousmane Sembene: Dialogues with Critics and Writers (University of Massachusetts Press, 1993). Clips from some of Sembene's other films can be viewed here.]

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