Ousmane Sembene was born at Ziguinchor in the rural southern region of Senegal, where the action of 'Emitai,' his 1971 film, takes place. Unlike other European-educated African film-makers and writers, Sembene had little formal schooling - only three years of vocational training beyond the primary grades. Sembene's life paralleled the story of French recruitment of unwilling African natives told in 'Emitai': he fought in the French army during World War II as a forced enlistee. He remained afterward for a time in France, employed as a dockworker and union organizer in Marseilles while training himself to be a writer. Sembene has published five novels and a collection of short stories, a body of work so impressive as to place him at the forefront of African writers. His most famous novel, Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu (translated in America as God's Bits of Wood) documents in semi-fictional form the historic Dakar-Niger railroad strike of October 1947, a major step toward Senegalese independence from the French. His 1966 novel, Le Mandat, was the basis for his celebrated film, 'Mandabi.'
Sembene trained briefly in the Soviet Union before turning his talents to film in the early sixties. But to try to detect Russian influence on his work, or indeed any influences, is mostly futile, for Sembene is very much his own creator. He is one of those rare talents who make film production seem an absolutely natural act. Nevertheless, one might view 'Mandabi' as no less than an African 'Bicycle Thief,' with the same universal power and appeal. It relates a similar story of a simple, uneducated man in the city (a non-actor, as in the DeSica film) who is reduced to hopelessness in his circular confrontation with the bureaucracy, and brought to despair when stolen from by a younger generation made corrupt by a society which has lost its human values. 'Emitai,' Sembene's 1971 film, trades the slightly abstract social consciousness of 'Mandabi' for a direct, historically oriented attack on French colonial practices in the African rural areas. In its use of a provincial setting, in its almost surreal treatment of tribal rites, in its absurdly comical caricatures of the fascistic oppressors, and in its utilization of a mass hero, 'Emitai' also offers a parallel to Rocha's Antonio das Mortes, a film from another neo-colonialized country, Brazil.
Sembene toured the United States late in the fall of 1972, in order to raise funds for his next film project. He stopped in Madison, Wisconsin, for a day, exhibited 'Emitai,' and spoke at length to student groups at the University. Visibly exhausted from his tour, he nevertheless answered a continuous stream of questions with seemingly endless patience, a task made doubly difficult by the fact that he speaks only halting English. Luckily, the questions were skillfully translated into French for Sembene's benefit, then the answers back again into English by his superb American interpreter, Carrie Moore. The following interview is an edited version of Ousmane Sembene's day at Madison.
Q: Originally you were a highly successful acclaimed novelist. Why did you make the switch to film-making?
A: I've just finished another book but I think it is of limited importance. First, 80% of Africans are illiterate. Only 20% of the populace possibly can read it. But further, my books indispose the bourgeoisie, so I am hardly read at home. My movies have more followers than the political parties and the Catholic and Moslem religions combined. Every night I can fill up a movie theater. The people will come whether they share my ideas or not. I tell you, in Africa, especially in Senegal, even a blind person will go to the cinema and pay for an extra seat for a young person to sit and explain the film to him. He will feel what's going on. Personally, I prefer to read because I learned from reading. But I think that cinema is culturally much more important, and for us in Africa it is an absolute necessity. There is one thing you can't take away from the African masses and that is having seen something.
Q: But are the films by native black Africans being seen at home?
Q: What are the particular circumstances in making films in Senegal?
A: We produce films in a country where there is only one political party, that of Senghor. If you are not within the party, you are against it. Thus we have lots of problems, and they will continue while Senghor is in control. For instance, his government has just vetoed distribution of the film of a young director, the story of a black American who discovers Senegal. The film began with cinema verite style, but soon became oriented and plotted out to focus on our problems, as it should be. When the government saw the change, it vetoed the film. We are approximately twenty film-makers in Senegal. Last year we made four long films. They were of unequal value, but we produced them through our own means. Financing is our most complex problem. We go all over the world giving talks, carrying our machines and tape recorders, projecting our movies, trying to find distribution. When we secure a little bit of money and have paid our debts, we can begin a new film. The sources of the money vary. You can find a very small group of people who have money which they might lend you in exchange for participating in the filming. Perhaps you can locate a friend who has credit at the bank. But most of us make only one film every two years. The editing of 'Emitai' was financed with laboratory credit. But the laboratories that know us are-in France, where we have to go for our montage and technical work. That's very ex- pensive. We're not against France, but we'd prefer to stay at home. 'Emitai' was shot on money I received on a commission from an American church for making a film called 'Tauw.' We do not refuse any money, even from a church. Our films are shot in 35mm for the city theaters, then presented in 16mm in the rural areas where there is no 35mm. It is difficult to find 16mm projectors in the cities, a problem created intentionally by those in charge of distribution. We began by making our films in 16mm-much more economical. But the distributors would refuse to project the films in the cities because of the 16mm, so we had to adapt ourselves to their game. On paper, we could have our own distribution company. But we think that isn't the solution. Why create a parallel market, spend a lot of money, then be beaten down? What exists already should be nationalized.
Q: Are your films distributed throughout Africa?
Q: Has 'Emitai' been seen in France?
A: Every time I want to show this film, the date falls on 'a day of mourning for de Gaulle.' De Gaulle dies every day for my film.
Q: Who were the actors in 'Mandabi'?
A: They weren't professionals. The old man who plays the main role, we found working near the airport. He had never acted before. I had a team of colleagues and together we looked around the city and country for actors. We didn't pay a lot, but we did pay, so it was very painful to choose. There was always the influence of my parents, my friends, and even the mistresses of my friends, and we had to struggle against all of that. You laugh, but I assure you it was very difficult. Once the police telephoned me and soon this fellow arrived who was their representative. I was a little disturbed. But he had just come to tell us that he had a friend who wanted us to put his mistress in the film. I was forced to accept or else it would have cost me. It is concessions like this one which makes work difficult.
Q: How did you rehearse 'Mandabi'?
A: We rehearsed for one month in a room very much like this lecture hall. 'Mandabi' was the first film completely in the Senegalese language and I wanted the actors to speak the language accurately. There was no text, so the actors had to know what they were going to say, and say it at the right moment. Cinema is very arbitrary, yet there is a limited time and during it the actors must state what needs to be stated. people often reproach Senegalese film-makers for slowness, so we must be aware that cinema is not only the image but it is a question of punctuation.
Q: Could you talk about the role of music in 'Mandabi'?
Q: Are you satisfied with your conclusion to 'Mandabi'?
A: I don't think I really have to like the ending. It's only up to me to give the situation. The ending is linked to the evolution of the Senegalese society, thus it is as ambiguous. As the postman says, either we will have to bring about certain changes or we will remain corrupt. I don't know. Do you like the ending?
Q: What we wonder is this: do you believe it is the duty of the political artist to go beyond presenting a picture of corruption - to offer a vision of the future, of what could be?
Q: Do you find that people in America find similar associations with 'Mandabi'?
A: Initially, the film was not destined for other people than Africans, but we can see that certain films, whether made in Africa or in America, can give us something and teach us, and that a contact is possible from people to people. There is an old film that I like a lot, The Grapes of Wrath, which dates from a moment of crisis in America. But the present-day peasants in Africa are at that level. So, you see there are works that create communication.
Q: Do you find similar communication and inspiration in the cinema verite of the Frenchman, Jean Rouch?
A: Inspired by Rouch? He applied his methods a few years ago to the French problem, but didn't go far and didn't bring a revolution to the French cinema. I think the New Wave of Godard and Truffaut has contributed something. But cinema verite in the fashion of Rouch is not really cinema verite, nor is it his invention. The methods date from the Russian socialist films of Dziga-Vertov.
Q: Would you comment on your own experiences as a student of filmmaking in Russia?
I don't talk about my Russian experiences in America just as I didn't talk of my American experiences in Russia. Every country has its methods and every system of education tries to perpetuate what it represents. Their teaching is socialist or communist just as teaching in America is linked to the establishment. You can take it or leave it. And since I was ignorant, I was forced to take what was given to me, and afterwards I used it as I thought I should.
Q: Why did you make 'Emitai,' 'God of Thunder,' a political film addressed particularly to the peasantry?
the peasants. You see, you can have hope in the peasant, but you can't base your revolutionary movement around them. But we're not discouraged. The peasantry is a force on which we can depend.
Q: What is the historical background of 'Emitai'?
A: I came myself from this rural region and these true events of the Diolla people inspired me to present an image of French conduct in my home territory during my early manhood. During the last World War, those of my age, 18,were forced to join the French army. Without knowing why, we were hired for the liberation of Europe. Then when we returned home, the colonialists began to kill us, whether we were in Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Algeria, or Madagascar. Those of us who had returned from the French war involvement in Vietnam in 1946 came back to struggle against the French. We were not the same as the black soldiers at home from French-speaking Africa who participated in colonialism instead of demonstrating against it. Now, 10 years after independence, it is these same ex-soldiers who are bringing about coups d'etat.
Q: Aren't the women the true heroes of 'Emitai,' as they also were in your revolutionary novel, called in America 'God's Bits of Wood'?
A: As 'Emitai' shows, when the French wanted our rice, the women refused but the men accepted the orders. Women have played a very important part in our history. They have been guardians of our traditions and culture even when certain of the men were alienated during the colonial period. The little that we do know of our history we owe to our women, our grandmothers. The African women are more liberated than elsewhere. In certain African countries, it is the women who control the market economy. There are villages where all authority rests with the women. And whether African men like it or not, they can't do anything without the women's con- sent, whether it be marriage, divorce, or baptism.
Q: What were the circumstances in filming 'Emitai'?
Q: Were you aware of evolving in your choice of a hero from the individual in 'Mandabi' to the collective hero of 'Emitai'?
A: I'm not the one who's evolving. It's the subject which imposes the movement. This story happened to be a collective story. I wanted to show action of a well-disciplined ethnic group in which everyone saw himself only as an integral part of the whole.
Q: Have the Diolla people seen the film?
A: Before premiering the film for the Senegalese government, I went back to the village to project it. I remained three nights. All of the villagers from the whole area came and, because they have no cinema, their reaction was that of children looking at themselves in a mirror for the first time. After the first showing, the old men withdrew into the sacred forest to discuss the film. When I wanted to leave, they said, "Wait until tomorrow.' They came back the second evening, then returned to the rain forest. The third evening there was a debate. The old men were happy to hear that there was a beautiful language for them, but they weren't happy with the presentation of the gods. Though these forces obviously did not manifest them- selves when the French arrived, the gods still were sacred and helped the old men maintain authority. The young people accused the old of coward- ice for not resisting at the end of the war. The women, of course, agreed, but were very proud of their own role.
Q: And the reaction in the cities?
A: Many asked me why I wanted to make a film about the Diollas. You have to know that the majority of maids in Senegal are Diollas to give you an idea of the superiority felt by others in relation to them. (The African bourgeois have two or three maids. It's not very expensive.) To see 'Emitai,' the maids left the children. They invited each other from neighborhood to neighborhood to see the film. Finally, the majority Ouloofs went to see the film and realized that the history of Senegal and of the resistance was not just the history of the majority of Ouloofs. The Diollas are a part of Senegal. And so are the other ethnic groups. And when the Senegalese government finally decreed that they were going to teach Ouloof, they were in a hurry to add Diolla. I don't know if that is because of the film, but that's what happened.
Q: Your films obviously are influential political instruments in Senegal. Could films made in the United States have the same effect?
A: Alone, no. With the people, yes. There are those who stay secluded and say that artists are creating important works and everything is going to change. Nothing will change. You can put all the revolutionary works on the television, but if you don't go down into the streets, nothing will change. That is my opinion.
[This interview (including the introduction) was originally published under the title 'Ousmane Sembene: An Interview' by G. M. Perry and Patrick McGilligan with Ousmane Sembene in Film Quarterly (Vol. 26, No. 3, Spring, 1973, pp. 36-42). Several of Sembene's films are on YouTube.]