17 May 2011

Three Films by Ousmane Sembene

Popular narratives, world war, Marxism and Modernism, Khrushchev’s Moscow, African working-class life: a rich education for any artist. Over four decades of film-making, Ousmane Sembene has deployed this formation to extraordinary effect. If he has focused consistently on the social relations of Africa’s distorted development, the sheer breadth of his aesthetic— the disorientating combination of African ritual and modes of speech with expressionist set-pieces, domestic naturalism, epic choreography, social satire, sexual comedy or farce - projects his work on to a broader, more universal canvas. The complexity of his films eschews surface slickness: narrative realism can be undercut by jarring moments of melodrama, flashbacks, non-professional acting; which yet contribute, as in Brecht, to an epic sense. There is no dogmatic closure in Sembene’s work: elements of didacticism are undermined by the revelation of fresh complexities, endings are characteristically freeze frame, the final outcome still unsure. Contested relationships remain open - as in the trickster tales: Brer Rabbit's forerunner Leuk the Hare may get away this time, but that doesn't mean he's safe.


Sembene’s first film, a mere 19 minutes long, contains many of the elements - though not the humour - that would characterize his future work. Borom Sarret (1962) sees Dakar through the eyes of a cart driver - the bonhomme charette of the film’s title - who narrates the voice-over, in French. Starting off from the crowded working-class quarter, he is hired to take a well-dressed passenger up to the deserted, tree-lined streets of the Plateau, where carts like his are banned. The stark, black-and-white documentary style, reminiscent of Italian neo-realism, is heightened to a more melodramatic register by the effect of non-professional actors and the use of post-synchronous sound. The sense of excess - of antirealism - is intensified by the soundtrack, the music of the traditional xalam giving way to the strings of Salzburg as we reach the Plateau.

Stopped by a policeman, the borom sarret tries to pull his papers from his pocket; as he does so, his war medal falls to the ground. His hand reaches out to grasp it, but the policeman’s boot stamps down first. We see a subjective shot of his tormentor, towering above. At another point, the driver is pulled up by a traditional gewel, who starts to sing the praises of his ancient family name in hope of cash. As the flattery continues on the soundtrack, the camera turns to a shoeshine boy who has found a new customer among the audience; but as soon as he’s finished, the sharp-suited fellow kicks the boy’s box away and leaves without paying—the sort of story the new gewel could tell. The end is still more damning. When the borom sarret returns home empty handed, his wife passes him their child and walks out, promising: ‘Tonight we will have something to eat’. Here as elsewhere - Guelwaar, for instance - prostitution is provocatively postulated as the economic basis of Senegalese life.


Six years later in his fourth film, Mandabi, or The Money Order, Sembene would again map out the socio-geography of the streets of Dakar. In between he had made Niaye (1964) and La Noire de . . . (1966). Initially he had planned to make the film in black and white, wanting at all costs to avoid any element of the picturesque- ‘J’avais peur de tomber dans le folklore’. Instead, the colour is servant to the drama - emphasizing the comically oversized sky-blue boubou of Ibrahima Dieng, for instance, the central character: a man dwarfed by his own vanity, the sleeves of his magnificent robe obstruct his hands. The film opens with the rhythmically sweeping blades of a group of roadside barbers, shaving customers beneath a shady tree; their dextrous movements are underscored by the kora soundtrack. But rising to his feet to pay, Dieng - played by Makhourédia Gueye, one of the few professional actors Sembene works with - finds that his shave has left him penniless, and must return home to his two grumbling wives. The money order sent home from Paris by Dieng’s nephew Abdou seems to offer salvation: ‘You will kill us with hope!’ Dieng’s wives assure the postman. An ironic shot shows young Abdou street-sweeping beneath the Eiffel Tower.

The series of obstacles that Dieng now confronts recalls the list of impossible tasks the trickster must perform, to escape from deadly danger. But while Leuk the Hare will succeed in duping the leopard of his skin or the elephant of his tusks, Dieng’s attempts end in repeated failure. At the Post Office, he learns he cannot cash the money order without an ID card; at the Police Station, he can’t get a card because he doesn’t have a birth certificate; at the City Hall, he is turned away again, for not knowing his exact date of birth; even his own origin becomes unobtainable. Dieng’s self-regard - the respect due to a devout Muslim elder - crumbles before the Western bureaucratic structures with which the increasingly elusive money order is hedged. Long shots of the blue boubou’d Dieng as an anonymous figure, lost in Dakar’s crowded streets, cut to close-ups of his deeply worried face - the image informed, as Fredric Jameson puts it in The Geopolitical Aesthetic (London 1992, p. 2.), ‘by its non-visual systemic cause’. The mandat becomes a socially corrosive force: family and neighbourhood relationships begin to crumble; Dieng’s encounters with the corner shopkeeper, quack photographer, sharp-suited conman, deteriorate into brawls or end in humiliation. Finally one of his relatives cashes the cheque but pockets the money, explaining to an incredulous and desperate Dieng that he’d been robbed.

In counterpoint to the filming of Mandabi, Sembene was fighting his own battle for and against money from France. The Minister for Culture Malraux had secured the funding for Sembene’s previous movie, La Noire de . . ., the story of an African girl taken back to France by a white family; but at the price of having voice-over and dialogue spoken in French. Since it is an explicit premise of the film that Diouana can barely speak the language, this was a radically inappropriate form for the interior monologues through which she voices her experience of Europe, her alienation and her fears. In trickster fashion, Sembene managed to turn the linguistic tables on his metropolitan funders by using Toto Bissainthe’s beautifully modulated French-Caribbean tones to deliver Diouana’s thoughts in voice-over - the non-French speaker articulating, as the white family cannot, a fluent and complex vision of the world.

With Mandabi, Sembene managed to extract enough funding to cut both a Wolof-language and a francophone version, Le Mandat, also released in 1968. But this was the last time he would be dependent on French state funding, or make a wholly French-speaking film. Henceforth, language in Sembene’s films - high or low, formal or intimate, Wolof or French - would be a function of dramatic requirement, not producers’ diktat. Later films would receive funding from Senegal and, in the 80s, from Channel 4 and Canal Plus. In any case, the Pompidou government could hardly have been expected to welcome his next project.


In the context of intensifying struggles against Portuguese rule - Amilcar Cabral’s troops would play as extras - Sembene returned to his native region of Casamance to explore, in Emitai (1971), transformations in mass consciousness in the course of anti-colonial resistance. The atrocities perpetrated by French forces requisi tioning rice in the region during the Second World War had first been denied by the authorities, then blamed on a handful of Rightists installed by the Vichy regime. In fact, there was an essential continuity of personnel throughout the period. A recurrent pattern in his work, Sembène juxtaposes two socially defined spaces: white military rituals are shown in counterpoint - sometimes ironic, often chilling - to the animist practices of the Diola people, whose fetishes and sacred grove mirror back the flagpole and parade ground of the Army camp. But the heart of the film dwells on the contradictions that confront the villagers, as their traditional deities fail to protect them from the French.

In desperation, their chief Djiméko leads the young men out to battle against the superior occupying force. He falls wounded and is carried back to confront his gods in the great gnarled tree where they dwell. In an extraordinary scene, they claim that he must die for refusing to make the proper sacrifices. Djiméko raises his voice to them: ‘I must die, but so will you’. Resistance is taken up by the village women, singing together in defiance of the white commander, in scenes that are intercut with the fatalistic rituals of the defeated menfolk. The men now play the female role, carrying rice to the French, while the women pick up the spears they’ve left. Just before the massacre - the villagers have been given one last chance to reveal the women’s store important news reaches the Army camp. The photograph of Pétain that stands behind the commander is silently replaced by one of de Gaulle. At the end, the screen goes blank. The shots ring out. Under French pressure, the scene that showed the troops shooting down the villagers was cut by the Senegalese authorities. French troops are still stationed in Senegal. ‘You don’t tell history to get revenge, but to root yourselves in the ground’, Sembène would explain when the French ambassador stormed out of a Dakar showing of Camp de Thiaroye (1988), based on a historical, postwar incident in which thirty-five tirailleurs sénégalais were slaughtered and many more wounded as the French Army suppressed a revolt over pay and conditions. ‘I didn’t want to indicate what the exact date was—whether de Gaulle was taking power in Senegal, or in France’, Sembene has said in an interview with Guy Hennebelle (‘Ousmane Sembene: “En Afrique noire nous sommes tous gouvernés par des enfants mongoliens du colonialisme”,’ Les Lettres françaises, 6–12 October 1971, p. 16.): ‘I wanted to suggest that for us Africans, there was no difference between the two regimes—the methods changed a bit but the objective was still to maintain the French Empire.’

[This essay is extracted from 'An African Brecht: The Cinema of Ousmane Sembene' by David Murphy, which was originally published in New Left Review, Vol. 16 (July-August 2002, pp. 117-21.]

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