Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

Zooming Out: Sembene's Ceddo and Third Cinema Aesthetics

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

Zooming Out: Sembene's Ceddo and Third Cinema Aesthetics

Article excerpt


Ousmane Sembene's Ceddo (1976)' dramatizes the conflicting historical forces that animate a village in the coastal Senegambian region at a time, so the film cues us to surmise, a century or two before the full onslaught of European colonialism in west Africa during the nineteenth century. In its final seconds, there is an arresting medium shot of the dignified and beautiful Dior Yacine, princess of a Wolof tribal group in the midst of a divisive process of Islamization, walking with slow determination towards the camera. With a rifle brought to the region by a European tradesman, she has just shot and killed the diminutive but upstart imam who, over the course of the film, has gradually wrested control of the village from her father the king and his entourage of once-deferential noblemen. Alongside the viewer, she has probably surmised that the imam sponsored the subversive plot of a regicidal retinue comprised of these noblemen to bring about her father's death by snakebite, about which she has just been apprised.

Dressed in ornate traditional garments reflective of her high station, Dior Yacine moves proudly and defiantly towards us, surrounded by a circle of male converts whose bright white skullcaps are icons of their conversion to the new faith (fig. l). At the precise moment when her ambulation breaks through the circle of observers, Dior casts a quick glance at the convert on either side of her, both of whom intently follow her progress, visibly confounded by the scandalously impious act of violence she has just committed. The camera performs a brief tracking motion outward from the action as the princess walks between the converts. Its motion captures how the princess accomplishes her exit from the freshly, though incompletely, Islamized community, marking her provocative foray onto as yet uncharted narrative terrain. Then, not atypically for a Sembene film's conclusion, the shot freezes, leaving the viewer with an indelible image of Dior Yacine's determination, the believers' disapproving awe, and a narrative jarringly halted at a moment of tangible dynamism and uncertainty.

Inspired by the radical act of their princess, the reluctant converts and resisters might now seem well positioned to continue defending their traditional village from the expanding influence of Islam. Cognizant of the region's subsequent history, however, the viewer remains aware of the discrepancy between the princess' defiance just witnessed onscreen and the tremendous "real world" popular success of the new religion up to the present day. While national and regional audiences at the time of the film's release would long since have been embedded in a majority Sunni Muslim society, today's viewer has the added knowledge of the increasing instability brought to the region by the more recent rise of militant Islamist sects on its periphery-al Qaeda in northern Mali and Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, most importantly.

Though it helps bring the film to a striking close, it would be misleading to imply that this backward motion of the camera, on its own as it were, is the most conspicuous aesthetic element of Ceddo's final sequence. In fact, it would hardly be worth noting were it not for the fact that the film as a whole is so chock full of pronounced contractions and dilations of the frame of action that it becomes impossible to deny that they form the signature feature of Ceddo's visual style. These devices, featuring both zoom and tracking shots in depth, form the guiding principle of the films aesthetic agenda.

Throughout Ceddo, the zoom shot in particular allows Sembene to shift the viewer's attention analytically from the totality of a dramatic scene to one of its specific elements with the use of only a single camera and without the intervention of a cut. With respect to the film's production, this technique no doubt allowed Sembene to economize on equipment expenses, never a trifling matter in the context of African cinema's restricted budgets at the time of Ceddo's shooting almost forty years ago and up to the present day. …

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