Sembene, Ousmane

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Sembene, Ousmane

Ousmane Sembene (ŏŏsmä´nĕ səmbĕ´nĕ), 1923–2007, Senegalese author and film director who wrote and made films in French and Wolof, often regarded as the father of sub-Saharan African cinema. He left school at 15 and after being drafted into the French Army in 1939, joined the Free French forces in 1942, accompanying them to liberated France in 1944. After World War II, Sembene became a dockworker in Marseilles, joined the Communist party, and drew on his experiences for his first novel, Le Docker noir (1956; tr. The Black Docker, 1981). He became disabled, and turned to literature as his primary occupation. His books from this period include Les Bouts de bois de dieu (1960; tr. God's Bits of Wood, 1962), which chronicles a Senegalese railroad strike of the late 1940s. In the early 1960s, he studied film at the Gorki Studios in Moscow.

Returning to Senegal in 1963, Sembene wished to reach a larger and more diverse audience and to develop a truly African style. He soon turned to filmmaking, producing a number of feature and short films that ranged from satirical comedies to serious dramas and documentaries. In general, his films explore the lives of ordinary Africans, treat women's stories and issues with particular sensitivity, and view such larger themes as colonialism, racism, and social class from a populist and leftist point of view. In 1966 he directed La Noire de … [black girl], which uses a combination of realistic Western narrative and traditional African storytelling to follow a young African woman's mistreatment by a French family. A landmark in film history, it was the first feature ever produced by an African filmmaker and won a prize at the 1967 Cannes Film Festival.

Beginning with Mandabi [the money order] (1968), Sembene produced films in the Wolof language, taking his work to cities and villages throughout Senegal. Angry and often bitingly satirical views of modern African regimes, his subsequent films, including Xala (1974) and Ceddo [outsiders] (1977), were temporarily banned or censored in Senegal because parts of them were deemed offensive to government standards. His later films include Guelwaar (1992), a groundbreaking satire on Muslim-Christian conflicts in a small village; Samori (1994); and his final films, Faat-Kiné (2000) and Moolaadé (2004), both of which again reflect Sembene's profound concern for African women.

See F. Pfaff, The Cinema of Ousmane Sembene (1984); R. Faulkingham et al., ed., Ousmane Sembene: Dialogues with Critics and Writers (1994); S. Petty, ed., A Call to Action: The Films of Ousmane Sembene (1996); D. Murphy, Sembene: Imagining Alternatives in Film and Fiction (2001).

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