Young Ousmane was not predisposed to become the master of African cinema. His family, fishermen from Zinguidor, wasn’t wealthy or from a noble background. But when he was born in 1923, Casamance had just been “pacified”, after three centuries of active resistance. He grew up in a dominated world, then, but one that kept on fighting for its emancipation.
Sembène rebelled against colonial violence from a very young age. The memorable slap he gave his schoolteacher to protest against a groundless accusation when he was only fifteen brought him back to the hard reality of a fisherman’s life: “After being expelled, my father taught me how to fish and smoke a pipe”. Schooled by life, he became a mason and a mechanic in Dakar. In 1942, he was called up in the 6th Colonial Artillery Regiment and discovered new facets of colonization in Africa and Europe. Back in Dakar in 1946, he took part in the Dakar-Niger railway strike that he described brilliantly in God’s Bits of Wood (1960). A boat-person ahead of time, he stowed away illegally for France in 1948 and became a stevedore in Marseilles. He became a member of the General Confederation of Labour trade union and joined the Communist Party in 1950. He stayed there until the independence of Senegal.
He figured his commitment to class struggle came from his culture: “Pushing men to think about the conditions of their lives”. He took a stand in his writing, describing his experience as an immigrant worker in The Black Docker (1956) or the hesitations of an African doctor who wants to preserve the assets of traditional medication in L’harmattan (1963). But he quickly realized how little influence African literature had in Africa: “Books are limited by the purchasing power. Images have an immediate impact on people; books don’t”.  This realization was a turning-point: after studying at the Gorki Institute in Moscow, he directed Borom Sarret in 1962. In this 19-minute-long account of a Dakar cart driver’s tragic day, he produced a sort of manifesto of what African cinema was to become: the portrayal of common people instead of heroes, the clash between the old and the new, denouncing the corruption, the powers that be and the elites. He inaugurated a programme: reconquering African territory and the values likely to support its independence. Cinema, he used to say, should be the “evening class” for the African youth.
His cinema, a lesson in questioning, attacks the corruption of the ruling class, the new bourgeoisie and the bureaucracy. Niyae (1965) depicts the customary chiefs’ hypocrisy; The Money Order (1968), which analyses the bent workings of the Senegalese society through an ordinary man’s trials in trying to cash a money order from France, is an appeal to “change all of that”, whereas Xala (1976) shows the privileged classes’ powerlessness to solve the country’s issues through a middle-class man’s incapacity to “consummate” his recent marriage.
His films, a lesson in emancipation, show his concern for women’s roles. Black Girl (1966) is an extraordinary meditation on subservience through the tragic destiny of a maid hired by White people. In Emitaï and Ceddo (1978), he presents liberating women. “In Africa, he told me, it is not women who need liberating but women who need to liberate men!”. That was his life and the subject of his last films. In 2000, with Faat Kiné, he started a trilogy on “daily heroism”, whose two first parts were dedicated to the African woman’s condition. The third part, The Brotherhood of Rats, was in the pipeline. Faat Kiné is a modern personality who raises her children alone after her husband has left her. The second part, Moolade (2003), epic and powerful, toured the world. Four little girls run away to avoid excision and find refuge with Collé Ardo (Fatoumata Coulibaly), who offers them hospitality (the moolaadé) despite the village’s and her husbands’ pressure. A beautiful tribute to a lifetime commitment, the film was awarded the Best Foreign Film award by the American critics, the ‘Un Certain Regard’ prize at the Cannes Festival, the Special Jury Prize at the Marrakech International Film Festival 2004, etc.
His films, a lesson in demystification, orchestrate a violent rejection of all religious indoctrination. No religion is spared: animism when it justifies resignation in the face of the settler’s demands in Emitaï, Islam when it becomes hegemonic in Ceddo, charlatan diviners in Xala, etc. Sembène called himself a non-believer and wrote it in red letters on his house in Dakar. He militated in favor of independence, liberation and African unity despite all of the obstacles and his message always remained unchanged. He spoke to his people and claimed he was not very concerned about his films’ success in the North: “Europe is not my centre!”
With Guelwaar (1992), which fiercely opposes Western aid, he engaged in a reflection for the coming generations. However, what he acknowledged was bitter: “After forty years of independence, it’s a jungle!” Far from being defeatist, he embodied an impressive hope for change and readily quoted philosopher Alain: “Pessimism is an outburst of temper, optimism stems from will”.
He pinned this hope on the assertion of an independent Africa: “Under the pressure of the media, Africans, who have only balls of manioc in their hands, start to talk about globalization!” By filming ) the tragedy of the demobilized soldiers murdered by the French army that refused to pay them in Camp at Thiaroye (1988), Sembène called up history to assert a memory, that of the oppressed people who drew the dignity to exist from their culture.
The Cannes Film Festival payed tribute to him in 2005 by asking him to hold the prestigious Cinema Lesson reserved each year for a great international filmmaker.  True to himself, he spoke his mind. In particular, he declared: “I would like there to be ruptures between France and the Francophones. The signed texts are not valid. When you share a bed with someone, tell him/her where your abscess is”. That didn’t prevent France from awarding him the Légion d’honneur the following year. As for Sembène, he kept on dreaming of bringing to the screen the life of Samory Touré, the Mandinka sovereign of Wassoulou who fought against colonization — a film with extras and costumes that requested a budget that he never managed to raise.
In his advice to the young filmmakers of the Média Centre of Dakar , he stressed the need to learn: “Learn, and learn again! Even at my age, I keep on learning.” We too have never stopped learning from him. He is a baobab that has lain down, the first great African filmmaker, a tireless activist, a pioneer and a spokesman, a father to many, the symbol of an era for others; in all events, a precursor. His character was legendary, demanding as he was with himself, feared by actors but nonetheless fascinating in their eyes. An artist. An extraordinary ceddo.
EXCERPTS FROM INTERVIEWS
Will you want to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery?
Who’s going to commemorate it? From which point of view? What on earth will Europe be able to commemorate? The end of horror? Kings restored it, the Republic went on with it…Priest Grégoire? He was a candidate at Saint Louis but wasn’t elected. It’s up to the Africans to analyze this period of slavery. Even that is being taken away from them! To what extent were Africans involved in this? And the Arab world? Slavery is still alive: children are being sold illegally! I would like Africans to be brave and analyze this issue, but without letting the West intervene: let it be a witness only.
Like the priest in Ceddo who is never allowed to speak…
His presence is enough! With his get-up, we know he is there. Why should we let him speak? To say what?
Jack Lang said that the West should ask for forgiveness…
The Pope went to Korea to ask for forgiveness: it’s already been done! Why do Westerners keep on asking for forgiveness? In whose name? I tell Africans: you can forgive but you cannot forget. Asking for forgiveness is part of the Western culture of absolution. I don’t believe them! Africans were accomplices on every level of this chain of slavery but when you say that, they get mad!
Today, don’t you think that these issues are ripe and ready to be tackled?
The man is always ripe if he knows how to think. That would imply that we weren’t ripe yesterday. So will we be rotten the day after tomorrow?
SEMEBÈNE AND WRITING
Do you first work on the book or on the film ?
I work on both and that is what’s difficult. One influences the other. For example, I’ve been working on a small scene for a week. Literary-wise, it’s a success but film-wise, I’m still working on it because it’s difficult: I need to find a few seconds. It’s not about emotion anymore: it’s about a mathematical frame to manage to express things. All the while keeping in mind that I’m addressing Senegalese as well as Limpopo farmers!
What is the most difficult: writing or filming?
Filming is very difficult. Apart from the work on the screenplay, you have to rush around trying to find the money, the actors, the costumes and rehearse. For writing, everything is in my head. have the setting I want, the actors, the expression and the terms I want.
What is your favorite film?
My next film!
* The film Ceddo presents an African community confronting two culturally foreign powers – Islam (the imam) and Europe (the slave trader and the priest)- in competition to be in power. According to Sembène, the ceddos are men who always refuse: they opposed the penetration of Islam to preserve their cultural identity. He was interested in this anti-authority power and repeated the following political message all through his work: relying on your own strength only. That is why he named his Dakar house “Galle Ceddo”: the Ceddo’s house”.
 Interview with Sembène Ousmane in January 1998, published on our website (article n°2506)
 To be read on our website (article n°3854)
 Article about his Cinema Lesson published on our website (article n°3965)