On Tuesday, May 27, 2008, AFF co-produced a very special evening at the French institute Alliance Français, titled “Homage To Ousmane Sembène.” The evening began with a screening of a short documentary directed by Mamadou Niang on the life of Sembène. Fadhima Thiam, actress and personal friend of Sembène, read excerpts from one of Sembène’s novels, God’s Bits of Wood. After the reading, audiences were treated to a very special presentation of Sembène’s first film, Borom Sarret, with an original sound score performed by DJ Spooky (aka The Subliminal Kid). Mamadou Diouf, Director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University, served as the evening’s master of ceremonies.
Ousmane Sembène’s films age well. The Senegalese filmmaker passed in 2006 at 84 years. His features, which include Mandabe, Xala (it charts the travails of postcolonial elites) and Mooladé (a polemic against female genital mutilation) can compare with any of the great masters of twentieth century film.
However, it is his first film, Borom Sarret, that best represents, for me, his oeuvre as well as his politics (which he lived through his films). Borom Sarret seems quaint by today’s standards. It is shot with a 16mm camera in black and white and is only 20 minutes long, but a lot is packed into that twenty minutes.
Before he made films, the Dakar native had already worked as a fisherman, bricklayer, dockworker and labor organizer in Marseille, France, written a novel, Les Bouts de bois de Dieu (God’s Bits of Wood), and studied cinema in Moscow, and those experiences are well reflected in his work.
The story of Borom Sarret is straightforward. It revolves around the day in the life of a poor cart driver. He gets taken in by a host of people that he encounters who either want a ride for free or exploit his good nature. The cart driver eventually gets ticketed by a policeman when he ventures into the former European quarter of the city, where his cart gets confiscated. That night he returns home to his wife and child sans cart and no money. The film ends with her handing him the child and leaving, presumably to make money.
I’ve seen the film at least a dozen times, and every time I see something different. I also use it in classes on modern African politics to illustrate the transition from colonialism to independence. But it often leads to discussions of working class life and the role of the state, the market, the police, poverty and decency outside Africa among my students. It is not surprising that a number of contemporary filmmakers—and critics—honor him as the father of African cinema.