Still, The Fire in the Belly: The Confessions of Ousmane Sembene

The meeting has been under way for well over two hours, and the seven participants do not seem exhausted after strings of passionate exchanges. The scene could have been ripped from a chapter of Ousmane Sembène’s fifth novel, God’s Bits of Wood, in which the women deliberate their plan of attack against the oppressive and brutal foreign railroad overlords of the Dakar-Niger line. It is also reminiscent of a scene in Guelwaar where Baye Ali, the village chief summons the Muslim elderr, Kilife, to discuss the profanity of the burial of Pierre-Henri Thioune, a Christian, in a Muslim cemetery.

We are at Sembène’s quarters, located in a busy commercial street in downtown Dakar. He has converted a single family house into a spacious work space, allowing collaborators and strapped colleagues a place they can call office. A well kept flower garden sits in the middle of the courtyard, opposite a zinc-roofed conference area. Most of the filmmakers seated around the table, veteran Senegalese directors and screenwriters, are little known internationally. But they’re part of a group Sembène calls waa ker gee, a Ouolof [Wolof] expression meaning “the family.” Fifteen years ago, they formed the African Filmmakers Committee, a regional organization which includes more that twenty notable directors from neighboring countries. They’re discussing perennial issues — inadequate production resources and creative ways of addressing the failure of African governments to support the film community with innovative cultural policies.

Sembène has just reached his seventy-fourth birthday, and, as he puts it, “I am an old youngster with the faith of an adolescent.” Perhaps he feels this way because his career did not start until he was well over forty. First, he was a novelist.

Sembène’s urge to write was fueled by the rage against the oppressive nature of the colonial state and its dialectical relationship with injustice. He has been an activist since his days working in a Marseilles shipyard, an experience which inspired his first novel Le Docker Noir. Now the novelist-filmmaker is presiding over this strategic meeting of Senegalese filmmakers to chart solutions for the most enduring conundrum facing African filmmakers: how to show the films they make so that African audiences can see them. Like the protagonists in his films and his novels, Sembène takes on this mission with intensity and tenacity. The problem of distribution, reaching African audiences, has been a life-long struggle.

He took up the daunting task of filmmaking in a place with no equipment, no labs, and only with a handful of theaters, tightly controlled by European distributors and packed with Hollywood action films and Indian melodramas. After completing his first feature in 1963, Borom Sarret, Sembène stubbornly thought he could break their hold. He found some relief in making the rounds on a bicycle to remote villages where he could show the film to enthusiastic crowds after nightfall. These encounters convinced him that cinema has the potential to be an educational tool. Sembène has come to believe his generation has an immense role in the political process. Since his first film l’Empire Sonhrai, an epic of African resistance to colonialism set in Timbuktu, all of his tales have told the paradoxes bedeviling Senegalese society. According to Sembène, artistic work should inform Africans about the continuing transformation of post-colonial societies; they must be tools for empowerment and enlightenment.

The stories Sembène tells — be it satire (the quirks of the Senegalese political class and bureaucrats as in Xala) or scathing commentary of evangelism (Christian or Muslim, helped by African surrogates as in Ceddo) — have the necessary conspicuous political edge to challenge African audiences to own up to the unfinished business of de-colonization. They are told with pointed wit. His brilliant command of African oral narrative traditions elevates the most casual and routine anecdotes to soaring drama. He can endlessly recreate every day life with sequences of eloquent silence, giving his stories deadpan/ironic qualities which mirror the tangled lives of ordinary Senegalese citizens. He can recount the most shocking tale and give wretchedness a charming veneer.

Sembène’s cinematic gift and pioneering achievement have won him much praise at home in Africa and abroad. But the advent of a younger breed of filmmakers with original and adventurous talents has created new rivalries. He is derided by some for what they term “his elderly cockiness.” These attacks reveal more of the young filmmakers’ frustrations with Sembène’s omnipresent style of filmmaking, charisma, and international fame in comparison to their accomplishments. Sembène says coolly, “We’ve lost our sense of history in Africa; the last one to arrive always wants to lead.”

In many ways, he is indeed the de facto ambassador of African cinema. His films are distributed throughout the world and studied in liberal arts departments everywhere. His media-genic charm takes him to places where African culture is celebrated. And in spite of criticism, his enormous legacy is the affirmation of his originality. Prominent among his peers, Ousmane Sembène showed Africans how to map their stories on celluloid and defined a film language to follow Borom Sarret. His independent spirit, and unwillingness to compromise principles — which have caused him many a crash landing — are moral criteria for many artists. In his own way, he is one of the last custodians of unfettered artistic integrity.

A Conversation

Mamadou Niang: I’m curious about the way you shuttle between the novel and filmmaking. It is not usual for writers, and it shouldn’t be easy for you who put almost all of your novels on the screen. How does Sembène “the writer” get to filmmaking, and how does Sembène “the filmmaker” get back to writing?

Ousmane Sembène: Well! I must confess it’s not always easy. A screenplay is a book written in telegraphic form, and the dialogues which have to respect a carefully planned timing. You cannot be verbose. You must resort to mimics, body language, eye contact, the movements of actors, etc… I think they are separate trades, but they’re not incompatible for me, I’m used to it since I’ve been doing it for over 30 years.

MN: Is it conceivable that the novelist filmmaker Sembène takes to the screen a novel or a screenplay written by some one else?

OS: No! I don’t think so. I could be interested in a book, and with the accord of the writer, develop a screenplay, but it would be an adaptation.

MN: There are directors who are not writers, they are not auteurs. They’re called in to direct some one else’s idea.

OS: People have different talents; Some have a visual intelligence, but lack the imaginative thinking that writing requires. But this separation has more to do with the parts of the world where ‘filmmaking’ is an industry. We’re talking about specialization here, where in Europe or in America you may have four persons working on a screenplay, before the studio even names a director. But that’s an enrichment; that’s a luxury. There are no written rules. Nothing is absolute in this business.

MN: So, then you could work in that context?

OS: Yes, one can be both a woodcutter and a sculptor at once.

MN: Of all your writing and films, has there been a time you would call a defining moment throughout your long career; It could also be a moment of fulfillment, of triumph?

OS: I’ve loved everything I’ve done at the moment I am doing it. It’s the next thing that obsesses me. I’m not in the habit of psychoanalyzing myself, but I’m taken totally by the task at hand. Once the work is completed, which I hope is of the highest quality I can deliver, then it belongs to the public. It’s no longer mine.

MN: But I bet you’ve had moments of great satisfaction.

OS: Oh yes! After I’ve put that final touch, it’s a satisfying feeling. Writing, or making a film is many, many months of adventure. It is a gratifying moment when you put the final dot, and sign the release for the publication of a novel; or when you finish mixing sound for a film and see the audience coming into the theater. See, I’m a craftsman, I’m not an artist. I take pleasure in the work I do, but it is a process, pruning, carving, trimming… writing, re-writing. It’s work that needs to be done well. Never a extraordinary jubilation, but always a happy feeling.

MN: I imagine that the filmmaker Sembène is more popular than the writer Sembène. Does it frustrates you that most people in Africa only know the filmmaker, or do you think that the public appreciates both equally?

OS: I am generally happy about the way my work is received. But I wished that our peoples in Africa spent more time reading, and then go to the movies. Reading and movies are both means of intellectual and cultural nourishment. I’ve always said that cinema in Africa is an evening class, a “continuing education” at this stage of its development in our societies. But we must make good films which address our struggles. There’s no point in making films to simply entertain or bore people with protest films about labor rallies. Our films must for an hour and a half or two entertain, but also inspire and make the headlines of conversations in the workplace, and in the homes.

Reading is a privilege. It’s a solitary project. People who read a lot, who strive for knowledge are persons of great mind. Other people’s thoughts help us better access our own. I wish my people were the biggest readers in mankind and the best moviegoers. I’ve always thought that reading and cinema should be considered in legislative debates involving quality of life and sustainable development issues. They play a major influence in how we live, and what we do. Beauty belongs to everyone. We all like things beautiful.

MN: Do you have the same expectations when you finish a novel, as when you wrap a film?

OS: No. Each work has a life of its own, and makes its own way to the public. Today, it looks like each work has its own audience.

MN: Is there a distinction between Sembène the filmmaker and Sembène the writer?

OS: Yes, they are different. But it’s like you want to separate the cold from the hot water you poured in the same sink. The two approaches are distinct, I am pursuing two different forms, but it’s the same “Sembène.”

Further, using multiple mediums, I felt was a necessity, I’ve always tried to explore how to make my work more accessible to people. How as an artist, a witness of my time, and member of my society, I can bring my contribution like the tailor, the shoemaker, like anyone else. And I always ask myself: why society needs artists? What do we need artists for?

About the Director

Mamadou Niang

Mamadou Niang is an international journalist, reporter, and producer with more than twenty-five years of experience covering news and making documentaries and human-interest pieces for global television. Niang has been a senior producer in the New York bureau of France Télévions for more than twenty years. He has filed countless stories covering the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America.