Eight African Filmmakers on the Legacy of Ousmane Sembène, a Hundred Years On
As the iconic Senegalese director’s centenary continues to be commemorated globally, OkayAfrica speaks to a handful of directors about his enduring influence.
January may have marked the centenary of Ousmane Sembène’s birth, but celebrations of his legacy have continued to play on throughout the year – and across the world. The late Senegalese filmmaker has been fêted with retrospectives in Paris, New York City and Los Angeles, while a statue of his bust was unveiled at the headquarters of Fespaco (the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou) in Burkina Faso in February. Critiques of appreciation that place his significance in context as the father of African cinema abound.
Born in the town of Ziguinchor, Senegal, in 1923, Sembène worked as a fisherman before moving to France, where he became influenced by the trade union movement and began writing novels. Moving back to his home country, a decade later, he saw the power that existed in films to spread social and political activism. His first film, the short, Borom Sarret, was considered the first film to be made in Africa – although a recent documentary challenges that – in 1962.
His contributions remain numerous: Over his career, which spanned five decades, Sembène published ten books and directed twelve films. His shunning of Western languages and narrative style in favor of African storytelling traditions, including using Wolof, Diola and Bambara in his films, helped shape cinema from the continent. From Borom Sarret to Martin Scorsese’s (and everyone else’s!) favorite, Black Girl (Black Girl La Noire de...), to his ambitious trilogy of Emitaï, Xala and Ceddo, Sembène more than made his mark by the time of his death at 84 in 2007.
OkayAfrica spoke to six African directors about what Sembène means today.
C.J. “Fiery” Obasi
The Nigerian director’s most recent film, Mami Wata, has been drawing global acclaim.
He really was a master of filming his people with truth and dignity. This for me, is the bedrock of Sembène’s cinema. And you could see intentional technique in how he opened and closed his films, or introduced characters, whether in the closing scenes of Black Girl (La Noire de...) (1966), where a child chases a white man away while wearing a mask, or the opening scenes of Mandabi (1968) that immediately thrusts you into the streets of 60s Dakar – Sembène’s cinema allows you to experience the beauty and poetry in simple, daily African life. And we can all aspire to that.
The Cameroon-born director earned an Independent Spirit Award for her debut, Our Father, The Devil.
Black Girl (La Noire de...) changed my life. Not only was it one of the first African films I watched made by an African filmmaker, but its quiet rebellion sent me a very loud message about my responsibility as a filmmaker. It woke me up and challenged me to write stories that went against the grain, and allowed me to present African characters with dignity, irrespective of the funding structures in place that try to force certain stereotypes down our throats.
For me, this is the true power of Sembène’s legacy, which also spoke to, and influenced many, Black filmmakers in the United States. He empowered us to fight against the “colonial imposition,” and to hang on to our dignity as Africans and as artists.
The filmmaker's feature The Girl in the Yellow Jumper was the first Ugandan film to be released on Netflix.
Ousmane Sembène's legacy as an African film director is a huge source of inspiration and pride. His groundbreaking work in African cinema paved the way for storytellers like me, emphasizing the significance of authentic African narratives. Black Girl (La Noire de...), a moving exploration of colonialism and identity, is one of my favorite Sembène films. The film's powerful depiction of the struggles of a young Senegalese woman struck a chord with me, demonstrating Sembène's ability to capture the complexities of African experiences.
His fearless storytelling and unwavering commitment to revealing the truth about African lives inspired me to delve into the stories of my own culture, embracing the rich tapestry of African heritage in my filmmaking journey. Sembène's legacy reminds me of cinema's transformative power, inspiring me to tell stories that celebrate Africa's diverse voices and cultures.
The Tanzanian director behind Tug of War recently became the new head of the Zanzibar International Film Festival.
There is so much one can reference when it comes to Sembène. His entire career is a testament to revolutionary African storytelling with a purpose. However, his interview with a French journalist, when asked whether his films are understood by a European audience, will always stick with me. 'Europe is not my center. Europe is on the outskirts. After 100 years here, did they speak my language? I speak theirs. My future does not depend on Europe. Why be a flower and turn to the sun? I myself am the sun!' In a time when African filmmakers are constantly pigeonholed in the distribution and exhibition industries, and difference is commercialized rather than explored, Sembène’s words still ring true and remind us of where the focus of our art should be.
Ema Edosio Deleen
The Nigerian director, who mines her own life for stories to tell, is working on a sequel to her hit film, Kasala.
Ousmane Sembène's legacy resonates deeply as a filmmaker. His powerful assertion, “Europe is not my center. Why be a sunflower and turn towards the sun? I myself am the sun,” became a mantra for me. This proclamation wasn't just a statement about cultural pride, but a challenge to recenter and redefine. Through his lens, I learned to view Africa, not as a peripheral backdrop, but as a vibrant epicenter of storytelling. Sembène’s work has influenced me to be bolder in my narrative choices, and to seek truth and depth in the stories I tell.
His film Moolaadé is a masterclass in cinematic bravery. Every time I watch it, I am reminded of the power cinema has to challenge societal norms, yet also celebrate the resilience and spirit of our people. In many ways, Sembène has been my compass, guiding my hand and heart in creating films that aren't just stories, but reflections of our collective African soul. He taught me to be unapologetic in my artistry, to love my culture fiercely, and to continually find the sun within myself.
Akuol de Mabior
The South Sudanese director's 2022 debut film,No Simple Way Home, was the Berlin Film Festival's first ever entry from that country.
Sembène's La Noire de... holds a deeply personal resonance for me. I remember being profoundly moved by the character of Diouana, a young woman full of hope yet ultimately trapped by an exploitative system in a foreign land. Sembène's masterful use of voice-over narration not only amplifies her internal struggles but also mirrors the struggles many of us face when reconciling our identities with the world around us. The film, for me, was not just a statement about colonial legacy but a personal account of lost dreams and the fight for dignity.
The Nigerian filmmaker behind films like Rise and Vaya, has worked with Disney, Prime Studio and Netflix.
Eleven years ago at the 19th annual New York African Film Festival I watched with great joy DJ Spooky perform a live re-scoring of Ousmane Sembène's classic film, Borom Sarret. That night at The Greene Space, even with a different score, I was reminded why I love this film and the power of Sembène’s storytelling.
With every frame, the film’s evocative striking black and white visuals tell the tale of a poor cart driver trying to make a living in post-colonial Senegal, all while encapsulating the cart driver’s human spirit. The critical commentary on Senegal is done with grace and the editing is a master class in precision. For me, the film is a constant reminder that the power of storytelling lies not in extravagance but the art of restraint. It’s a masterpiece.
Katy Léna N'diaye
The Senegalese French filmmaker premiered her latest feature, Money, Freedom, a Story of CFA Franc, at the New York African Film Festival earlier this year.
I met Sembène Ousmane twenty years ago, at a retrospective devoted to him in Brussels, where I was living at the time. We spent some time together, but I never managed to get through to him. At that time, I hadn't yet done the work of thinking of cinema as an "art of one selves re-appropriation". What I can say now is that Sembene Ousmane, for me, represents one of the first to give voice and body to African cinema.
He set in motion stories in which we Africans recognize ourselves. Stories in which Black characters are subjects, and through which, I sense that whoever is behind the camera is opening up an African subjectivity that is the result of a social and historical construction (there's no room for essentialization here). I can also identify this desire to make a work of cinema that contrasts with the time before (the time of colonization) when, precisely, we were objects on the screen. Sembene narrates. He opens up his stories -- ours. For us, and for the world -- in that sequence.
This is particularly true for his early films. La Noire de still resonates today...unfortunately. And when I talk about my cinema, when I talk to young filmmakers, I keep this heritage in mind. I say from where (geographically, historically) I speak. And as I do so, I think of Sembene.
This piece has been updated to reflect the addition of Katy Léna N'diaye.
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