Book Review: Ousmane Sembène Interviews

Buy this Book at! It is said that Africa’s first ‘full-blood’ filmmaker is the great Ousmane Sembène of Senegal. The 2008 release of Ousmane Sembène Interviews, edited by Annett Busch of Munich and Max Annas of Cologne, introduces to a new generation of filmmakers a beginning. We often assume that beginnings are times of innocence and naïveté but historical transcripts can blow these melodramatic biases away.

Although the public statements of Spike Lee, criticizing the Eurocentric filmmaking establishment, have certainly been described as “new” and “fresh,” here we have a document recording in intimate detail that Spike Lee (like many of my fellow Africans from the same American film school) was too often scratching the surface for consumer-friendly sound bites. But Ousmane Sembène was not preparing himself for the tabloids. In his 1972 interview with Gerald Peary and Patrick McGilligan for Film Quarterly, Sembène testifies:

In West Africa, distribution remains in the hands of two French companies that have been there since colonial times. Because of the active push of our native film-makers, such as our group in Senegal, they are forced to distribute our films, though they do so very slowly. Of the twenty we have made in Senegal, five have been distributed. It is a continuous fight, for we don’t think we can resolve the problems of cinema independent of the other problems of African society.

Neocolonialism is passed on culturally, through the cinema. And that’s why African cinema is being controlled from Paris, London, Lisbon, Rome, and even America. And that’s why we see almost exclusively the worst French, American, and Italian films. Cinema from the beginning has worked to destroy the native African culture and the myths of our heroes. A lot of films have been made about Africa, but they are stories of European and American invaders with Africa serving as a decor. Instead of being taught our ancestry, the only thing we know is Tarzan. And when we do look on our past, there are many among us who are not flattered, who perceive Africa with a certain alienation learned from the cinema. Movies have infused a European style of walking, a European style of doing. Even African gangsters are inspired by the cinema.

African society is in a state of degeneracy, reflected also in our imitative art. But fortunately, unknown even to many Africans themselves, African art has continued, even as the black bourgeoisie had aped European and American models. In African cities is produced what we call “airport art,” whittled wood that has been blackened; true art remains in the villages and rural communities, preserved in the ceremony and religion. It is from believing in this communal art that we can be saved from the internal destruction.

It is comical in its tragedy, but the problem was actually worse in 1969. Answering Guy Hennebelle for Les Lettres Françaises, Sembène shows us “a permanent scandal”:

Buy this DVD at! It is a permanent scandal. All the movie theaters of our countries are the property of two French monopolies: the COMACICO and the SECMA. The first holds eighty-four of them and the second fifty-six. The few African cinema owners are forced to bypass the COMACICO or the SECMA to supply themselves. Those two companies establish the programming to their liking, notwithstanding local censures. What I criticize, among other things, about these two companies (as do the majority of my colleagues) is that they do not contribute to the development of the African cinema. They have never financed even one African film. To distribute Mandabi, the COMACICO initially proposed a ridiculously tiny sum to me. Recently I managed a little more serious agreement, but for multiple reasons this is far from giving me complete satisfaction. I am a convinced advocate of pure and simple nationalization of the distribution and circulation as it is the case in Algeria for example. This is the only way to change things. If we don’t assume ownership of our own distribution, we can hardly work safely…

We reach 1978 looking for a Hollywood-style happy ending because Senegal does “assume ownership” but the reality of this post-colonial “victory” is less than ideal. In Framework, Sembène is succinct:

My films aren’t shown since the cinemas are controlled by the national distribution company. No progress has been made here at all. We’ve got the structures, it was nationalized, but things are the same as ever, and the conditions imposed on the African cinema are actually more difficult since nationalisation than they were before. The control exercised by the bourgeoisie over film is even stronger than in colonial times.

Without the foreign ‘otherness’ of the French colonizers to make distance, the situation Sembène describes is now very personal and therefore more painful. In 1992 when the suggestion is made that American money can “help” his situation, much is revealed to Fìrinne Nì Chréacháin interviewing Sembène for African Affairs:

America is a liberal capitalist country, an imperialist country which simply wants to call the shots. But if America is calling the shots in Senegal at present, it’s because those who govern Senegal allow this to happen. So we find ourselves with a society on its knees, waiting for America to provide. Never, ever, ever, in the space of ten years, have I felt so humiliated by my society as now. They give us ‘gifts’: a few thousand dollars worth of rice—mere chicken-feed. A society can’t live on handouts. A society that has its own culture can confront all sorts of calamities and adversities with its head held high. I always say, if I were a woman, I’d never marry an African. Women should marry real men, not mentally deficient ones.

Of course the Marxist poetry of Sembène is present here but what is also evident is a generational rift that is related to Fìrinne Nì Chréacháin under the working title, “The TV in the Hut”:

Senegalese, or African society (I’m talking about the francophone countries) is no longer secreting values for the next generation. Take myself, father of a family, and others like me: we are no longer typical, living examples for our children. It’s the cinema, the TV, the video which are the channels for the new cultures, the new values: we, the older generation, are absent in our own families. I was born in the colonial era. I witnessed all the humiliation and self-abasement my father had to put up with in order to survive. But in the evenings, when we came home to our huts, we rediscovered our own culture. It was a refuge: we were ourselves again, we were free. Nowadays, the TV is right there inside the hut where, in the old days, the father, the mother, the aunt held sway and the grandmother told her stories and legends. Even that time is now taken away from us. So we are left with a society which is growing more and more impoverished, emptying itself of its creative substance, turning more and more to values it does not create.

The quote above is alone worth the price of Ousmane Sembène Interviews. What is illuminated here is nothing less than the systematic, aesthetic starvation of African youth. This certain death is also expressed as comedy by Sembène in an effort to make such a dreary subject entertaining to an African audience. In 1976, he answers Noureddine Ghali (Film and Politics in the Third World) about the character structures in the comedy, Xala:

Buy this DVD at! He got his first wife before becoming a somebody. Along with his economic and social development, he takes on a second who corresponds, so to speak, to a second historical phase. The third, his daughter’s age but without her mind, is only there for self esteem. She is submissive (unlike his daughter), and only appears once or twice: she is of the “Be beautiful and shut up” variety.

Polygamy, especially in the bourgeois or urban setting, means the wife is only some flesh for whom a commodity value is paid. It is these bourgeois and their wives, by the way, who had this supposedly brilliant idea to open the doors for International Women’s Year. Not working women, but a stratum of privileged women to whom the Christian religion has given no satisfaction and who talk on the subject of men’s and women’s equality. But there is, undoubtedly, an undeniable problem: polygamy, against which we struggle. There is a problem, but the problem is clear because the woman’s inferior status is visible. We do not, however, find any solution in the Western concept of family, for that model only produces a deterioration of human beings. In reality, the problem should not be posed in terms of sexes but in terms of classes.

Many pro-Black media voices of our time (myself generously included) may have concerns about putting words into the mouth of a significant historical figure like Ousmane Sembène. In our relative youth, we might be accused of making a man like Sembène “too angry” and we would then be guilty of “distorting” his “universal message” for all so-called “races”… Annett Busch and Max Annas have shown me (and certainly other “angry young men”) that Ousmane Sembène was on fire with his African identity and his decades-old critiques are still (sadly) relevant to the 21st century.

It is important to mention that this 2008 printing was available in the year 2008 at Eso Won Books before it was available on! Eso Won Books, 4331 Degnan Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90008. I was so pleased with the ‘early’ availability of this book that I took a picture of it!