BORN

January 1, 1923
Ziguinchor, Senegal

DIED

June 9, 2007 
Dakar, Senegal

film director, producer, screenwriter, actor & author



Sembène is the first film director from an African country to achieve international recognition, Ousmane Sembene remains the major figure in the rise of an independent post-colonial African cinema.

Sembène spent his early years as a fisherman on the Casamance coast. He studied at the School of Ceramics at Marsassoum and then moved to Dakar, where he worked as a bricklayer, plumber, and apprentice mechanic until he was drafted into the French army in 1939. In 1942, during World War II, he joined the Free French forces and landed in France for the first time in 1944. After demobilization he remained in France, working as a docker in Marseille, and became a militant trade unionist.

Sembène taught himself to read and write in French and in 1956 published his first novel, Le Docker noir (Black Docker), based on his experiences in Marseille. After a spinal disorder forced him to give up physical labour, he made literature his livelihood.'

About 1960 Sembène developed an interest in motion pictures, in an attempt to reach an African popular audience, 80 percent of whom did not know French or have access to books in any language. After studying at the Moscow Film School, Sembène returned to Africa and made three short subject films, all reflecting a strong social commitment.



His 1966 feature film, La Noire de…(Black Girl), was considered the first major film produced by an African filmmaker. It depicts the virtual enslavement of an illiterate girl from Dakar employed as a servant by a French family. The film won a major prize at the 1967 Cannes international film festival.

With Mandabi (“The Money Order”), a comedy of daily life and corruption in Dakar, Sembène in 1968 made the revolutionary decision to film in the Wolof language. His masterpiece, Ceddo (1977; “Outsiders”), an ambitious, panoramic account of aspects of African religions, was also in Wolof and was banned in his native Senegal. Camp de Thiaroye (1987; “The Camp at Thiaroye”) depicts an event in 1944 in which French troops slaughtered a camp of rebellious African war veterans. Guelwaar (1993), a commentary on the fractious religious life of Senegal, tells of the confusion that arises when the bodies of a Muslim and a Catholic (Guelwaar) are switched at the morgue. Moolaadé (2004; “Protection”), which received the prize for Un Certain Regard at Cannes, mixed comedy and melodrama to explore the practice of female circumcision.

I think cinema is needed throughout Africa, because we are lagging behind in the knowledge of our own history. I think we need to create a culture that is our own. I think that images are very fascinating and very important to that end. But right now, cinema is only in the hands of film-makers because most of our leaders are afraid of cinema.

Ousmane Sembène
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