Remembrance: Ousmane Sembène, Father of African Film

Against the Current, No. 132, January/February 2008

Kim D. Hunter interviews Louise M. Jefferson

TWO SIGNIFICANT BLACK artists, one from Harlem and the other from Dakar, passed over the summer. The first was the father of African Cinema, the prolific Ousmane Sembène who died at the age of 84 in June of 2007.

Sembène was the author of ten works of fiction and at least that many full-length films. His work covered the West African experience, from the effects of indigenous religion to postcolonial cultural upheaval. He began his film career as a model of guerilla filmmaking — if that means making tremendous, sophisticated work with few resources and no role models. Yet even as his fame and resources grew, his subject matter and perspective remained focused on Africans remaining true to themselves and being their own rulers.

Kim D. Hunter, a Detroit poet and cultural activist, conducted an intervierw with Louise M. Jefferson, Professor Emeritus of French Language and Literature, Wayne State University. Professor Jefferson’s study of Francophone African literature led her to Sembène, to Senegal, and eventually to translating for Sembène when he came for a retrospective on his work to the Detroit Film Theatre, at the Detroit Institute of Art, in 1994.

The second, Sekou Sundiata, was a poet, performer and scholar who passed at the age of 58. He had heart failure. Kim Hunter worked with Sundiata, and his memorial to Sundiata is another remembrance in the issue.

Kim Hunter: How did you end up translating for Ousmanee Sembène when he came to Detroit for the retrospective on his work? What were your first impressions?

Louise Jefferson: I was asked to translate when a cousin or very close friend of his bowed out at the 11th hour. Evidently this relative thought he was going to be paid, whereas the Detroit Film Theater thought he would do it as a very interested and sympathetic relation. When he found out he was not going to be paid he declined and I was asked to step into the breach.

It was not my first meeting with Sembène. I had met him in Dakar, the capital of Senegal back in 1980 when I was on a sabbatical doing research on Black francophone theatre; Senegal was one of my stops.

I ran into his wife, an American, at a bank. She spotted me as an American and we began talking, and lo and behold she was married to Ousmane Sembène. Since I had taught his work as a novelist and short story writer and was acquainted with some of his films, I was thrilled.

She invited me to lunch and the day of lunch who shows up but Sembène to pick me up and drive me there. He spent lunch with us and later gave me an interview.

KH: What were some of the main topics covered in your interview?

LJ: We talked about hs being both a filmmaker and a writer. I wanted to know where his interest lay, whether he preferred being a writer or a filmmaker. He was a very practical and committed artist, committed to his people, and committed to African issues and though he preferred writing — it was something over which he had total control — he realized that illiteracy in Africa was so high that if he wanted to reach an African audience film was really the better vehicle. But (with film) you have to work in a team situation. There are financial issues, distribution issues and he considered those monster headaches but he put up with them because he wanted to reach an African audience.

KH: So he was extremely dedicated and extremely talented. That’s not a transition, from page to film, that everyone can make.

LJ: Exactly, and it wasn’t easy. Politically, he was considered a thorny person to have to deal with.

KH: My two general impressions, from having interviewed him years ago and from reading about him, are that he took postcolonial African leaders to task for not serving the people.

LJ: Absolutely, and he had gotten to be such an international celebrity that the government handled him with kid gloves. They were unhappy with a lot of the issues he brought to the fore and that he treated in artful but direct ways. But to the people, he was a local hero and you don’t mess with a local hero or an international one as well.

I got to interview the Senegalese President. When I brought up Sembène, he was walking on hot coals, trying to praise him without endorsing a lot of what Sembène was saying (in his films).

KH: Can you speak to some of the issues Sembène raised?

LJ: If you go back to his early work, such as God’s Bits of Wood or Les bouts de bois de Dieu, he was taking on the whole European railroad industry that had set up in Africa. Problems occurred because of the cultural differences: salaries and insurance for families and the whole issue of polygamy. Were all the wives entitled to compensation if something happens to their breadwinner husband?

There was the film Mandabi (Money Order) where an illiterate (Senegalese) older person gets a money order from a relative in France. Because he is illiterate, he has problems trying to cash it. Then the community thinks: ah money order, oh the money is going to flow, oh he’s wealthy.

(In the film Camp de Thiaroye) he takes on the relationship between the military and the Senegalese who were drafted in the Second World War, the way they were mishandled in terms of salaries as the troops were being mustered out. The African troops end up being isolated in a camp and ultimately slaughtered.

He took on big issues both with the local community, the European presence and the so called independence following World War II. He spared no one: The film prior to his last film (Moolaadé) took on the issue of excision or female circumcision in Africa, a real hot button issue but beautifully done (in the Sembène film).

KH: Are there themes that he dealt with in writing that he didn’t deal with in film?

LJ: There was a great parallel in the early years, things he had written being turned into film. There was more of a split in terms of the emphasis he put on film. It was not so much a question of themes being more prominent in one genre than the other but the amount of time he put into film.

One of the reasons his films resonate with such authenticity, and a reason he was such a presence to be dealt with, is that the people were behind him. All he had to do was speak to the local chieftain of any ethnic group and everything would stop. They would say “we are working with Sembène today or this week.” He (Sembène) just had to show up and the whole town would be committed to the movie.

KH: He was a public intellectual.

LJ: He definitely was. He did most of his film training in Russia (what was then the Soviet Union). He was a man of many crafts. His formal education was absolutely incredible (in that) it was almost negligible. He was a problem student. He was a problem as a child. His family had trouble raising him.

They finally sent him away to live with an uncle who seemed to be able to exercise the authority over him to get him to buckle down and work. (But even then) I don’t think he got his baccalaureate (in fact, it seems that he got into a fight with his school principal and was thrown out).

Then he started taking odd jobs. He was a dock worker. He was a stone mason in the suburbs of Dakar. In fact, he built his home, a beautiful home right on the ocean. So he really had the working man’s touch and entrée into different groups.

Then when he felt that film was really the vehicle to speak to the African people, he couldn’t get any sort of funding from the French or any other western government.  But the Soviet Union gave him the money and he was invited to Russia to study at a film school. So he had that alliance, that connection, and was considered a radical activist from the start.

If you notice his first films, most of the shooting is done outside because he couldn’t afford the inside shots, the lighting and the equipment and what not. As his fame grew and more people started underwriting his films then you notice more of a variety (of interior shots).

There was a time when he would write a book and immediately he would have an opportunity to turn it into a movie. Xala (Impotence) is one of the examples. I used that often in course work where we could talk about the art of going from the page to the screen.

The students enjoyed his work very much, particularly those who were politically alert (to such things that) Sembène was saying in Xala for example that the whole country (Senegal) had been hit by Xala or the curse of impotence. (It’s) what happens when you get involved in the western commercial greed enterprise and then overshoot the mark. Then you have to return the (indigenous African) culture and the bedrock issues to get cured.

KH: You had been teaching his work before you had a chance to meet him. Was there anything that was changed or illuminated as a result of your conversations?

LJ: It was mainly a question of film versus novel or short story and how that was working out in his life. I was impressed that he was committed to reaching the people on certain issues to push to change or to remain the same or (to be) honored.

We got into the question, for example, of local healers, the pejorative term of medicine men. He made it very clear to me that one thing he thought the local governments had handled well was that these people are herbalists. They know their country. They know the products in nature that effect certain healings.

It came to light for instance that I have hypertension and Sembène said “I’ve got somebody who can help you if you want to go that route.” I told him I was already on medications and didn’t know how the western and the African would mix.

KH: Is there something we haven’t covered that you want people to know about Sembène?

LJ: I was impressed with his sense of community with other African artists. He was aware of writers in Senegal and neighboring countries. I don’t know if it was formal. But they had some sort of community where they supported one another. I don’t know if it still is, but Senegal was quite a haven for artists who had been persecuted and in some cases jailed in their own countries for things they had written. Sembène was very supportive of his fellow artists.