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Biography of Ousmane SEMBčNE

Senegal > Arts : Ousmane SEMBčNE

Ousmane SEMBčNE
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Biography :

Ousmane Sembene.Film Director from Senegal.

Senegalese writer and film director, a modern griot, storyteller and chronicler, best-known for his historical-political works with strong social comment. Sembčne Ousmane often turned his short stories and novels into films. Considered one of the founders of the African realist tradition, Sembčne's image of sub-Saharan Africa was more self-critical, less romanticized that Leopold Sedar Senghor's, who more or less glorified the past.

    --"Months later, the slave-hunters returned to the village; they captured Iome but let her go again. She was worth nothing, because of the blemishes on her body.
    --The news spread for leagues around. People came from remotest villages to consult the grandmother. And over the years and the centuries a diversity of scars appeared on the bodies of our ancestors.
    --And this is how our ancestors came to have tribal scars. They refused to be slaves."
    (from 'Tribal Scars or the Voltaique')

Sembčne Ousmane was born  January 1,1923 in Zinguinchor-Casamange region of Senegal in the colonial French West Africa. His father was a fisherman. Sembčne was mostly self-educated. He was expelled from primarly school for striking back at his French teacher who had slapped him. After a brief period of the Ecole de Céramique at Marsassoum, Sembčne turned at the age of fifteen to various occupations in order to support his family. He worked as a plumber, bricklayer, apprentice mechanic. During the World War II he served in the French Army in Europe. Following France's official surrender to Germany, Sembéne joined the Free French forces in 1942 and landed with them in France in 1944.

After the war Sembčne returned to Senegal, where he participated in the Dakar-Niger railway strike of 1947. Later he returned to France, joining community of dock workers in Marseilles. He taught himself to read and write in French and published his first novel in 1956.The work was based on his own experiences in France.

In the 1960s Sembčne developed an interest in the cinema and went to the Gorki Institute in Moscow to study film production. His La Noire de.. (1966, The Black Girl from...) was the first film ever produced by African filmmaker and won the Jean Vigo at the Cannes Film Festival. It was a story of a girl, Diouna, who leaves his own family to become a housemaid in Antibes, France. She commits suicide, and her employees, a white retrund to Dakar, to explain what cannot explain.

During his career as a director, Sembčne received several international awards. His films were immensely popular in Africa, although the socialist political commentary in his 1970s films sometimes got him into trouble with the authorities. CEDDO (1977), dealing with the subject of African cooperation in supplying slaves to western slave traders, was banned in Senegal. GUELWAAR (1992) had only a limited release in France. Sembčne's open hostility toward foreigners, religious leaders, and the African bourgeoisie pitted him against president Senghor. The concept of negritude, launched by Senghor and others, was for Sembčne idle talk by African elites and had little meaning in real life.

The language of Sembčne's work was French, Wolof, or Diola. As a writer Sembčne made his debut with the novel LE DOCKER NOIR (1956, The Black Docker), which born quite accidentally. Sembčne was forced to leave work for several months, during which time he wrote down his personal experiences as a dock worker. The protagonist is Diaw Falla, who works on the docks. He kills a white woman who had tried to take credit for a prize-winning book that he himself wrote, and ends in prison in life.

In O PAYS MON BAU PEUPLE! (1957) Sembčne moved his setting to a small fishing village in Senegal. LES BOUTS DE BOIS DE DIEU (1960, God's Bits of Wood) depicted a strike between the years 1947 and 1948 in the Dakar- Nigeria railway. The multidimensional story is seen through the eyes of the workers, their family members, and directors of the railway company. In the optimistic tradition of socialist realism, the strike ends in the victory of the workers. L'HARMATTAN (1963) suggest in the footsteps of Frantz Fanon , that independence alone cannot bring genuine freedom. LE DERNIER DE L'EMPIRE (1981, The Last of the Empire) is a satire about the various rivaling political groups in postcolonial Senegal. In the 1980s appeared also the novellas NIIWAM and TAAW, which were published together in the English translation. Sembčne was also the founder and editor of the first Wolof language monthly, Kaddu.

Sembčne used Wolof (the language most widely spoken in Senegal) in the development of film scripts such as TAW (1970), and Ceddo, or in mixtures of the two such as LE MANDAT (1968), black Africa's first full-length feature film in color, and XALA (1974). E MITAI (1971) was set during the years of World War II, and showed again without illusions the old patriarchal culture and European pressures, under which young men become faceless mercenaries. In France the film was suppressed for five years. Xala was a farce about polygamy and the downfall of a businessman, who experiences xala, impotence during his wedding night. Behind his troubles is a beggar whom he has ruined.

Sembčne was one of the first African male writers and directors to give in his works a serious attention to women characters and female issues, among others in MOOLAADÉ (2004), the second in a projected trilogy devoted to "heroism in daily life". Set in a small village in Burkina Faso, it told about female genital mutilation (clitoradectomy). A Muslim who emphasized that he is not against Islam but the misuse of its doctrines, the director ended his story in the victory of a heroic woman, who stands against this brutal, old practice. "While he does not minimize pain and cruelty, neither does Mr. Sembene traffic in harshness or despair," wrote A.O. Scott in The New York Times (October 13, 2004). "And while this film is troubling, it is also infused with a remarkable buoyancy of spirit." Moolaadé was Sembčne's last film. He died after a long illness on June 9, 2007, in Dakar.

Selected works:

    * LE DOCKER NOIR,1956 - The Black Docker (trans. by Ros Schwartz)
    * LES BOUTS DE BOIS DE DIEU: BANTY MAM YALL,1960 - God's Bits of Wood (trans. by Francis Price) - Jumalan puupalikat (suom. Leena Jokinen)
    * VOLTAIQUE, 1962 - Tribal Scar and Other Stories (trans. by Len Ortzen)
    * L'HARMATTAN, 1963 - The Wind
    * VÉHI-CIOSANE, 1964 - published with Le Mandat under the title The Money Order and White Genesis (trans. by Clive Wake)
    * LE MANDAT, 1965 (the novel was also filmed by Sembéne Ousmane)
    * XALA: ROMAN, 1973 - Xala (trans. by Clive Wake)
    * LE DERNIER DE L'EMPIRE, 1981 - The Last of Empire (trans. by Adrian Adams)
    * NIIWAM, 1987
    * TAAW, 1987 - published with Niiwam under the title Niiwam and Taaw


    * Borom Sarret, 1963
    * L'empire Songhaď, 1963
    * Niaye, 1964
    * La Noire de..., 1966
    * Mandabi / Le mandat, 1968
    * Taaw, 1971
    * E Mitai, 1971 - God of Thunder
    * Xala, 1974
    * Ceddo, 1977
    * Camp de Thiaroye, 1988 (with Thierno Faty Sow)
    * Guelwaar, 1992
    * Faat-Kine, 1999
    * Moolaadé, 2004 (starring Fatoumata Coulibaly, Maďmouna Hélčne Diarra, Salimata Traoré, Dominique T. Zeďda)

Last update : 06/25/2007

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