For two weekends in April, New York’s Museum of the Moving Image honored three great filmmakers, twelve films and one of the most artistically rich legacies in African cinema with a series entitled: The Master, The Rebel, and the Artist: The Films of Ousmane Sembene, Djibril Diop Mabety, and Moussa Sene Absa.
The series focuses specifically on Senegal, which is credited as being one of the birthplaces of a true African cinema: movies made by black Africans for a black African audience, in a cinematic language that consciously re-works colonial syntax and narrative devices. After achieving independence from France in 1960, Senegal had the benefit of being one of the most industrialized countries in West Africa, as well as enjoying a film production and distribution system established and run by the French Service de Cinema. It was with the help of these production and post-production systems that Ousmane Sembene was able to make his first few films, despite their politically subversive subject matter.
These French systems, however, were established in part to prevent the development of an autonomous national film industry in Senegal. In 1973 the Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers placed pressure on the government, resulting in the creation of the SNC (Society of Cinema) within the Ministry of Culture, devoted solely for the national production and promotion of fiction and documentary films. By the following year, an unprecedented amount of films were produced in Senegal. Thus began a cinematic golden age in a country whose screen representation had been previously limited to safari adventure films and Tarzan installments. Just the simple act of no longer making a film in French but in Wolof, the native tongue of most Senegalese, was enough to make the film world stop and stare.
Beyond this, the new African cinema exhibits an incredible amount of formal innovation. Sembene borrows from the Italian Neorealists in his choice of non-actors, and Soviet montage in his didactic editing techniques. He focuses on the group as a protagonist, rejecting the Western tendency to identify through an individual. Djibril Diop Mambety rejects linear narrative almost entirely, and structures his films in a manner that harkens back to African oral traditions of storytelling. Moussa Senea Absa, formerly a painter, creates films with a highly developed sense of color and décor and a sound design that also draws on the deep oral tradition of his homeland.
But perhaps more significant were the choices of filmmakers like Semebene, Mambety and Absa to focus on the lives of the poor and disenfranchised, the “little people” in their everyday struggles. In almost all of these films, women play a central role. Featured in the series is the 1966 Black Girl, or La Noire de, which literally translates from the French as, ‘The Black Girl of…” This feature (the first by a black African director) incisively examines the shadows of slavery that darken the life of a young Sengalese girl employed as a live-in servant for a rich French couple. Mambety’s The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun (1999) is the second film of trilogy focusing on the “little people”- who in this title happens to be a young girl selling newspapers to make ends meet.
Watch The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun on Fandor:
These heroines do not only face the challenges created by neo-colonialist economic systems left behind by France, but also by the patriarchal mores rooted in a deeply religious and traditional society. Faat Kiné (2000) tells the story of a sassy and resourceful single mother putting her two children through high school despite the cultural stigmas against her unmarried status.
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Even a woman “as rich as the World Bank” like Linguere Ramatou in Mambety’s 1992 film Hyenas is driven by revenge, traumatized and spiritually poisoned after being ostracized from her hometown as a young girl for an pre-marital affair.
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In an interview about his film Madame Bourette, Moussa Sene Absa demands, “The creator must be universal. He must reach what Senghor has called “l’enracinement et l’ouverture” (simultaneously setting down roots and opening up). It’s a bit like the baobab, this magnificent tree which lives off the sap provided by its roots. It’s all very well to use the leaves and the branches, but one must never forget the roots.” Since its inception, it seems Senegalese cinema has had this awareness, knowing full well that to find a voice is an act not only of rebellion, but an articulation of freedom.
Ariella Tai is a writer and cinephile based in Queens, New York.