I remember how I felt after emerging from a screening of La Noire de… in Professor Gadjigo's French 219 class. La Noire de... (which is often incorrectly translated to “Black Girl” and has more poignancy when translated as “The Black Girl from...” as it conveys the character's eventual alienation and implicit racism of the French) follows the story of a Senegalese woman, Diouana, who with aspirations for a more cosmopolitan lifestyle, abandons her hometown in Senegal when she is hired as a housekeeper by a French couple in Antilles, France. Using mostly interior monologue, Sembène alternates the narrative between her memories of Senegal, including her fantasies of being a fashionable woman in France, and the reality of her dependent status as servant to a racist and abusive French family. From that moment on, I knew that I had to see more films by Sembène, and so I decided to pursue an independent study on Francophone African cinema.
In the 1960s Ousmane Sembène emerged as a little known author to become one of the most prolific and political African filmmakers of the 20th Century. Ousmane Sembène grew up in Ziguinchor, Casamance in southern Senegal. As a late teenager he enrolled in a school certificate program, which helped him obtain a clerical job in a French colony. He later served as a soldier in the Second World War, a railroad worker in Senegal, and finally a dock worker/trade union organizer in Marseille, France. These work experiences coupled with a kinship to Negritude writers profoundly affected Sembene's political and anti-imperialist sentiments. Perpetual racism during his stint as a dock worker and while fighting in the Second World War inspired him to document injustice through novels.
His novels such as God's Bits of Wood, which tells the story of a railroad strike, not only followed a Marxist narrative template where the masses were praised, they also critiqued the paradigm shift that occurred in many African colonies, where on the road to independence and in the process of resisting the colonizer, an often corrupt African oligarchy emerged. Sembène's first novels and films were positive examples of people mobilizing against oppressive governments and forms of authority to create social change. He profiles a successful strike in both of these works in hopes that his readers would find inspiration and knowledge through the stories. Realizing that his books were reaching the miniscule audience of French language speaking, educated Senegalese elite, rather than his intended audience of an illiterate indigenous population, Sembene sought a more effective and universally accessible medium: cinema. He enrolled in the Gorki Institute in Moscow in 1961 where he studied film directing and production and finished his first film Borom Sarret three years later.
Looking back at Sembène's work, over fifty years later, it is clear that his films could have been an effective form of storytelling that would act as a catalyst towards social resistance and progress during the period of Decolonization. However, due to distribution limitations, instead of reaching the illiterate masses, Sembène's films were embraced by Western audiences; first studied in anthropology programs and then screened in museums and art house cinemas throughout Europe, the United States and Canada. His films are rarely viewed in Senegal or sub-Saharan African countries.
Studying with Samba was extremely inspiring, especially since he was in the process of working on Sembène's biography. When Samba proposed that I conduct interviews with Sembene's assistant, Clarence Delgado, and participate in the two week J-term trip to Dakar, I knew that I couldn't pass up the opportunity.
My boyfriend and I arrived in Dakar around the 24th of December, two weeks before the beginning of the J-term program. The next day we decided to take the taxi brousse or “brush taxi” to Casamance. Essentially a communal taxi composed of 8 or 9 passengers squeezed into a four person sedan, the taxi brousse is one of the least expensive forms of transportation to Casamance. The taxi doesn't have set departure times so the first passengers to arrive will often wait 3 to 4 hours until the driver recruits enough people to fill up the remaining seats. Once the car is at capacity, the journey in the haze inducing heat begins: stopping only twice-first to cross the Gambian border on the Barra Ferry to Banjul and second to go through a customs station in Gambia.
Once Fabrizio and I arrived in Ziguinchor at 10PM we were exhausted and hungry. However the fatigue quickly dissipated. At the gare routier we were graced with tremendous hospitality. A couple invited us to dinner at a local restaurant and another woman invited us for tea and to a concert. These welcoming experiences in Ziguinchor made our taxi ride back to Dakar much more tolerable. I found such generosity to be ubiquitous throughout my month-long trip.
After Fabrizio returned to Rome on January 7th, I explored Dakar by myself for two days until Samba and the other students arrived. On the first day of the program Honorine invited us for lunch and taught us principles of Senegalese etiquette. We feasted on Thieboudienne, a dish made from fish, rice, tomato sauce, onions and peanut oil and I drank far too much tea. Later that evening, Elizabeth the mother of my new host family, greeted me with warmth.
The strength of the program was not only its structured introduction to Senegalese culture but also the selection of scholars and writers who lectured on Senegalese literature. Professor Sene reinforced what I had gathered about distribution problems in the film industry and illustrated parallels in the publishing industry. I had the privilege of conducting four interviews with Mr. Clarence Delgado who talked about the post-colonial control of francophone African media, his experience as a director and assistant to Sembène, and his overall frustration with lack of African audiences for African films.
During France's colonization of Senegal and Western Africa, an extensive body of media imagery developed and invaded indigenous cultural space imposed on the existing vocabulary of representation. This new vocabulary consisted of ethnographic films, “exotic” postcards, and paintings depicting a Westernized view of African populations and cultures, all of which circulated through France and Africa. Similarly the rejection of Wolof and the enforcement of French as the official and national language, taught in elementary schools and used on official documents and in government and diplomatic relations, asserted a type of power over the indigenous Senegalese population. Knowledge and the control of knowledge became a source of power particular to French colonization.
Frantz Fanon wrote extensively on the psychology of the effect of colonization and subjugation of the masses by the colonizer. In Les Damnes de la Terre (The Wretched of the Earth) published in 1961, he argues that language has an important role in continual repression of indigenous populations. Fanon was particularly critical of the reoccurring intellectual elite that developed in countries emerging from colonialism. “Like adopted children who only stop investigating their new family environment once their psyche has formed a minimum core of reassurance, the colonized intellectuals will endeavor to make European culture his own.” Although many interpret his work as a simple call to arms and insistence on violence for the goal of liberation, critics like Homi Bhabha point to its complexities. Like Sembène, Fanon was adamantly critical of the role of intellectuals in post-independent nations, their political influence, and how this sustained imperialism. However, he was also aware of the fact that their embrace of Western history and culture was an extension of a Western fantasy. The African was continually subjugated to exotification. The intellectual elite would eternalize the fantasy through the rejection of indigenous culture and continued use of the colonizer's language and dissemination of image stereotypes.
Homi Bhabha writes that, “It is through Image and fantasy-those orders that figure transgressively on the borders of the history and the unconscious that Fanon most profoundly evokes the colonial condition.” According to Fanon, the only way to overturn colonialism would be to free people from cultural imperialism (which included Western versions of history, and the aforementioned representations of African culture) and create a nationalist culture independent of colonial oppressors.
In the 1960s through the early 1970s (and to this day), the Francophone African film industry was controlled by France and subsequently Sembène's first two works were produced with French funding and distributed through the French theatre system. Due to the lack of cinémathèques and screening venues in Senegal most of these films were limited to viewership in Europe.
The J-term program deepened my research on Francophone African film but more importantly clarified how little I know. I plan to return to expand on my research.
Cohn, Bernard. 1996. Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 47
Fanon, Frantz. 1963. The Wretched of the Earth. London: Penguin, pg 155
Bhabha, Homi. 1994. The Location of Culture. New York, Routledge, pg 61