'My first intent is to reach the African public. Europe and America are not my references – they are not the centre of the world,” says Ousmane Sembène. “I know they exist and I am very happy when Europeans watch my films – though I know they will only understand half of what happens.”
Though he speaks of “Africa”, he is suspicious of seeing this diverse continent as a single culture. “We don’t have one African culture – we have a myriad of cultures. What we have is many cultures in a melting pot that will generate a new culture.
“African culture is very, very rich, but there is a kind of shock we are going through. This is something that is at the same time internal and external to Africa.”
Sembène has faced difficulty getting his films distributed across Africa. Many countries are so poor that technical difficulties are inevitable. But also, Sembène complains, “African leaders and politicians are not keen to develop cinema. They work to promote muscles through soccer or bodybuilding, or your butt from dancing! But when it comes to scientific and cultural development they don’t want to touch it.
“Many of these people are in power because they have the backing of Western countries, and once they get in the way of European interests they will be out, whether by a coup or whatever. And it’s a big gain for Europe to have Africa as a continent of beggars.”
One of the most striking things in Sembène’s work is the strong female characters. He comments, “The future liberation of Africa will never happen without the liberation of women. And I would add that mentally it is not African women who need liberation so much as African men.”
The subject of Moolaadé is the practice of female genital mutilation. Sembène says, “I am trying to understand my society. And I’m always looking for a spark to trigger my imagination.”
“Not all the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa practice female genital mutilation. And those who do practise it do by different amounts. But, there are more than 38 countries where it is still practised to a greater or lesser extent.”
“Nowadays there is a widespread women’s movement that stands against it. One could argue it is not a vital problem or a vital issue for Africa. But for me it is an issue of freedom.
“I think I would be a very bad artist if I refused to see and highlight the negative aspects in my own society. Before I even picked up a camera to work on this film I had to do two years of research – talking to women and women doctors.
Hiding behind tradition
“Of course, I faced a lot of pressure not to make this film, but I refused to kneel before that pressure. This is a very sensitive issue. Many in Africa say it is our culture. But what they’re saying is a way of escaping from reality. They are hiding behind the tradition. They don’t think of the reality of what is being done to women. To me it is butchery.”
Sembène feels that Moolaadé and his other films can be a tool in the struggle of ordinary people “A lot of people in the film are speaking in their own language, expressing themselves in their own way. Look at how the women manage to capture a voice and speak in front of the men. Many people try to run away from debate, but for me encouraging discussion is my job.”
In the past he has said that he sees cinema as “evening classes” for workers and peasants – classes that have to be entertaining too. Repeatedly in his fiction he refers to West African griots, traditional storytellers, who kept the oral history of the people. He often sees filmmaking in a similar light.
Films of his that deserve a wider audience include Xala (Impotence), made in 1973, which mocks an emerging African bourgeoisie that wash their Mercedes cars in mineral water. Like much of Sembène’s work this is a satire, but one that isn’t simple caricature.
Sembène says, “Sometimes humour is vital. You have to laugh. Look at the history of slavery. It was all about cotton. People put us into slavery to produce cotton. But now when we produce the best cotton on the world, we can find no place to sell it. Are we now slaves to the price of cotton?”
Xala’s success in hitting its targets meant it was not shown in Senegal until after the death of Leopold Senghor, the president at the time.
Similarly, his classic Camp de Thiaroye was not shown in France for ten years. The 1988 film retells a true incident in the murderous treatment of Senegalese troops who had fought for France in the Second World War.
Moolaadé is the second part of a thematic trilogy entitled Daily Heroism. Sembène explains, “When you look at people’s struggle in my culture their heroism is composed of small deeds that in themselves are seemingly insignificant.”
The first film Faat Kiné detailed the struggles of a single mother in Dakar. He is currently preparing The Brotherhood of Rats, which promises to look at political corruption in the Senegalese capital.
Sembène’s best known novel is the magnificent God’s Bits of Wood. Set during an epic rail strike that paralysed French West Africa in 1947, it details the strike’s development and how collective activity educates and matures the participants. As with much of his work it has the vividness of lived experience.
Sembène is not keen to say how much the book reflects his personal experience, preferring to see it in a wider context. “For us it was a period of awakening. War is always unfortunate. But in Africa the war was a catalyst.
“Before the war we were colonised, we were on our knees. As youngsters we took part in the war and we saw that the colonisers we had idealised were as human as ourselves. They experienced fear. They had cowards and traitors. We went to war with a herd mentality like sheep, but we were transformed by the time we came back. As well as this, we had made contact with peasants and workers in the West. We learned a lot from that.”
He is reticent to discuss his own developing political experience, but comments on his relationship with the Marxist left from the 1950s:
“As an African I was a member of the French Communist Party. I was not just doing that in solidarity – I was an activist. If you go to my home you will see I have framed all my membership cards from the Communist Party and put them on the wall. This is something I don’t want to erase from my past.
“The first time I came to London I made a point of visiting Marx’s grave. Of course Karl Marx wrote erroneous things about Africa, but everyone made mistakes about Africa. What I was interested in was the positive things that he had to say.”
He says that politics must be understood on a global scale and personally he has been inspired by events from Mao’s victory in the 1949 Chinese revolution to strikes against Thatcher in 1980s Britain. Sembène says, “Everything that happens around the world serves us as an example. I try to focus on the positive things in Africa.”
The conversation comes around to the continuing relevance of class in understanding what is happening in Africa. Sembène says, “Class struggle always exists. The free market is not just a way of production, it is also an ideology. Maybe today’s workers are not as fierce as they used to be 20 years ago, but we can’t talk about social justice being achieved without class struggle.
“Globalisation has brought nothing to Africa, and trumpeting that word is hypocrisy – especially coming from the US, Britain and France.”
Mention of the coming G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland makes Sembène furious.
“It’s bullshit. I hope there will be more protests against the G8. Bush, Blair, Chirac and the rest are doing nothing for Africa. One also has to mention their allies in Africa like Mbeki. The situation is even sadder because our soil is rich. We should be the breadbasket of the world. But instead we are beggars.” He takes off his cap and holds it out, as if to beg. “This is how they behave towards the G8. If I were an African leader I would never attend this kind of summit.”
Instead of the imperialist world leaders Sembène looks to the world’s unsung heroes. He explains why he wants to celebrate “daily heroism” in his current films:
“This underground struggle, this struggle of the people, similar to the struggles of all other peoples, that’s what I call heroism in everyday life. These are the heroes to whom no country, no nation gives any medals – they never get a statue built.”
God's Bits of Wood is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QE.For more information phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com
Older editions of his work in English often give Ousmane Sembène's name as Sembene Ousmane