An audience can tell you everything. There’s not a distracted soul in the room; young people, some with pencil and paper in hand, taking notes: they don’t want to miss a word. “Cinema is like an ongoing political rally with the audience,” the man at the front of the room says.
The footage is from the early nineties. By then Ousmane Sembène was an old man, but you couldn’t tell from the way he talks. He’s as sharp and as spirited as a schoolboy, it is only the assuredness of his delivery that suggests his advanced years. "I was driven to film as a more effective tool for my activism. Cinema is an important tool for us. Of all the arts, it’s the form of expression that’s most accessible and appealing to a large audience."
The words are telling, but the faces of the audience are truly revelatory. They latch onto every word, nod in agreement, lean forward in anticipation of what’s to come. For Sembène, whose art was always intertwined with his politics, the filmmaker’s role stretched beyond the screen. His films are masterpieces of anti-colonial resistance, but no work of art can change the course of history on its own. Politics rests on our willingness to engage in dialogue. This is what Sembène did: he talked, he listened, and then he talked again.
Film’s political potential was recognised from its inception. It’s no surprise that Lenin believed cinema to be the most important of all the arts, and his was not an isolated view. Cinema has been used in the service of both communism and fascism, for both the coloniser and the colonised. It has exposed corruption and concealed atrocities. The same technology that Leni Riefenstahl used to bring us the Nuremberg rallies also broadcasted the sentencing of the Nuremberg trials.
For Adorno, cinema was a dulling medium, stripping the audience of its critical faculties. The audience watches their entertainment with closed minds and open mouths, perpetuating a capitalist system that alienates them for their political potential. For the great Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, on the other hand, the technology of cinema offered a way to portray Marx’s dialectics visually, bringing revolutionary ideas to a largely illiterate public.
How are we to regard the films of Ousmane Sembène, the “father of African cinema” and the man who perhaps more than any other used filmmaking as a vehicle for social and political change?
Born in the then-French colony of Senegal in 1923, Sembène was educated in the colonial school system from which he was eventually expelled for assaulting a teacher. After his expulsion, he worked a series of manual jobs including on his father’s fishing boat before seasickness forced him to find work on land. In 1947, he helped lead a strike among Senegalese railway workers, demanding the same rights as their French counterparts. Sembène would later dramatise the strike in his 1960 novel God's Bits of Wood: “They began to understand,” he wrote, “that the machine was making of them a whole new breed of men.” Before he ever picked up a camera, Sembène was confident in his politics. He knew the power of collective action: no one changes the world alone.
His first feature film La Noire de … (Black Girl) was released in 1966. It tells the story of Diouana, a young Senegalese woman who moves to France to work for a bourgeois French family as a maid. At first, the prospect of economic and geographic advancement fills her with excitement. “Maybe they'll show me the city,” she says. “Maybe we'll go to Cannes, Nice, Monte Carlo. We'll look at all the pretty stores, and when the mistress pays me, I'll buy pretty dresses, shoes, silk undies, and pretty wigs. And then I'll get my picture taken. I'll send it back to Dakar and they'll die of jealousy!” But this optimism soon gives way to despair. Her new employers treat her horribly. She feels isolated. Her African identity is sexualised. The freedoms she enjoyed in Senegal are a distant memory in her new life in progressive France. “The mistress lied. She's always lied. She'll not lie to me again. Never will she lie to me again. She wanted to keep me here as her slave.” As well as being a critique of the continued divide between France and Senegal after decolonisation, Diouana’s plight is also a commentary on the intersection between race and gendered politics in the domestic sphere; as Angela Davis observes, “wages cannot compensate for her slavelike situation.”
The film ends with two key moments. The first is Diouana’s suicide. The dehumanising treatment she suffers living with a French family on the glamorous continent drains her of her will to live. But the scene represents more than the condition of one woman; in her suicide lies the torment felt by all those who endured the systematic dehumanisation of the colonial project. Sembène once said his films gave voice to the “inner screams” of his audience. This scene does precisely that. Later, Diouana’s employer journeys to Senegal to return Diouana’s things to her family, including a traditional African mask she had earlier gifted the French family. As he tries to leave, a small boy picks up the mask and wears it over his face. He follows Monsieur through the streets of Dakar as the French man becomes increasingly unsettled and tries to run away. There is, of course, no escape. The guilt of colonialism follows the European; the dehumanisation of colonial sins goes both ways. Fanon easily could have written this scene.
Cinema, for Sembène, was a “night school” to raise the consciousnesses of the oppressed masses. He would tour his films around remote villages in Senegal, discussing the work with his audiences. These discussions did not just concern the aesthetic merits of the film. Rather, the film was a jumping off point for political and social discussion. It was never the sole product; dialogue was part of Sembène's creative and political programme. Indeed, one of the reasons for his transition from literature to filmmaking was his belief in the former’s superior power to educate and inform the masses, particularly on a continent with high levels of illiteracy.
From this, we could write a political commentary on Sembène’s filmography: the impotence of El Hadji in Xala representing the impotence of the new post-independence Senegalese bourgeoisie; the role of women in anti-colonial resistance in Emitaï, or Mooladdé’s confrontation of female genital mutilation. His cinema was a project for creating a decolonised Africa. In his work there is no nostalgia for a pre-colonial Africa. Rather, as Laura Mulvey writes, he constructed a “dialectical relationship” between traditional African culture and modern European developments. In Mooladdé, his final film from 2004, he condemns traditional patriarchal social structures and violence against women’s bodies. For Sembène, the development of a decolonised Africa depended on the advancement and participation of women.
But if we are to critically interrogate Sembène’s belief that cinema is a pedagogical tool in raising consciousness of the masses, ultimately contributing to a wider political struggle, we need to look beyond just the content of each individual film to the conditions of its creation.
For Marx, art offered an insight into the human condition that could compliment political analysis. His writing is brimming with literary references, a way for Marx to humanise his politics. Every work of art, in the Marxist view, is a political act, irrespective of its form or content, insofar as it represents the expression of man’s artistic potential in ways impossible for most people to realise under capitalism. As Terry Eagleton writes, for Marx “art is a prototype of what it is to live well. It is radical not so much because of what it says as because of what it is. It is an image of non-alienated labour in a world in which men and women fail to recognise themselves in what they create.” The political system we are to strive for is the one that allows the greatest number of people to do this most fully. “If artistic work is a scandal to the status quo, it is not because it champions the proletariat but because to live abundantly in this way isn’t possible under capitalism.”
As with much Marxist thought, this sentiment does not apply to colonised and former-colonised states without complications. In their seminal essay, “Toward a Third Cinema”, Argentine directors Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas contrast politically provocative cinema with Hollywood (that is to say, capitalist) cinema. This contrast is easy enough to understand. What’s more interesting is their contrast between a decolonised “third cinema” and what they call “second cinema” – examples of which include the French nouvelle vague and Brazilian novo cinema. Second cinema is an advance on the capitalist model, but is still trapped within a capitalist system of production and distribution.
Moreover, second cinema, while offering a vision of free self-expression, fails in its inwardness to advance the political cause that would allow such free expression to be attainable for all. “Ideas such as “Beauty in itself is revolutionary” and “All new cinema is revolutionary” are idealistic aspirations that do not touch the neocolonial condition, since they continue to conceive of cinema, art, and beauty as universal abstractions and not as an integral part of the national processes of decolonisation.”
Perhaps what makes a film political is less its content than the conditions in which it is made and shared. While Sembène was clearly a politically committed filmmaker from his earliest films, his filmography evolved to become less dependent on European finance, and less beholden to neocolonial interests. This was not always the case. Despite gaining independence in 1960, Senegale was largely reliant on funding from its former colonial metropole. It was in this context that Sembène started making films. Throughout the colonial era, European powers set up film units in their colonies, spurred by a belief in film’s capacity to educate, inform and indoctrinate. While the British set up the Colonial Film Unit and the Belgians established the Film and Photo Bureau, the French had no formal colonial film units, but cinema was still made in French colonies, albeit with restrictions on African productions. In this system, film functioned to augment the superiority of European civilisation and to reinforce the stereotyped inferiority of Africans. However, colonial powers continued to use cinema as a way to project influence on Senegalese audiences after colonialism had formally ended. For France, this was done via the Bureau du Cinéma, a branch of the French Ministry of Coopération.
Ostensibly established to support African filmmakers, the Coopération sought to control the social potential of output by buying the distribution rights, as they did with La Noire de … As the Malian filmmaker Manthia Diawara commented, this was “a clever way to absorb counterhegemonic products and even assimilate them to the apparent concern of the Coopération, which is to promote African film.” Such controls reveal a desire to keep the film industry dependent on France. From this, we can infer not only a belief in the power of cinema to promote colonial values, but also an obverse power to spread revolutionary ideas.
Sembène was forced to allow others to make artistic changes as a condition of his funding from the French Coopération. Mandabi, his film from 1968 about a Senegalese man whose life is thrown into turmoil when he receives a money order from Paris, was shot in colour rather than black and white, against Sembène’s wishes. Further changes to the film were requested, including the inclusion of erotic scenes. Sembène halted production and took the matter to court. The Coopération funded his film Xala from 1975, but would not release it without cuts. Sembène resorted to handing out leaflets explaining the omissions to audiences.
By the end of his career, Sembène had largely stopped seeking funding from the French, finding the financial model “tainted with paternalism”. This wasn’t just a matter of artistic freedom. By adhering to the editorial demands of foreign aid, African filmmakers risk perpetuating foreign conceptions of the continent: “Europeans often have a conception of Africa that is not ours.” As Fanon wrote, “it is the White who creates the Negro.” The trajectory of Sembène’s career serves as a good example of a filmmaker moving towards a decolonised mode of filmmaking. He readily dismissed concerns that his cinema disregarded Europe, with his usual fierce poeticism: “Why be a sunflower and turn toward the sun? I myself am the sun!” Even so, he never fully detached himself from international support: his final film received funding from the UN Development Programme and other international bodies. But largely freeing himself from foreign aid as his career progressed allowed Sembène to create a decolonised cinema in both form and content.
However, the issue of off-screen dynamics goes beyond just funding. Moving away from the auteur model of filmmaking – a view that fetishises the singular vision of the (usually male) director - and towards a communal mode of filmmaking where the delineation between roles can be fluid was a key component for the advocates of Third Cinema. “Each member of the group should be familiar, at least in a general way, with the equipment being used: he must be prepared to replace another in any of the phases of production. The myth of irreplaceable technicians must be exploded.” Or, in Godard’s words, “the problem is not to make political films but to make films politically.” The problem, Sembène recognised, with working within or indeed against the film industry “could probably only be solved by grouping together of people who share the same ideology,” he once said in an interview. “I don’t mean ideology in a political sense; it’s just important that we have the same interests.”
Such solidarity was also reflected on-screen, as with that of women against the village elders in Moolaadé or the wartime resistance effort portrayed in Emitaï. Recognising the importance of cinema setting an example of the possible, Sembène said,
During the period of colonialism I can show that not a single month passed when there was not a resistance effort. But the problem was that there was no communication among the people. There were scattered struggles, even individual struggles. If people had been organised, we would have gained our freedom a long time ago. But now, through film, we can learn from each other. … film has to be the medium. Film-makers have a great responsibility to our people.
In this way, we can reconcile Marx’s view of art as “non-alienated” labour with Third Cinema’s desire to move away from a filmmaking that champions “art for art’s sake’. By actively participating in cinema as a political project, artists can find their political identity while producing work that brings struggle and oppression to a mass audience: “I make the revolution; therefore, I exist,” say Getting and Solanas. Or, as Cuban director Julio García Espinosa asked in his 1969 essay “For an Imperfect Cinema”,
Must the revolutionary present and the revolutionary future inevitably have "its" artists and "its" intellectuals, just as the bourgeoisie had "theirs"? Surely the truly revolutionary position, from now on, is to contribute to overcoming these elitist concepts and practices, rather than pursuing ad eternum the "artistic quality" of the work. The new outlook for artistic culture is no longer that everyone must share the taste of a few, but that all can be creators of that culture. Art has always been a universal necessity; what it has not been is an option for all under equal conditions.
Moreover, it allows us to move away from the supremacy of the individual artist that has long monopolised European thought, art and politics. This is not to advocate for the removal of the director. A non-hierarchical film set would surely result in mutiny, and the poetic beauty that runs through Sembène’s films proves that he himself was a great artist. Rather, it is to suggest a way of embracing a socialist ethos in the construction of cinema. If a politics is to be egalitarian, so too must its art. It is filmmaking embodying the ideology it represents: a marriage of form and structure, art and ethics.
None of this is to deny the importance of content. We know from the final sequence of La Noire de … the political power that images can have on an audience. But a brief glance at cinema’s short history reveals competing aesthetic styles deployed for political aims by different filmmakers. But to impose a system of aesthetics is to impose a system of belief. The answer is not to advocate for a single aesthetic style but rather to embrace the act of artistic discovery. Placing trust in the right to fail is radical – whether in cinema or society. Our filmmaking, as with our politics, needs to be a process of discovery. As the authors of “Towards a Third Cinema” believed,
The existence of a revolutionary cinema is inconceivable without the constant and methodical exercise of practice, search, and experimentation. It even means committing the new film- maker to take chances on the unknown, to leap into space at times, exposing himself to failure as does the guerrilla who travels along paths that he himself opens up with machete blows.
We must extend this licence to experiment to both the activist and to the filmmaker: “our time is one of hypothesis rather than of thesis,” is a good attitude to adopt both artistically and politically. Espinosa’s “imperfect cinema” is not synonymous with Third Cinema, but both share a belief in the process of discovery in filmmaking: “Imperfect cinema is an answer, but it is also a question which will discover its own answers in the course of its development.”
For all Sembène’s anti-elitism, his was not a cinema of imperfection. Even his earliest films show a mastery of craft. As egalitarian as he was, his films are clearly just that: his films. Each is stamped with his unique blend of aesthetic sophistication and human compassion. We should strive for a cinema that holds up the values it wishes to promote: one that is democratic and resistant to the interests of capital and unchecked power. However, an imperfect cinema – one where there is no distinction between films created “with a Mitchell or with an 8mm camera” (or, today, between one shot in 4K or on an iPhone) – would surely lower the standard of emotional engagement an audience can attain through film. For all the alienation elitist art can foster, imperfect art would surely isolate as well.
Sembène worked not to create an imperfect cinema in the political sense, but rather to create a cinema that would help foster a revolutionary environment. The crucial points are these: Sembène’s artistic and political projects were entwined, and they never ended with the film in question. In his willingness – rather, his resolution – to engage in dialogue can we find Sembène’s ultimate contribution to the realm of politics and art.
Sembène had no Messiah complex. Talking about his films offered a way not to talk about himself but to talk about the issues that faced Africa. He was a beautiful speaker. You can see it in the eyes of those who heard him: the way they listen, hang on his every word. In distributing leaflets, giving interviews and interacting with audiences, Sembène made up for the shortfalls of cinema. A film cannot always find its audience, just as a sentence cannot always find a reader, but he worked to bridge that gap where he could.
For all our talk of aesthetics, we cannot forget audiences. Art may make statements, but the swell of social change requires an audience willing to act; ones who have heard their inner screams called back to them and who have been inspired to participate in dismantling structures of power wherever they may be: proudly displayed in the institutions of government or covertly concealed behind the veneer of culture.