I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Ousmane Sembene, the Senegalese writer and director of Black Girl, Ceddo, and Camp de Thiaroye is the point by which African cinema sets its compass.
Ousmane Sembene, the Senegalese writer and director of Black Girl, Ceddo, and Camp de Thiaroye is the point by which African cinema, particularly FESPACO 13, (the Pan African Film and Television Festival, de Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso) sets its compass. Dressed in a regal blue robe, hobbling slightly, biting down on his signature bowed pipe, his descent upon Ouaga (pronounced warmly “Waga”), signifies the essential mix of art, industry and style that draws the international film community to the continent’s pre-eminent festival every two years.
Sembene’s latest film, Guelwaar, which centers around a dead freedom fighter who is Catholic but mistakenly buried in a Moslem cemetery, was not submitted to the festival for competition because the director wanted to make room for an emerging generation of filmmakers. Such gestures are characteristic of the leading pioneer of cinematic expression in the African continent. Guelwaar as well as Sembene’s other shorts and features will be presented as part of Modern Days, Ancient Nights: Thirty Years of African Filmmaking by The Film Society of Lincoln Center and The Brooklyn Museum, April 2 through 30th (1993).
This interview takes place over a few days and poolside nights at the Hotel Independence, the city’s primary watering hole for journalists, cineastes and hangers on. In the street, I run across local cult favorite Tracy “Revolution” Chapman with running buddy Alice Walker in tow, Antonio “Huggie Bear” Vargas, Akusia Busia, and finally John Singleton. His words appear here courtesy of Manthia Diawara, head of Africana Studies at New York University, and African novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong’o who are in Ouaga producing a documentary about FESPACO through the eyes of Sembene.
2/25/93 Interview with Ousmane Sembene
Reginald Woolery You end Camp de Thiaroye with all the soldiers being massacred by the French. In contrast, your new film Guelwaar is almost comic in its premise. It’s more about intra-African relationships, working through issues for Africans. How did you get from there to here?
Ousmane Sembene Since Ceddo, which was the last film I made ten years before Thiaroye, my master plan has been—African solutions can only come from Africa itself. In that sense I really haven’t changed anything. People who come to my movies still do it for the same reasons.
RW I have read your novels, God’s Bits of Wood and The Docker, and I was really impressed with the complexity of your characters. You maintain these same dimensions, if not the details, on the screen. How do you go about creating your films and stories?
OS I myself am a living paradox.
RW I know that.
OS I’m full of contradictions. Manthia asks me that all the time, and I don’t know how to answer. I assure you, I have no secrets, but I don’t like to explain anything. OK, I use Marxist dialectics to try to understand the walk of the individual within a community. The dynamics of Marxist economic theory are very important to creating this complexity. Man needs to eat, but did he produce what he’s eating or did someone else? These are questions that arise when I’m writing. There is a proverb in Bambara that says, “If you manage to eat for a whole year without touching your wallet, it’s because you are living in someone else’s pocket.” So when you’re in contact with a man like that, you have to describe his whole mentality as well as the society surrounding him, to understand how he thinks. That’s how I proceed.
RW When Manthia and Ngugi were filming you in Dakar, you had an exchange with a group of high school students. Everyone was very impressed by their questions. They were practically on the level of graduate students in the U.S. They really challenged you on your symbolism and how you construct roles. How does this relationship with a younger community help the creative process?
OS Meeting my people enriches me. It gives me courage. It helps me correct myself, and question myself. It helps me re-shape myself. I’m 70 years old and I’m talking to 20-year-old children. How can I operate mentally with all these young guys? They have their hands on the pulse of the culture.
RW You were a novelist before you started making films. You took up filmmaking because films were more accessible in a continent where most people didn’t read. When you made your first feature, Black Girl, in 1965, you had to show your films in Europe and eventually create a structure for African countries to show African films.
OS It hasn’t been me alone! The African cinema is a group effort. Frankly, we are too weak to work on an individual basis. No matter your age, or how long you’ve been involved in filmmaking, when you participate with someone, you learn from them. You share your feelings with the others. It creates a feeling of solidarity. That is the main thing, in fact.
RW Even though there is a growing feeling of unity among African filmmakers, you anchor the direction of the cinema here.
OS That’s natural. In each herd, there’s an imbecile. (laughter) When you die, somebody takes your place. That’s life. Somebody’s always got to set the trends for the others. I mean, why do societies, all over the world, feel the need to have artists and to recognize them?
RW Your films have given a lot to audiences, in terms of turning a light on Africa and cinematically framing Pan African issues. How has filmmaking mediated your experience of the world?
OS You can’t buy life. You cannot make change from it. What I know comes from the generations that preceded me. Without my community, my society, I am nothing. I’m accountable to my community. I expect nothing, no rewards for my work. The community does not owe me.
2/24/93 Interview with Ousmane Sembene and John Singleton
RW I felt that Camp de Thiaroye pulls along both Africans and African Americans. For example, the film, which takes place in an internment camp right after World War I, uses “the blues” to underscore a lot of the action. The African soldiers, who fought with the French in World War I, have to borrow uniforms from African American soldiers, which later causes a psychic dilemma. And you even have an African American GI character who, unfortunately, is a real asshole until he realizes it is an African brother he has just beaten up. In this film, were you trying to say something directly to Americans or more simply to Africans of the diaspora?
OS That was one of the first contacts between Africans and African Americans. We’d been to war. You can’t imagine that first contact. You have no idea. Both of us were in a colonial army. Try to think of that. I hope the American GI liberated himself from American colonization. You, an African American, are free from American colonialism even though you are living in the heart of it. Me, I freed myself from colonialism, but now there is neo-colonialism. Now our contact is different. That’s the way things go.
RW How do you mean?
OS Europe and, particularly France, have a goal of Neo-colonialism, regardless of whether it’s a socialist government or one from the right. President Mitterand recently said, without Francophone Africa, France won’t have a political legacy in the 21st century. For me, nothing has changed. From 1985 to the present, everything in Africa is still the same. Historically, white people lied to us three times. After they emptied India and Latin America, they turned to us, to civilize us, to bring us the Christian religion. That lasted 300 years. In the 1800’s they came back to pacify us, to bring us modernity. In 1960, they left and it was chaos. Now in 1993, they say they are bringing us “democracy and civilization.” Three times they have lied to us and tried to colonize us. Any African who does not keep that in their mind will still be oppressed in the next century. During slavery, the race didn’t die. We fortified what was left of our culture. In the American diaspora, in order to survive, they invented two of the most beautiful things in the world to nourish themselves from within. Jazz and the blues. That’s a cultural expression. It’s not a civilization yet. It came from the community, but now there is Japanese jazz, European jazz. We brought that to humanity. They even have classical jazz now. Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker: they have been appropriated by other people. Since Picasso, we have modified all culture. Look at our women, they give birth no matter how great the suffering. Now Africa is trying to recuperate. Now, even the Pope goes to see the voodoo priest. In the past, in order to see the Pope, you had to go to Rome. Now, it’s the Pope who comes to Africa. Islam does the same thing. We still have to struggle, but we are now at the center of the world. Just imagine, one day, a railroad track from Dakar in the north to Free Town in South Africa. And a road from the Suez Canal to Konacri. That is possible, but we just haven’t done it yet. This culture is ours, but they try to tell us they are the reference, the source of it all. Europe has nothing to teach us. Europe knows absolutely nothing. They think that by killing us, they will kill our culture. They will try to kill us, but we should also not be ashamed to kill them, without concession.
John Singleton I think that I can learn from the wisdom of your years. There are many things that you have experienced that I am aware of but what has set us apart is that you have experience of them and I have only heard about them.
OS It’s only a few details. Nothing really sets us apart. This is your heritage.
JS I think I have experienced something frustrating since I have come here to Africa. I have fallen in love with its people and this land. The more I fall in love, the sadder I become. It is maybe a question of myself and what I call home. Even growing up in South Central, Los Angeles I questioned my place in the world. Now, that I have seen Burkina Faso, I question it even more. I feel more homeless. So, what I’m planning to do is to try to spend more time here, maybe two or three months out of the year.
OS When you want to come, my house is open to you.
JS I would like to start thinking of America as the place where I work, but I would always like to consider Africa as my home.
OS This is the way of life of the artist. The artist always asks him or herself hard questions. This sentiment that you hold is the same feeling of all the people who live through the diaspora. I understand it, but I think that you are rich. There is the African culture you have discovered and the American culture also. We have to come to a synthesis. The past Africa will never come back again. It is young people like yourself who will make the new Africa.
JS I want to help make a new Africa.
OS It’s not your right, it is your duty. You are the expression of the whole community. You are the mouth for people who cannot speak. You are the eyes of people who cannot see. You are the ears of people who cannot see, and the legs of people who cannot walk. You and me, we are nothing without our communities. No artist is somebody without the community. But, nobody gave us an order to do this, but we have to do it. Nobody will do it in your place.
JS There are many in the U.S. who believe my beliefs and the way I work to be strange. But, I have always held the belief that they are slaves in their minds. That’s why I am always striving to be free.
OS It is a neo-colonialism. Black America is a colony.
JS It’s not about shackles. (points to his head)
OS Voila! They want to put the colonialism in our heads. They want us to only look toward the white man and that shouldn’t even be the point of reference, he who is the worst enemy of humanity. All the suffering of humanity came from them. They didn’t invent anything to make the earth liveable. Everything they do is to destroy the land.
2/21/93 Interview with Manthia Diawara
RW What has it been like to bring together two of the greatest cinematic and literary figures in Africa: Ousmane Sembene and Ngugi wa Thion’go?
Manthia Diawara It’s been very interesting to me because I didn’t know that N’gugi had incredible admiration for Sembene. As writers, the two of them are considered to be very similar. I’m a colleague of Ngugi. We both work at New York University and I’ve been friends with him for years. So, when we decided to do this project, N’gugi literally told me, “Look I will only use this time to make a film on two people in the world. Ousmane Sembene and Alex Laguna, who passed away. I didn’t know he had that kind of admiration for Sembene. As writers, people teach them together all the time. They had met before, exchanged presents and gifts. So, when we decided to do this film it was very easy.
RW Do you think that the older generation of African filmmakers, like Sembene, have depended too much on Europe for money to make films? Has that influenced the editorial content?
MD In many ways, not just the older generation, but the younger one too, depends on European money. The same is probably true for many Third World cinemas. It’s a very complex situation and it’s easier for me to talk about it because I’m mostly a critic and I have a stable job. For African filmmakers, if they do not go to the West on the one hand, they’re not going to make a film. And, if they go to the West, can they still call their work “African cinema?” The biggest problem is that African cinema is part of Europe’s relation to Africa, the same way that selling cars to Africa is part of that relation. France, particularly, wants to have a cultural presence in Africa. If it’s going to cost France its life, it wants to keep that presence. Because of that, they don’t want African filmmakers to be too concerned about creating a film industry which will push out all the European films on African screens. But in reality, no individual African country, except for perhaps, Nigeria, can sustain a national film industry. Only a few people can afford to go to movies. But it’s not true that you can’t have an industry here on a regional level, like West Africa, or Francophone Africa, or anyway you want to organize it. You can have an industry. France is really playing with that in clever ways. They want filmmakers to enter in the French tradition of “art et essai.” That is, “Here is money, make the kind of film you want.” On the other hand, they give money only to films and filmmakers they feel represent the “real” Africa to French people, not to the African public here. Before a French-produced film starts, before anything, you see a sign, “This film was produced by the French government.” That produces a climate of Francophonie: France and Africa are all the same. They also encourage the filmmakers to speak as much French as possible in the film. Sembene has often said, “My life is not turning around Europe. I take my decisions from Africa.” Of course there’s some contradiction to that. We all know Europe is very important to African cinema. But his statement is very important. Every trend is encouraged by African filmmakers, but it was also motivated by European financiers as well. You know, life is complex. France has to do what it has to do to be what it is and African filmmakers have to do the same thing. If a new president gets elected in France, for example, there’s going to be a new kind of African cinema. Especially if it’s a government of the right. But they won’t stop African cinema. They will just re-define, re-select their filmmakers to replace the Mitterand filmmakers. I know I’m simplistic about these things, but I have observed them. I know that France has worked for 30 years to try to replace Ousmane Sembene, to say their other director is theAfrican filmmaker. This happens in the U.S. also, with black American filmmakers. The powers that be want to listen to a certain kind of discourse. This is capitalism. If they can’t get it from you, they go to somebody else and get it from that person very easily.
RW The FESPACI (The Federation of Pan African Cineastes) Congress is meeting as we speak. Can there be any real progressive movement with ex-colonial powers so invested in policing the African voice?
MD It’s not so much that African filmmakers have any new solutions to these problems, but they organize themselves. They come up with motions: let’s nationalize all the movie theaters. This motion has to go to the governments in place and if governments in place nationalize an industry, they have to deal with France, because they are already in a bilateral relationship with France, selling peanuts, sugar, coconuts, oil, whatever you want. Cinema too enters into that. It has to relate to food, music, and so on. It becomes very complex. Film is not made in a circle by itself.
Reginald Woolery in collaboration with Third World Newsreel lectures on the Art and History of African American Film at the New School in New York. His TV project Over-Extended Family, a black road movie, is in development with PBS. He is currently producing a series of works entitled Street Theatre.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee