“Personally, I prefer to read, but 80 percent of Africans are illiterate,” Ousmane Sembene, the Senegalese novelist and filmmaker, told me many years ago during a rare American interview occurring in Madison, Wisconsin. The world-renowned author of God’s Bits of Wood (1960), a Zolaesque novel about the 1947 Dakar-Niger railroad strike, was crossing the US raising money for a new movie. Wanting to communicate with the broadest audience, Sembene had become, as a second vocation, sub-Saharan Africa’s first and most important feature filmmaker. “Every night I can fill up a theatre,” he explained. “The people will come whether they share my ideas or not. I tell you, in Africa, especially in Senegal, even a blind person will go to the cinema and pay for an extra seat for a young person to sit and explain the film to him.”
Sembene died this past June at age 84 in his home city of Dakar. Many of his novels and films were aimed at what he saw as the retrograde, anti-humane practices of African-style Islam, but this avowed Marxist was said to be buried in a shroud covered with Koranic verse.
What I admired most about Sembene was his courageous, lifetime commitment to women’s rights. Several years before feminism was championed in America, Sembene made Black Girl (1966), a hurtful fictional tale about a Senegalese teenager who, employed as a servant, becomes the virtual prisoner of a wealthy French family living in a high-rise on the Riviera. Moolade (2004), Sembene’s last feature, was a potent, angry polemic against the practice in Muslim-African cultures of genital mutilation. “Many in Africa say it is our culture,” Sembene told a British interviewer. “To me it is butchery. Mentally, it is not African women who need liberation, it is African men.”
Most of Sembene’s films met with censorship, or were stopped altogether. For example, his anti-colonialist 1971 work, Emitai, about the forced inscription of Diola tribesman from rural Senegal during World War II, was barely allowed in France. “Every time I wanted to show this film,” Sembene told me, “the day fell on a day of mourning for de Gaulle.”
For two years, Sembene studied the minority Diola language, so that the tribesmen, many of whom had never seen a movie, could be coaxed to act in Emitai. The world premiere was held where the film was shot. “All of the villagers from the whole area came and, because they have no cinema, their reaction was that of children looking at themselves in a mirror for the first time.” He showed Emitai three nights in a row, then the elders retired to the rain forest to debate. Their decision: “thumbs up” for using the Diola language, which was so beautiful to hear. “Thumbs down” for insulting the ancient gods.
Less-puritanical African-Muslim bands provide much of the music and spirit in Stephen Olsson’s Sound of the Soul, a documentary made at the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music in Morocco and screening at the MFA August 2–18.