Father of African cinema buried in Senegal

By Rukmini Callimachi

Dakar - His body wrapped tightly in a shroud adorned with Quranic verses, the man credited with giving birth to African cinema was buried on Monday as hundreds looked on and a continent grieved.

Sembene Ousmane, who died over the weekend at age 84, was a fisherman who taught himself to read and write, a car mechanic, a dock worker, a bricklayer and a union organiser - all before he began write.

He penned a-half-a-dozen novels before 1966, when he turned one of his short stories into a 60-minute movie, commonly referred to as Africa's first feature-length film.

Those who knew him say he turned away from literature because he believed film could reach a larger share of the continent's illiterate masses.

Like his novels, his films dealt with issues of social justice in Africa - from the story of a young woman whose out-of-wedlock pregnancy scandalises her community to a cart driver, whose daily life brings into stark relief the exploitation of the poor.

"Sembene's cinema gave voice to the voiceless in Africa," says Samba Gadjigo, a professor of film and literature at Massachusetts' Mount Holyoke College, who has written a biography of the filmmaker and who travelled to Senegal for the funeral. "What made his work stand out is that it offered an alternative to the official discourse on African history."

For instance, his 1966 feature The Black Girl tells the story of a Senegalese girl hired as a maid in a French household. Released four years after Senegal's independence, the movie is widely seen as a metaphor for the nation's continued enslavement to its colonial master. In exile on the French Riviera, the African maid commits suicide.

He worked hard to dismantle stereotypes of Africa, not just in the characters he portrayed but also in the techniques he used. In his early films, he refused, for instance, to use the "tam-tam" drum as the musical backdrop, using stringed African instruments instead, said Odile Cazenave, a film and literature professor at Boston University.

Among the ways he tried to reach out was through language, making the first film in an African tongue, Mandabi in 1968, a film in Senegal's Wolof.

Sembene's last film, 2004's Moolade, which won a prize at Cannes, is set in a small African village where four girls try to escape the brutal practice of female circumcision.

Among the hundreds that came to pay their respects on Monday were his stagehands, costume designers and actors.

"He taught me to work within African cinema. There was never a comparison to Europe. Everything was from here - the decor, the costumes, the symbols," said Magaye Niang, who plays a pickpocket in 1974's Xala.

Sembene was also instrumental in trying to create an infrastructure for the art in Africa. He is a founder of the FESPACO film festival, often referred to as the "Cannes of Africa," held biannually in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

He helped create a regional filmmaking organisation that fought the sale of old cinema halls, a trend that has left almost no local venues for seeing African films in Africa.

It's one of the enduring ironies of Sembene's work. Although pirated DVDs of Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland are readily available on street corners throughout Africa, the movies of the man who struggled to reach out to Africans are difficult to come by - especially in his native Senegal.

"Sembene understood that cinema is part and parcel of the development of a country. You cannot uproot poverty without tending to the soul of a nation," said Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cisse, 67, the president of UCECAO, the regional group that fought the sale of cinema halls.

Born on January 1, 1924 in southern Senegal's Casamance region, Sembene was destined to become a fisherman like his father, but could not keep from getting seasick.

He was sent to live with relatives in Dakar, where he worked as a bricklayer and mechanic by day and taught himself to read and write at night. He also fell in love with cinema watching movies in one of the dozen-or-so cinema halls in Dakar that have long since been shuttered.

After being drafted as a soldier in World War 2, he moved to Marseilles, where he unloaded ships as a dock worker, joined the Communist Party and became a union organiser. He began to write novels, many with political subjects, including one of the masterpieces of African fiction, God's Bits Of Wood, about a railroad strike in Senegal.

In describing his death, some reached for typically African metaphors, as if to honour the filmmaker's legacy.

His death is "an immense loss," said Baba Hama, the director of the FESPACO film festival. "It's the fall of a baobab," he said, referring to the thick-trunked tree, one of the most recognisable symbols of Africa which is venerated for its ability to survive drought.

But "he lives on in our hearts." - Sapa-AP

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