Biography of Ousmane Sembène

Ousmane Sembène (also known as Sembène Ousmane) was a Senegalese filmmaker and author, born January 1, 1923 in Ziguinchor in the southern Casamance region of Senegal.

While Sembène's father, a fisherman of the Lebou people, moved to Casamance from Dakar at the beginning of the 20th century, he was also a French citizen. Sembène's other relatives were of Muslim and Wolof heritage. As a result, the young Sembène attended both French school and Islamic school. At the age of 14, however, Sembène retaliated against a French teacher who struck him, and he was expelled from school. This incident ended Sembène's formal education in his middle school years, after which he was forced to work. Initially following in his father's footsteps as a fisherman, prolonged bouts of seasickness forced Sembène to move to Dakar and work as a bricklayer, mechanic, and handyman. Sembène then lived in Dakar from 1938 until 1944, during which time he fell in love with books (and, in particular, comics), movies, and local Senegalese events such as wrestling matches and traditional story recitations.

During World War II, Sembène joined the French Army, where he participated in the movement to free France from Nazi control and also served during the Allied invasion of Italy. After serving in the French Army, Sembène then returned to Dakar, where he joined in the watershed Dakar-Niger railroad workers' strike of 1947–1948, a cause that not only fought back strongly against imperialism but also marshaled the cause of African nationalism. Afterwards, Sembène stowed away on a ship bound for France, where he settled in Marseilles and found employment as a dockworker. While in France, Sembène also taught himself to read and write proficiently in French, after which he was noticed by labor union leader Victor Gagnère and joined in the CGT (Confederation Generale des Travailleurs), an influential left-wing union of the post-war era. By 1950, Sembène had joined the French Communist Party, and by 1951, he had also joined MOURAP (The Movement Against Racism, Antisemitism, and Peace—an important resistance group formed after WWII).

In 1950, Sembène's life changed for another reason besides his newfound membership in the French Communist Party—it was also in this year that Sembène broke his backbone. This injury forced Sembène to take up work as a switchman, at which point he was able to turn away from labor to more intellectual work. In his free time, too, Sembène started to visit libraries, museums, and theater performances, all of which solidified his interest in Marxist theory and politics, as well as facilitated his exposure to a variety of Communist writers from around the world. In reading Richard Wright, Pablo Neruda, John Dos Passos, and the like, Sembène's interest in historical and political themes was solidified. Moreover, noticing a clear dearth of such Communist voices from Africa, Sembène decided to take up writing himself, publishing Le Docker noir (The Black Docker) in 1956. This book, written in a social-realist mode and based in his own dock-working experiences in Marseilles, was then followed by O pays, mon beau peuple in 1957. In 1958, in order to support international movements advocating against colonialism, Sembène travelled to China and Vietnam.

1960 was another turning point for Sembène: in this year, not only did Senegal become independent (after which Sembène returned to his home country), but Sembène also published his third and arguably most famous novel, Les bouts de bois de dieu (God's Bits of Wood). This novel, a Marxist historical recreation of the railway workers' strike of 1947, was Sembène's foray into depicting "African" life, giving representation to the struggles he himself had faced and shedding light on the conditions of his native land. Around the same time, Sembène also became interested in filmmaking, and he attended the Maxim Gorki film school in Moscow. In 1963, Sembène released Borom Sarret, his first short film, which follows an impoverished Dakar cart driver and went on to win the First Film Award at the 1963 Tours Short Film Festival in France. In 1966, Sembène then followed this film up with the drama Le Noir de... (Black Girl), his first feature, which tells the story of a young Senegalese housemaid, who feels alienated and dehumanized while working for a wealthy white family in France. Black Girl was the first Black, African film to premiere at Cannes, and it won the prestigious Prix Jean Vigo at the Tanit d'Or Carthage Film Festival. Additionally, many, including the French critic George Sadoul, credited Sembène's film with introducing the world of cinema to Black African stories.

Two additional landmarks from Sembène's career in the late 1960s and early 1970s were the production of Mandabi (1968) and the penning of Xala (1973—later made into a 1974 film of the same name). In the case of the former, Sembène produced a full-length film in Wolof, his native tongue and the major indigenous language of Senegal. This represented a revolutionary and major choice of his going forward, made in order to reach a more popular African audience, since many of his countrymen at the time could not read or write in French. In the case of the latter, with Xala, a novel which lampoons the decadence and hypocrisy of Senegal's rising neocolonial bourgeoisie, Sembène solidified his reputation both domestically and abroad as a master creative, not constrained by tone, genre, medium, or even the censorship of his own country's government. A variety of films and novels followed throughout the rest of Sembène's careers, the sum total of which covered a broad range of important and meaty topics like religious differences (such as his Guelwaar [1993]) and female circumcision (like his Moolaadé [Protection; 2004]). By the time that he passed away on June 9, 2007 in Dakar, Sembène had earned a reputation as one of the founding fathers of African cinema, as well as a powerful voice within African and Marxist literature. Besides what has already been mentioned, Sembène was also the recipient of the Golden Lion Prize at the Addis Ababa Film Festival (1970), the winner of the Golden Bear at the Moscow Film Festival (1971), the recipient of the Un Certain Regard Award at Cannnes (2004), and more. He also founded a monthly magazine, Kaddu, in the 1970s, which was published in Wolof.

Study Guides on Works by Ousmane Sembène

Xala is a novel by Senegalese author Ousmane Sembène, originally written in French in 1973. The following year, it was made into an award-winning movie by Sembène himself, and it was translated into English as part of the influential Heinemann...