Celebrating Cinema from Africa to the World: Screening Ousmane Sembène

Mikhail Moosa

“It all started with a tweet.”

When Archer Neilson, program coordinator for the Yale Film Archive, posted a photo of Ousmane Sembène on the centenary of his birth, she could not have anticipated the interest it would generate from around the world.

“It served as a reminder of his importance.” And it laid the seeds for a centenary celebration, in partnership with the Whitney Humanities Center, to screen five of Sembène’s earliest features and several short films. In an illustrious career spanning continents, languages, decades, and media, Ousmane Sembène, one of Africa’s greatest novelists, went on to become one of Africa’s greatest directors.

Sembène’s youth, in present-day Senegal, coincided with the momentous changes wrought by decolonization. To understand Sembène is to understand the twentieth century in Africa. The trajectory of his life mirrored the challenges and opportunities brought about by Africa’s decolonization. He was a draftee into French World War II service, a participant in one of the great labor disputes in West African history—immortalized in his most popular novel, God’s Bits of Wood (1960)—and a trade unionist in France.  

His politics are evident in his work. His first short film, Borom Sarret (1963), and his first feature, Black Girl(1966), widely regarded as the first feature by an African director to achieve international recognition, explore oppressive labor conditions in postcolonial Senegal’s early years. The two films were shown together for the opening night of the “Early Sembène” series.

Critical reception for Black Girl was muted on its initial release. Following the release of its fiftieth-anniversary restoration in 2016, however, critics effusively regarded the film as “powerfully of its moment and permanently contemporary.” The events reported in a Marseille newspaper—that served as the inspiration for the plot—were only recently brought to light and analyzed by Doyle Calhoun (Ph.D. ’22), who returned to Yale in conversation with professor emeritus Dudley Andrew following the screening.

Sembène’s second feature, Mandabi (1968), the first feature film in Wolof, Senegal’s most widely spoken language, is a continuation of his interest in the challenges faced by a postcolonial Senegal. The film explores the tensions that accompany navigating a newly formed bureaucracy. Tauw (1970), a short film from the Yale Film Archive’s collection, exposes the predicament of a young Senegalese man struggling to fulfill the expectations of both his family and his nation.

The next screening in the series will be Emitaï (1971), inspired by Sembène’s service in World War II; it focuses on the women left behind to manage their villages (Sunday, October 8, at 2 pm).

The penultimate screening is an eponymous adaptation of Sembène’s own novel, Xala (1975). Taken from the Wolof term for a curse, Xala is a darkly satirical take on the avarice of Senegal’s postcolonial bourgeoisie (Sunday, November 12, at 2 pm).

Turning his attention to cross-cultural encounters in early modern West Africa, Sembène’s ambitious film Ceddo (1977) closes the series. Initially banned by the Senegalese government, Ceddo foregrounds the collapse of sovereignty occasioned by the encroachment of Islam and the specter of the slave trade (Thursday, December 7, at 7 pm).

Please join the Whitney Humanities Center and the Yale Film Archive in celebrating the centenary of Ousmane Sembène, regarded by many as the father of African cinema.

All screenings take place at the Humanities Quadrangle (320 York St.) lower level and are free and open to the public.

Mikhail Moosa is a Ph.D. student in History focused on social, intellectual, and environmental histories of Africa. His research explores the social history of energy and urbanization in twentieth-century Johannesburg.