'The Father of African Film' Passes

Ousmane Sembene of Senegal was a novelist, film-maker and a beacon of hope and resistance to many across the continent of Africa. He died last weekend at the age of 84. Odile Cazenave, associate professor at Boston University's department of romance studies, talks about his significance.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

He was a novelist, a filmmaker and an inspiration to artists and art lovers around the world. We're talking about Senegalese icon Ousmane Sembene. He died last weekend in Dakar at the age of 84.

Sembene may be best remembered as the godfather of African cinema. In 1966, he wrote and directed "Black Girl." It's about a young woman who leaves Senegal for what she thinks will be a better life in France. It was the first feature-length film from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Throughout his career, Sembene tackled some of the toughest issues facing the continent. His 2004 film "Moolaade" depicts female genital mutilation. In this scene, a strong-willed woman protects four younger women from mutilation in a moolaade or sanctuary.

(Soundbite of movie "Moolaade")

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

CHIDEYA: Strong but complicated women filled Sembene's films. In an interview with NPR three years ago, he talked about women's unique and universal power.

Mr. OUSMANE SEMBENE (African Filmmaker and Director): (Through translator) You cannot really talk about the power of woman in terms of in quantitative terms. You cannot quantify it. The power of a woman is a very quiet power, an invisible power. It is like the sleeping lion.

CHIDEYA: For more about his life and contribution to cinema, we turned to Odile Cazenave, an associate professor at Boston University's department of romance studies. She's directing a six-week summer program in Dakar, which focuses on the literature and film of Senegal.

Professor ODILE CAZENAVE (Department of Romance Studies, Boston University): This is, you know, I think an immense loss for Senegal and for the world of cinema and of literature in general. I think the country, mostly intellectuals and the people, are still mourning and trying to recover from the shock. He went from writing to filmmaking but never ceased in trying to advocate for certain change, for a better society, trying to point out some of the mistakes or blunders or issues in Senegalese society on the African continent at large.

CHIDEYA: When I think about him, I think about a very personal moment that I had where a group of mainly black American film viewers, some Africans, were watching his seminal film "Black Girl" sitting together, and then afterwards, we had a discussion about what was the same and different in African and African-American society.

And it was fascinating that years after that 1965 film had been put to tape, it was still raising these questions of cultural identity in it - is this film about a woman who goes to Europe with her French employers and has this culture shock and this sense of displacement. Tell us specifically about "Black Girl" then also about some of the conversations that Ousmane Sembene's films may have engendered.

Prof. CAZENAVE: When you look at the issues, he was approaching, not only of this girl going to France and the lure that it represented and how excited she was initially, what it represented and the whole mess(ph) of France at the time but that's how this mess has prevailed and how, you know, he kept denouncing it in different ways, modulating it in other ways in his later films from even "Mandabi" to more recent films like "Faat Kine."

And so that's, you know, very much there and it was there in his - also in his novels, like "The Docker" in 1956 or in his short stories. "Black Girl" is actually an adaptation to the screen of a short story that he wrote and that he set before independence. And so what is interesting is also that in the adaptation, he places it after independence and so basically he's showing that the country may have become independent but some of the issues remained the same.

CHIDEYA: I think that one of the things I personally found fascinating about that work was the way that the Europeans were depicted and their domestic strife. And it seems as if, like so many great artists, Ousmane Sembene was a real student of human nature and how people interacted under - whether it was daily life circumstances or extraordinary circumstances.

Prof. CAZENAVE: This is a film that is also similar on many different ways where you see certain shots that reappeared in other films and that so he has inspired a whole generation of filmmakers and including Senegalese filmmakers who themselves have become also icons. And certainly, I think that he had a very keen eye on looking at just little things and also - and that's what he did a lot in his more recent films, like "Faat Kine," looking at daily heroism. They are looking at daily struggles and especially how women cope with that.

CHIDEYA: He focused a lot on women, why do you think that was?

Prof. CAZENAVE: Well, it's true. Actually, he's with - again with another kind of early generation of writers, African writers - Mongo Beti, a Cameroonian writer, now deceased. They were the first two African writers really to bring women to a more prominent role and fleshed them out in not just stereotypical type of characterization.

And on his novels, especially "God's Bits of Wood," "Les bouts de bois de Dieu" chose, you know, this very strong women who, you know, will go - one woman going to Iran and saying today we're going to eat when there is no more food for the children, or leading the march, you know, during the strike.

It is also something astonishing to think again that, you know, he was in his 80s and still being very - a very forceful voice for change and for acknowledgement of women's role and status including especially with his last film - latest film "Moolaade" about a very delicate issue of excision. So he's always been a very strong voice for women.

CHIDEYA: I want to go back to "Moolaade" but before I do, give me a sense of two things, one, his impact on African intellectuals like yourself on that community, and two, his impact perhaps to people like you who are teaching his works on non-African students.

Prof. CAZENAVE: Well, first of all about African intellectuals and filmmakers, he has been a real inspiration and continues - and even for the younger generation who has been, you know, trying to find - to experiment with new forms. They do acknowledge what he has done and also how he has been as one of the scholars on Sembene, of course, in the past(ph) says he has been the griot of modern times.

And I think that as a griot he continues to inspire many, you know, people - younger people. He's also being read - he's part of the curriculum at school, and so right now I have some students in summer program in Dakar and we've been reading and discussing Sembene's work. And so they were actually telling me how strange it felt to be, you know, viewing a film, discussing his work and then learning being in Dakar and learning about his death, so I think they were a little bit in a shock.

CHIDEYA: Well, Professor Odile Cazenave, thank you for this portrait of a very influential artist and man.

Prof. CAZENAVE: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Odile Cazenave is an associate professor at Boston University's department of romance studies. She's currently leading students in Dakar, Senegal.

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CHIDEYA: And that's our show for today. Thank you for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit npr.org/newsandnotes. To join the conversation, visit our blog News & Views. Just check out the link at the top of our Web page.

NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Tomorrow, we hit the culture beat with Allison Samuels.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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