Filmmaker Sembene Dies at 84

Ousmane Sembene, the man credited with pioneering Senegalese cinema, died in his home last week. He was 84. His most recent work, Moolaade, won a prize at the Cannes film festival three years ago.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

The man credited with pioneering Senegalese cinema died in his home last weekend. Ousmane Sembene was 84 years old. He was known as the dean of African Filmmakers. His most recent work "Moolaade" won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival three years ago.

Joining us to discuss the films of Ousmane Sembene is WEEKEND EDITION entertainment critic Elvis Mitchell. He joins us from member station KNPR in Las Vegas. Welcome, Elvis.

ELVIS MITCHELL: Thanks. How are you?

YDSTIE: I'm well. Thank you. Sembene was a self-taught, self-educated fisherman who served in the French army during World War II. He later settled in Marseille where he began writing novels. What drew him to film?

MITCHELL: Well, because he understood that, basically, film was a way to communicate to a greater number of people. When I had a chance to meet him at the San Francisco Festival in 1992, he said that I, basically, still think of myself as a novelist but film was what people see, film was what people know. And he said something that I guess he said to a number of people, which is that Africa need to see its own reflection in film. That was something that was missing.

YDSTIE: Let me ask you a little bit what it was like to meet Sembene and what was it like to be in his presence?

MITCHELL: Well, in the brief period of time I got to spend with him, you get a sense of what you want a director to be like, what a director should be like. And he had this really kind of bigger-than-life presence but he was curious. He wanted to know what people thought. He wanted to know what was out there. But from talking to him, there's a sense of calm that you knew he could get what he wanted from actors, and he was very specific in a way that you ask questions and turn to people.

What was so fascinating about his work to me is if you sit back and talk about it, certainly there are themes and metaphor for patriarchy and about women who step up and take power and claim their own lives. But the films themselves weren't big statement films. They weren't melodramas. And he was very conscious of that.

YDSTIE: Before Sembene was a filmmaker he was a painter as well as an author of book short stories and poetry, sort of a true pioneer of the arts in Senegal. Did his influence cross borders?

MITCHELL: I think in a lot of ways they did. His early films felt like documentary and he used that technique to sort of pull us in right away. So the kind of questions you get from setting and showing a cast of all Africans in a film, he understood that that could be off-putting to people. So just using as a documentary sort of it felt real, and then letting audiences understand that you can use those techniques to tell a fictional story. I think that clearly had an influence on a number of filmmakers. And the real tragedy is that people didn't get to know his work until "Moolaade" - his last film.

YDSTIE: Elvis Mitchell, WEEKEND EDITION's entertainment critic and host of the public radio show, "The Treatment" on KCRW. He joined us from member station KNPR in Last Vegas. Filmmaker Ousmane Sembene died last week at the age of 84.

Thanks, Elvis.

MITCHELL: Thank you.

YDSTIE: This is NPR News.

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