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The worlds of literature and cinema have both lost a luminary. Ousmane Sembene was a Senegalese novelist and filmmaker. He died this weekend in Dakar after a long illness. He was 84 years old. In 1966, Sembene wrote and directed the first feature length film to come from sub-Saharan Africa.
NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.
NEDA ULABY: "Black Girl" was based on one of Ousmane Sembene's short stories. It's about a spirited young woman thrilled to leave Senegal for what she imagines will be a sophisticated life as a nanny in France. Instead, her employers treat her as a possession.
(Soundbite of movie "Black Girl")
Ms. Mbissine Thérèse Diop (Actress): (As Diouana) (French spoken)
ULABY: "Black Girl" enthralled Western audiences and critics. Three years ago, Sembene told NPR that the struggle for empowerment is common both to women and colonized countries.
(Soundbite of archived interview)
Mr. OUSMANE SEMBENE (Novelist/Filmmaker): (Through translator) You cannot really talk about the power of woman in terms of in quantitative terms. The power of woman is a very quiet power, an invisible power. It is like a sleeping lion.
ULABY: Sembene's translator is Samba Gadjigo. He's a professor at Mount Holyoke College and Sembene's biographer. The filmmaker was a fisherman's son who is kicked out of colonial school at 14 when a French teacher slapped him. Sembene hit him back. He became a bricklayer and mechanic, and during World War II, Gadjigo says, Sembene became a soldier.
Professor SAMBA GADJIGO (French, Mount Holyoke College): He fought to liberate France from German occupation at the same time when France was occupying his own country. And then after the war, he went to Marseilles to become a dockworker.
ULABY: There, Sembene became a union activist and Marxist. He published his first novel in 1956, and soon found an audience in Europe. But Sembene wanted to reach Africans. He turned to film to speak to people who could not read. Sembene's third film was the first feature shot entirely in an African language. His commitment to cultural integrity reverberated politically, says Samba Gadjigo.
Prof. GADJIGO: To colonize is not just to take land from people of darker complexion or flatter noses; it is also a contest about who has a right to represent whom.
ULABY: Sembene represented the Dakar cart drivers, village girls resisting female circumcision, and he took to task corrupt businessmen and leaders. And his work had an impact beyond Africa, as American independent filmmaker Charles Burnett told NPR earlier this year.
(Soundbite of archived interview)
Mr. CHARLES BURNETT (Filmmaker): It was the first time you see a film made by an African about African people. And you see the sensitivity; it's from a different perspective, you know, the different sensibility.
ULABY: Like Burnett, Ousmane Sembene made movies against all odds. He leaves a lesson in almost superhuman perseverance, a different way to look at the world, and a reminder about who is in it.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
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