I only recently learned that Ousmane Sembène, “the ‘father’ of African Cinema” died last month. Sembène was much more radical, much more of a brechtian filmmaker, and much more influential than Michael Moore could ever hope to be. Sembène was a writer who went into filmmaking because of the high rates of illiteracy in his native Senegal.
I had not realized how much Sembène had been shaped by his time in France in the 1950s, when he was deeply involved in left-wing circles:
In 1947, unemployed in the thick of a war-ravaged colonial economy, Sembene left Dakar in search of a better living and also for the opportunity to feed his unquenchable thirst for learning- “apprendre à l’école de la vie.”(to learn in the school of life), as he put it many times. He migrated to France and lived in the Mediterranean city of Marseilles until 1960, the year Senegal was granted its political independence. … while unloading a ship, Ousmane Sembene broke his backbone. After a long recovery and now unable to sustain the physical effort required by the work of a docker, with the support of his comrades, he was assigned a post as (aiguilleur), a switchman. A new opportunity was opened to Sembene to rise from a laborer who could read and hardly write, into a well-rounded intellectual, an exceptionally cultured humanist. … He read everything: literature on Marxist ideology, political economy, political science, works of fiction, and history. During those Marseilles years with the passion and obsession of a convert to a new religion, Sembene also participated in the protest movements organized by the French Communist Party against the colonial war in Indochina (1953) and the Korean war(1950-1953). He also openly supported (and later wrote about) the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) in its struggle for independence from France (1954-1962), and he vehemently protested against the Rosenberg trial and execution in the United States in 1953. Dreaming of the universal freedom and brotherhood mirrored by communist ideology, Ousmane Sembene also worked to educate and liberate the community of mostly illiterate and “apolitical” African workers shipwrecked at the margins of French society.
Sembène’s films don’t offer easy answers, and despite (or because of?) his radicalism, they are often funny and engaging. He was, above all, a great storyteller — but he also had something he wanted to say.