MOVIES | Walker Art Center spotlights Ousmane Sembene, “father of African film”


Senegalese writer and filmmaker Ousmane Sembene reportedly hated video and didn’t like for his films to be seen that way, because he believed it diminished and trivialized the force of a movie’s sound and image, according to Jonathan Rosnbaum from the Chicago Reader. Luckily, from November 5-20, the Walker Art Center is presenting all nine of his feature films in the series Ousmane Sembene: African Stories; they range from intimate character studies to unabashed satire. 

The filmmaker, who was born into a Muslim Wolof family, attended Islamic and French schools. He served in the French army during World War II. He worked on the railroad, as a factory worker, on the docks in Marseille, and was involved in a number pro-union and communist efforts. He is known for his novels and perhaps more for his films, which he began making in order to reach a wider audience.

Sembene’s films are rich with symbolism, and show a rich documentation of both African life and political and social struggles that Sembene saw in his lifetime.

The series opens on Friday, November 5 with Sembene’s Black Girl (La noire de…), an anti-colonial film about an Diouana, an illiterate Senegalese woman who is hired by a white French couple to care for their children on a trip to France. The black and white film that won the Prix Jean Vigo, the top prize at the Carthage Film Festival, documents the mistreatment Diouana faces as she suffocates with despair.

On Saturday, the Walker is screening Mandabi (The Money Order) about a Senegalese family that is torn apart by corruption and greed when a money order from a relative arrives from a relative. J. Hoberman, from the Village Voice, called the 1968 film “an absurdist parable.”

Sunday brings Guelwaar, made in 1993, a satire about what happens when a Catholic political activist is accidentally buried in a Muslim cemetery, escalatingresentments between Christians and Muslims and causing civil strife.

The second weekend of the festival begins on Friday November 12 with Emitai (God of Thunder), an experimental film set during World War II. In the film, the French authoritize terrorize the African villagers, prompting the villagers to engage in various tactics of spriritual resistance.

On Saturday November 14, the Walker screens Xala (Temporary Impotence), which was censored by the Sengolese government. The film takes place after Senegal’s independence from France, but shows how white money still controls the government. The title comes from the impotence one official gets inflicted with after taking advantage of white money to marry his third wife.

On Sunday, November 14, Camp de Thiaroye will be screened, which Sembene co-directed with Thierno Faty, another Senegalese director. In this film, the African troupes that helped free French fores during World War II are demobilized and held in a concentration camp.

Wednesday November 17 brings Sembene’s most controversial film, Ceddo, which was banned in Senegal. This anti-colonial film takes a look at a village that attempt to resist the European influence and slave traders during the 16th century. The film dishes out criticism to the African slave trade as facilitated by both Christian and Muslim missionaries.

On Friday, November 19 comes Faat Kiné, about a female gas station owner raising two out of wedlock children.  This romance, which takes a look at women’s role in society, veers away from Sembene’s other more political works.

The last film of the series is Moolaadé, on Saturday November 20. The last film Sembene made, it takes a strong stance against the practice of female mutilation.