Selected lines of the book “Ousmane Sembène Interviews”

Note de l’auteur du blog

Anoumou Amekudji

Anoumou Amekudji

Quelques mois après la disparition de l’écrivain et cinéaste sénégalais de renom, Sembène Ousmane, des livres ont été publiés en Afrique ou ailleurs sur la vie de l’homme, et son œuvre. Au nombre de ces ouvrages qui ont éclairé davantage les cinéphiles, on peut citer Ousmane Sembène Interviews, un livre coordonné par Annett Busch et Max Annas. L’ouvrage publié en 2008 aux Etats-Unis est un recueil d’interviews accordées par l’illustre cinéaste entre 1965 et 2005. Au cours des entretiens accordés à des critiques, des revues littéraires et à des journaux comme Jeune Afrique et The Guardian, l’auteur de Borom Sarret et Moolaadé a parlé de sa préférence pour le genre cinématographique, de l’importance de l’histoire. Pour Sembène, il est important que l’Afrique se dote d’un cinéma qui tienne compte de la place de l’histoire dans la vie des peuples et des nations. Le livre coordonné par Annett Busch et Annas Max étant entièrement écrit en anglais, j’ai préféré en rendre compte aussi dans la même langue. Bonne lecture.


Selected lines of the book Ousmane Sembène Interviews

Book Cover

Book Cover

I interviewed Sembène Ousmane on July 25, 2006. We were supposed to meet again to continue the discussion and talk about other elements of his Cinema but he passed away at the beginning of June 2007. Nevertheless, I promised myself to continue my research about him because I was amazed by his ideas and views on themes like identity, exile, the future of African cinema when I met him in his office in Dakar, Senegal. A few months after Sembène Ousmane suddenly left this earth, many books came out about him. One of these books is entitled Ousmane Sembène Interviews edited by Annett Busch and Max Annas. This book which is published in 2008 by the University Press of Mississippi, is a compilation of interviews that Sembène Ousmane gave to journalists and critics around the world. I selected a few excerpts that I really want to share with you because they mean a great deal to me. I hope that you will enjoy discovering them as well.

To begin, the co-writers of the book wrote in their introduction that Sembène Ousmane “was one of the great artists of African independence; his novels described this process from the perspective of the working class, whose consciousness-raising was for Sembène a crucial element in the emancipation from French colonialism”. They also mentioned a crucial aspect for understanding the whole book : “most of the interviews deal with the issues his films address and the reception of the films from all sorts of angles, or with Sembène’s biography.”

As we know, Sembène was known as a writer in the beginning of his career. At some point, he apparently decided to give up writing literature for making cinema. Journalists and critics quoted in Ousmane Sembène Interviews were interested in knowing why he made that choice. The first person who addressed this question with him was Siradiou Diallo, a journalist of the weekly Jeune Afrique published in France. In 1973, Siradiou Diallo specifically asked the great filmmaker and writer Sembène why he left writing to work in cinema. Sembène’s answer was clear, “I haven’t given up writing. Next year, Presence Africaine is publishing a new novel called Khalaa ou l’oeuf. Khalaa is the man who is impotent; l’oeuf is the thing, the machine, the trick… So, I am still writing, novels, in particular. Having said that, what led me to try my hand at cinema is that in books I express myself in French. But 80 percent of my people don’t speak French, and, out of the 20 percent who speak the language of Moliere, very few take the time to read. That’s what it’s like in Africa. I’ve ascertained it. Some are so incapable of reading reports that they contact technical assistance. Thus I have no choice but to note that literature doesn’t go very far. However, people go to the cinema more than they have read because it is accessible to everyone.”

Twenty-three years later Guy Hennebelle talked to Sembène about the same thing : his decision to become a filmmaker instead of writing. In this interview, extracted from L’Afrique littéraire et Artistitque (1996), Sembène’s response to Guy Hennebelle’s preoccupation was, “I realized that with a book, especially in Africa where illiteracy is known to prevail, I could only touch a limited number of people. I became aware that film, on the contrary, was likely to reach broad masses. At this point I addressed requests for different scholarships in order to receive a cinematographic foundation degree. The first country to answer me in a favorable was the Soviet Union. I spent one year at the Gorki studio in Moscow where I received, under the direction of Mark Donskoi, a teaching practicum.” In the same interview the Senegalese writer and filmmaker give us an idea of the type of cinema he likes to do, “What is interesting for me is exposing the problems my people have to face. I am not a leftist intellectual. Moreover I am not an intellectual at all. I regard the cinema primarily as a political instrument of action. I stand, as I’ve always said, for Marxism-Leninism. I am for scientific socialism. However, as I always continue to specify, I am not for ‘socialist realism’, nor for a ‘cinema of signs’ with slogans and demonstrations. For me revolutionary cinema is something else. And then I am not naïve to the point that I believe that I could change Senegalese reality with only one film”, Sembène Ousmane said.

In Ousmane Sembène Interviews, Sembène Ousmane discusses with journalists and critics of the place of history in his whole body of work as writer and filmmaker. The first time this question was raised in the interviews selected by Annett Busch and Max Annas for their book is in 1972 at the 15th annual meeting of the African Studies Association in the United States. Speaking of his film Emitai with Harold D. Weaver, former Chairman of the Department of African Studies at Rutgers University, he sent a message to the African-American community and African people at the same time, “I think that what I want to do first of all is to give them an exact idea of Africa, a better idea of Africa, so they can learn of other African ethic groups. Each ethnic group has a culture and I would compare the Diola, who are a minority in Senegalese society to the Afro-Americans, who are a minority among whites. They have a culture and they must do everything to save it because that culture is what makes their personality. I think that knowing Africa better will solidify their personality with that new black personality now emerging in American society because we all have the cultural matrix.” For Sembène, it is very important for everyone to remember our past. According to him, without our past, there is nothing we can accomplish in our life. He was truly convinced of that. In 1986, the Senegalese journalist, Alioune Toure Dia had an interesting conversation with him about this belief. The interview was published in the newspaper, Bingo. To the question of why he has such a passion for the past and African traditions, Sembène answered with assurance and certainty, “It’s important to know the past. The past is nothing more than a reflection of the present or the future. The past interests me. But not only past. It has a great richness. The past of men like Samory has something identical to our time. In African history there are periods that we can’t perfectly grasp today. There is the beginning of slavery, the installation of French rule, the assimilation, and in between all these times, there was the war of 1914-1918, the war of 1939-1945. At each period, an external event knocks against the wall of Africa. Africa cracks, changes. For me, without being a historian, I try to analyze the aftereffects. The period of Samory is rich because it was the end of slavery.” Sembène also explained in the discussion with Alioune Touré Dia the reason why he wished to bring Samory Touré to the screen. “I think we weren’t taught our history. We hardly know anything about it. At some point cinema can be a kind of evening school. To show how these people lived, how they could resist and how they died, we can learn something there. The objective is that everybody can know these men, who, under very hard conditions, managed to do something extraordinary. We are doing something here that goes beyond our imagination. Everybody has to know his past. This is also an objective and motive for satisfaction”, Sembène affirmed. During this interview Sembène Ousmane raised serious questions that African people and African filmmakers need to pay a lot of attention to.

In this new world, where cultures are resembling each other more and more as a result of globalization, it is important not to forget where we come from in order to know how to handle our present and know where we are going. The filmmakers whose work is focused on African history need our help and deserve our attention. Teaching history in our schools is very important today for the younger generations of Africans. For an efficient teaching of history, it would be helpful for the students to be shown movies made by African filmmakers on topics such as colonization. In the history of recent African cinema, there are interesting and powerful movies we can cite as great examples for young Africans to watch : Le Grand Blanc de Lambarene (or The Great White of Lambarene, Bassek ba Kobhio), Le malentendu colonial (or The colonial misunderstanding, Jean-Marie Teno). I have no particular comment to make about those two particular movies which I invite the young Africans to watch. The only thing I can say is that both movies which were made by outstanding filmmakers make us reflect on our past and our relationship with our former colonizers, and allow us to move on with our lives. In conclusion, I submit to our reflection the epigraph of Le Grand Blanc de Lambarene, a remark made by Albert Schweitzer : “All we can do is allow others to discover us, as we discover them”. I chose this interview because the questions addressed were relevant, and enable us to better understand the role women play in Sembène’s own life and in his body of work as a filmmaker.

I cannot cite the interviews available in Ousmane Sembène Interviews, without mentioning the one he gave to his biographer, Samba Gadjigo, in Rabat on April 11th after he completed the making of Moolaadé, his last masterpiece. “I think that Africa is maternal. The African male is very maternal; he loves his mother; he swears on his mother. When someone insults his father, the man can take it; but once his mother’s honor has been hurt, the man feels he’s not worthy of life if he doesn’t defend his mother. According to our traditions, a man has no intrinsic value; he receives his value from his mother. This concept goes back to before Islam : the good wife, the good mother, the submissive mother who knows how to look after her husband and family. The mother embodies our society… I continue to think that African society is very maternal. Maybe we have inherited from our pre-Islamic matriarchy. That said, to me, every man loves a woman”, Sembène explained.

The last interview selected by the co-writers of the Ousmane Sembène Interviews was published in 2005 in The Guardian of London. Bonnie Greer, the author of the interview, asked Sembène to elaborate on the future of African cinema. “I think cinema is needed throughout Africa, because we are lagging behind in the knowledge of our own history. I think we need to create a culture that is our own. I think that images are very fascinating and very important to that end. But right now, cinema is only in the hands of filmmakers because most of our leaders are afraid of cinema. Europeans are very smart in that matter-every night they are colonizing our minds, and they are imposing on us their own model of society and ways of doing it. And many of our men dress in English suits, with British ties. Our first ladies are called the duty-free ladies and they use only European perfumes and only wear labels”, Sembène stated. We are never tired of reading or listening to Sembène Ousmane. Even if he is not physically present with us anymore, he is still in our minds. We can never forget him. He belongs in the category of great people. In 2003, The London Magazine, Black Filmmaker presented a picture of Sembene with his pipe and asked the question Ousmane Sembene : The World’s Greatest Filmmaker?”. Even if is difficult to respond in the affirmative, I can at least say that he was the most respected African filmmaker, the most engaged as well as the most engaging, and the father of African cinema. For all those reasons, I decided to share with you my reflections on Ousmane Sembène Interviews, a wonderful book that is well presented. I urge you to read it as soon as you have the chance.

Liens :

Quelques mois après la disparition de l’écrivain et cinéaste sénégalais de renom, Sembène Ousmane, des livres ont été publiés en Afrique ou ailleurs sur la vie de l’homme, et son œuvre. Au nombre de ces ouvrages qui ont éclairé davantage les cinéphiles, on peut citer Ousmane Sembène Interviews, un livre coordonné par Annett Busch et Max Annas. L’ouvrage publié en 2008 aux Etats-Unis est un recueil d’interviews accordées par l’illustre cinéaste entre 1965 et 2005. Au cours des entretiens accordés à des critiques, des revues littéraires et à des journaux comme Jeune Afrique et The Guardian, l’auteur de Borom Sarret et Moolaadé a parlé de sa préférence pour le genre cinématographique, de l’importance de l’histoire. Pour Sembène, il est important que l’Afrique se dote d’un cinéma qui tienne compte de la place de l’histoire dans la vie des peuples et des nations. Le livre coordonné par Annett Busch et Max étant entièrement écrit en anglais, j’ai préféré en rendre compte aussi dans la même langue. Bonne lecture.
Notes de lecture




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