The work of prolific Senegalese writer and filmmaker Ousmane Sembène is strongly linked to the decolonisation and liberation of African countries from the 1960s onwards. The son of a Lébou father – a fisherman from a community originally from the Cap Vert peninsula – and a Serer mother, an ethnic group among the last in Senegal to convert to Islam or Christianity, this pioneer of African film still lacks the recognition he is rightfully due in global cinema.
In 1942 Sembène joined the Senegalese tirailleurs and following the Second World War returned to Senegal to participate in the railworkers’ strike in Dakar, which would inspire the writing of his novella Bouts de bois de Dieu (God’s Bits of Wood) in 1960. He had moved to Marseilles in France in 1948, where he worked as a docker and became a union worker. By 1960, when Senegal gained independence from France, Sembène returned to his home country, and aware of the importance of oral traditions and the high rate of illiteracy in West Africa, decided to become a filmmaker. Initiating his career through a funded training at Gorky Studios in Moscow, he returned a year later with an old camera from the Soviet Union and adapted five of his novels to film.
A leading advocate of cinema engagé, and a Marxist militant, whose films critique colonial and imperial history, and postcolony, Sembène regarded cinema as a ‘medium… to teach the masses’. He further understood film as a means of political action, partisan and militant, that would invite audiences to reflect and generate questions. If former films by colonisers had contributed to the establishment of colonial rule and to the misrepresentation of Africa and African people as seen through an alienating gaze, Sembène saw film as a medium to restore African dignity. It is this common aim that leads to comparisons with the first president of the independent republic of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor, who was also one of the proponents of the Négritude philosophical movement.