The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Ousmane Sembène, novelist and film writer, has died

Jun 18, 2007

Militant, writer, film director and actor, Ousmane Sembène has died at the age of 84. Born in Senegal in 1923 – when it was still a colony of France – Sembène went to France after World War II. He had unwillingly been drafted as a rifleman in the Senegalese part of the French army. Sembène worked as a docker, a mechanic and a mason before writing his first novel in 1956. In 1962, he began a career in film.

As a dock worker in Marseille, Sembène joined the CGT, the union, and also joined the French Communist Party, an experience which formed the basis of his first novel, The Black Docker. In 1957 he published a novel, Oh Country, My Beautiful People! about the aspirations of Africans to escape from colonial domination with its reactionary traditions.

His finest novel appeared in 1960, God's Bits of Wood, telling the true story of African railroad workers who went on strike in order to be treated like their French counterparts. They organized and struck the rail line from Dakar to Bamako, during 1947 and 1948. Women organized a march between the cities to support the strike. Despite attacks by the French colonial troops, they continued to march, earning the respect from the men strikers and drawing the whole community to see the fight they have in common.

Sembène studied cinema in the Soviet Union because "pictures are more accessible than word." He began a career writing film scripts. His first, Black Girl, was a social critique based on the life of a young African woman who went to work in France. The couple employing her treated her like a slave and drove her to suicide. A 1968 comedy he wrote, The Money Order, was a film denouncing the Senegalese bourgeoisie which, in taking over from the French bourgeoisie, attempted to imitate their customs. Ceddo (1976) a film banned by Senegal, denounced the joint invasion into West Africa of Catholicism and Islam.

One of his films, The Camp at Thiaroye, from 1988, was censored in France because it was about an attack by the French colonial army on Senegalese riflemen in that army. The French army imposed a vicious repression against Senegalese soldiers demanding their pay. Most of his films showed that African independence was insufficient to overcome all the problems in these new countries. Many battles would have to be carried out if social justice is to reign in Africa.

His last film, created when he was already 80 years old, attacked the practice of female circumcision. This disgusting, brutal custom of cutting and sewing shut women's genitals still affects millions of African women. The custom, carried out in the name of religion and tradition, still exists in 38 African countries.

Right up to the end, Sembène called for a traveling popular cinema. "Everything could be filmed and taken to the most remote villages in Africa," he declared in 2005, adding, "A militant remains young all his life." And it was as a militant that he accompanied his film against circumcision from village to village, to push forward what would be his last fight.