Election (Alexander Payne, 1999)
October 1, 2010
The African diaspora: Colonialism and displacement
October 1, 2010

Ousmane Sembene, african cinema and the Western gaze

I was introduced to African cinema during my studies at Concordia University when, in a film history class, I was touched by one of the most poignant, engaging, and thought-provoking works I had ever witnessed. With Guelwaar, my perspective changed, not only as what type of filmmaker I wanted to be, but also what kind of man I needed to be.

That’s the impact, for me, of African films in general, and Ousmane Sembene’s work in particular. In their different perspectives and tradition, they draw the subject of their narrative, which nurtures a symbiotic relationship with life itself. In that sense, they’re cathartic. I’ve been privileged to view several of these life-affirming films. This article relates my experience of each viewing.

Guelwaar, or else the gears of Neocolonialism

Guelwaar (1992) is the story of a political man who rises as the conscience of the Senegalese people and is silenced by the acting political figures for his transgression. To further humiliate their political opponent, Guelwaar’s body is swapped for another man’s and is buried in a Muslim cemetery—Guelwaar, or Pierre Henri Thioune, is of Christian faith—where his spirit will never be allowed to rest. This leads to a confrontation between Guelwaar’s family and the Muslim family. Here, Sembene delves into territory visited before in Ceddo (1977), the interference of religion in Senegalese life, although from a different standpoint.

In Ceddo, the incursion of Islam into Senegalese territories disassociates the natives from their heritage, from matriarchal traditions to the exclusion of the Ceddo“the defenders of traditional cultural identity”. The advancement of Islam is portrayed as imperialistic, forced upon the people by their king and his new imam. In one scene, where Islam is imposed on a whole village, Sembene appears as one of the villagers, an ideological decision from the director positioning him as one of them. In Ceddo, the incursion can only be stopped by the Senegalese people, here identified to the Princess Dior, and with massive and immediate action. When Princess Dior shoots her father’s imam’s genitals with a rifle, it resolves the narrative’s conflict, and although we know that the problem couldn’t have been easily resolved historically, it supercharges the audience ideologically.

In Guelwaar, the religious polemic is of another nature. Islam and Christianity, two foreign religions, have polarized the Senegalese into two opposite camps. The folly of the affair becomes evident in the confrontation scene between the two families. When an officer and a local representative get involved in settling the dispute, not unlike the communal village depicted in movies like Wend Kuuni (1982), both camps come to the realization that an understanding is better than confrontation. Where religion has pitted brother against brother, Sembene shows that the Senegalese’s nationalist bonds are stronger than makeshift, religious ones. And by enunciating these divisions, Sembene sheds light here, albeit indirectly, on the social classes, the gender distinctions, the neocolonialist influence and their attack on homegrown culture.

Guelwaar is a scathing critique of neocolonialist politics and foreign aid to the Third-World. To me, that aspect of the narrative takes predominance over the religious in-fighting and enunciations of Senegalese bureaucracy. Sheila Petty agrees: “What predominates, however, is Sembene’s critique of foreign aid, which, according to Françoise Pfaff, was later grafted onto the story of the burial mistake.”When the story starts, Guelwaar has already been murdered and his family prepare for the funeral. It is only later that we are allowed to view the scathing scene that warranted Guelwaar’s death. Atop the podium, in a eulogy for the foreign aid just awarded to the Senegalese government, in front of imperialist dignitaries and corrupt politicians, Guelwaar denounces the handouts, calling for the Senegalese to break the bonds of neocolonialism and free themselves of the slavery of foreign aid. He declares:

“Famine, drought and poverty, do you know why they happen? If a country is always taking aid from another country, that country will always only be able to say one thing … thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Guelwaar enunciates his position after his daughter Sophie is revealed as a prostitute. He states:

“I’d rather she were a prostitute than a beggar … rather she was dead than a beggar.”

Later, he continues:

“Woe betide the one who holds out his hand and waits for others to feed him and his family.”

The last scene with the children spilling bags of foreign aid on the ground is powerful, chiefly for the taboo that it entails—in countries where food is scarce, whatever quantity there is precious, for another because of the drastic position it takes and demands us to take. To Sembene, dignity is more important than comfort, more important than life. He separates the capitalist imperative from the Senegalese lifestyle, where family is of more importance than wealth. And, in our global climate, that is the truly revolutionary idea.

Xala: The impotence of colonialist class structure

What pierces through in Xala is its enunciation of neocolonialism’s use of Third-World bourgeoisie to foster dependence and division within the old colonies. But here, we must make an important distinction. The term bourgeoisie, in English-speaking countries has ideological inference, and it tends to be used, in general, as a pejorative term to suggest undeserved wealth or unsophisticated lifestyles, tastes and opinions. We could contrast to it the term elite, which divides society into two groups, the gifted elite and the lower masses, but also suggests a social responsibility, a social conscience. Xala (1975) criticizes the former for exalting the creation of a socially conscious ruling “class”. In Xala, a businessman, El Hadj Abdou Kader Beye, polygamist and with two wives, decides to take in a third, feeling that his future looks bright. The film starts with El Hadj and his fellow politicians’ meeting to discuss governmental matters, while two representatives of a foreign government look on. It is clear from the scene that, although Senegal has been independent since 1960, neocolonialism ruled through the crooked bourgeoisie or ruling class. The bourgeoisie rules under false allegiance, catering and nurturing the unease, differences and complexes between them and the masses. They are the gatekeepers of the corrupt system Sembene presented in Mandabi (1968) a few years earlier. For Sembene, the bourgeoisie is out of touch with their own identity:

“[…] The African bourgeoisie’s only reference point is the West. Dakar, Abidjan, Libreville or Yaounde are simply the capitals of French provinces. They are just the peripheries of neocolonialism whence their danger. But when these types find themselves face to face with the people, they are often illiterate in the country’s national language—they are alienated to such an extent, for inside themselves they are colonized. They are always the first to say people’s mentalities have to be decolonized, but it is actually their mentality which has to be”.

El Hadj is guilty of a manufactured mentality and limited vision. He sells out his country to foreigners so that he can become wealthier. He builds a wall between him and his compatriots and maintains it with the help of language. As Sembene continues:

“[…] We have a bourgeoisie whose official language is nothing but French. They merely copy the West and western bourgeoisie”.

This barrier even stands between him and his daughter. While he seeks to perpetuate the paradigms of colonialism, Rita, his daughter, endeavours to break free of them. While he talks to her in French, she answers in Wolof. Although they understand each other, the distance between them is apparent. El Hadj desperately tries to reconnect with her and demands why she’s speaking in Wolof, but she doesn’t answer. There is no more need for communication between them; they’re from different worlds.

The true power of the narrative comes from its premise. After he weds his third wife, a young attractive African woman, El Hadj is unable to perform in his marital bed. El Hadj, the ambassador of his patriarchal society, by the intervention of an outside force, loses all his power, literally and figuratively during the movie. He even goes so far as to visit a marabout, the representative of what he deems to be a primitive culture, to lift his curse. In the end, the curse was cast by an old acquaintance who has joined the ranks of the beggars and paupers of the city. The final scene, the humiliation of El Hadj, although graphic and disturbing, warns that you reap what you sow, in your present life or your next one. It’s an appeal to an end to the present bourgeoisie and a disassociation from its masters. As Sembene puts it, “Colonialism only survives with us through the mediation of this bourgeoisie”.

Emitaï and the ineffective passive resistance

Emitaï (1971) starts with beautiful shots of the natural African landscape and a young Diola villager, the same tribe we will follow during this story, is informed that the French Army has requested young men from every village to recruit for the war in Europe. Under duress, the young man accepts and is taken away as his family looks on. When one year later, the soldiers come back requesting a rice tax decreed under Pétain’s orders, the French head of state. Rice being sacred to the Diola, the village takes a stand against the invaders when the women hide the rice to keep it from the soldiers. Sembene says he based his story on a real village, which gives the narrative a bigger impact:

“[The village] is a Senegalese village which was destroyed by the colonial army, but which still exists. We keep these villages like relics of our history. I was relatively young in 1942, not yet in the Army, when the Diola massacre took place.”

The French and the British were cruel colonizers, having to be forced out of almost all of their colonies that strived for independence. For Sembene, “the struggle in Emitaï is an anti-colonial struggle”. Here, the French Army’s cruelty is demonstrated by their concurrent actions and interference in the villagers’ lives. First, by abducting their sons, the colonial power comes in direct conflict with the natural order of succession of the village. If the sons die in the war, an event far removed from the Diolas reality, there will be no men left to continue the village’s traditions. From the point where the young men are drafted, the only masculine presence left in the village is the old men. This has special significance for the African villagers for whom family is of the utmost importance.

Even after this event, the colonists further humiliate the villagers by their demands for rice, which is not only important for their sustenance, but has religious and social significance. After the village refuses to comply, the soldiers torture the women by placing them in the sun until they give up the rice. When the elders finally give into the soldiers’ demands, they are further humiliated by being forced to carry the rice to the Army headquarters. On the way, in the movie’s poignant ending, the villagers decide to resist and are massacred for it. For Sembene, the French have always been merciless colonizers, no matter who gave the orders:

“For us who were the colonized, Pétain and De Gaulle were the same thing, even if young people today know there is a difference between them. The story of the soldiers killed in Senegal; the story in Algeria in 1945 is De Gaulle; the story of Madagascar is De Gaulle; why do people want De Gaulle presented as a hero or a superhero?”

In the movie, the two French leaders are interchangeable; in a comedic scene where the director appears, the African soldiers in the French Army are asked to take down all the posters of Marshall Pétain and replace them with ones of De Gaulle. But, as they discuss the change in the regime, they can’t seem to distinguish perceive any difference between the two.

In Emitaï, by showing the Diola resistance, Sembene’s film also echoes Guinea-Bissau’s fight for independence. Guinea-Bissau, immediately south of Senegal, was the scene of a major armed liberation struggle against Portugal, which it had belonged to for centuries. This struggle, under Amilcar Cabral, ended in victory in 1975 for the natives. Their plight fuels the film’s narrative. Sembene continues:

“[…] The story of Emitai takes place then in a Diola village, next to Guinea-Bissau. The same tribe lives in the south of Senegal and the west of Guinea-Bissau.

While the film was being shot, some extras came from Guinea-Bissau, and the fighters and the resistance people of the time helped us a lot. At the film’s premiere in Casamance, President Cabral came to see the film with some fighters; as people were leaving, they all came to tell us that the film had been made for them, and not just for other people, because it was the same struggle”.

Sembene has, in Emitaï, a Marxist view of religion, in that it renders the villagers passive in their resistance to foreign incursions. Faced with the loss of their harvest, the elders turn to debating and to their animist gods. But while they discuss the issue, their women and children are being tortured by the soldiers who force them to sit under the sun. In truth, it is the women who show a revolutionary side, first by hiding the rice, then by their solidarity against the French Army. By privileging the action of the women, and showing the inefficacy of the men’s resort to their gods, Sembene is critical of this peaceful resistance:

“The gods never prevented colonialism from establishing itself; they strengthened us for inner resistance but not for an armed resistance. When the enemy is right there, he has to be fought with weapons”.

Emitaï is a heart-wrenching depiction of the nature of colonialism and the contemporary plight of the Third World, what Noureddine Ghali calls “the hidden face of colonialism”.

Tilai and the burden of tradition

Tilai (1990), from Burkinabe director Idrissa Ouedraogo, is the story of a shunned love affair between two young inhabitants of a Mossi village. Saga comes back to the village after a long absence to discover that his betrothed has, in the meanwhile, been married to his father. Unable to accept this fact, Saga decides to rebuild a straw house outside of town. However, his love for Nogma does not diminish and they both commit adultery, which forces them to seek happiness outside the village. What I feel compelling about Tilai is its criticism of tradition, insofar as it crushes individuality.

“Ouedraogo deals with society on the level of the individual and the small village,” declares Sharon Russell. On the village level, Ouedraogo shows the individual’s need for Family, as is the belief in Africa, is essential. Upon witnessing the village when he returns, Saga cannot help but smile before he sounds his horn. The reunion between him and his family are joyous up until the point he is informed of the nuptials between Nogma and his father. His father’s cold and brisk call for him to accept it does not help matters. So, Saga’s decision to live outside the village, as it is a desire to distance himself from the pain of his impossible love, is also a rebellion against society and its outdated and dehumanizing traditions. It is a more potent act when considered against the backdrop of African families, where an individual is only defined through the family structure. In Wend Kuuni (1982), from Burkinabe director Gaston Kabore, the mother of the title character is driven out of her village because she refuses to remarry after the death of her husband. She is ostracized, called a witch, blamed for the village’s woes and driven out to die in the wilderness with her child. In Yam Daabo (1986) from Ouedraogo, two children befriend an elderly woman, Sana, who is an outsider in the village. Since Sana is an orphan, she does not fit into this society “where family ties are of supreme importance”.

When driven out, as a consequence of his adultery and after faking his death, Saga seeks out the only family member that will not reject him, his aunt who lives in another village. He hasn’t seen her in a long while, as evident by the fact that she doesn’t even recognize him, but once she believes it is her nephew, she welcomes him wholeheartedly. Then joined by Nogma, they recreate their family in this new village. Only Saga’s obligation to his mother could disturb their bliss and precipitate the story’s tragic ending. When he learns his mother is on her deathbed, Saga breaks his promise to his brother never to come back and ventures to the village to say goodbye. His reappearance forces his brother’s hand. Tugged between his loyalty to his father and his brother, Kougri had left Saga alive. When Saga shows up, his father understands Kougri’s betrayal and banishes him. Faced with the loss of his family and village existence, Kougri shoots his brother before walking away from the village. Saga dies in his mother’s arms, where he came into his world.

But, although societal rules lead to Tilai’s tragic ending, it is the eulogy to individuality and change that infer the most meaning to the film. Saga, and Nogma are transgressors, the first by living away from his family, the second from disobeying her father’s decrees, which will lead to his suicide. They both consume their love and fall into adultery, fully aware of the implications of their act and under the watchful eye of Kuiga, Nogma’s younger sister. Nogma will later leave her village and her husband to be with her lover. Kuiga will continue the rebellion as she arrogantly talks to her father in another scene. As Sharon Russell explains:

“The tragic end of the story is a profound illustration of the effects of strict adherence to the rules of a social order. The film does not condemn the simple life of the village, just its resistance to change. The agents of change are the young people who cannot understand why unreasonable laws should be obeyed”.

And, even though the transgressions lead to the Saga’s tragic end the ambiguous ending, where Nogma and Saga’s aunt walk towards the village, could infer that even though in this case change has resulted in tragedy, it is essential for the evolution of the Mossi people.

Un dimanche à Kigali, or outside perspectives on real-life struggle

There’s a problematic point-of-view in films about Africa that isn’t present in films from African filmmakers. I have noticed it in all the foreign films about Africa and foreign black countries I have seen up until now, from The Power of One (1992) in Apartheid South Africa, to the offensive Vers Le Sud (2005) and Blood Diamond (2006). Robert Favreau’s Un dimanche à Kigali (2006), in the same manner, is a voyeuristic look at Africa, from an outsider’s standpoint, the principal lure being, either the instability of the region or its exotism. The objective view adopted in the film objectifies Africa and Africans, turning them into filters for channelled bourgeois guilt or repressed sexual desire.

In Un dimanche à Kigali, Bernard Valcourt, a journalist from Quebec, assist at the growing tensions between two of Rwanda’s ethnic groups, the Tutsi and the Hutu, before the genocide of the Tutsi by the Hutu Power, in 1994. Feeling a connection to Rwanda, he develops a relationship with a Hutu with Tutsi traits, and their love is challenged by the country’s unrest. Apart from the fact that the movie shows a limited point-of-view, that of the Tutsi massacre, it brings less perspective into the why of the tribal differences and the role the colonial powers, in this case Belgium, have played in the massacre, first categorizing Rwandan society, planting the seeds of the massacre, by standing idly by while genocide was being perpetrated. We have a fleeting wink into the global picture at the time with Valcourt’s visit of Canadian General in charge of the UN forces in Rwanda, Romeo Dallaire, ordered to stand down and not participate in the conflict, and Valcourt different unsuccessful attempts to “get the word out”. In Blood Diamond, the Sierra Leone conflict is given no background, no perspective, other than a general feeling that Africa has always been this way and will always be. We get the sense from the principal character, Danny Archer, that he loves Africa, despite all the violence and warring factions; it’s in his blood, we could say.

Both films adopt a foreign point-of-view to relate African life struggles. They’re an outsider’s perspective into a life-threatening reality for the continent. In Un dimanche à Kigali, Valcourt’s concern for the Rwandan people seems to go as far as his lover, the lovely Gentille, is threatened by the conflict. Her name implies passivity; she is a prop, Valcourt’s motivation, only developed as far as to give the story some validation. The other African characters receive the same treatment, only deserving of a slow-motion salute once they have succumbed tragically to the struggle. In Blood Diamond, the secondary African character, Solomon Vandy, dreams to reunite with his son and leave the African unrest behind. With the sacrifice of Archer, he gets his wish, appearing before a diamond industry convention in Britain to denounce the blood diamonds. The concept of Africa as the savage, Dark Continent, is a colonialist one. By treating Africa as a foreign object, these movies serve to perpetuate this inane hierarchy which keeps Europe placed atop the globe and centred, placing Europe “as the source and arbiter of spatial and cultural meaning”. What African films bring is a different perspective, where the hierarchy is blurred or at most cancelled out by the reality that African culture, which has inspired the European modernism movement, has as much relevance as Western culture.

In general, African films draw their importance from a myriad of tradition, life and rich experiences. It is in those, and the oral traditions of African storytellers, that African filmmakers draw their stories and from their present situations, they draw motivation for a militant, revolutionary or entertaining cinema. It is interesting to notice how these traditions have passed on to the African Diaspora, from the African Americans, to the Caribs, to the South Americans. But that is another subject altogether.


GHALI, N.: An Interview With Sembene Ousmane, in John Downing, ed., Film and Politics in the Third World, Autonomedia, New York, NY, 1987.

RUSSELL, S.: Idrissa Ouedraogo—Tilai/A Question Of Honor, in Guide to African Cinema, Greenwood Press, Wastport, CT, 1998.

ASHCROFT, GRIFFITHS, TIFFIN: Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, Routledge, New York, NY, 2000.

PETTY, S.: Towards a changing Africa: Women’s roles in the films of Ousmane Sembene, in A call to action: The films of Ousmane Sembene, edited by Sheila Petty, Praeger, Westport, CT, 1996, pp.67-86.