Learning from Sembène: Telling the stories that matter
A hundred years after Sembène’s birth, a budding filmmaker describes his social awakening and discovery of the late Senegalese director.
I grew up primarily on Nollywood films. Because I was surrounded by aunties who were dedicated fans of Patience Ozokwo, it meant that at a young age, I developed an interest in the Nollywood home videos they watched every night. Soon, I cultivated a preference for them over the cartoons I was expected to watch and like. Before I could write compositions about my favourite meal and Christmas holidays in my hometown, I could recite lines off movies like Terrible Sin, Abuja Connection, and For Better, For Worse.
As I grew older and started to pay better attention to these films, I became aware of how flawed they were. And these flaws went beyond the low production values, jarring audio, and convoluted plotlines. I started to quarrel with the messaging of these films.
Some insinuated strongly that rape was a consequence of a woman’s grooming or the way she interacted with men. Others were Pentecostal Christian propaganda that preached hell-fire for anyone who lived in a way deviant of Christian doctrines. And when they were not these, they were the same mother-daughter-in-law tussling for dominance over a man. Or misery porn about wicked relatives. I tired of the repetition.
My interest in Nollywood waning, I looked elsewhere for entertainment. Hollywood, with its focus-group denouements and happy-endings-by-committee bored me. I confined myself to the world of books. Most were by Nigerian and other African authors. My interest in African literature opened me to diverse storytelling, to writers who built characters with whom I immediately related, anchored in their societies and cultures. I read novels like Chinua Achebe’s Chike and the River, Michael Crowder and Onuora Nzekwu’s Eze Goes to School, Agbo Areo’s Mother’s Choice, Chukwuemeka Ike’s Potter’s Wheel, Kola Onadipe’s Sugar Girl, Camara Laye’s The African Child, and other titles in the Macmillan Pacesetter Series.
It was a similar kind of delight I experienced when I happened upon Ousmane Sembène’s Moolaadé in 2020. I was drawn to its conscious narrative departures. Moolaadé is a statement film against female genital mutilation. But it is not its social relevance that made it stand out for me. Rather, it is the way Sembène handles the storytelling. In stories like this – socially conscious, focused on patriarchal oppression – the narration is often ruined by preachy sentimentalism. But Sembène makes Moolaadé about defiance and about challenging patriarchal norms.
What I found most affecting about Moolaadé was the absence of a saviour complex. Set in a rural village in Burkina Faso, Sembène could have crafted the story in a way that would have used the influence of Western education to disrupt the culture of female circumcision. Rather, it is the women he instrumentalises for the work of disruption. Led by the protagonist, Coile, the women of the community rise up against the circumcision of their daughters. The women had experienced the trauma of genital mutilation and did not want their daughters to go through it. Sembène finds that to be sufficient motivation to inspire a revolt against the patriarchy.
Moolaadé sits in stark contrast to the Nollywood trope of comeuppance for female characters who dare to oppose the patriarchy. Where Sembène’s women are full, complex beings with agency, whose existence is not tethered to their relationship with a man, Nollywood would routinely punish similar protagonists who dared live out a similar existence.
In a scene from Faat Kine (2000), Sembène has a group of middle-aged women leisurely sat, discussing, amongst other things, their sex lives and unmarried status. They are single, independent, and successful, yet their material affluence does not shield them from the patriarchal norms of their society, namely the pressure to be married to a man. One of them laments: “Single women. Hard-working. Heads of households. We have all the responsibilities of a man, but none of the advantages.”
With that singular comment, Sembène reveals where his empathy lies. His female protagonist, the eponymous Faat Kine, has been able to climb the ladder of success usually reserved for men by sheer will and grit, after being abandoned, twice, by men who had promised to love her.
Faat Kine was made at the turn of the millennium. If it were made by a Nollywood filmmaker of that time, Faat Kine would have been a cautionary tale on promiscuity. It would have ended differently too. Her husband, who had abandoned her, would have waltzed back into her life, the story-line dispensing with any need to justify his return, its real priority being the need to maintain the family unit as the Christian God intended.
While Nollywood of the ’90s and 2000s had Christian doctrine to propagate, Nollywood of today is clueless on what to do with storytelling beyond entertainment (not that they are exactly adept at this), leading to one vacuous film after another. I do not mean to suggest that filmmakers have to make ideologically conscious films like Sembène did to be recognised as artists, but storytelling does have a purpose beyond entertainment and escape.
Sembène’s films are also humorous. Xala (1975) is a comedy about a man who discovers, much to his alarm, that he cannot rise to the occasion, on the night of his wedding to his third wife, and embarks on a quest to find a cure for his impotence. But Xala is really a satire about Africa’s post-independence leaders who, having overthrown the white coloniser, take power and soon abandon their own people, seduced by foreign influences in their search for personal gratification.
Sembène’s filmography is marked by films with strong political and social undertones. As they make you laugh and cry, they have a deeper message to convey. He had initially set out to be a novelist, his political and intellectual awakening sparked by his experiences in France as a dockworker and union man in the 1950s. But because books were inaccessible to most of his countrymen who could neither read nor write, he resorted to telling his stories in moving images.
From his first feature La Noire De… to Moolaadé, his last film, Sembène concerned himself with critiquing colonialism, satirising the ineptitude of the independence leaders, and exposing the hypocrisy of religion, especially Abrahamic religions. He also made in my opinion, some of the foremost feminist films of his era and beyond. For Sembène, storytelling, whether via the book or the camera, was a tool for social change.
His films were banned repeatedly for their alleged provocations, and what was criticised as his negative depictions of Senegal. But Sembène remained undeterred and continued to make politically-charged films. Nollywood filmmakers often defend themselves against criticisms of their reluctance to explore socially- and politically-conscious themes by arguing that audiences do not appreciate this material – the reason they end up making “what the audience wants”.
I am certain that Sembène would not undermine his artistic integrity for commercial gain. His determination to make the films that gave him purpose in the face of all kinds of opposition teaches us resilience.
The political situation in Africa hasn’t improved since Sembène left us. Things have moved from bad to worse. If he were alive today, he still would have made allegories critical of the political class. May we all be as resilient as he was.
I’ve been greatly influenced by Sembène’s approach to storytelling. While I have only made short films, I’ve been deliberate about the kind of stories I choose to tell and what I want the audience to draw from it. With my first short film, Soma, I wanted to draw attention to rural life in southeast Nigeria where young, underage girls are sold off into marriages to pay off their father’s debt. It is a practice now so rampant that it is now regarded as tradition.
I’ve also come to pay extra attention when writing women. I know it’s fashionable to write strong female characters, but I have chosen to concern myself less with their strength and more with their humanity. Women are complex and fallible, and so when writing women my goal is to capture the nuances that humanise them.
Ultimately, what Sembène has taught me is that it is not enough to tell stories; it is imperative to tell the stories that matter.
Without a doubt, Sembene was and still is a great reference for black cinema worldwide. I am a film director from Brazil and his works impact me until today, and he is for me a great reference.