Ousmane Sembene Interviews

»I am really unable to talk about my life—I don’t know my life. I’ve traveled a lot and this is the life that I have lived, but that doesn’t mean that I know myself.« Ousmane Sembene, so called grandfather of African Cinema, talks to the writer Bonnie Greer. It's 2005, he has finished his last oeuvre »Mooladé«. The volume »Ousmane Sembene Interviews« is about talking and questioning. Questioning african film, colonial and postcolonial history, somehow an oral history. Interviews from 1965 until 2005, from Senegal periodicals and french, american or german Ciné-Magazines. The book project took quite some time and efforts but now it's out in the world thanks to University Press Mississippi and we are very happy about it. Find the introduction and the contents list below. The book certainly contains just a small percentage of what we collected and possibly didn't find. We'll try to work on making the unpublished interviews available online.


In 2003, THE LONDON MAGAZINE Black Filmmaker presented a profile of the man with the pipe and posed the question: “Ousmane Sembène: The World’s Greatest Filmmaker?” In this particular context the question might seem affirmative, maybe provocative. For a white European or American audience it is certainly surprising as Ousmane Sembène’s films haven’t been around very much in many countries of the world since his debut »Borom Sarret« in 1963. This fact itself asks questions about how their distribution in the West was carried out. However, for an African audience the question of whether Sembène was the greatest filmmaker would sound purely rhetorical or close to ideological. Sembène is one of sub-Saharan Africa’s leading intellectual figures, who has apparently easily transformed classical postcolonial thinking towards a progressive position that continuously demands Africa’s real independence, while criticizing the achievements within the first two decades of independence as an actual “step backwards.” Outside of the African continent, especially in the United States and Great Britain, a growing and interconnected community has emerged that incorporates Sembène and his work in a predominant aesthetic, political, and academic discourse. These communities, mainly African American and African British, have made use of Sembène to build bridges between the mother continent and the Diaspora. Film theorists and curators—like Manthia Diawara, June Givanni, Frank N. Ukadike or Professor Samba Gadjigo (Sembène’s official biographer)—have been systematically promoting the (academic) reception of African films—particularly on the institutional level and in postcolonial studies—through festivals and conferences.

As a matter of fact, there is hardly any other film director worldwide whose reputation is similarly dependent on the composition of a national as well as continental audience. But there might be also only few artists who have consciously challenged these different receptions. So Sembène has often talked differently to African journalists (that is to say, more seriously and factually) than to European journalists. These differences are obviously due to the nature of the questions posed to him as well as the knowledge that the respective interviewer has about African heroes and everyday politics. But Sembène leaves no doubt that his films and their meaning change according to the spectator’s identity, positioning, and background. That has earned him accusations of being arrogant. Nor was he concerned with ingratiating himself or acting as a dogsbody for the entertainment industry. Rather, he claimed that in Africa cinema had something of the evening school about it. It had an important role to play in social development but it had to find the right site of struggle.

In France, where the African community is rather divided, it is the circles of the political left, although white, who dominate the presenta- tion and interpretation of Sembène’s films. In particular around the film journal CinémAction, founded in 1978 by Guy Hennebelle and edited by him until his death in 2003, a circle of film academics and journalists emerged (Albert Cervoni, Catherine Ruelle, Daniel Serceau, amongst others), who commented systematically and regularly on film productions from the African continent from the very beginning, having the colonial and neocolonial role of France always very much in mind. It was only later that Cahiers du Cinema joined in.

Within these circles Serge Daney played a crucial role. He was likely one of the very few film intellectuals in Europe who successfully refused, already in the 1970s, to position himself within the aesthetic versus political debate led by left cineastes, instead underlining the universalistic potential of cinema. Thus he formulated a vision of Ceddoas it could certainly not have been articulated in an interview situation and follows a perception of the film that Josie Fanon, for example, was far from being interested in:

»By habit and laziness, racism too, whites always thought that emancipated and decolonized black Africa would give birth to a dancing and singing cinema of liberation, which would put them to shame by confirming the idea that, no way around it, blacks dance better than they do. The result of this “division of labor” (logical thought/body language) is that the Western specialists of recent African cinema, too preoccupied with defending it through political solidarity or misguided charity, have failed to grasp its real value and originality: the oral tradition, storytelling. Are these “stories told otherwise?” Yes, but in a cinema that is literal (but not metaphorical), discontinuous (not homogenous) and verbal (not musical). This basis in speech, not music, is what already characterized the early films of Ousmane Sembène, Oumarou Ganda, and Mustapha Alassane, as well as those created in exile by Sidney Sokhona. The same is still true for the most recent—and most beautiful—film by Sembène, shot in 1977and entitled Ceddo.« And further on, he writes:

»Between the beginning and the end of the story told by »Ceddo«, what has changed is the status of speech. In the beginning, it is clear that we are in a world where no one lies, where all speech, having no other guarantor than the person who produces it, is speech of “honor.” When he films these people who will soon be reduced to silence, Sembène first insists on restoring their most precious possession: their speech. It’s an entirely political calculation. For what the defeat of the »Ceddo« signifies is that African speech will never again be perceived by whites (first Muslims, then Christians) as speech, but instead as babble, chatter, background noise “for poetic effect” or, worse, “palavers.” Now, what Sembène brings before us, beyond archeological concerns (which we are too ignorant of Africa to evaluate) is African speech in so far as it can also have the value of writing. Because one can also write with speech.« 1

Ousmane Sembène’s status in Africa cannot be overestimated. He is, and is seen as, many things in one. He 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. In 1946, Sembène participated as a young member of the worker’s union in the legendary strike of rail workers on the route between Dakar and Bamako. He later incorporated this crucial event in his novel God’s Bits of Wood. In the 1960s, he was one of the pioneers of African cinema, experimenting with documentary and fiction until he discovered the classical one-and-a-half to two-hour fiction movie as his favorite format. He published some film projects between book covers as well as in films, although twice he developed the film material first.

After his film »Guelwaar« (1992) Sembène waited eight more years before he produced two new productions within a few years. He is the “Oldest of the old” (L’Ancien des Anciens) amongst African filmmakers. His decision to favor films over literature was a reaction to the ongoing illiteracy on the continent. Sembène neither avoided a fight against the corrupt state nor an argument with poet-president Senghor whom Sembène considered nothing more than a good French man. No continent other than Africa has born or can present an artist who combines such an intellectual capacity with this form of political influence. And hardly any other artist from that continent had the opportunity to work on so many historical fractions. After formal independence from Europe, Sembène identified first the constructions of African elites and later the new dependency of African countries through development aid from the North as signifiers of evil. For Sembène these two problems are interlinked. In »Mandabi« (book 1966, film 1968) he portrays a poor man wandering around. The man has received a money transfer from Paris but is not able to exchange it into cash since he is not in possession of an ID. Ignorant officials leave him to deal with the problem on his own. This helplessness is no longer visible in »Guelwaar« (film 1992, book 1994). A village divided by religious conflict comes together to organize a transport of food aid, just to pour the grain in the dust. “If your neighbour’s house catches fire, you help him to extinguish. And you also help him to rebuild the house again,” Sembène comments. “But after that, you will have to work and earn money yourself again. And the neighbour will have to complete the rebuilding of his house on his own. But in Africa this does not happen. People rely on being helped here.... You have to realise that those who rule cannot rule without outside help. And the debts, which exist because of this situation, do no good at all. At the moment you can witness the re-colonization of francophone West Africa—a re-colonization by the most legal means you can imagine. Private French companies, for instance, begin to control the big cities’ water and energy supplies, communication and TV stations. And what is left? Nothing” (Wolpert).

Sembène entered the film business as an established novelist. He joined the French army in the Second World War and lived in France between 1948 and 1960 where he worked at Citroën and the docks of Marseille. He became familiar with Marxism, became a member of the KPF and started writing in 1956, first in French and later in Wolof, the language of Senegal’s majority. He published five novels and five short story anthologies. In 1961–62, he studied film in Moscow since he was not satisfied with publishing in Wolof. His potential to influence society through the written word was quite limited due to widespread illiteracy. It has been mentioned that the move towards film was therefore a compromise. But anyone who considers these films and their effectiveness can discover quite easily that Sembène entered the medium without compromise.

»Borom Sarret« (1963) was his debut film that gave hope to many. Sembène tells the story of a carretero who dashes around Dakar with his skinny horse, transporting what is there to transport, in a manner in which he strictly takes sides. At that time, the ideology of optimism was visible throughout the recently made independent/decolonized African countries. However, this movie, which was less than half an hour long, was not supposed to fit into the demands of the ruling class since ordinary people—the working class—could literally not buy anything for themselves from independence. At the end, the carretero is robbed of his cart and therefore his tools when a suit-wearing man persuades him to drive to a formerly European part of the city called Plateau, which he was not allowed to enter with his cart. While the rich man leaves him without paying, the police officer does the “dirty work.” The carretero will not be able to feed his family anymore. The perpetrators and victims are clearly identified.

At that time, filmmaking in the sub-Saharan context was risky and adventuresome. Although France was already prepared to establish and use francophone Africa through cultural imperialism as a sales market dumping ground, the practice was not yet working. Dakar was then a city in search, on departure toward something great. The genre-spreading “Festival Mondial des Art Nègres” brought a variety of artists from all over the world who left diverse traces, and suddenly the city on the peninsula became the capital of African culture. Musicians from the whole of West Africa played in its clubs; Star Band was themusical institution of the country that later went on to produce the really big combos like Baobab and Nr. One de Dakar, as well as the young Youssou N’Dour. Several activists already joined in the 1950s to make films and support each other. That is how Paulin Soumanou Vieyra’s Afrique sur Seine (1957) evolved, which is generally identified in film history books as the first sub-Saharan African movie. Besides Vieyra and Sembène, films were regularly produced throughout the 1960s by the likes of Aboubacar Samb-Makharam, Mahama Johnson Traore, and Djibril Diop Mambety. Mambety’s approach differed from that of Sembène. Mambety’s »Badou Boy« (1970) can be read as a replica of »Borom Sarret«. It also describes an odyssey through Dakar in which the main character, a teenager without a cent in his pocket, visits the same places as Sembène’s carretero. The boy’s gestures are reminiscent of Jacques Tati and he self-confidently appropriates these places where he is not supposed to belong such as the quarter of the rich. Between Sembène and Mambety there has been a subliminal rivalry that was never put in words: on one side Sembène with his realistic view on material conditions in his environment; on the other, a loud poetic attitude whereby Mambety, no less political, portrays the everyday concerns of Dakar. However, while the disciplined worker Sembène creates an oeuvre which continuously grows, Mambety withdrew, frustrated with cinema after »Touki Bouki«(1973). He only reappeared on screen in the 1990s with »Hyènes« (1992), an opulent adaptation of a Duerrenmatt piece, »The Visit«, and two lively forty-minute films, »Le Franc« (1995) and »La petite vendeuse du Soleil« (1998), dedicated to the strength of survival of the “petits gens.” Here again Mambety is pretty far from being analytical and is rather close to clownery and fairytales, but he is nevertheless amidst description of the harsh reality. Mambety and Sembène were the only protagonists of these days of the beginnings of African cinema who have been shown over the decades at the big festivals.

The Burkinian director Idrissa Ouedraogo even commented in the 1990s that each African film made is a miracle since its individual story of production with all the organizational and financial problems is almost impossible to measure. But he said that at a time when European TV broadcasts had only just discovered “African” film and while more African films were being produced than ever before or after. The metaphor of the miracle obviously does not consider the Herculean effort that lies behind every African film—even today. Some of Sembène’s colleagues literally died of exhaustion. Aboubacar Samb-Makharam (1934–1987) or Djibril Diop-Mambety (1945–1998) are just two examples. Several filmmakers on the continent quit at one stage due to the fact that the conditions of production were too hard and sometimes even too humiliating.

»Mandabi« (1968), Sembène’s first long feature-film, was generated at a time when there wasn’t any real or reliable chance to think of a dimension of cinema between Sahara and South Africa. The FESPACO (Festival Panafricain du Cinema et de la Television de Ouagadougou) in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, only took place for the first time one year later, annually awarding the best African film in alternation with the JCC (Les Journees Cinematrographiques de Carthage, since 1966) in Tunis. In »Mandabi«, Sembène portrays Senegalese bureaucracy as pure self-indulgence, no official understanding his job as something that should serve the people. For Sembène it signified that after independence the representatives of power may have changed, but not necessarily the circumstances within society.

»Emitai« (1971) was Ousmane Sembène’s first attempt to write African history in cinema in an African way. In 1942the French army wanted to force a male village population in the south-Senegalese Casamance to serve in the army—and thus serve a country to which the majority of the people there only nominally belonged. The women are the most radical in their attempt to resist the project by refusing to deliver rice to the army. Not for the first time—but for the first time articulated so clearly—Sembène is putting women in the main focus; not only as components but also as agents of power, struggle, and even war. This was poorly understood by the conservative societies on the continent. However, for Sembène, it was the beginning of a continuity that continued until his death in 2007.

»Xala« (1974) is a strong attack on the elites of their countries. The protagonist is as corrupt as his environment and has just found his third wife. Just before the wedding he is made deeply insecure by a curse, the »Xala«. He can no longer get an erection—and this happens just before he gets married to a young lady. The search for the reason behind the »Xala« transforms into an absurd comedy from which the protagonist cannot benefit. The fact that, of all possible people, it was the once-rejected beggar who turns out in the end to be responsible for the curse underlines Sembène’s visible understanding of class differences. Within his most productive decade, Sembène also produced his best film: »Ceddo« (1976). He turns the certainties on which Senegalese society was built upside down. Within the seventeenth century, Islamic and Christian crusades were indistinguishable in their unconditional attempt to convert people to their faith. Competition led the Imam to finally hand his rivals over to the slave traders. Sembène’s most impressive film also has the strongest score. Manu Dibango, who at that time had already reached his most creative period, delivers an Afrobeat-like soundtrack whose delayed beats unconditionally underline the victims’ pain within the religious power play.

Sembène never really had a productive relation to music. For a long time, music played a minor role in his films or was not present at all. With »Ceddo«he changed that policy. After Manu Dibango, other established stars of West African pop music such as Ismael Lo, Baaba Maal, Yandé Codou Sene, and Boncana Maiga were responsible for the score. Nevertheless this did not necessarily lead to something remarkable which seems to be due to Sembène’s indifference towards this medium. One exception was Ismael Lo’s composition for the massacre in Camp de Thiaroye, gloomy sounds dominated by a trumpet, in such a way that the memory of the image is inseparably linked to music, and vice versa. “I tried to figure out their life context, the context in which they were living. It is the trumpet that structures the day of the soldiers” (Pfaff). In »Camp de Thiaroye« there are actually more fusions within the sound collage, the precisely positioned singsong of different languages and dialects of the tirailleurs, signifying their education and also their origin in all the different colonized areas of West Africa, the swelling rattle of cutlery that leads into the protest march, the repeating melody of a harmonica that suggests tidbits of “Lili Marleen.” And the gramophone plays a further key role. “Diatta owns a gramophone. A recording on this dead apparatus contains all that music which one could play on it. The images contain textures of sound, which don’t need to be played to be heard. Later on, Albinoni will play from his hut and we will envision the image of the record player. Later on—when an African American GI visits Diatta—records will pass hands, and, while a piece of Charlie Parker is playing, names will be dropped: Langston Hughes, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Marcus Garvey. But their naming only evokes the Harlem Renaissance, the ‘Black Atlantic’ (Gilroy) where these overtones are already created.”2 However, it took quite a few years before »Camp de Thiaroye« was produced. After »Ceddo«, Sembène focused on his favorite project, »Samory«, a film in two parts, altogether of three hours duration. It is a portrait of the Mandingo Chief who resisted the French as well as the English army and united West Africa. »Samory« Touré is known as the ancestor of former Guinean president Sekou Touré. The film was supposed to be Africa’s first big-budget production. Sembène gave nonstop interviews and even announced that he would retire once the project was finalized. But »Samory« did not materialize and thereupon has been a taboo issue. Many years of work on an unrealized film and possible exhaustion led to the gap of twelve years between »Ceddo« and »Camp de Thiaroye« — and this within Sembène’s most creative time.

»Camp de Thiaroye« (1988) is a sort of continuation of »Emitai«. Similarly, it deals with a massacre for which the French army is responsible. After the end of the Second World War demobilized African soldiers that fought within the French army in Europe against Germany are being re-barracked. The soldiers are awaiting the promised pay and resist half-heartedly after it fails to come. Nevertheless, the French commanders are not satisfied with such an unresolved situation and order tanks to kill all the Africans. As in many other films by Sembène, »Camp de Thiaroye« is drastic in its representation. And it is unreconciling towards France. Not one French franc went into the production itself and Sembène realized an idea—which remains a dream for many African filmmakers until today—producing a film without any European money. »Camp de Thiaroye« is a Senegalese-Algerian-Tunisian co-production and is thus an example of financing within the south-south-axis. For his last two movies, »Faat-Kine« (2000) and »Moolaadé« (2004), Sembène also tried to find as many collaborators on the African continent as possible. This becomes particular visible in »Moolaadé«, a pan-African production, which involved technicians and actors from several West African countries. It was also the first film Sembène produced completely outside of Senegal.

In »Guelwaar« (1992) Sembène deals once more with the ambivalence between Islam and Christianity. The old fighter »Guelwaar« has died but has unfortunately been buried in the wrong grave. And while the family of the dead tries to find his corpse, Sembène’s story enters the web of corruption and nepotism that is primarily based on the act to embezzle international aid goods. In the end, the village is united again when people attack a truck full of grain from Europe. In this film Sembène goes further than previously: for the first time he focuses not on the representation of reality in Senegal itself or on rewriting history. Instead, in »Guelwaar« he encourages people to take over their own destiny: “Resist the aid that does not help you anyway!”

It took another period of eight years before Sembène’s next film entered theaters. He was well over seventy years of age and therefore no one would have been really surprised if he had just retired from cinema. Instead »Faat-Kine« (1999) opened a new chapter in Sembène’s work—his feminist era began. Faat-Kine runs a successful petrol station in Dakar, her husband has run away, and she is raising her two children with the help of her mother. Sembène creates the image of a manless society. It is not that men are not present, but rather that they have no role to play. They do not contribute to the well-being of society nor to the family. In the end, as soon as Faat-Kine celebrates her and her children’s success the men come skulking in like the undead in a zombie film by George A. Romero. During the promotion for this film Sembène didn’t tire of highlighting in interviews the importance of the work of women for the existence and development of African societies, and his view that it is men who have to change.

In »Moolaadé« (2005) he even radicalizes this creed. The day before the old women with their long knives visit the young girls, the mothers agree on a compact to resist this tradition in order to prevent their daughters from being circumcised. This dispute soon divides the whole village. While the women try to understand the different arguments and develop either this or the other position, thus positioning themselves either in favor of or against the rebels, the men quickly hide within the fortresses of tradition and religion. With »Moolaadé«, Sembène expresses distinctly his view that changes within Africa will only be achieved through the battles led by women. Therefore he calls them heroes of everyday life.

However, Sembène is too experienced to confine himself to only one kind of perception. Maybe one can identify his distinct feminism as a mirror he shows to African men. But towards the rest of the world, he showed more solidarity towards the male population of the African continent. “Nobody can deny that we have a lot of wars going on; brothers killing brothers; we have a lot of diseases and catastrophes,” he said in an interview. “But on the other hand, we have a majority of individuals, both men and women, who are struggling on a daily basis in a heroic way and the outcome of those struggle leaves no one in doubt. This is a struggle whose purpose is not to seize power, and I think the strength of our entire society rests on that struggle. And it is because of this struggle that the entire continent is still standing up”. (Bonnie Greer, Interview)

The assembled collection of interviews represents a mixture of texts published in European and North American film magazines, of academic conversations, and albeit too small, an exemplary sample of interviews carried out by African journalists. Many of the newspapers and magazines from the African continent, as well as publications within Europe that were made by Africans in exile and focused on a predominantly African audience, no longer exist and are poorly preservedin archives. But throughout the chronological and diverse composition of conversations, Sembène’s opinions and manner of speaking itself turns out to be a kind of oral history of African cinema and postcolonialpolitics. “African cinema is itself a matter of questions and questioning, an ongoing questioning that never merely accepts the supposed givens of African reality. ... To say that African cinema is a questioning cinemais also to say that it continually moves and changes.” That is how Teshome H. Gabriel puts it in his foreword to Frank Ukadike’s compilation Questioning African Cinema, where Sembène is conspicuously absent from the table of contents but very often and allusively present in the interviews with the other African filmmakers. (3) Ukadike finally took Sembène’s refusal in 2002 to do another interview as a “blessing in disguise” as his absence opened up more space for a new generation. He is certainly right that Sembène’s oeuvre has been extensively questioned like no other director from the continent. But having it assembled in such a dense way, even readers who might be quite familiar with Sembène’s speeches might see lots of new details, facts, contradictions, dreams, Marxist inclinations, observations, and more.

Two important elements of Sembène’s standards can be found across all of these interviews. He evaluates the role of France in the postcolonial process mercilessly. In spoken word he equates France with foreign aid and corruption in Senegal and other African countries. And in conversation with Bonnie Greer he calls the politicians of francophone Africa “alienated” and claims France is responsible for Africa’s dividedness and its not being politically and culturally united. Pan-Africanism is the secondconstant in Sembène’s speeches. He refers to George Padmore and W. E. B. Du Bois and demands the collaboration of African states on all levels under the aegis of abandonment of funds of the so-called aid from the North. Still in 1978, in conversation with Pierre Haffner, Sembène demon- strated a persistent optimism that in “Africa all is possible.” He related this sentence to the development of African cinema that has been sustained since then by a few brave protagonists, but the attitude accords quite precisely with the postcolonial optimism which Sembène never implicitly shared. Later on, Sembène will appear more and more pessimistic in the interviews. To his biographer Samba Gadjigo, he speaks about Africa as a continent of 800million voiceless people and states that, “in this century, a people who cannot speak of itself is bound to disappear.” So a whole continent would disappear if these people won’t find their own voice? “No! We cannot and we should not [allow that].” Sembène always saw himself in precisely this process, to communicate with people and to give them a voice to be part of things. That becomes most beautifully obvious in the interview with Samba Gadjigo when he says: “Culture is political, but it’s another type of politics. You’re not involved in culture to be chosen. You’re not involved in its politics to say ‘I am.’ In art, you are political, but you say ‘We are. We are’ and not ‘I am.’”

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. But hardly anyone talks to Sembène about his work with actors, the development of his scripts, the adoption of music, the meaning of a certain montage, or the collaboration with a seasoned team. The number of texts that are taken from film magazines and journals is small, a fact that just serves to further indicate that African cinema has not yet arrived within the consciousness of the West, although Sembène worked for that his whole life.


1. Serge Daney, “Ceddo(O. Sembène),” Cahiers du Cinéma, October 1979, p. 53. English
translation at http://home.earthlink.net/%7Esteevee/Daney_ceddo.html.
2. Marie-Hélène Gutberlet, Auf Reisen: Afrikanisches Kino, Frankfurt: Stroemfeld, 2004.
3. Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike, Questioning African Cinema: Conversations with Filmmakers,
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.


A Historic Confrontation in 1965 between Jean Rouch and Ousmane Sembène:
“You Look at Us as If We Were Insects”

Ousmane Sembène: For Me, the Cinema Is an Instrument of Political Action, But ...

We Are Governed in Black Africa by Colonialism’s Disabled Children

Filmmakers Have a Great Responsibility to Our People

Ousmane Sembène Interviewed in Munich

Ousmane Sembène: An Interview

African Cinema Is Not a Cinema of Folklore

Interview with Ousmane Sembène

Interview with Ousmane Sembène

Sembène Ousmane in Kinshasa

Interview with Ousmane Sembène

Interview with Ousmane Sembène

In the Name of Tolerance: A Meeting with Ousmane Sembène

Samori: The Last Grand Oeuvre of Sembène Ousmane

I Am Tired, My Desire Is to Leave

The Language of Real Life

If I Were a Woman, I’d Never Marry an African

Ousmane Sembène

Interview with Ousmane Sembène

Interview with Ousmane Sembène about Guelwaar

Ousmane Sembène

Still the Fire in the Belly: The Confessions of Ousmane Sembène

Interview with Ousmane Sembène

The Power of Female Solidarity: An Interview with Ousmane

Ousmane Sembène / 2005