Blows Against the Empire(s)

Pure coincidence, I swear, but the Ousmane Sembene retrospective at Film Forum, from November 30 to December 13, is yet another example -- the best example to date -- of a filmmaker from outside the world of the northern metropolis creating a cinema that is a direct affront to the hegemony of the corporate north. Sembene, one of the first and certainly the best filmmaker to emerge from sub-Saharan Africa, made films about his native Senegal for his fellow Senegalese. And he made them in direct response to the challenge of communicating with a population that even today has a literacy rate of 39 percent. Sembene began as a novelist -- and he is quite a good one -- but quickly realized that he couldn't reach most of the audience he wanted to engage, so he took up the movie camera instead.

Watching some of his films again, I was struck by how deeply they draw from the waters of Senegalese folklore. Xala, for example, his mordant satire on the bureaucrats eager to assume control when the French stepped back from their former colony, manages to be both affectionate and yet detached in its depiction of traditional medicine. At the same time, it is utterly ruthless (and very, very funny) in its portrait of self-inflated paper-pushers whose primary interest in self-government is the opportunities it presents for graft.

But the humor of Xala, as bitter as its aftertaste may be, is actually an oddity in Sembene's filmography. The dark, mournful tones of Emitai and Camp de Thiaroye are more typical. These tragedies are relentless in their portrayal of the dilemma of the Senegalese soldier commandeered into the "white man's war," and the endless betrayals that Africans have historically experienced at the hands of the colonizers (particularly the French who, to this day, treat their former African colonies with stupefying arrogance).

In his last films, Guelwaar and Moolade, there is a mellowing in tone that produces some of his finest work. These two films are every bit as fearless and uncompromising as Sembene's earlier work, but there is a lyricism and intimacy, a gentle acceptance of individual behavioral quirks that allows Sembene to keep his satirical edge without disregarding the humanity of the men and women he is observing. Guelwaar, in particular, is a profound meditation on the necessity and difficulty of compromise and a certain bittersweet resignation in the face of the seeh impossibility of letting everyone have their way. It is an autumnal film in both palette and tone, not weary but wry.

It would be easy for me to say that despite the fuss made over the deaths of Bergman and Antonioni at the end of the summer, Sembene's death at the beginning was the greater loss. It's the sort of in-your-face polemical position that used to delight me, and I'm not convinced it isn't true. But it is unproductive on so many levels that I will brush it aside and merely say that a year in which three directors of that caliber die is a very bad year indeed. Of this, however, I am certain: the sociopolitical ramifications of Ousmane Sembene's death are much more serious -- and sadder -- than the loss of Bergman or Antonioni -- and the artistic loss is every bit as great. Sembene should be a model for anyone who wishes to create an art of resistance. His integrity, courage and aesthetic judgment are exemplary. And if you want to verify that statement, you must haul yourself over to Film Forum in the next two weeks. The series schedule is here.


While we're on the subject of African cinema as a counter-cinema to the American corporate model, let me call your attention to another, very different model, this one from Anglophone Africa. Nigeria has become a hotbed of direct-to-video filmmaking, so much so that people are referring to these films as "Nollywood" products, a two-edged homage to Hollywood and Bollywood. I haven't seen any of these films yet, although I hear interesting rumblings that position them all over the narrative and political map. However, if you are, like me, curious to know more, you can make an excellent start with the new issue of the British film journal filmint., which dedicates most of its current issue to Nollywood. There are also essays on TV, video and film in Ivory Coast and the spread of the Nollywood model to the Caribbean. Better get a handle on this bandwagon fast, folks, 'cause it's leaving the station in a big hurry. The journal's website can be found here.