Following in the footsteps of world famous filmmakers, the eldest of the elders was solicited by the Cannes Festival to teach the traditional Cinema Lesson, an event of the festival. In front of the packed and attentive Salle Buñuel at the festival’s Palace, the father of African film spoke for an hour and a half about his approach to cinema, answering Jean-Pierre Garcia, director of the Amiens Film Festival, who opened the lesson by portraying Sembène as a « the pioneer and the witness ».
Where does your passion for cinema come from?
I saw my first films in Ziguinchor. Youngsters would watch the film from the wrong side, from the opposite side of the screen: the coop! I’ve always been fascinated by images. When we were only five or six years old, grandmothers told us stories. I was mesmerized by such and such a storyteller; I built up a picture in my mind from their words. Literature and film have always been of equal importance to me. The village represented great moments of initiation. There was the man’s hut for circumcision. We retreated there for three months, following the Mandinka tradition. We were taught genealogy, history and legends. Nothing like the Koranic school where you had to memorize verses from the Koran without understanding them.
Nothing in my life was premeditated: I just drifted along. After my stay in Marseilles, I wanted to discover the Continent: I explored it, to learn. For example, I spent ten days on the Congo river, at the time of Lumumba. I was amazed at what I’d seen: I told myself I’d learn cinema. In France, thanks to the support of men like Georges Sadoul, I ended up in Moscow. I was well past forty. I left my wife and children behind to learn about cinema. Respecting your father is good but if you don’t bring anything new, you will always be inferior to him.
The Africa of the past won’t resurface. How do you apprehend a new Africa? How to address all Africans? Languages limit understanding. I’m still learning! Cinema is the popular art that is closest to us: you go from orality to the image.
The Money Order, in 1968: I was Cameroon for a screening. At the hotel, a superintendent asked me if he could buy me a beer. I thought it was serious! But he wanted to tell me that the story of The Money Order had happened to him personally. In Guinea-Conakry, people recited the whole text out loud during the screenings!
Cinema is a permanent night school. People participate.
Emitaï, screened in Casamance. The elders came to watch the film in broad daylight, to see if I showed the sacred wood. They had to wait for night to fall and when it came, they chased the women away. I’ve been initiated but the sacred wood must be demystified!
I am political. I accept comfortable hotels where I am given water imported from France, but I refuse the car. It’s not being close to my people that counts but expressing their dreams and pulsations.
Sometimes, this people exaggerates! In forty years of independence, our authorities have killed more than a hundred years of colonization! Not in the name of democracy but just to stay in power. You see the one who makes it two days later at the Élysée holding out his hand. Our French cousins are used to teaching lessons. So I asked myself what lesson I could teach them here!
Wars mark your films and reflection.
In the history of our relations, these wars have turned our countries upside down and sharpened Africans’ awareness. 1789 is a revolution for which the world is indebted to you but after that, there were the natives and the French subjects. After the First World War came a period of assimilation: most Africans wanted to be like the French. They smoothed down their hair, etc. We were model French people. In 39-45, young people like me, in an effort to be patriotic, felt that they should defend France. The mass of young people started to become aware: they started to write. For example, there was the Quartier latin newspaper in Benin and in St Louis We lived war with the French as a family, sharing the same hut, as cousins. One day, a French soldier asked me to write a letter for him. I looked at him: he had both arms! I was so ignorant that I thought they were born with the skill of writing. We saw them cry. It reminds me of what Amadou Hampâté Bâ described in Amkoulel: we wondered if the major would poo and what it looked like! When you have the same lice, the same cockroaches, you understand each other in a different way. The soldiers’ female correspondents did more than nursing: they nursed our wounded hearts. That’s how we learnt a lot.
I went to Marseille to work with the working class. I lived with the French. It was school. I was part of a trade-union along with 5000 stevedores. We fought against the Vietnam war. We learnt: the others taught me, the cousins helped me understand my people.
At the CGT (Editor’s note: General Confederation of Labour), there was a library. Africa was still being supported: I wanted to express myself and I wrote The Black Docker. I’m a child of my time, shifted around from here to there. When I met Georges Sadoul, I wanted to meet Charlie Chaplin, to ask him how he’d managed to last. The first image in Modern Times shows white sheep. We are a people of sheep: it amazed me! I turned to cinema to learn.
For each of my films, I try to address as many Africans as I can. I try to be less talkative and try to express our time.
Borom Sarret is a real cinema lesson in itself, by the preciseness and strength of the screenplay. When we were preparing this dialogue, you said that the script must feed the eye more than the ear- that it must bring the eye to hear.
Cinema is money but I noticed it was two things. Before studying cinema in Moscow, I’d seen The Bicycle Thief. In Moscow, it was the Kino Pravda, cinéma-vérité. Why not draw from this knowledge? That’s what I did. In 20-25 minutes, I showed the coming tragedies, that assail Africa. The eye had to speak, not the ear. Black Girl was at the Critics’ Week and it was more important than the festival itself. I went to the ENS [EN: prestigious French establishment of higher education]: the lecturers didn’t just keep trotting out the same discourses. The artist doesn’t need to parade: he is just asked to make art. I go to a funeral but the person who is being buried won’t come to mine: that is the richness of a human being.
When I came back from Europe with my records (the CGT had introduced me to the theatre, the opera, etc.), my mother kept asking me to play Bellini’s adagio, which I actually used twice in my films. I didn’t understand why she liked this music so much: what relation could this African woman who had never been out of her own backyard have with this music? It raised the same eternal question: how to address my people?
African cinema has no dinstinctive aesthetic: each artist has his own style, his own approach. Cultural exception is no vain expression.
You told Paulin Soumanou Vieyra: « Like our poets and our novelists, we want to add Africa’s real face to the universal ».
There is nothing universal for an artist: first, he works from the pulsation of his people. People have to watch Statues also die by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker : it teaches you a lot about aesthetics, about the value of masks. For a long time, the film was banned for its commentary, not its images. We have an art and its is important to distinguish between culture and civilization: culture is a reference to a given group while civilization is what we all share. Africa uses all of its cultures to make a civilization, which inherits from all cultures.
Black Girl dealt with the difficulty in communicating with the neo-colonist. The mask that the young woman gives to the White couple symbolizes a precise role, a reference to the beyond and the world of spirits. A European will only see its shape. This relation to the sacred is different
I would like there to be ruptures between the Francophones and France. The signed texts are not valid. When you share a bed with someone, tell him/her where your abscess is. Africans and their masks: Africans have often destroyed them because of Islam. They didn’t keep anything: where are the museums? In Black Girl, the young girl prostitutes herself: she gives the mask. It was thrashed and she took it back. She takes it back to cry over it. The child to whom it was given back plays with it too. It is a criticism of my society. Senghor was against this film!
What do you think of Souleymane Sissako’s initiative with the UCECAO (Union of Creators and Entrepreneurs of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts of Western Africa)?
I agree with him and he knows it. Out of the eighty cinemas in Senegal after decolonization, only ten are left. But it’s not a filmmaker’s job! The Niamey Manifesto is still valid! It was at the time of Cabascabo: the President came to give me a ten-million check: I gave it back to him, saying that we hadn’t come for money. Afterwards, Inoussa Ousseini convinced me to accept it, for this money to be useful.
Which filmmakers influenced you?
I keep the people whom I admire to myself. Truffaut refused to see Xala in Dakar because the film was censored. It really touched me.
In my life of wandering, I met Melville. The Silence of the Sea by Vercors is a great example : when the German man walks down the steps, we can hear him limping. I owe a lot to others.
How can young African filmmakers be helped?
There are seminars to learn cinema: they’ll know which button to push but there needs to be a school! Schools allow you to understand others and what happened in the past. The symbol is important: in Africa, we have a lot of metaphors, we must use them! The masters I referred to know their culture. Africa needs those film schools!
The Maghreb is often left out.
Africa was divided. It is here in Cannes that we plotted to organize the JCC (the Carthage Film Festival) with Tahar Cheria. It’s our cousins who divide us. The leaders of the Maghreb look more to the North than towards the Sahara, except when there is football! This North-South division is partly our fault, the fault of our leaders.
Are you involved in the distribution of your films?
Moolade was dubbed in six African languages to make it a working tool against excision. I only offer my work and my thoughts but I let people organize things as they want.
For you, what is the relation between literature and cinema?
Literature is the substratum of every film. Cinema allows to prune the surplus that would be good only for literature. It’s the positive side: you have to build your setting. The weakness of our films is that we want to put everything into our screenplays at once.
What are you plans?
Moolade is the second part of a trilogy entitled Daily Heroism. Dany Glover bought the adaptation rights of God’s Bits of Wood. It’s a difficult work: this book is taught all over Africa; everyone has his/her own reading of it..
Translated by Céline Dewaele.///Article N° : 6640