The following interview with Ousmane Sembene is recorded on the Guardian website – Sunday June 5, 2005.
Ousmane Sembène, the Senegalese-born ‘father of African cinema’, talked to Bonnie Greer about film-making in Africa, his European experiences and why Live 8 is fake, before receiving the fellowship of the BFI. Here’s a full transcript.
Bonnie Greer: Before I start, I’d like to say that I am a huge fan of this gentleman, so I am really nervous. But I am going to do my best. There will be simultaneous translation by Mr Samba Gadjigo, Mr Sembène’s biographer and himself an eminent professor of French at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Moolaadé is the second film in a trilogy, and you call it a trilogy about the heroism of daily life. Could you expand on that, please?
Ousmane Sembène: We are talking here about the African continent, and it is a continent going through a crisis. Nobody can deny that we have a lot of wars going on; brothers killing brothers; we have a lot of diseases and catastrophes. 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 whose struggle leaves no 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. So I’ve tried in my own way to sing the praises of those heroes, because I am also a witness to that daily struggle. In the traditional society which I come from, when you look at our societies, whether you’re talking about the Mandinka, Bambara or Fulani, we have the tradition of the storyteller called the griot and also other kinds of storytellers. Their role was to record memories of daily actions and events. At night, people would gather around them and they would tell those stories that they had recorded. I think there are parallels between myself and these storytellers, because in that traditional society, the storyteller was his own writer, director, actor and musician. And I think his role was very important in cementing society. Now, with new technologies and the tools that we have acquired, I think we can take inspiration from them and do some work.
BG: You have said that Moolaadé is your most African film. Can you expand on that?
OS: When I made such a statement, I was referring to its narrative structure and aesthetic. But then, ultimately, it’s up to my people to judge whether or not I have come close to telling their reality. What makes the difference between this film and the others I’ve made, is I already know what the people are saying in the rural areas. I think it is up to you, brought here in the west by the contingencies of history, it is up to you to understand and to see what is African in this film. And I think your appreciation and judgment is going to help me improve my future work. Right now, I am very, very obsessed, because right now, Moolaadé is enjoying some measure of success. So what am I going to do with my next film? Since the setting for the next film is going to be an urban area, how am I going to talk about African cities? Of course when I talk about African cities, there is no difference between a building in London or Abidjan or anywhere in the world. But what is important is to wonder, the men or the women who live in that building, what kind of life are they living? It’s not enough to have all kinds of gadgets. This is what I’m working on right now.
BG: I adore the title of the latest film in the trilogy, Brotherhood of Rats. I love it because you’re talking about a very important subject: it’s about the cities and the complicity or not of African governments in some of the troubles afflicting African states.
OS: I think that’s just part of my job. If I centre that film on an urban area, how can I show it to people who live in the rural area? How can I make this film in such a way that a peasant in my village in Casamance can understand what’s going on? And how can I now really raise my voice against all the embezzling that’s going on in the cities? Here I am talking about people of this new generation. I am making this film for the young people who are here in this room, and who are going back home: how can I inspire them?
BG: What do you think of the cinema numerique, the digital cinema?
OS: For us, everything is good. I think that every tool that we can appropriate and use is good for us. What counts here actually is the result of the battle of the sexes, the war between husbands and wives.
BG: I want to go back a little bit to the early days – your life was formidable even before you began to make cinema. You were in the war, you fought for freedom in Algeria, you were a dockworker in Marseilles, you hurt your back and then decided to take a less strenuous job and investigate some of the literature of the African and diasporic world, particularly Claude McKay, the great Jamaican novelist and member of the Harlem Renaissance, and his idea about the docks in Marseilles and the languages of the African diaspora.
OS: I am really unable to talk about my life – I don’t know my life. I’ve travelled a lot and this is the life that I have lived, but that doesn’t mean that I know myself.
BG: All right then, women?
OS: I love all women. Can you show me one man who doesn’t love women?
BG: Well, you are in England. I was struck, and the reason why I wanted to show Ceddo, although you didn’t want me to show Ceddo, is because of the moment in it where a strong woman is putting a line in the ground. So I want to ask, first about the idea of women in African cinema, especially in your cinema, and how important they are for you?
OS: Here we are talking about past civilisations. When I was growing up, married women, of their own accord, always tied a belt around their waists. I think it’s a symbol of their loyalty, their fidelity. It didn’t have anything to do with the men. So when she takes off her belt and shakes it, she was putting her own life and honour on the line. So for husbands like myself, when they shake their belts and tell us not to cross the line, none of us would be able to do it. And it is only on those occasions that the community recognises the woman’s right to kill. Of course you can rape the body, but you can never go against that rule. So one has to die for that rule to be broken. But here we are talking about what I call medieval Africa, and of course now things have changed. Right now, women wear belts that are gold or leather or whatever, but that doesn’t mean that they are more loyal.
BG: Madame [Fatoumata] Coulibaly [who played the lead role of Colle in Moolaadé], how was it for you, playing in this movie?
Fatoumata Coulibaly: Thank you first of all, and I think that it shows that you have a strong interest in African films. Even before I was called upon to act in this film, I was already working in Malian radio and TV. My job was working in programmes designed for women and children, and centred on the family. I travelled a lot into rural areas, and I talked to the women and everybody there. And I tried to touch on all the issues relevant to their lives. During that work, I noticed that many young girls died following the female genital mutilations (FGM), through haemorrhaging. So I did some research in the rural areas. When I decided to conceive of a programme without consulting my boss, I ran into a lot of problems.
I myself made a documentary film which was broadcast only once on Malian television, and of course people hid the tape and said that it was lost. That’s when our administration decided to silence any dialogue about FGM. In spite of that, of course, I wanted to continue that kind of work. In my work I also collaborated with an NGO composed of women. We would go to the rural areas, and we would try to educate them about hygiene and the family, in their own languages, not in French or English. We brought together the village chief and every man, woman and child – everybody came to those meetings. Of course, we don’t start head-on with FGM; we would strategically beat around the bush for a while and then only come to the issue that is important to us. Because in our society, talking about sex is still a taboo, and of course many village chiefs don’t want to hear about that issue. “You are trying to deviate us from our way of life, our traditions.” And of course the argument they give is that these traditions date back to before our birth, and actually they accuse us of being funded by the outside world to subvert their way of life. But with persistence we would come back and get our message across.
Sometimes we used dolls to show the body parts of a woman in childbirth, we show them the pain and suffering of a woman who has been excised. Of course when we show those things graphically, they hide their faces. But we always managed to find a strategy, through jokes and whatnot, to bring them to look and take responsibility and face what we are showing them as a reflection of their own bodies. Of course, the position I hold in Mali – I am very popular – so that helped me in my job. After a while I can see that they are not closing their eyes anymore and they face the body from which a baby is emerging. Of course we do all this with the complicity of a midwife. People ask us questions and we engage in dialogue. We also talk about all the consequences of excision, and I think that has yielded some positive results in abandoning FGM. And so afterward, when Mr Sembène was casting in Bamako – at the time, he did not know how involved I was in the struggle against FGM – I was honoured, privileged and lucky to be chosen to play this lead role. I’ll tell you, this is just the beginning of my struggle, and I want you all to join and support me so that we can reach a positive result.
BG: This leads me to the two most interesting lines in the film. One, the last words of Colle’s husband, “It takes more than a pair of balls to make a man”, but the strongest sentence is when Mercenaire says, “Africa is a bitch”. I’d like you to elaborate.
OS: Mercenaire says “Africa is a bitch” because he’s completely in despair: he was shocked at what he was witnessing. Maybe it’s me who put my words into his mouth.
BG: That’s what I would like you to speak about.
OS: Because I love Africa, that’s why I call it a bitch. When you love something … I think there is no contradiction between loving Africa and calling it a bitch. I am saying it out of desperation. And the other sentence you refer to is a phrase that is used a lot in Africa, in many languages. Actually, when you look at the Bambara version, it is rendered as “It takes more than a pair of trousers to make a man.” But since I wanted to make it a more powerful statement, I made it “It takes more than a pair of balls to make a man”. In the Bambara, the metaphor of trousers is important because a male child cannot wear trousers before circumcision. Circumcision is a symbol of entry into manhood. So that’s why I was playing with those two metaphors; but I decided to use “pair of balls”.
BG: You’ve said that Africa is matriarchal, the idea of the woman as the strong force in Africa. But for us in the west, polygamy is not an acceptable or pleasant practice. Yet you sort of nuance it, the way you nuanced several customs like the excision and the protection, so in the film it is a polygamous situation, yet the women are very much in control. So is this the African language of cinema, is this an African aesthetic?
OS: As far as I am concerned, Africa is a woman. As far as I can tell, and maybe my knowledge is very limited, I really don’t think that 2,000 years of Christianity has brought anything to humanity. When you look at African education, the basis of all African education is this idea of femininity that I’m talking about. Whether you are talking about me or my father, usually, women just give us the illusion that we are in control. Actually, even our virility depends on the gaze and the control of women. Without women, we cannot do anything. I think it’s a good thing.
BG: One, almost final question, and this is a political and philosophical question, about pan-Africanism. You’ve been a great fighter for the liberation, through cinema, of African consciousness, African thought, African people. People in the diaspora, as many of us are in this room – I am myself a soixante-huitard, so I understand, but for the generation after me, and the generation after them, does pan-Africanism necessarily speak to them? Does it have any meaning at all today?
OS: For me, anything that unites is useful. Anything that can bring understanding and peace is important. And for me, there was a phase in which pan-Africanism was a political action. At the beginning of the last century, London was the centre of pan-Africanism. Actually, the first time I visited London was for a meeting about pan-Africanism. In the 1920s, Africa was not the centre of pan-Africanism; the centre was in the diaspora. And it was during those early years, around the 20s, that we saw the first educated Africans. After the first world war, it became stronger and all the people who came from all horizons knew each other. And we met and talked about independence: Chou En-Lai from China, George Padmore, WEB DuBois – those were the people engaged in the struggle. After independence, we preserved the idea of pan-Africanism for the unity of the continent. For me, that is very important.
BG: But today?
OS: Nowadays, with the kind of policies that our leaders are engaged in, and here I am specifically talking about the French-speaking parts of Africa, they are the most alienated individuals I have ever seen. I think it is France that is really leading the job of dividing Africa. Most of our presidents have dual nationalities, French and African. When the going gets tough, they run away to Paris and all our decisions are made in Paris. I think in that context it’s very difficult to talk about pan-Africanism. Of course, it’s just plain rhetoric. Why don’t they abolish political borders in Africa? What is stopping them from developing education in Africa? And again, when talking about the francophone countries, there are a lot of states where the annual budget is secured only with the intervention of France. So that’s why I think in that context it is difficult. But I don’t think we should give up. I am positive that one day we will become independent.
The toughest fight we engaged in was the struggle against apartheid, and many people in Europe joined, supported that fight, and some of them were gunned down. I think what we need is goodwill because now our struggle is harder because it is an economic struggle. And now Europe is organising itself. So I think there needs to be a rupture between Africa and Europe, and all the international laws being conceived here in the west have to be revisited and changed. Just one case in point, now European countries are running into problems with China because of T-shirts. What did China do? China’s flooding their markets with T-shirts. But last century, France and England bombed Shanghai – they took weapons and invaded them. They can no longer do that because China has organised itself; and Vietnam has organised itself. That is what we lack back in Africa: we have been subjugated so much that all we can do is beg, and some even think what we are going through is a comedy.
Then there is the issue of cotton. During slavery, negroes were in the cotton fields. Everybody knew about that. Now that they are not forcing us to make cotton, we make cotton and they don’t want it. What should we do? I mean, even our leaders have failed to build factories to transform that cotton for our clothing. We could make any kind of material that would be even better than what is made here, but we wait for everything to come from European industry. They are selling us rags. And everywhere you go in Africa, in the big cities, you would think that you were in a Salvation Army store. They have even created an NGO whose role is to sell us second-hand clothes. I think the youth need to hear these stories. The struggle continues.
BG: That leads beautifully into my next question. What do you think of the big campaigns going on now in Britain: Make Poverty History, Live 8, Hear Africa 05? Big initiatives to make people aware and to maybe give money.
OS: I think they’re fake, and I think African heads of state who buy into that idea are liars. The only way for us to come out of poverty is to work hard. Poverty means begging throughout the world. I know your prime minister is spearheading that kind of campaign. A few years ago, the British army was in Sierra Leone – were they there to fight against poverty? It’s a mistake, it’s a lie. But it’s up to Africans to know that, and I think we have to start that revolution back home.
BG: Well, let’s see if that hits the newspapers tomorrow. How much do you want to bet it won’t? My last question, I saw you on French television, on a programme called Rideau Rouge. You were speaking with a young realisateur from Burkina Faso, and you said, “African realisateurs have to be less modest” and then you went into a discussion about the future of African cinema. Can you elaborate on those two things?
OS: I think cinema is needed throughout Africa, because we are lagging behind in the knowledge of our own history. I think we need to create a culture that is our own. I think that images are very fascinating and very important to that end. But right now, cinema is only in the hands of film-makers because most of our leaders are afraid of cinema. Europeans are very smart in that matter – every night they are colonising our minds, and they are imposing on us their own model of society and ways of doing it. And many of our men dress in English suits, with British ties. Our first ladies are called the duty-free ladies and they use only European perfumes and only wear labels.