The Senegalese filmmaker, writer and social activist Ousmane Sembene, regarded as one of the pioneers of African cinema, died June 10 in Dakar. He was 84.
Born into a humble fisherman’s family in the village of Ziguinchor, Sembene was largely self-taught. He worked from a very young age in various manual jobs including fisherman, bricklayer, dockworker and plumber, but taught himself to read and write in French. Many of his films and books were based on these experiences in life, and he later said his education was a result of the training he received in “the University of Life.”
Sembene published his first novel in 1956, “Le Docker Noir” drawing from his own experiences as a dock worker in Marseilles, France. Then in 1962 he was offered a scholarship to the Gorky Film Institute in Moscow. In 1963 he returned to Senegal, formed a production company and made the black and white short “Borom Sarret” about the life of a poor cart driver.
He wrote more than half-a-dozen books, many critically acclaimed, including “Voltaiques,” a volume of short stories published in 1962.
It included the short story “The black girl from …” which he turned into a film two years later and which is credited with being sub-Saharan Africa’s first feature film. His other sometimes controversial shorts, features and documentaries include “Taaw,” “Xala,” “Ceddo” “Camp de Thiaroye” and “Guelwaar.”
He went on to make at least 10 movies, including his last film “Moolade,” which won a prize at Cannes when it was released in 2004. Like his novels, his films tackled issues from female circumcision to the plight of railroad workers.
As co-founder of the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers and Fespaco, the pan-African festival of film and television held in Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso every two years, Sembene had left a lasting legacy for a new generation of African filmmakers, Seipati Bulane Hopa, the secretary general of the federation said in her tribute to Sembene.
She said he was “a man whose heart was centred in Africa, whose work was rooted in Africa, a luminary that lit the torch for ordinary people to walk the path of light. He was a voice that spoke without hesitation, a man with an impeccable talent who unwaveringly held on to his artistic principles and did that with great integrity and dignity.”