Ousmane Sembène was a Senegalese filmmaker who broke down barriers in 1966 when he made Black Girl, the first feature film ever released by a sub-Saharan African director. In this and subsequent films he made, Sembène strived to bring Africa’s rich culture and history to the screen and the rest of the world, whilst highlighting particular problems he felt needed addressing.

Sembène started out as a writer though. He wanted to make changes in African society but realised many of the people he wanted to speak to within the continent didn’t read or write. So he began to work in cinema to reach a wider audience with his messages and attempt to bring forth social change via the silver screen.

In the 70s, his most fruitful period in terms of directing feature films, Sembène made a trio of fiercely political works, Emitaï, Xala and Ceddo. So inflammatory were these that the first and latter were initially banned or censored in French West Africa and Senegal, respectively.

Criterion are releasing all three of these films in a Blu-ray set entitled Three Revolutionary Films by Ousmane Sembène. Having enjoyed Sembène’s Mandabi when I watched it recently, I requested a copy of Criterion’s set so I could dig deeper into the director’s oeuvre.

Emitaï

Director: Ousmane Sembène
Screenplay by: Ousmane Sembène
Starring: Andongo Diabon, Robert Fontaine, Michel Renaudeau, Ousmane Camara, Ibou Camara
Country: Senegal, France
Running Time: 101 min
Year: 1971

Emitaï (1971) is set in Senegal during World War II. The French Vichy government is forcefully conscripting men from their colonies, including a Diola village. Tensions rise as the French not only take men but also demand rice supplies from the villagers.

The film explores the Diola people’s response to this oppression. The elders seek guidance from Emitaï, their god of thunder. The women, taking a more pragmatic approach, secretly hide the rice harvest. Leaders within the village debate the best course of action in the face of escalating French aggression.

Sembène himself was in the French army, which likely opened his eyes to the exploitation of Africans at the hands of their colonisers. He presents their unfair treatment through clear storytelling, never overcomplicating things, even if some of the spiritual practises will appear alien to modern audiences, particularly those from the West.

There’s not a great deal of dialogue either, with Sembène getting his message across through visual means, for the most part. There’s a wonderfully crisp look to everything, with the simple village setting and bright African sunshine making for striking, clear imagery. This is enhanced by bold colours, largely through the costumes. Sembène also highlights important details in the locations, often making barbed comments with shots of amusingly out-of-touch French army propaganda posters.

The anti-colonial message is clear and rousing but there are some other aspects of African culture explored too. As with a lot of Sembène’s films, the role of women is important. As mentioned in my synopsis, it’s the women who take the more practical and impactful approach to tackling their oppressors, even if it gets the village in the most trouble. Whilst the men pray to unhelpful Gods or endlessly debate the issue, the women take action, almost silently controlling the situation (they have far less dialogue than the men).

Language plays a key role here too though, with characters speaking either French or Diola. It was rare that the latter language was used in films. Here it helps clearly show the divide between cultures.

The film isn’t in a hurry to get anywhere and the mannered performances can also slow things down somewhat, so the film won’t appeal to everyone. However, Emitaï remains a potent comment on the treatment of Africans during WWII.

Film:

Xala

Director: Ousmane Sembène
Screenplay by: Ousmane Sembène
Starring: Thierno Leye, Myriam Niang, Seune Samb, Fatim Diagne, Younouss Seye, Mustapha Ture, Iliamane Sagna, Dieynaba Niang
Country: Senegal, France
Running Time: 123 min
Year: 1975

Based on Sembène’s novel of the same name, Xala (1975) centres around El Hadji (Thierno Leye)​​, a wealthy businessman who embodies the corruption that plagues the post-colonial government. El Hadji celebrates his supposed national pride by marrying a third wife, a symbol of his social and economic success. However, his greed has consequences. El Hadji is struck by a “Xala”, a curse that renders him impotent, on his wedding night.

The film uses El Hadji’s impotence as a metaphor for the impotence of the new government. Despite the outward shift of power, the system remains rigged by corrupt practices and lingering foreign influence. El Hadji desperately seeks a cure for his Xala, consulting doctors and even marabouts (holy men or ‘witch doctors’), but his efforts fail to deliver the results he desires.

Meanwhile, El Hadji’s corruption and poor financial practices snowball and threaten to bite him in the backside.

More openly comical than its predecessor, Xala is a sharp satire of contemporary politics and the patriarchal African society. They have gained their independence but use the opportunity to act like Europeans and don’t help their own people, instead throwing money away on unnecessary European items like imported water. Even El Hadji’s wedding cake has two white figures topping it, a particularly potent symbol in the film.

Once again, women play an important role here, with a range of female characters playing varied parts in the story and representing different strengths of and difficulties faced by African women. El Hadji’s first wife Adja Awa Astou (Seune Samb) is quietly powerful. She pulls the strings in the background and has the means to be independent. The second, Oumi Ndoye (Younouss Seye), is more fiery but relies on handouts from her husband. The third, Ngoné, is near-silent and seems to have been forced into this relationship against her will. The strongest character though is El Hadji’s eldest daughter Rama (Myriam Niang), who’s the most modern, forward-thinking figure in the film. This suggests Sembène had hope for Africa’s future, moving forward.

Personally, I found the film a little overlong though. The story is relatively simple, so the film seems to be spinning its wheels over its two-hour running time. Whilst the humour helps, it’s not an uproariously funny film, just bitingly satirical, so it only goes so far.

However, the film still packs a punch and, like all the films in the set, it ends with great potency. With a wonderfully rich and varied soundtrack and ​​Sembène’s usual crisp visual storytelling, it remains a strong example of his skills as a filmmaker.

Film:

Ceddo

Director: Ousmane Sembène
Screenplay by: Ousmane Sembène, Carrie Sembène (subtitle translation)
Starring: Tabata Ndiaye, Alioune Fall, Moustapha Yade, Matoura Dia, Ismaila Diagne, Ousmane Camara, Nar Modou, Makhouredia Gueye
Country: Senegal, France
Running Time: 117 min
Year: 1977

Ceddo (1977 – a.k.a. Outsiders) is set somewhere around the 18th or 19th centuries, before French colonialism but during a time when a European presence was emerging on the continent. It centres on the conflict between the Ceddo (rebels who hold on to traditional African religions) and the growing influence of the Imam (Gouré), a Muslim leader, who gains favour with King Demba War (Matoura Dia). This shift threatens the Ceddo way of life.

In a bold act of defiance, the Ceddo kidnap Princess Dior Yacine (Tabata Ndiaye). The Princess’ suitors and king’s men vie for the honour of saving her, creating further conflict within the community.

Meanwhile, the Imam takes drastic steps to convert the village to Islam and gain control of the region.

Ceddo is another bold look at the oppression faced by the African people in the past, this time at the hands of religious figures forcing their beliefs on them. Being an atheist myself who has strong views against religious indoctrination, I found the subject matter here particularly powerful. However, I was less enamoured by Sembène’s approach.

Most notably, some of the criticisms I aimed at the previous films in the set were even more troublesome here. Sembène used largely non-professional actors in Ceddo and many of his other films. This, as mentioned in my thoughts on Emitaï, can make for a stiff, clunky delivery by the cast. It’s perhaps less prevalent in Xala due to the contemporary setting of that film, but I found the stilted performance style in the other films to be a little off-putting. It makes it hard to fully warm to the characters.

Ceddo is built largely around debates, which, when added to the awkward performances, makes for difficult viewing. I found it a chore to sit through, in fact, not helped by its near-two-hour length. I much preferred the concise visual storytelling of Emitaï.

However, there is still much to admire in the film. There are some striking visuals and I adored Manu Dibango’s rich, intoxicating score. Also, like every film in the set, it ends incredibly powerfully. So, whilst my patience was tested during Ceddo, I did appreciate its message and it certainly had an impact in getting it across. As such, I’d recommend people watch it, just make sure you’re sitting comfortably.

Film:

Side note – animal-lovers might want to be warned that there are unsimulated animal sacrifices and cruelty throughout the films here. I’m not quite sure how these scenes got past the BBFC censors, when films like The Abyss and War and Peace (1966) couldn’t get cleared.

Three Revolutionary Films by Ousmane Sembène is out on 3rd June on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. All three films look good, with rich colours and detailed, natural textures. There’s some notable damage on the Ceddo print though, in places. Like the video, the audio is largely strong but Ceddo suffers a little, with some background hiss.

THREE-DISC SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES

– New 4K digital restorations of all three films, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks
– New conversation between Mahen Bonetti, founder and executive director of the African Film Festival, and writer Amy Sall
– The Making of “Ceddo,” a 1981 documentary by Paulin Soumanou Vieyra
– New English subtitle translations
– PLUS: An essay by film scholar Yasmina Price
– New cover by Ify Chiejina

In the discussion piece included the set, Mahen Bonetti begins by talking about how she was inspired to start the African Film Festival and how Sembène spurred her on. She then joins Amy Sall in discussing the themes and strengths of Sembène’s films. It’s a valuable addition to the set that’s vital viewing for anyone coming to this set ‘blind’.

Also included on the Ceddo disc is a near-half-hour documentary about the making of the film. It’s well made and includes thoughtful interviews with those involved and some wonderful footage of Sembène at work.

I didn’t receive a copy of the booklet, unfortunately.

So, whilst Criterion must be commended for venturing beyond the more common realms of Western and Far Eastern cinema, I think this release could have benefited from some commentaries or essays to fully appreciate the political and cultural statements being made by Sembène, though the conversation between Mahen Bonetti and Amy Sall is certainly valuable in this respect. Nevertheless, the release is still well worth your time and money, even if I found the films a little challenging.

Disc/Package:

Three Revolutionary Films by Ousmane Sembène - Criterion
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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