Catching up with: Film Master Ousmane Sembene

Senegalese master filmmaker Ousmane Sembene is often called the father or elder of elders of African cinema, but in my own humble opinion he is one of the all-time greats period.

In my own current pantheon of filmmakers, I would put him right up there along with Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, with a special mention for Thierry Michel.

In terms of pacing, deceptive slowness and simple yet deeply stirring storytelling, I find Sembene unequaled. His movies do not date, to the contrary, his foresightedness of the human condition only grows.

Currently, three of his masterpieces are available for streaming on Netflix.

A common critique of post-independence intellectual African cinema is the fact it recurringly complains. But the complaints Sembene makes are universal, exposed in the raw sun of Senegal and parts of France. He shows how greed dehumanizes us all, how the pursuit of pushing through so many barriers to get to hoped for money ruins whatever essence we initially had.

Xala from 1975 shows the callousness of post-independent government officials mimicking in outrageous ways their colonial predecessors, and how in this context attempting past traditions such as polygamy becomes even riskier.

Black Girl from 1966 shows how a very delicate balance between a misplaced Senegalese maid and an expatriate French family is shattered when she is asked to work for them on vacation in France.

Mandabi from 1968 shows how a proud but poor man ruins himself when he tries to get a Western Union payment from a nephew in France.

The son of a fisherman, who worked many manual labor jobs, from car factories to port docks, and fought for France's army, Sembene died in 2007.

He came to film at the age of 40, after a year of lessons in Moscow, and also after a successful literary career, wanting to reach more people and relay his social warnings with visuals. He called cinema "the people's night school". His literature still resonates as well. One of the books he wrote God's Bits of Wood, about a railroad strike in colonial Senegal, was one of my favorite books as a child and is widely considered a classic.

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