Considered the father of African cinema, Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembéne died this past weekend at his home in Dakar. He had played a significant role in political and aesthetic debates that had gathered force as the post-war movement toward African decolonization accelerated in the 1950s. By 1960, the year that Senegal won its independence from France, he was already a novelist of some reputation: his epic novel God's Bits of Wood earned him international acclaim that year.
The son of a fisherman, Sembéne was born in Ziguinchor, Senegal, January 1 1923. Dropping out of French school at age 14, he worked as an apprentice mechanic and mason. In his adult years he joined the radical wing of the anti-colonialist movement. He believed that Africans would experience true liberation when they rid themselves of European models of civilization and determine their own, homegrown versions of modernity. Sembéne started to make films at age 40 out of the desire to travel the African continent, get to know its people, tribes and cultures, and bring these to local and international audiences, showcasing ritual, dance and performance. He developed a film style that was populist, informative, moralistic and sometimes propagandistic. He frequently made use of non-professional actors and wrote dialogue in various African languages. Sembéne achieved global stature with his movies, which are lively, funny, pointed and true virtue of his concentration on local matters.
His first film, 1966's “Black Girl," was a sensation, winning the Jean Vigo Prize in France and drawing attention to African film in general. In “Moonlaadé” (2004), one of his last movies, a group of women rises up against the traditional practice of female genital mutilation, challenging the authority of the village elders as well as the priestesses who perform the ritual.