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Senegal: Ousmane Sembene, doyenne of African film-makers died

It is hard to underestimate the influence of Senegalese film-maker Ousmane Sembene who died last week after an illness. More recently, he was hailed as the “father of African cinema” but this came later in life. Creatively he started out as a writer but became a film-maker because he realized that so many of his compatriots were unable to read. Sembene himself was the first person in his family to get an education:”All my life, my father only lived to fish. He liked to repeat to me often that he would never work for a white man. All his experience was in fishing. In my I was the first person to go to school.”

Sembene was a co-founder of Fespaco in Burkina Faso, the continent’s leading biennial francophone film and television festival in 1969. Despite Sembene’s desire to tell stories using film that would be understood by his compatriots, he was largely feted at European film festivals. Often his films were more widely seen outside Senegal on the European art film circuit. Distribution and censorship problems dogged his efforts to get them widely shown in Senegal. Former President Leopold Senghor often tried to ban them from playing.

Sembene’s work owed little to Hollywood as he studied cinema on a scholarship to Moscow at the Gorki Studios in 1962. However late in life he confessed to the New York Village Voice that he had enjoyed westerns as a child, “but I always enjoyed them from the perspective of the Indians”.

His life and work perhaps stand as a challenge for African film-makers in the 21st century: how is it going to be possible to make films that tell African stories that will get seen by Africans? Nollywood is providing one answer to that question but perhaps not quite the one Sembene himself would have imagined or approved of.

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