Sembene Ousmane, the charismatic Senegalese novelist and filmmaker, has lived an extraordinary life that has seen him rise, through the strength of his own intelligence and willpower, from humble beginnings to his current status as one of Africa's leading auteurs. This ascension is all the more remarkable as Sembene had very little formal education and struggled through many jobs, induding fisherman, soldier and docker in both Senegal and the South of France, before commencing his artistic career that has won him worldwide renown.
Sembene's 1974 film, Xala, adapted from his novel of the same title, was recently chosen by the British film critic, Derek Malcolm, as one of his "Century of Films", the only African film to be so honoured. His latest film, Faat Kine, which tells of the trials and tribulations of three generations of Senegalese women, opened recently to generally positive reviews in Dakar, and amply maintains his commitment to speak for those in society whose voices are seldom heard.
Sembene, unlike many of his contemporaries, has made it a point of honour never to part-finance his films with money originating from the former colonial power, France. He is a man who takes a huge pride in his work and identity as an African. He production company, Ceddo, signifies, in Wolof, those who came from royal families in the pre-colonial period.
An engaging man never short of an opinion, Sembene talks, in between puffs at his trademark pipe, of his films, his artistic preoccupations and above all about some of the problems facing Africa today. When James Copnall interviewed him in Dakar recently for New African, he first asked him about his new film, Faat Kine, which portrays three generations of Senegalese women and the diverse problems they face. The plight of African women seems to be a recurring theme in his work...
Sembene: Yes, absolutely; one must. Women are the future of Africa, yet too often they are ignored, the unspoken voice in African culture. But if you look at our history, women have always played a huge role at the heart of African societies, right through the ages. It is only recently that they have become marginalised.
NA: But are you, as a man, the best person to speak for them?
Sembene: Well, somebody has to! The fact is that in Africa, far fewer women than men get an education. That, as I have said before, is a colonial legacy. This means that fewer women are in a position to get their voices heard. That's regrettable...