screened Sunday July 1 2007 on New Yorker Video VHS in Weehawken NJ

TSPDT rank #576 IMDb

In the same year that George Lucas released Star Wars, Ousmane Sembene, who passed away last month, offered his own tale of rebellion and liberation, depicting a Wolof-speaking African kingdom’s capitulation to Islamic rule. While Lucas’ film made a ton of money and changed mainstream cinema forever, Sembene’s film was banned in its own country, allegedly for misspelling its one-word title — a perversely fitting fate for a film that scrutinizes the politics of language and the erosion of an orally-based culture while under the rule of the Koran. Given the influence of Islam in Senegal, it’s not hard to see how this film was banned, and it would be just as incendiary today if it were to be released (assuming that people would pay attention to an African film not involving Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie).

It’s hard to say for sure whether this film is anti-Islam, as it makes equally dour observations of European colonialism and Catholicism, and most stunning of all, the complicity of Africans in their own subjugation, trading their own children for guns and liquor. The overall vision is one examining and decrying power plays from both without and within that threaten to extinguish the culture of a people. To enact that culture on screen, Sembene uses a unique declamatory style of dramatic dialogue that seems to invert the Straub and Huillet “text to speech” approach; here, following the oral customs of African tradition, speech has the weight of text – that is until the imposition of Islamic rule silences the village under the edict of written law.

Perhaps the film’s most brilliant aspect is its use of anachronistic gospel and other contemporary pan-African music underneath scenes of Africans being forced into slavery or religious conversion, collapsing past and present into one eternally persistent vision of political struggle.  Though the music is vibrant, it does anything but provide catharsis to these scenes of ancestral brutality; if anything the music seems to provide a analytic counterpoint that asks forces viewers to connect the sounds of one era with the silence of another, such that both gain immensely in a highly charged sense of history – not just of a people, but of its capacity to express itself in words and sounds, and the forces that have shaped it over time.  It’s really one of the most unique and provocative uses of movie music I’ve seen.

Featuring its fair share of duels, beat-downs and uprisings, the film in its own way is as action-packed as Star Wars, though its violence – especially the blazing girl power finale that might even get the likes of Tarantino interested in African cinema – is far more unsettling in its implications of what the preservation of African culture today may require.

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First, a comment on the commonly printed description of the late Sembene as the “father of African cinema.” As impressive as this accolade may sound in the obituaries, it may amount to a back-handed compliment given how African cinema is regarded with condescension if at all. For me African cinema, and especially Sembene’s cinema, is perhaps the most paradoxical to be found and therefore perhaps the richest. Perhaps more than any other culture, the best African films I’ve seen inspire the fundamental questions of “what is cinema? How can it be used and what is it good for?” The great African filmmakers grapple with these questions as good as anyone.

African filmmakers like Sembene, Abdherrahmane Sissako and others are perpetually trying to connect to both the global arts and academic community and to their native audiences, sometimes at cross-purposes. They have to appeal to an African audience many of which cannot read or write — but as a response to this condition the films construct a new kind of literacy, a complex system of aural and visual meaning that connects with its audience. Westerners may find the reconfigured grammar of African films simple or crude on the surface (or, to use the pre-PC term, “primitive”). And in the case of Ceddo, the film is remarkably straightforward from a story standpoint — and yet the experience of feeling that there is more than meets the eye, that these scenes are deceptive in their simplicity, can be frustrating. It is upon reflection that its complexities blossom.

There are many online resources to be found on Ceddo, but for my money there are two that stand as must-reads. The first is an adaptation of the original review by James Leahy from the BFI Monthly Film Bulletin (vol. 49, no. 576, January 1982) on the film’s initial U.K. release. In addition to providing a thorough plot synopsis (which may aid viewers who may find Sembene’s unconventional narrative approach elusive), Leahy’s piece offers valuable contextual information about the film’s cultural and (a)historical significance and troubled release. (It even alludes to one scholar’s claim of Sembene’s alleged misrepresentation of the ceddo’s role in colonialism and the slave trade). One particularly good passage discusses Sembene’s startling use of American gospel music in a scene where slaves are branded:

This is not a village tale, but a film about the revelation of historic processes. This, clearly, is the effect of the English-language gospel song associated with the slaves. It is a device of almost diagrammatic simplicity, startling and disconcerting when first heard because apparently unconnected with the action on the screen, and evoking neither mood, atmosphere nor identification with the chained slaves. However, in the course of the film it becomes meaningful as a precise evocation of the slaves’ future, and that of their descendants, Christianised in America. In doing so, it extends the geographical range of the film’s reference, from the Francophone world (the slaves are branded with the fleur de lys, the emblem of monarchical France) to the Anglophone. The shared references to Christianity link this aural “flash forward” to the passage in the film most clearly marked as subjective: the Catholic priest’s ambitious fantasy of the future. This, though in the context of the film a moment of broad and humorous irony, retains simultaneously a dimension of precise naturalism in the sketch it offers of modern African Christianity. Thus the viewer is encouraged to engage with a whole history, particularly aspects of it that have been denied to and appropriated from the people of Africa by first slavery, then colonialism and Islamic hegemony.

The second invaluable piece of writing on Ceddo is by Serge Daney, as found on Steve Erickson’s website. With his characteristic tone of passionate purposefulness, Daney exalts the film as a forceful examination on the nature of a people’s right to speech, and how cinema both enables and embodies that speech to exist and enter a collective consciousness, no longer to be taken for granted:

Between the beginning and the end of the story told by CEDDO, what has changed is the status of speech. In the beginning, it is clear that we are in a world where no one lies, where all speech, having no other guarantor than the person who produces it, is speech of “honor.” When he films these people who will soon be reduced to silence, Sembene first insists on restoring their most precious possession: their speech. It’s an entirely political calculation. For what the defeat of the ceddo signifies is that African speech will never again be perceived by whites (first Muslims, then Christians) as speech, but instead as babble, chatter, background noise “for poetic effect” or, worse, “palavers.” Now, what Sembene brings before us, beyond archeological concerns (which we are too ignorant of Africa to evaluate) is African speech in so far as it can also have the value of writing. Because one can also write with speech. In the court of King Demba War, in the coded space where the plot develops and the protagonists of the drama appear, each person is one with what he says: the king and his people, the Muslims and the “pagans,” the pretenders to the throne. There are rhetorical games, theatrical turnabouts, negotiations and oaths, declarations and rights of response: speech is always binding… In this way Sembene’s film becomes an extraordinary document on the African body (today’s actors and yesterday’s heroes) upstanding in its language (here, Wolof), as though the voice, accent and intonation, the material of the language and the content of the speeches, were solid blocks of meaning in which every word, for the one who bears it, is the last word. Is this an ideal, naive vision of as world without lies? The utopia of a world before ideology, ignorant of the gap between the statement and its enunciation? Not so sure. The societies which are a bit hastily considered to be “without writing” have resources all their own for extracting from spoken language that which can have the value of the written.

Daney then evokes the same musical sequence…

When the villagers are branded with a hot iron, when they are hustled onto the square to be rebaptized, the cruelty of the situation, far from being underlined by the music, is held at a distance, as though someone were murmuring ironically, but you already knew all that….The music (Negro spirituals, balafons, choruses evoking free jazz) does not reassure, exalt or dramatize, but makes meaning. For once, film music has something like the taste of ashes. For this is the music that the ceddo people and their children will make later, elsewhere: in the USA, in Brazil, in the Caribbean. And they don’t yet know that. We know it (and more, we like that kind of music.) The music is a future past, it will have been. In the same way, the ceddo people don’t know that for we Westerns, they will become beings of music, good-for-song-and-dance – precisely to the extent that they will lose the right to speech.

Elsewhere, Daney emphatically asserts that Sembene’s film is resolutely ant-clerical, alsthough Sembene has gone on record to state otherwise, that his film is simply about the abuses of power by those who hold it. Though if you read deep into Daney’s argument, the implication is that the rule of the written law, as seen in organized religion and colonial civilization, is inherently a threat to the oral-based society celebrated in Sembene’s film. The two are irreconcilably opposed.

- Fernando Croce for Cinepassion gives an evocative one-paragraph review.

- A very good synopsis and review written for a university class.

- Another university synopsis

- Original New York Times review by Vincent Camby

- Post-screening reflection by Cinetrix

There are even more substantive writings available online concerning Sembene’s career and artistic legacy.

- From Jared Rapfogel’s assessment of Sembene:

Sembene’s approach to storytelling and characterization may strike American audiences as somewhat foreign, accustomed as we are to an emphasis on psychology and interiority. Sembene’s characters remain stubbornly separate from us, figures on a vast canvas whose actions and behavior we observe rather than experience. It’s tempting to criticize this approach as simplistic or unsubtle—certainly the characters in Sembene’s films are much less memorable as living, breathing human beings than those in the great films we’re used to. But this may be to misunderstand Sembene’s strategy, to impose on him our own cinematic preconceptions. In two of Sembene’s greatest films, Emitai and Ceddo, and to a lesser extent in his later Camp de Thiaroye (1987) and Guelwaar (1993), there are no central characters. These films are portraits of a community—the central character in each is the village itself, or rather the situation that the village finds itself caught up in, which plays itself out over the course of the film.

- There are several online reviews of African film scholar David Murphy‘s book Sembene: Imagining Alternatives in Film and Fiction. In Cahiers d’études africaines Teresa Hoefert de Turégano gives the impression that the book treats Sembene’s work more in terms more literary than cinematic. In Scope (film magazine of University of Nottingham) Alexander Fisher finds Murphy’s study satisfactory in every other way, especially in providing multiple literary thematic and real life contexts by which to appreciate Sembene’s films. “The author also undermines discussions of Sembene that depend on polar oppositions, such as ‘tradition versus modernity’ and ‘West versus Africa.’ He argues that Sembene in fact refuses these oppositions, in relation to the latter ‘focussing instead on the interactions between Africa and the West, and, more importantly, on the conflicts within African societies themselves.’

- Murphy himself offers a film-by-film survey of Sembene’s career for the New Left Review. He offers some intriguing passages about Sembene’s formative experiences and ideals:

He was expelled from school, allegedly for raising his hand against a teacher, and ran through a series of manual jobs—mechanic, stonemason. His spare time was spent at the movies, or hanging out with friends in the central marketplace in Dakar, where the griots or gewels, the storytellers, spun their tales. Gewels ranked low in the Wolof caste hierarchy, but had traditional licence to depict and comment on all ranks, from king to beggar; the best had mastered the insights of xamxam, historical and social knowledge—a formative influence in Sembene’s later work, as were the structuring tensions of African trickster stories: the narrative quest, the reversal of fortunes, the springing traps of power relations.

Sembene travelled widely throughout West Africa and along the Congo, assessing for himself the realities of decolonization and the political tasks that lay ahead. He has spoken of an epiphanic moment, sitting in a boat on the Congo River: a vision of a new sort of cinema that would both communicate and describe; an evening school for radical mass education. (Later, he would tour his films round the remote villages of Senegal, setting up the screen in the open air and holding discussions with the audience until late into the night.)

- This Sembene biography, as part of Mt. Holyoke College’s extensive Sembene site, highlights his formative political and literary experiences.- A more summarial overview of his career highlights can be found on this academic site

- A longer academic piece focuses on the role of women in Sembene’s films, including Ceddo

- Dennis Grunes compiled his reviews of several Sembene films, with extensive notes on Sembene’s last and most commercially successful film, Moolade.

- The Finnish site “Books and Writers” gives equal attention to Sembene’s considerable literary achievements as to his filmmaking.

- Louis Proyect’s tribute to Sembene for WBAI radio

- The only interview with Sembene that I could find is a pdf format transcript from 2001 that mostly compares Sembene’s roles as writer and filmmaker, as well as some thoughts on the initial response to Sembene’s films in America and elsewhere:

A generation ago, they thought that there was an abstract African ideal to believe in, to help alleviate the denials they suffered in America. But I didn’t come to talk about an ideal Africa, to present a model nation. And I think they understood that to love Africa, one must understand it. Knowing that many things in our history were not pretty, that Africans have been accomplices, partners in the slave trade.