African Films Hit a High
But noted Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene points to big obstacles - like funding. FILM: INTERVIEW
NEW YORK — AFRICAN film has only existed for about three decades, but lately it's flourishing more vigorously than ever. Recent years have brought excellent movies from several African nations to international audiences: Examples include ``Brightness,'' by Soulemane Cisse of Mali; ``Faces of Women,'' by D'esir'e 'Ecar'e of the Ivory Coast; ``Yaaba,'' by Idrissa Ouedraogo of Burkina Faso; and Mr. Ouedraogo's latest film, ``Tilai,'' which had its North American premi`ere at the recent Toronto Film Festival and will play the New York filmfest later this month. Also in the world-cinema spotlight is Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, the most celebrated of all African filmmakers. His new movie, ``The Camp at Thiaroye,'' is now having its American premi`ere at New York's important Film Forum, an enterprising and influential theater that recently reopened in a new location with an expanded format.
I spoke with Mr. Sembene shortly before Film Forum's opening-night festivities for his picture, which I had seen months earlier at the Berlin filmfest. He agreed with me that African film has entered a rich period, although he also noted a continuing problem that's familiar to filmmakers everywhere: financing. ``I notice there is a good evolution,'' he says, ``a good trend. But the rhythm [of new production activity] is not dense enough. It's always a question of money.''
Sembene himself has managed to fund productions for the past 29 years, an achievement that makes him ``the oldest African filmmaker,'' as he puts it. What's the secret of his success? ``Maybe I'm a little bit more shrewd than the others,'' he says with a smile. The international popularity of his films is also a likely factor. ``The banks and financial institutions are like gamblers,'' he says. ``They only put money on a good horse.''
``The Camp at Thiaroye'' lacks the flair of such earlier Sembene films as ``Ceddo'' and the brilliant ``Xala,'' and it could use some trimming. But it has a rich fabric that calls to mind sources as varied as African folklore and Howard Hawks genre films. The setting is an army camp in Senegal, populated by soldiers who have fought alongside the French during World War II, and now find that their relationship with the colonialist mentality has subtly changed. Sembene says the story is based on a historical incident.
``The history of black soldiers during World War II is not very well known,'' he explains. ``There were far more black infantrymen than Frenchmen; they went across all Africa and took part in D-Day.... And in occupied France, black people were part of the partisan resistance groups.''
It troubles Sembene that Africans have little awareness of this. ``We have experienced several historical cycles that we don't know about,'' he says. ``There is no part of French history, from the time of Napoleon I up until today, without Africans being involved in it. But ... this is not taught in school; it's not presented anywhere. The colonials take all the credit for everything. The colonial system, wherever it is, is like a leech that lives from the blood of the people who are exploited. And they lose their identity. This continues up until now. It's a disease, and even after it's cured, the symptoms remain.''
Sembene finds personal as well as historical interest in this situation. ``I saw my own father take his hat off in front of a little white man,'' he says, recalling his Senegalese childhood. ``In the village, whenever men would meet a white person, they would take off their hats.
``What interests me the most in the film is a small section during which the infantrymen kidnap the general. You can see what is happening in their minds. These are people who - during the colonialist times, before the war - were afraid of white people. They would never look the white man in the eye. But during the war, during the time they stayed in France, they were able to understand that the white man is nothing more than they were themselves.... [The French] thought these black people, even though they were war veterans, had retained the mentality of nice little negroes. It's from the action of these veterans in 1944 that the whole revolutionary movement got started.''
Sembene is an active novelist and poet as well as a leader in the Senegalese film industry, which produces three or four feature films each year, in addition to shorts and documentaries. ``The Camp at Thiaroye'' is his 12th movie, marking his return to cinema after a 13-year hiatus.
Although his films have been applauded in many countries, he still has a special affection for Senegal itself, where ``the audience is more demanding'' of local moviemakers. ``When the Senegalese audience sees American or French films,'' he says, ``they don't mind if it's purely entertainment. But when it sees Senegalese movies, the audience demands thinking movies. If you want to give them pure entertainment, without social content, they don't like it. And the audience always requests a discussion with the filmmaker, the actors, and so forth, when it's a Senegalese movie. The film is mostly used as an introduction for a general discussion. This is a matter of custom, a product of our cultural heritage. If you speak [through your films] on behalf of the people, the people have the right to ask you questions.''
Apart from their special attitude toward Senegalese films, Senegalese audiences enjoy movies from all over the world. ``And they really love Hollywood movies,'' Sembene says, ``especially the intelligentsia.''
Sembene has mixed feelings about this Hollywood addiction. ``It's a question of imitation,'' he says. ``It's a common African dream to be like America, to have success like you see in the movies. The elite thinks that social success is to be like Americans, and that this is the pattern for civilization. I am against this. I recognize that I can learn a lot of things in America, but we'll never be like the Americans - and if we were, the world would be very monotonous.... I think this is a problem of universal civilization [caused by] the great industrial power of American entertainment.... Africa cannot escape this general trend.''
Although many of today's African filmmakers received their training in European countries, Sembene learned his craft in the USSR, zipping through a five-year curriculum in two years. He soon returned to Senegal, and his films have focused specifically on African life, beginning with ``Black Girl,'' his first feature. What accounts for his fascination with African life - and for the African fascination with cinema?
``Cinema is well-suited to the African population, [because] it is connected to the oral tradition,'' Sembene muses. ``But things are more difficult than that. A lot of languages are spoken in Africa, so which language should we use?
What does Sembene like to see when he goes to the movies? All kinds of films, from all kinds of countries. ``Everything that's done [in film] brings me something,'' he states. ``American, French, Soviet, Japanese.... I am a part of the world. I have to share its wealth, and also its disappointments.''