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People Who Died

Worker of The World

Ousmane Sembene

Okan Arabacioglu

By Bret McCabe | Posted 12/26/2007

The inspiration to draw from Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, who passed away June 9 at his home in Dakar after a protracted illness, isn't so much what he achieved over his 84 years. Yes, he was a vanguard filmmaker who broke countless barriers--the first black African to make a feature-length movie in sub-Saharan Africa, the first African to win the Prix Jean Vigo at Cannes, the first filmmaker to make a movie entirely in Wolof, the native language of his home--but he never set out to be the first anything. His works were merely the expressions of the political and personal ideals to which he dedicated his life. And that constant engagement is what is most impressive about Sembene. He's an artist who tirelessly pursued his creative and intellectual faculties, not publishing his first novel until he was in his early 30s and not taking up filmmaking, for which he is globally renown, until his 40s.

The world in which he traveled before pursuing art obviously shaped his ideas. Sembene was born in Ziguinchor, the capitol city of the Casamance region of southwest Senegal. The city is located on a river, and his father and grandfather were fishermen, the family trade Sembene entered after leaving formal school at 14. Seasickness prevented him from turning fishing into his trade, so he moved to Dakar in pursuit of work.

Over the next 20 years Sembene would earn his keep with the sweat of his labor and prime his mind in books, seminars, and movie houses, and among various political parties and organizing of the era. Like many Africans, he was drafted into the Free French Army during World War II, working in Niger and France, before settling in France in 1947, where he found work first at a Paris Citroën factory and then as a stevedore in Marseilles. In 1950 he joined the French Communist Party, and he routinely took part in various protests and strikes.

He fused his own constantly evolving political awareness with storytelling for his partially autobiographical first novel, 1956's The Black Docker, which was written in French. His literary pursuits brought him his first acclaim, but like many politically minded emerging artists of this era--such as Jean-Luc Godard and Pier Paolo Pasolini, his politically engaged filmmaking peers--Sembene wanted his message to reach wider audiences and knew more people went to the movies than read. And so Sembene studied film at Moscow's Gorky Film Studio in the early 1960s.

His 1966 Le Noir de . . . , awarded Cannes' Prix Jean Vigo for independent spirit, officially marked Sembene's emergence as a mature artist and African filmmaking pioneer. Over the next nearly 40 years Sembene would be the chief filmmaking force from the continent, starting a production company and a film and television festival, and crafting his keenly intelligent, politically acute, and fearlessly satirical movies, which were often the first African movies to which many Westerners were first exposed.

The best entryway into his artistic greatness, though, is found in his writing. Sembene's 1960 novel, Le Bouts de Bois de Dieu (God's Bits of Wood), is a fictional account of the 1947 strike by West African railway workers. It's not only Sembene's masterpiece--he was as gifted, if not more so, a writer as he was a filmmaker--but also one of the greatest labor stories ever, on par with John Sayles' Matewan, Denise Giardina's Storming Heaven, Thomas Bell's Out of This Furnace, Chester Himes' Lonely Crusade, or anything by Upton Sinclair.

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