Tributes to Ousmane Sembene: 1923 – 2007


One of Africa’s most respected and famous filmmakers Ousmane Sembene, also known as the Father of African Cinema, passed away on 9 June. Messages of condolence have been pouring into the office of the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI), an institution that Mr. Sembene co-founded in 1969.

Message from: Madame Seipati Bulane Hopa; Secretary General – FEPACI

Africa is particularly fortunate to have had within its midst and its history a literary giant and film practitioner such as Sembene, whose shoulders were broad enough to carry us as we follow in his footprints to make cinema an institution of expression in which we communicate our social, cultural and economic experiences. Sembene has left us with a heritage and a legacy that fills our generation today and that to follow with pride, a legacy that allows us a memory and an identity as film-makers, for it with films like Borrom Sarret, Xala and Ceddo that we understand the power of film expression and the ability it has to help transform nations and transcend cultures.

There was an expectation at the FESPACO to again enjoy the privilege of having Sembene present. It is at this FESPACO that it came to my attention that Sembene always had one room reserved for him at the hotel Independence, and that room was nothing else but Chambre 1, and 1 is a number that we know represents “pioneership’ and championship. I was hoping for an opportunity to see him again, an opportunity that did not materialise. He may not have made it to Chambre 1 at the FESPACO but will make it when he enters the world of our great legends, the world of creative wealth beyond us.

The light for African cinema shines brighter now as Sembene joins Paulin Vierra, Lionel Ngakane, Djibril Diop Mambety, Henri Duparc and all the other great film-makers who have departed to the beyond and who leave us to continue making cinema that talks to its people and keep our conscience alert and resonant.

Cathedrals, when well preserved and maintained, are precious symbols that live through generations as visual memories and spiritualities of time and history. Sembene in our creative world resembles a Cathedral whose walls lure us in and whose interior make us marvel at this master artistry created within our audio-visual world

To our brothers and sisters in Senegal, we proudly salute you for having borne to the rest of us Africans, a man of this calibre, an intellectual that make us walk tall as we claim him as our very own icon, a man whose heart was centred in Africa, whose work was rooted in Africa, a luminary that lit the torch for ordinary people to walk the path of light. Sembene was a voice that spoke without hesitation, a man with an impeccable talent who unwaveringly held on to his artistic principles and did that with great integrity and dignity.

Travel and Traverse gently to the world beyond – your eyes will continue to watch over us with that same steady glare you had when still on earth. Ousmane Sembene – May your star shine forever
Statement on the Passing Away of the Revolutionary Artist, Sembene Ousmane, 9 June 2007 by Dr. Z. Pallo Jordan, Minister of Arts and Culture.

It is with deep sadness that we hear of the passing away of the great revolutionary trade unionist and artist Sembene Ousmane.

Sembene was born on 1 January 1923 in Ziguinchor, Senegal. He worked from a very young age in various manual jobs and taught himself to read and write in French. He published his first novel in 1956, “Le Docker Noir’ (The Black Docker) drawing from his own experiences as a dock worker in Marseilles, France. Sembene’s major contribution to the development of African literature includes five novels, five collections of short stories. He was also a major film-maker; he directed numerous films, four shorts, nine features and four documentaries. Sembene’s voracious reading included Marxist-Leninist classics, fiction and history.

He also visited numerous public libraries, theatres, and attended seminars, educating himself. His comrade and friend Bernard Worms said of him, ” Sembene was a well rounded intellectual and an exceptionally cultured humanist’. He participated in the protest movements against the colonial war in Vietnam (1953) and the Korean war (1950 – 1953) and supported the Algerian National Liberation Front in its struggle for independence from France (1954 -1962). He believed that friendship and solidarity should be the ties that bind the peoples of the world together. He also worked selflessly to educate and liberate the community of mostly illiterate and “apolitical’ African workers buffeted into the margins of French society.

Sembene was an informed social critic and provided the world with an alternative knowledge of Africa. He witnessed the masses of workers including women, exploited and silenced by the combined external forces of colonialism and the internal yoke of the African “tradition’. He was deeply aware of the urgent need for political and social change in Africa and, like Palestinian writer Edward Said, interrogated various issues of oppression and its impact. He used the medium of words and film to invest in Africa, and indeed the world. His love for Africa is evident in all his work.

A famous and popular novel of his is “God’s Bits of Wood’, a fictional recreation of a comprehensive African railroad workers strike against their French colonial bosses. That was followed by “Voltaique’ or “Tribal Scars’, a collection of short stories. In one of the stories he shows how slave-hunters let go a young woman because of blemishes on her body and how the people then made it an integral part of their methods to resist slavery. “The news spread for leagues around…and over the years and centuries a diversity of scars appeared on the bodies of our ancestors – And this is how our ancestors came to have tribal scars. They refused to be slaves.’

He did not spare African rulers. He remained critical of post-colonial Africa for failing to meet many of her peoples’ expectations, where injustice continues to prevail. Sembene Ousmane is recognized as the Father of African cinema and has received countless awards and distinctions. Like with his books he also used the medium of film as a critical and an educational tool without compromising its aesthetics and the artistic impulse. His work promoted freedom and social justice and aspired to restoring pride and dignity to the African people. He was a founder member of FAPACI (Pan African Federation of Film Makers) 1969/1970. South Africa joins the rest of Africa and the world in paying our deepest respects to a great revolutionary artist, Sembene Ousmane.

Message from Mr. Eddie Mbalo, CEO of the National Film and Video Foundation (South Africa)


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