Have you ever wondered who made the first African film and where it was made?
The term African cinema is a phenomenon, which derived after the African continent was liberated from the colonizers. The phenomenon was used to classify films that were produced in Africa by African filmmakers. African films are called “African” because they point to African conditions.
THE FATHER OF AFRICAN CINEMA
Ousmane Sembene, born in southern Senegal in 1923 was known as the “Father of African Cinema.” He was a writer abroad and after realizing that most of his audiences were illiterate, he decided to return to Africa to become a filmmaker. Africa was his audience, the west and other countries were his markets. He earned the title “Father of African Cinema.” after being the first African man to ever produce a film distributed outside Africa, called Borom Sarret (1963). This was the first fiction film shot in Senegal, about a wagon driver whose cart is taken by a police officer in a newly built rich section of Dakar. He inspired African filmmakers through his work and transformed Africa from a continent that simply watched films to a continent that produced its own films. Ousmane Sembene passed away in Dakar, Senegal at the age of 85.
Black girl (1966) is 60 minutes feature film shot in a form of a documentary style, although not of actual events. It was scripted with fictional events to tell a story. The film is about a young woman, Diouana from Senegal who finally gets a job in France after a long struggle in an attempt to find one. It is during the first years after the country wins its independence, the young beautiful woman, follows a French couple to the French Riviera to work for them as a babysitter. She leaves behind her boyfriend who tries to persuade her not to go.
Unfortunately, life in France is not as glamorous as she expected it to be, she feels like a prisoner in a foreign country. Working as a maid, she cooks, cleans, and babysits without any time off. France is the kitchen, living room, bathroom, and bedroom. Although it might seem exaggerated to compare displacement to imprisonment and unskilled labor to slavery, this is her point of view and she is viciously stripped of her personal identity and her world by unconcerned colonials, which seems to be just classification.
Diouana’s happiness in getting a job is associated with her mask. She took the African mask from a young boy, to give her employers as a token of her gratitude or even as a sign that she is willing to cooperate with them. The young boy had been freely playing with the mask until Diouana takes it from him. She hands it to her mistress, whom she feels and deserves to be granted the token. It is also probably the only thing she can reward them with. Diouana is isolated, suffers from depression, and eventually commits suicide.
The issue against the injustices of colonialism is set through various moments and the subjective voice-over that eventually boils out at the end. The film expresses that most Africans are still inferior even after the colonization period because of the economic issues they encounter on a daily basis. Ousmane Sembene used African traditional masks in the film to signify roots that keep Africans aware of where they originally belong.
Ousmane Sembene’s films addressed issues of racism, social and economic equality, the conflict between traditional African and western civilization, religion, post-colonial disillusionment. He avoided the use of any Western languages and narrative style for a new cinematic aesthetic drawing from African storytelling traditions performed in African languages and expressed for African audiences.
Black girl mirrors the African immigrant crisis and the rise of populist movements in more developed countries that make them less hospitable towards immigrants. Today’s African film-making is very different from that of the “father of African cinema”.
African filmmakers need to look back at the hard work of filmmakers like Ousmane Sembene in order to create a bright future for Africa’s film industry. His legacy shows that films are strong tools to encourage social change, creating awareness for marginalized groups, and correcting inaccurate representations, therefore, filmmakers should take the responsibility to make films that address these issues.