Considered one of the most important voices of his generation, Ousmane Sembène remains a cherished figure in modern Africa. Committed to portraying social inequalities, he never ceased to express his own revolt against a world of cruel injustice.
Updated on 22/03/2022
Born on 1 January 1923 in Ziguinchor, Ousmane Sembène is key writer and director in contemporary African culture. At the age of 23, he departed illegally for France and arrived in Marseille, where he became a docker. At the same time, he joined the CGT and the French Communist Party, before campaigning against the war in Indochina and for Algerian independence. His first novel, Le Docker noir (1956), relates his own experiences as a docker in the port of Marseille.
After the publication of two other works, Ô pays, mon beau peuple, and Les Bouts de bois de Dieu, he returned to his home continent in 1960. Now attracted to the cinema and the desire to reach non-readers through images, he enrolled in a film school in Moscow, the VGIK. While his first short film, Borom Sarret, was noticed at festivals, he moved on to a feature film, La Noire de ..., in 1966 and received the Jean-Vigo prize. Eight other films followed before 2003, building a committed career around many political and social issues.
Throughout his literary and cinematographic work, Ousmane Sembène portrayed committed themes, in which he campaigned for justice and freedom. Inspired by his own observations and experiences, his books denounce the injustices and humiliations inflicted on his people by a colonial administration. Convinced that film could give him a greater voice among the population, he brought his personal revolts to the screen in order to fight against the inequalities of society.
Seeking to defend the oppressed and the disenfranchised, he made feature films capable of expressing suppressed anger, while retaining the finesse of humour and satire. Able to illustrate the duplicity of social relations (Le Mandat), but also tragic episodes of history (Le Camp de Thiaroye), Ousmane Sembène has always made the big screen an ally of choice to educate his people and give them international visibility.
Having become one of the leading figures of his generation, the author-director has paved the way for a number of African novelists who have embraced neo-realist literature. Winner of the Jean-Vigo prize for La Noire de... in 1966, he won the International Critics' Prize at the Venice Film Festival for Le Mandat two years later. From 1969 onwards, he was involved in the Pan-African Film and Television Festival (FESPACO) in Ouagadougou, which he attended until his death.
In 1988, he received the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival for Camp de Thiaroye, although the film remained unreleased in France for ten years. The end of his career was crowned with accolades, notably for Moolaadé, a final feature film in which he tackled the theme of excision. The Best Foreign Film Award from the American critics and the Un Certain Regard Award at the Cannes Film Festival preceded his award of the Legion of Honour, which he received in 2006, a few weeks before his death.
Ousmane Sembène arrives in Marseille illegally from Africa and becomes a dockworker.
He publishes his first novel, Le Docker noir, inspired by his own experiences.
His first feature film, La Noire de... is awarded the Jean-Vigo prize.
His second feature, Le Mandat, wins the International Critics' Prize at the Venice Film Festival.
A few months before his death, Ousmane Sembène was made an Officer of the Legion of Honour.
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