SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away the film’s ending
Ousmane Sembène (1923-2007), often regarded as the father of African cinema, came to moviemaking late. He was 40 before he released his first film, the 20-minute short Borom sarret, and made his first feature, La Noire de… (Black Girl) three years later. By the time he died, aged 84, he had completed nine features, all infused with historical awareness, strong socialist principles and a determination to give voice to unheard African stories. Less often celebrated is the quietly subversive humour that often infiltrates even his most serious subjects.
Born in Senegal, the son of a fisherman, he was expelled from formal education at 13 (apparently for slapping the headmaster) and found work as a manual labourer before being drafted into the French army as an infantryman during World War II. At the end of the war he was discharged for insubordination (does one see a pattern beginning to develop?) and in 1947 migrated to France, where he became a dockworker in Marseille. There he joined the left-wing CGT union, taught himself to read and discovered Marxism.
As an active member of the French Communist Party, Sembène soon made a name for himself as an advocate of black liberation and independence for the colonised African nations. An enthusiastic autodidact, devouring everything he could find in the CP libraries and literary workshops, he decided to become a writer. His first novel, Le Docker noir (The Black Docker), about an African docker who suffers mistreatment at work and is executed after accidentally killing a white woman, was published in 1956. He went on to write six more novels and four novellas, including Les Bouts de bois de Dieu (God’s Bits of Wood), a fctionalised account of the 1947-48 railroad strike on the Dakar-Niger line that’s generally reckoned his finest novel.
Literature always remained Sembène’s first love. But he came to realise that it wasn’t the best way to reach his intended African audience, many of whom read little or were illiterate. Film offered a more promising medium with a far wider reach. In 1961 he travelled to Moscow for a year to study filmmaking at the Gorky Studios with Mark Donskoi and Sergei Gerasimov, and on his return to Africa he launched his career as a writer-director with Borom sarret and La Noire de… (A previous documentary short, L’Empire songhai, on the pre-colonial empire that dominated the western Sahel in the 15th and 16th centuries, seems to have remained unreleased.)
A key strength of Sembène’s work was that, while consistently exposing and condemning the exploitation of Africa by the European colonial powers, he unhesitatingly turned his critical gaze on the way Africans themselves – especially the new African bourgeoisie – abused their power and exploited their fellow citizens. His Marxist background never misled him into taking a simplistic, blame-it-all-on-the-colonialists attitude to the problems he explored. So while the white French family are the target of his anger in La Noire de…, the wretched hero of Borom sarret (played by Ly Abdoulaye) is the victim of those around him.
Refecting Sembène’s inexperience – and that of his actors, who as almost always in his films were non-professionals – all the dialogue in Borom sarret is conveyed in voiceover. The same is true of some of the dialogue in La Noire de…, though altogether the film shows an increase in the director’s confidence and sophistication. It’s unique among Sembène’s films in that most of the action takes place in France, with brief flashbacks to Dakar; after this, all his films would be set entirely in Africa.
La Noire de… is based on a real-life incident which Sembène had used as inspiration for a short story included in his collection Voltaïque (Tribal Scars), which he now adapted into the first feature-length film to be produced in sub-Saharan Africa. In Dakar, a young woman, Diouana (played by the graceful Mbissine Thérèse Diop), is taken on by a French couple to look after their young children. She’s overjoyed to have found work, and even more delighted when they ask her to come back to France with them, telling her how beautiful and exciting their country is. But once in Antibes, where the family live, she finds things are very different; rather than just looking after the kids, she’s expected to do all the cooking and the housework, she’s verbally abused by the wife and all she sees of France is through the windows of the apartment. ‘I’m a prisoner here – I’m their slave,’ she reflects. Finally, lonely and wounded by the mistreatment she’s suffering, she kills herself.
Diop, interviewed for French TV 40 years after the film was shot, recalls Sembène as a ‘dur’ director (hard, difficult), though constrained by his tiny budget. Her chief support during the shoot was fellow cast member Robert Fontaine, playing the French husband, who had been her drama teacher.
If La Noire de… has a primary fault, it’s in the caricaturing of this French couple, and in particular the wife (Anne-Marie Jelinek). Later Sembène would come to portray his villains with more subtlety. But he makes telling symbolic use of an African mask, first given to the couple by Diouana in gratitude for employing her, later seen hanging in lonely isolation on the pristine wall of the Antibes apartment. As their relationship sours, Diouana and the wife tussle over it, and after the young woman’s death the husband takes it back to Dakar with her other possessions to return to her family. Diouana’s little brother picks it up, puts it on and follows the discomfited man through the streets – the vengeful spirit of wronged Africa?
All the dialogue in La Noire de… is in French – the last time this would happen in Sembène’s flms. Starting with his next feature, Mandabi (The Money Order, 1968), his films would be largely or entirely in his native Wolof or in Diola. (Mandabi, though, was also made in a French-language version to satisfy its French backers.) Filmmaking was never easy for Sembène; not only did he have to overcome the vagaries of African production and distribution but also, as often as not, the disapproval and censorship of the same national authorities from whom he was obliged to seek funding. But he rarely compromised, seeing his work as a mission and his films as ‘introductions to a universe that we can transform’.
Philip Kemp, Sight & Sound, December 2015
I Bit My Tongue
Can we get our mother tongue, and things lost with it, back?
I BIT MY TONGUE
Director: Nina Khada
BLACK GIRL (LA NOIRE DE…)
Director: Ousmane Sembène
Production Companies: Filmi Doomireew, Actualités Françaises
Participation: Ministère de la Coopération
Production Manager: André Zwobada
Assistant Directors: Ibrahima Barro, Pathé Diop
Screenplay: Ousmane Sembène
Director of Photography: Christian Lacoste
Editor: André Gaudier
Mbissine Thérèse Diop (Diouana)
Anne-Marie Jelinek (Madame)
Robert Fontaine (Monsieur)
Momar Nar Sene (the young man)
Ibrahima Boy (boy with mask)
Toto Bissainthe (dubbed voice of Diouana)
Robert Marcy (dubbed voice of master)
Sophie Leclerc (dubbed voice of madame)
Bernard Delbaro, Nicole Donati, Raymond Lemery, Suzanne Lemery (guests)
Philippe, Sophie, Damien (children)
Restored in 2015 by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project in collaboration with the Sembène Estate, Institut National de l’Audiovisuel, INA, Eclair laboratories and Centre National de Cinématographie. Restoration carried out at Cineteca di Bologna/ L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory.
T A P E PRESENTS: BUT WHERE ARE YOU REALLY FROM?
Eyimofe (This Is My Desire)
Thu 1 Jul 20:30; Fri 9 Jul 17:40
Black Girl (La noire de…)
Sat 3 Jul 11:40; Mon 12 Jul 18:20
Burning an Illusion
Sat 3 Jul 14:20; Thu 8 Jul 17:45
While We Live (Medan vi lever)
Sat 3 Jul 17:30; Tue 20 Jul 20:30
Sun 4 Jul 18:20; Mon 19 Jul 20:40
Sat 10 Jul 20:50; Sat 24 Jul 11:40
Head-On (Gegen die Wand)
Sun 11 Jul 18:30; Tue 27 Jul 20:40
Wed 14 Jul 17:40 (+ live spoken-word performance); Wed 21 Jul 20:40
What Will People Say (Hva vil folk si)
Fri 16 Jul 20:30; Sat 31 Jul 17:30
In Conversation with Nikesh Shukla
Fri 23 Jul 18:20
Sat 24 Jul 17:20; Fri 30 Jul 20:40
Shoot the Messenger + Q&A with director Ngozi Onwurah, hosted by T A P E’s Angela Moneke
Thu 29 Jul 17:45
Culture Shock: Short Film Programme + Q&A with UNDR LNDN
Fri 30 Jul 17:40
T A P E was founded in 2015 as a response to the lack of representation on screen. Find out more about this curatorial collective at tapecollective.co.uk
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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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