Emitai and Ceddo
Women in Sembene's films

by Gorham H. Kindem and Martha Steele

from Jump Cut, no. 36, May 1991, pp. 52-60
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1991, 2006

"Africa can't develop without the participation of its women."
— Sembene Ousmane[1]
[open notes in new window]

Sembene's films depict women playing a crucial role in Africa's development. Within the films' narratives, women characters provide necessary connections between the past and the future, the traditional and the contemporary, the individual and the community. Sembene does not uncritically portray women as passive objects of male desire. Unlike in many Hollywood films, female characters in Sembene's films act as agents of both group solidarity and social change. They do not represent commodities and possessions to desire and obtain. Rather, Sembene's films depict women as the salt of the earth among the people whom Frantz Fanon has called "the wretched of the earth."[2] They provide both the cohesive force that has traditionally held African society together and the gunpowder that will precipitate future social revolution. This paper will examine these aspects of female characterization in Sembenee's films, in particular, in EMITAI (1971) and CEDDO (1976).

Sembene's films suggest that women in traditional African society held a more exalted place than colonialist and neocolonialist suppression has allowed them.

Furthermore, the films directly connect sexual oppression and exploitation to political oppression and economic exploitation. Sembene consistently exposes the patriarchal imperialism of both Islamic/Arab and Christian/ European colonialism, which attempted to displace earlier matriarchal forces and diminish the importance of women in African society. CEDDO and EMITM assume that within certain West African ethnic groups, women had considerable status. Traditionally several Senegalese ethnic groups, including Wolof and Serer, relied upon matrilineage, or they practiced gender egalitarianism, as in Diola society.

Sembene's images of African women come out of distinctive social, historical, and aesthetic contexts. He uses narrative structures and cinematic styles that differ markedly from those of Hollywood cinema. Although Sembene's work stands in opposition to Hollywood and Western commercial filmmaking in general, it complexly depends on some Western markets and sources of capital, including film festivals and art film distributors and exhibitors.

For the film critic looking at these films in a Western context, although their interpretation cannot be completely divorced from cinema theory and filmmaking practice in the West, it is important to try to approach African cinema on its own terms.[3] Our approach, therefore, will use Western film theory to analyze Sembene's images of African women. This theory allows us partially to define what is present in Sembene's films through implications that we can draw from what is absent. We also wish to reverse this process, so that, as Western film analysts and practitioners, we learn about our own blind spots from Third World cinema.

Sembene's films cannot be fully understood outside of their cultural context, and our understanding of that context is necessarily limited and distorted. We cannot fully escape our cultural perspective and view Sembene's films as would Senegalese viewers or even other African viewers. We must be skeptical about the ethnocentrism of our film theory and critical practice, and we must not assume that our perspective is either neutral or objective. My hegemonic attempt to impose Western concepts upon Sembene's films has important implications regarding current approaches to film theory and practical criticism, such as psychoanalysis and Marxist realism. While taking up the specific topic of women's characterization in these films, we also wish to deal with the critical problems of analyzing such work.


Women's roles in Africa and specifically Senegal today derive from a complex set of social and historical circumstances, which provide the cultural context for interpreting Sembene's films. Ethnic traditions and foreign (primarily Arab and European) influences have affected Senegalese women's current status and social roles. About 70% of Senegal's population is Muslim, 15% Catholic, and the remaining 15% traditional African spiritualist (most Muslims and Catholics in Senegal probably also adhere to some aspects of traditional spiritualism). Patriarchal attitudes toward women are fairly widespread, including the practice of polygamy as a sign of male status and wealth. In fact, Sembene satirized polygamy in MANDABI (1968) and XALA (1974). Some analysts, such as Françoise Pfaff, have argued that Sembene's portrayal of women has certain links with ethnic traditions in "matriarchal African societies in which matrilineage ensured the social and cultural continuity of given communities whose law and custom center on the mother," as well as some African religions, which

"assert the presence of female water goddesses, from whom life proceeds. Sembene, who is a product of these cultures, intimates that African woman is earth…and 'Mother Africa' the genetrix of new Africa."[4]

There is genetic reinforcement for this cultural concept, which connects the human species to a common female ancestor from Africa. Recent biochemical research of "matrilineal' mitochondrial DNA (where mutations take place five to ten times faster than in cells inherited through both fathers and mothers) in the placentas of women of various racial groups has suggested that all humans descended from "African Eve" less than 200,000 years ago. We are not descended from "Java man," "Peking man," or Greece's "Petralona man," for these earlier forms "did not contribute any surviving…lineages to the gene pool of our species."[5] We would like to acknowledge that hidden underneath the cultural specificity of Sembene's female characters — the central focus of this paper — lies the inheritance of an African woman who may be our common ancestor, and Sembene's films help us explore her continuing legacy within West Africa.

Senegalese society and Senegalese film have historically been caught in the grip of several forms of foreign domination and exploitation. Despite achieving its political "independence" from France in 1960, Senegal continues to be economically dependent upon the West. For example, while its closest ties have clearly been to France, Senegal was also one of the few African countries favored by the Reagan administration because of its "political stability."

Senegal also has a long history of succumbing to outside Arab and Islamic influences dating from at least the 1500s. It became a West African center of the European and American slave trade in the 1600s. It was a French colony from the 1600s to 1960. Depicting moments within this rather bleak history of outside influence, Sembene's films focus upon historical instances of African independence and resistance to foreign oppression. Thus EMITAI shows Diola resistance to France's conscripting African men and extorting rice for the war effort during WWII, and CEDDO depicts Wolof/Serer resistance to Islamic patriarchy during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Senegal was connected to North Africa by the overland and caravan trade time running through Tombouctou in what is now the neighboring country of Mali. Many traders and shop owners in Senegal today are from the Middle East, including many Lebanese. That trade route forged strong links with Arab culture. In the first contacts of Senegal with Europeans, Portuguese maritime explorers "discovered" Senegal in 1445. The westernmost point of Africa, Dakar or more specifically Goree Island became a way station for slaves being transported to Europe or to the Americas.

As a colonial power, France established a policy of "assimilation" that indoctrinated "native," ruling, educated elites into French culture at French universities. France's colonial policy tended to ignore traditional social organization and culture. In Senegal, in particular, French colonialists sometimes sided with Muslim leaders in opposition to traditional ethnic elites, such as the Ceddo, because the policies of the former were often more favorable towards "free" trade. This kind of favoritism existed despite Christian objections to Islamic practices, such as polygamy. Colonialists generally ignored ethnic distinctions, languages, and customs; instead, they erected artificial borders and barriers between Africans. They exploited Africa's natural and human resources.

Colonialism's legacy has shaped the structures, organization, and control of Senegal's culture industries since its "independence" from France in the late 1950s. In all of French-speaking West Africa, just two French-based companies have traditionally controlled the film industry. COMMACCIO and SECMA. About 55% of the films they distribute are from Hollywood, 30% from France, and about 15% from India, Egypt, or Italy. Senegal has less than 100 film theaters for 3.5 million people. There is a very small market for domestically produced feature films, and the various West African states have no kind of collaborative organization for African film production or distribution. Sembene has been quoted as saying, "It's easier for me to get my film shown in Paris than in Bamako."[6]

Sembene's films also have faced severe government censorship — not only within Senegal but in all of French-speaking West Africa. EMITAI was banned in all African countries. XALA was subjected to eleven separate cuts before it could be released in Dakar. The Princess' killing of the iman (an Islamic religious leader) in CEDDO undoubtedly caused the Senegalese government, one of the film's major sponsors, to ban the film, since powerful Islamic brotherhoods exercise considerable power within that government. Government censorship of Sembene's social critiques of colonialism, neo-colonialism, bourgeois society, and Islamic patriarchy indicates the degree to which his revolutionary subject matter elicits the wrath of patriarchal and bourgeois forces in West African society. Furthermore, Sembene's sources of financial support are extremely limited, which, along with domestic political problems, probably accounts for the relative infrequency with which he has produced films.

Language differences cause divisions and oppression in Senegalese society. They also cause difficulty in terms of film financing. French is the official language of Senegal's government bureaucracy and of private industry, while the average Senegalese commonly relies upon one or more ethnic languages for everyday conversation, primarily Wolof but also Diola or Mandinka in southern Senegal and ethnic neighborhoods in urban areas throughout the country. Sembene began making films in the early 1960s partly because he wanted to reach a broader audience than could be reached by his novels, which he had published in French at a time when Wolof was not a written or published language.

Film scripts had to be written in French, and in Sembene's early films the characters often spoke French. His later films utilize native languages much more fully, especially Wolof and Diola. His use of French in earlier films, such as LA NOIRE DE... (BLACK GIRL, 1964), reflects the demands of French financing and the films' expected distribution markets in France as well as French-speaking West Africa. MANDABI received partial funding from France's Centre Nationale de la Cinématographie Française, which required that two different versions of the film be made: one in French and the other in Wolof. TAUW (1970), a 16mm short financed by the National Council of the Church of Christ, was made in Wolof, EMITA! in Diola and French, and CEDDO in Wolof. In EMITAI, XALA, and the Wolof version of MANDABI, a character's use of French is manipulated aesthetically for a political effort. It indicates his or her complicity with colonialism or neo-colonialism, rather than any deference to Sembene's sources of financial support. Sembene also depends to some extent upon his U.S. distributor, New Yorker Films, for financial support, but it is unlikely that this relation places restrictions or requirements upon his filmmaking other than the need for English subtitles.


Several commentators have applied realist aesthetics to Sembene's films. Françoise Pfaff suggests that Sembene "reproduces, reshapes and reconstructs actual facts into a new reality which may be close to objective reality' (Pfaff, p. 44). Carrie Dailey Moore's (Carrie D. Sembene) 1973 dissertation at Indiana University describes Sembene's aesthetic approach to film as both social-realist and neorealist:

"His films are neo-realist because they take the sides of the victims. He poses the problems of the social setting, and man's inability to live harmoniously in it. The implication is that if the problems treated are insoluble in terms of existing society, then it is society that must be changed."[7]

William Van Wert has suggested that Sembene's EMITAI is at once his most Eisenstein-like and his most neorealist film, and Roy Armes and Gerry Turvey both suggest that Sembene's early work bears a similarity to Italian neorealism but not his later works. Armes asserts that Sembene's later work becomes more fluent, inventive, and abrasive, since "the basic chronicling of reality holds little interest for him" (Armes. p. 75). Turvey argues that Sembene's later films are consistent with the Marxist tradition of realism defined by Georg Lukács and Raymond Williams.[9] Julianne Burton refers to Terry Lovell's concept of realism as offering social rather than individual pleasure, which Burton applies to Third World cinema, in general, and to Sembene's films, in particular, as providing an alternative to psychoanalytic or Brechtian, puritanical "displeasure."[10]
In this sense, various realist aesthetics have been applied to Sembene's films. The varieties of "realism" invoked raise questions about which conception/s of realism is/are most appropriate and useful. Clearly Marxist or socialist realism is more appropriate than an aesthetic analysis based on bourgeois realism or naturalism. (In terms of film practice, if neorealist film practice offers relevant similarities to Sembene's films, it is Visconti's materialist form of realism rather than DeSica's psychological or Rossellini's theological approaches to realism that offers a useful analogy.)

Sembene's aesthetic is obviously closer to Eisenstein's dialectical reshaping and reconstruction of social reality than it is to classical Hollywood's sutured illusion of an individual's psychological reality. Sembene Ousmane received formal training as a filmmaker in the Soviet Union. While his films reflect this experience, they also reflect a genuinely African and Third World appropriation of Marxist realist aesthetics. From a Western theoretical standpoint, Raymond William's, Georg Lukács' and Terry Lovell's notions of Marxist realism are certainly much more useful for analyzing Sembene's realist aesthetics than is André Bazin's personalist and phenomenological approach or Siegfried Kracauer's concept of mimesis.

According to Tony Lovell, the Marxist concept of realist aesthetics has ties to realist epistemology in scientific and historical inquiry. Realism as an epistemology offers an alternative to empiricism or positivism, on the one hand, and conventionalism, on the other. A realist approach to science or history does not restrict itself to observables. Instead, it focuses upon generative mechanisms and the "deep" ontological structures, which function as the causal mechanisms and connections beneath the perceptual surface. The epistemological approach which Lovell calls conventionalism asserts,

"…the world is in effect constructed in and by theory…But if our only access to it [the world] is via a succession of theories that describe it in mutually exclusive terms, then the concept of an independent reality ceases to have any force or function." (Lovell, p. 15)

Unlike conventionalism, realism asserts that the existence of a "real" world which exists outside of our cognition of it and ability to linguistically label it. A Marxist aesthetics of realism advocates using art as an alternative to scientific inquiry as a source of knowledge. Realist art increases our understanding of the structures functioning behind appearances. Modernist art often embodies a more conventionalist epistemology — in which an art work which focuses primarily on exposing its own mechanisms may remain trapped in an endlessly circular and relativist series of boxes, self-contained and entirely self-referential.

In contrast, Marxist realist art draws parallels, analogies, and fairly direct connections between historical or contemporary social, political, and economic "reality" and the artistic text. Cinema influenced by Marxist realist aesthetics is unlike bourgeois realist cinema in general and classical Hollywood cinema in particular, which are closer to an aesthetic embodiment of empiricist than realist epistemology. Unlike Hollywood, Sembene often eschews perceptual and psychological impressions or illusions of reality in favor of uncovering social, economic, and political forces — the causal mechanisms beneath the "felt" surface.

Reference is at the heart of realist at References to social reality and to the forces that have historically produced social and economic oppression usually promote the idea that social reality can and must be changed. Marxist realist art is often overtly didactic, often advocating changes in existing social reality through revolt or revolution.

In her analysis of feminist film theory Christine Gledhill comes to the conclusion that it is difficult to conceive of a feminist film practice that advocates social change and does not at the same time posit realism.[11] Similarly, it is difficult to approach Sembene's films and conceive of a Marxist/feminist film practice (advocating revolt against both neo-colonial and Islamic oppression) that fails to posit realism. Realism in Sembene's films takes the form of explicating the social and economic forces that link the films' narrative events. The films suggest revolutionary (simultaneously traditionalist and progressive) alternatives to racial and sexual oppression.

Sembene's realist aesthetic links the forces behind colonial and neo-colonial oppression to those behind sexual oppression and advocates the elimination of both. These films depict socialist and feminist strategies and goals as so deeply intertwined that the two tendencies cannot be separated without limiting or diminishing the advancement and importance of both. This idea has profound implications regarding the often-separate pursuit of feminist or socialist objectives in the West and East.

Sembene's films shape and reconstruct social reality, which is not depicted as entirely typical, average, accidental, empirically verifiable, or divinely inspired. EMITAI and CEDDO are both based upon historical research and Sembene's careful attention to detail. Nevertheless, the films do not reduce history to a series of empirically verifiable facts, nor present it as a series of arbitrary, purely relative conventions. Sembene's history is selectively Marxist, it is also epistemologically "realist" in tracing the causal links between and structures of various kinds of oppression in Africa.

Narrative causality in EMITAI, XALA, and CEDDO is usually social and economic, as opposed to psychological (e.g. the individual characters' desires that motivate Hollywood cinema). However, Sembene does not completely refuse supernatural causality in depicting social reality in EMITAI and XALA. Supernatural beliefs and experiences indigenous to West Africa receive more positive treatment in Sembene's films than do foreign-imposed religions, but only in the somewhat ironic sense of the words uttered by XALA's El Hadji that these are "true" fetishes.

Although Sembene is clearly an atheist himself, his films consistently assert the integrity of native customs and traditions in the face of foreign oppression. African religions may not do any good but they certainly do not do the unjustifiable harm wrought by foreign impostors. Sembene's portrayal of Diola gods in EMITAI suggests that they serve a function enunciated by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of The Earth. The Diolas fear their gods more than their colonial oppressors. The only means of reducing the oppressed's terror is for them to believe in phantoms that are even more terrifying. Social and historical reality, as depicted in Sembene's films, contains religious beliefs that the films both reinforce and undermine. This reality is not reducible to empirically verifiable "facts,"


Social reality in Sembene's films is a matrix of complex forces that impinges upon groups of characters, not just individuals. Characters and events in these films are not only completely individuated but also socially typed. As Carrie O. Moore points out,

"Sembene's films have never been about individuals…A single character becomes a type representing a specific collectivity. His success in building his films around a collectivity while still respecting variations in individual personalities reflects his idea of the masses." (Moore, p. 154)

Both male and female characters are easily identifiable in terms of social types. As William Van Wert discussed the use of typage,

"Typage is by definition ideological, for it capitalizes on stereotypes which conform to social and cultural codes…Ideologically speaking, typage allows the spectator to easily identify the characters at the same time that it prevents him from identifying with those characters."
(Van Wert, p. 212)

However, Van Wert's conception of typage is more conventionalist than realist, Sembene's types, on the contrary, each represents a collectivity, a deep structure and a generative force within Senegalese society rather than an arbitrary convention or code. Sembene creates different types on different levels. Colonialist and neo-colonialist villains can represent different stages or forms of oppression, and in some cases, such as El Hadji in XALA, these characters sometimes go through a ritualistic social and ideological transformation. As Françoise Pfaff points out, Sembene's women characters, such as the women in XALA, sometimes represent different stages of African development or different responses to oppression. One aspect of Sembene's approach to typage that prevents any essentializing of women from occurring is that women characters often represent several "types" simultaneously. As indicated below, Princess Dior in CEDDO represents several different social types as she transforms herself from a champion of privilege to a champion of matrilineage, collectivity, and the Ceddo. As suggested previously by Carrie D. Moore, aspects of individual personality are interwoven with social and collective types to produce a rich and varied portrait of Senegalese women.

Like typage, Sembene uses allegory in basically a representational and referential way, designed to elicit feelings of collective social pleasure. Sembene's narratives contain aspects of both epic (Brechtian) drama and allegory. Marcia Landy, in discussing XALA, states, "The nonrepresentational style of allegory can serve as a means of distancing its audience for critical purposes."[12] Typage and allegory offer important means for distancing the audience from individual characters and the surface naturalism of the story, leading instead to intellectual contemplation.

Allegory in Sembene's films is a symbolic representation. His stories often parallel and represent historical or contemporary forces, the generative forces of Senegalese history, the deep structures that have operated as casual mechanisms in the past and continue to do so today. Historical episodes in the films are allegorical in the sense that they parallel and represent contemporary problems in Senegal. These connections are allegorical but not purely conventional because they are based on deep structures that have caused ongoing social problems. In these films, allegory, irony, and satire stimulate collective social pleasure, and are based especially on the values shared among the oppressed and dispossessed in Senegal. Such shared values and perceptions are a source of identification and solidarity within this social sector, which makes Sembene's realist cinema popular, pleasurable, and instructive. At the same time, such narrative tactics and consequent popular reception make his films a source of anger, consternation, and suppression among the neocolonialist bourgeoisie and other social/ political elites.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the potential impact in Senegal of Sembene's films and his realist approach to typage and allegory are to consider the film CEDDO. A major conflict in CEDDO exists between the patriarchal/ patrilineal line of succession advocated by pm-Islamic forces and the matriarchal/ matrilineal line of succession advocated by the Ceddo. The Ceddo are slave-warriors who hold fast to ethnic traditions in the face of foreign oppression. Princess Dior is kidnapped by the Ceddo in an attempt to force the ethnic chief, her father, to give up his campaign to convert the Ceddo to Islam. The conversion is inspired by the imam, who eventually has the ethnic chief assassinated so that he can succeed the chief, and then wage a holy war against the Cockle. Princess Dior, after hearing news of her father's death, returns to the village and kills the imam, preventing him from marrying her, establishing a patrilineal line of succession, or converting the Ceddo to Islam.

Allegorically the traditional Islamic forces in CEDDO represent contemporary Islamic brotherhoods, which dominate Senegalese politics. The Ceddo stand for the urban and rural workers who maintain ethnic traditions in Senegalese Society. The imam is like an Islamic politician, who aspires to rule Senegal and implicitly establish an Islamic state. The Princess represents all the traditional values of matrilineal succession and the important place occupied by women in traditional West African Society. When the Princess kills the imam by castrating him with a bullet, she symbolically supplants the contemporary political dominance of Islamic brotherhoods with a female leader. CEDDO is a call to revolutionary action. Africans must consider the example of the Princess so that they can dispense with the vestiges of colonialism in Senegal today. Given the current political situation in Senegal, CEDDO is truly radical and revolutionary.

CEDDO's narrative demonstrates that gender-specific, political, and religious oppression are clearly intertwined. Although Princess Dior is the central female character in the film, the depiction of other women, such as the slave women and the Ceddo woman who is given a new Islamic name, also reinforce the theme of oppression. Princess Dior herself represents several different types of women at different points in the film. Few different types of women represented at various point by Princess Dior are listed below. They reflect social forces that are and have been at work in Senegalese society and different stages of African development. They recur in many of Sembene's films.

Female Character Types:

1. Traditional mother figure:

This figure is subservient and loyal to her husband and dependent upon him for financial support. She is often uneducated. She cares for the children, maintains traditional customs and values, and is a dependable source of stability and emotional support within the family. She is practical and down to earth and is resigned to her condition. She illustrates the strength and en durance of African women. Examples of this type (listed in chronological order of film release):

  • Fathma in BAROM SARREIT
  • Diouana's mother in BLACK GIRL
  • Ibrahaim's first wife in MANDABI
  • Tauw's mother in TAUW
  • the women who form a collective group in EMITAI
  • Awa in XALA
  • Dior's dream to honor her militant captor in CEDDO

2. Symbols of fertility:

These symbols represent the fecundity of pregnant women and mothers. They represent the hope for future generations in Africa; their fertility is sometimes related to the future promise of a better and mote equitable use of Africa's natural as well as human resources. Examples of this type:

  • a pregnant woman who is taken to the maternity clinic in BAROM SARRETF (camera pans from her to flowers in garden)
  • Nafi, Tauw's pregnant girl friend in TAUW
  • the women in a group surround the boy with a gun and who refuse to hand rice over to French in EMITAI
  • Dior as a fertility goddess and the women and children whose names are changed by the imam in CEDDO

3. Young victims of exploitation and oppression:

These wasted sources of Africa's future are often sold into virtual or actual slavery or deluded with false dreams and the false hope of material possessions. As characters, they are often treated as possessions and trophies. They represent women as commodities, male fetishes, and objects of desire. Ultimately they are seen as victims of colonial Miller mate oppression. Examples of this type:

  • Fathma in BAROM SARRET: There is an implication that Fathma will resort to prostitution to feed her family.
  • Diorama in BLACK GIRL: She is traded on the "slave market" to become a house servant, and she consequently becomes an object or trophy belonging to a white family before committing suicide in France.
  • Girlfriend in TAUW of Tauw's male friend. He says he will not give up the girl upon whom he has spent so much money until he gets something in return; Tauw, himself at first refuses to accept responsibility for Nafi's pregnancy.
  • N'Gone in XALA: Her marriage to El Hadji cannot be consummated because he is impotent; she has been "traded" to a wealthy old man for cars and other dowry gifts.
  • Oumi in XALA: She grants sexual favors to El Hadji for financial support to maintain her Western fetishes (Oumi is positioned somewhere between Awa and l'Gone)
  • Dior in CEDDO: She is treated as a possession by various suitors; female slave in that film.

4. Militants standing up against colonial and/or male oppression:

The characters represent the fact that African liberation is tied to women's liberation and women have key roles to play in Africa's future development. Examples:

  • the women who represent a collective force against oppression in EMJTAI
  • Rama, who represents the fight for equality and pan African Solidarity in XALA. (The name Rama may refer to a Hindu incarnation of Vishnu, although as Salma Murad Smith suggested in a class on African and Caribbean Literature and Film at N.C. State University, no Hindu or Muslim in India would have the audacity to adopt such a name from Sanskrit, meaning dark colored, black.)
  • Princess Dim, who castrates and kills the imam with the help of and in solidarity with the Ceddo, symbolically removing class and caste barriers and the source of Patriarchal Islamic oppression in CEDDO and reasserting matrilineal and matriarchal aspects of traditional West African Society.

Sembene uses typage complexly to represent many different but equally important roles played by women in traditional and contemporary West African Society. In particular, EMITAL and CEDDO favorably depict solidarity between men and women and joint action to revolt against oppression. In EMITAI the men refuse to transport the rice for the French after they hear the village women's defiant chants. In CEDDO the Ceddo men help Dior kill the imam. Because she is a woman Dior is able to grab a gun and walk directly up to the imam. As Françoise Pfaff has suggested, such an action would have been much more difficult for the Ceddo men to undertake. The men put themselves between the imam's guns and Dior. In both films, the women initiate revolt and the men share their action. These film narratives point the way towards a society that discriminates neither on the basis of race, class, nor sex at the same time that it celebrates the collective unity of social revolution.

The complexity of Sembene's typage and allegory promotes spectator distance for purposes of meditation at the same time that it encourages identification with groups of characters as a form of social pleasure. Similarly camera framing, point of view shots, and subjective narration in EMITAI also promote distance from individual characters and identification with a group or collective, such as the Diola women in EMITAI and the Ceddo and Ceddo-converted Princess Dior in CEDDO.


In this section I shall argue for a Marxist realist practice that challenges the status quo. I shall cite examples of realist enunciation that retain the allegedly (ideologically) complicit notions of recognition and identification from psychoanalysis and yet can accommodate a collective constituting subject. I shall demonstrate that the point-of-view shot, the quintessential bourgeois realist device may, in fact, serve a Marxist realist function of cementing and affirming group solidarity, class consciousness, and collectivity. In Sembene's film EMITAI, textual strategies reinforce such a Marxist realist aesthetic. The shared point of view shot becomes the textual emblem of realism and of a collective utopia.

Before turning to an analysis of the narrative and cinematic style of EMITAI, I wish to explain why I feel that it is important for me to restrict the hypothetical effects of textual identification to Western viewers. As a Western viewer and critic, I am largely ignorant of the specifics of ethnic culture presented in the film and of a Senegalese audience's expectations. I therefore must base my analysis on internal evidence, which may be inaccurate or incomplete.

Second, it would be condescending to assume to assume that the same psychic regression which causes identification in a Western viewer occurs in a Third World viewer. The notion of a kind of identification encouraged by textual mechanisms is specifically tailored to an audience socialized according to the Freudian model. Third, and related to the previous point, a premise of this paper is that Western realism strategically contains Marx within the boundaries of Freud. (This is exemplified by the use of point of view in classical cinema.) Yet, according to Fredric Jameson, realism does not necessarily reduce the political to the personal in the Third World context, where "the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public Third World culture and society."[13] This type of reception may, in fact, only be true among Third World viewers who hold a less individually based notion of being in the world.

Most Western viewers, I believe, are culturally conditioned to identify with an individual in the same way that many Third World viewers identify with a group. Most Western viewers are innurred to the strategies of containment inherent in bourgeois realism. As a result they may read even the Third World allegory backward, perceiving the political merely as a "metaphoric decoration" of the private (Jameson, p.79). So my study of textual mechanisms may be valid only among Western audiences for whom identification with a group, collective, or class is an alien concept, but one that can be encouraged textually by using conventions similar to but different from those of bourgeois realism. Transcultural discourse using these conventions reveals to the West the repressed reality of collectivity which Third World film overtly celebrates.

EMITAI's narrative encourages emotional identification for collective action. At the diegetic level, EMITAI deals with a Senegalese ethnic group pushed to resistance by French occupying forces during World War II. But the film is also an allegory about ethnic unity, about collectivity and the threat that capitalism and neo-colonialism pose to it. These two malevolent forces are represented in the film by the use of language. The male characters have the use of language and are tainted by the individualism it affords. Language serves not to unify but rather to divide them, impeding their ability to take action and also retarding the narrative. The women in the film are the catalysts of the narrative. Unencumbered by language and (from a Western perspective) individuated subjectivity, they can rise up and take collective action against the French. At the representational level, the men are contemporary Africa, shackled by bourgeois humanism, which is neo-colonialism's legacy, whereas the women symbolize a past and future utopia as well as a means to throw off the yoke of oppression to arrive at that utopian state.

The textual mechanisms of point of view painstakingly position us as viewers to identify with the women and to distance us from the individuated men, so that we are not tempted to read the political merely as a metaphoric decoration of the private. In EMITAI the point-of-view shot is emasculated, stripped of the individual privilege that it is accorded in classical film, and thus it is rendered a realist device. The traditionally male gaze is distributed among the women, affording a collective subjectivity. Several variations on the classical Western use of the point of view shot accomplish this.

One such shot is attributed to more that one person so that we are distanced from an individual narrator and encouraged to identify with the group of women. In this scene, two women walk through the brush searching for a particular male character. We see a subjective shot of the bushes, yet it is ambiguous which woman's vision is represented. The subsequent shot ascribes it to both women and seems to suggest that their vision is interchangeable. Individuated subjectivity is unimportant, or the camera style diffuses it so that we identify with a group or class.

This kind of usage stands in contradiction to Edward Branigan's assertion that in classical film, a point-of-view shot attributed to two people is less subjective than a POV shot attributed to one person.[14] This is perhaps only true within the model of subject formation born out of and perpetuated by Western culture, which grants ontological status to the individual as a means of suppressing the notion of class. Identification with a group, collective, or class is more clearly, indeed almost self-consciously encouraged, in a free-standing point of view shot, that is, one not bracketed by glance shots. Such a free-standing POV shot occurs when the women in the film return to the village with the male character, and we receive a clearly subjective shot of the bow of the canoe cutting through the water. The omission of bracketing shots conceals the identity of the narrator, since such a shot would reveal which woman occupied the position at the bow, therefore whose vision was represented. This also might have bestowed individuated subjectivity on one of the women as leader, giving her narratively significant traits. But the shot instead reaffirms the collective subjectivity.

This clearly established collective subjectivity is threatened in a nearly classical use of the POV shot, which seems in reduce the political to the personal. This almost occurs when a woman in the collective glances upward and we share her view of the sun through the trees. This shot, however, does not reveal narratively significant traits about the women so much as describe how the collective of women is feeling at that moment. The woman serves as a proxy for the group; her look represents the collective. Sembene's refusal to return to a glance shot and his substituting instead shots of several women affirm that all the women are hot and tired, not just this one. This nearly classical shot, like the previous one, frustrates our expectations that we will identify with a single character. We are made increasingly aware that we are positioned as a member of a collective.

In EMITAI the mechanisms of identification do not subliminally and strategically contain the political but rather self-consciously interpellate the Western viewer as a member of a class. Textual identification here serves a progressive end: it discourages Freudian individual pleasures while encouraging nearly Brechtian social pleasures. Terry Lovell describes this political notion of social pleasures:

"The pleasures of a text may be grounded in pleasures of an essentially public and social kind. For instance, pleasures of common experience identified and celebrated in art, and throughout this celebration; given recognition and validation; pleasures of solidarity to which this sharing may give rise; pleasure in shared and socially defined aspirations and hopes: in a sense of identity and community." (Lovell, p.95)

Anti-realists from psychoanalytic and conventionalist epistemological perspectives have called for an avant-garde practice that discourages the pleasure of identification. Yet this film demonstrates that neither pleasure nor identification nor point of view are inherently the enemies of women or of any oppressed class. A collective POV is not necessarily an integral part of bourgeois ideology and may, in fact, be used to strike a blow against the status quo.

The narrative and textual strategies of EMITAI echo CLR James' observation: "[African] women have got a capacity which men have got to learn."[15] Women are accorded a subject position, and masculine spectators are often addressed in the feminine. Males are absorbed into the narrative and encouraged to identify with a collective heroine. They are dissuaded from identifying with benign and indecisive males. Viewers of EMITAI are offered a collective and non-gendered subject position for political ends.

EMITAI, like many Third World films seeks to arouse consciousness. Yet Sembene does not work exclusively within the Brechtian tradition of distanciation and subordinating pleasure to thought. He does not completely discourage identification. Sembene posits an alternative. He encourages not Freudian individual pleasures but social pleasures inscribed in the text. As Terry Lovell notes, a concept of social pleasures is vital to Third World films, as it may be put to the use of politics. Indeed, she warns that "a political aesthetics...ignores this dimension at its peril" (Lovell, p. 95).

Julianne Burton points out that a realist approach to Third World film does not necessarily imply a complete rejection of psychoanalysis, but rather an expansion and modification of it:

 "What is needed is not the [continued] exclusion of psychoanalytic considerations from the critical discourse regarding Third World film, but the expansion or modification of those considerations to accommodate a Westernized, individually-based notion of being-in-the-world ...To question the applicability of Western mythic paradigms in Third World cultural contexts is justifiable; to deny a mythic dimension in Third World cultural products is incomprehensible." (Burton, p.16)

CEDDO, as Julianne Burton notes, encourages social pleasures to foster unity (Burton, p.18). The idea of encouraging social pleasures to foster unity and throw off the yoke of colonialism is as applicable to the colonized, oppressed, and exploited in the First and Second Worlds, as it is to the colonized of the Third World. Sarah Maldoror has said,

"I'm no adherent of the concept of the 'Third World.' I make films so that people — no matter what race or color they are — can understand them. For me there are only exploiters and the exploited, that's all. To make a film means to take a position, and when I take a position, I am educating people... Personally, I feel that Sembene Ousmane is the most talented of our directors... Today we are like small sardines surrounded by sharks. But, the sardines will grow up. They'll learn how to resist the sharks…"[16]

The films of Sembene Ousmane teach us many things, not the least of which is the crucial role that women have and must continue to play in Africa's development and in the development of colonized, exploited, oppressed peoples throughout the world. If we approach Sembene's films on their own terms yet try to apply what they have to say to the West, we cannot help but realize that socialism and feminism are inextricably bound together in a universal struggle against exploitation.


1. Ousmane Sembene, letter to Françoise Pfaff in Pfaff's The Cinema of Ousmane Sembene (Weatport CN: Greenwood press, 1984). Also referred to as follows in Ulrich Gregor's interview with Sembene, Framework 7/8 (Spring, 1978), p. 36:

"There can he no development in Africa if women are left out of the account. In a modern Africa, women can take part in production, education, but they are still refused the right of speech."

2. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York Grove Press, 1979).

3. See Robert Stam, "College Course File: Third World Cinema" Journal of Film and Video 36.4 (Fall 1984), 50-61

4. Pfaff, p.160. See also Thomas Napolis Hammond, 'The Image of Women in Senegalese Fiction," PhD. dissertation. 1976. State University of New York at Buffalo.

5. David Lamb, The Africans (New York: Random House, 1984).

6. Ousmane Sembene, Interview with Noel Ebony, quoted in Guy Hennebelle, Cinéastes d'Afrique Noire, p. 115, quoted by Roy Armes, "Ousmane Sembene: Questions of Change," Cine-Tracts 4.2/3 (nos.14/15, 1981), 71-77. Industry figures cited by Armes from Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, Le Cinéma Africain des Origines a 1973 (Paris: Editions Présence Africain en 1972).

7. Carrie Dailey Moore, Evolution of an African Artist: Social Realism in the Works of Sembene Ousmane (PhD. dissertation, Indiana University, 1973).

10. William F. Van Wert, "Ideology in the Third World Cinema: A Study of Sembene Ousmane and Glauber Rocha," Quarterly Review of Film Studies (Spring 1979), pp. 207-226.

9. Gerry Turvey, "XALA and the Curse of New Colonialism," Screen 26.3-4 (May-August, 1995),75-87. See also, Georg Lukács, Studies in European Realism (London: Merlin, 1978) and Raymond Williams, "A Lecture on Realism" Screen 18.1 (Spring 1977), 60-64.

10. See Terry Lovell. Pictures of Reality: Aesthetics, Politics, and Pleasure (London: British Film Institute, 1980). Julianne Burton, "Marginal Cinemas and Mainstream Critical Theory," Screen 26. 3-4 (May-August 1985), 2-21,

11. Christine Gledhill, "Recent Developments in Feminist Criticism," reprinted in Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen, Film Theory and Criticism, 3rd ed, (New York Oxford University Press, l985), p. 845. Regarding realist epistemology, see also Robert C, Allen and Douglas Gomery, Film History: Theory and Practice (New York: Knopf, 1985), pp. 17-23.

12. Marcia Landy, "Political Allegory and 'Engaged Cinema': Sembene's XALA," Cinema Journal 23.3 (Spring 1984), 33.

13. Fredric Jameson, Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism" Social Text 15 (Fall, 1986), 65-88.

14. Edward Branigan, Point of View in Classical Cinema (New York: Mouton, 1984), p. 116.

15. CLR James, "Toward the Seventh: The Pan-African Congress — Past, Present, and Future," At the Rendezvous of Victory (London: Allison and Busby, 1984). p. 250, Quoted in Turvey, p. 82.

16. Sarah Maldoror, "On Sambizanga," Women and the Cinema: a Critical Anthology, Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary, eds. (New York: H. P. Dutton, 1977), pp. 308-310.