by Marsha Landy
Cut, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 23-25
Knowledge of film history and theory is incomplete without dealing with Third World cinema. Third World filmmakers understand the pitfalls of uncritical or programmatic uses of film form and language, incapable of challenging and interesting audiences. They have experimented with creating films which will engage audiences with their politics and art. In addition, the films will provide the basis for new forms of cultural expression to supplant the European culture imposed by colonial domination. As Western audiences see more works of African filmmakers, it becomes evident that we can learn much about the ways in which political films can be vehicles of investigation, enlightenment, and pleasure, rather than of indoctrination and escapism. The African films act in a manner similar to Sartre's description of Fanon's Wretched of the Earth. In the process of explaining the Westerner to the African, they also explain their structural "mechanisms whereby we Westerners are estranged from ourselves.”(2) For us, the films provide alien, challenging images of the relations between colonizer and colonized, exposing the subtle forms and consequences of domination. Ultimately the analysis is not as alien to the Western viewer as it might first seem.
BLACK GIRL (1966), Sembene Ousmane's first feature film, self-consciously explores the nature and effects of cultural domination. It also demonstrates how film itself can be shaped as an instrument in the struggle for cultural liberation. BLACK GIRL provides an introduction to political and stylistic concerns in later Sembene films such as MANDABI (1969), EMITAI (1972), XALA (1974) and CEDDO (1977). On its own merits, it provides a basic text for identifying what Sembene has called the “engaged” cinema.
Sembene's political sympathies lie with the African workers. He has over a lifetime used his intellect and cinematic skills to expose the ways that the white bourgeoisie and their counterparts, the African bourgeoisie, oppress the African workers. He has explored the subordination of woman, a theme central to BLACK GIRL as well as to his other films and literary work. He portrays the oppression of women by the residual traditional tribal and Islamic cultures, which act to restrain women from moving into the modern world. These indigenous cultural formations condemn women to take menial and domestic work because of their lack of training, education, and social immobility. The economic and ideological structures of neocolonialism and commodity capitalism are, according to Sembene, the newest historical expression of capitalist and imperialist domination over the masses of African men and women. Like other African filmmakers, Sembene regards his films as a means of combating European hegemony. The films educate people to existing conditions while charting new political and cultural alternatives.
Though the political concerns outlined above are evident in the content of BLACK GIRL, they are also realized in the very structure and language of the film. Sembene is acutely conscious of the role of language as a major instrument for raising political consciousness. The importance of language is emphasized in both the content and style of his work. Realizing as a writer that the audiences he wants to reach are often illiterate, Sembene has turned to the cinema for its more popular accessibility that is not dependent upon literacy.
In opting for a medium that is less dependent upon literacy to be understood, Sembene has by no means abandoned the desire to educate his audiences and to represent their conditions and needs. His Senegalese audiences are not unfamiliar with film. Yet those films to which they are primarily exposed, American and European, hardly provide an insight into the African world. For these reasons, Sembene has experimented with narrative strategies to develop the viewer's awareness of the film as film. In spite of the simple and forthright "story" in BLACK GIRL, the narrative forms are complex, though not mystifying, inviting the audience to engage with the deeper questions posed. Among the diverse stylistic tactics Sembene employs are the following: self-reflexivity, satire, irony, and experimentation with cinematic structural components, such as montage. He blends traditional African "storytelling" devices with experimental film language. He fuses a form of neorealism with a critique of the "real." His goal in all this is to forge active and exciting links between his films and Senegalese audiences.
BLACK GIRL records the story of a young black Senegalese woman, Diouana, brought to Antibes by a French couple previously stationed in Dakar. Under the mistaken assumption that she has been employed as a governess for the couple's children, Diouana quickly learns that she must do the cooking, laundry, cleaning, and babysitting. Without salary or friends, treated as invisible by her employers, confined to the house except for shopping, and disillusioned by the sad discrepancy between the realities of her life in France and her earlier fantasies of France as a Mecca of beautiful people, appealing consumer items, and adventure, Diouana finally commits suicide.
Clearly, Sembene has elected to concentrate attention on one character exclusively. Through an obvious and seemingly banal plot, he seems to want to provoke the viewer through a commonplace character, challenging the audience to confront why the story of a simple, inarticulate female domestic might be deserving of attention. Correspondingly, the simple and economical manner in which he presents the events provokes questions about motive and meaning.
BLACK GIRL begins by showing a ship moving through the water, the ship docking, and dockworkers unloading the ship. We see white people on deck, and then we focus on a black woman in Western clothes, carrying a suitcase. A white man gets out of a car, takes Diouana's baggage, saying simply, "You made it," or "Let's go." No greetings are exchanged. Diouana gets in the car; a perfunctory conversation ensues. The remainder of the ride is in silence. The camera from within captures the landscape without: the beach, the road, the sign, "Antibes," and finally the street sign, "Chemin d'Ermitage.”
After a brief shot of the apartment house, we observe the arrival of the man and the woman in the apartment, focusing only on the emotionless encounter between the white woman and Diouana, and the woman's equally emotionless greeting of the husband. The woman takes Diouana into a bedroom, shows her the bed, takes her to the window where the Frenchwoman reels off the names of places on the Riviera, then takes her to the kitchen. In an abrupt transition, we see Diouana cleaning the tub, then the mirror. Only diverted by a brief scene of her in her room, making her bed, putting on her shoes and her jewelry, we return, by means of a wipe (and Sembene uses wipes several times to indicate quietly the passage of time, the flowing of the domestic activities into each other) to Diouana at work again, in the kitchen. For the first time, by means of a voice-over monologue, we are given Diouana's perspective on her situation, her confusion at being confined to the kitchen and her bedroom, her disappointment at having to work as a domestic. Repeatedly she asks, "Why am I here?"
These sequences are puzzling. The audience seems to be placed outside the interactions, only gradually admitted to what is happening. While the film, in reproducing the ordinary and unexceptional, seems close to neorealism, its context is too flat and spare. It rejects techniques for producing identification and sympathy. Instead, the minimal visual imagery and dialogue in BLACK GIRL generates questions: Who is Diouana? Why is she here? Where does she come from? What is her relation to the white woman and man?
Yet the viewer gains information from observing Diouana. She is black, a woman alone, confronted by indifferent whites, and unable to communicate — in a way that goes beyond the problem of speaking French. Moreover, the film's visual and verbal silences reinforce Diouana's own silence, seemingly giving us the servant's perspective rather than the filmmaker's, who might be tempted to speak more directly for her. In many ways, BLACK GIRL reflects Sembene autobiographically. For example, himself transplanted from Dakar to France, Sembene was a dockworker in France and forced to contend with the racial and cultural situation which he has Diouana experience. Not as highly stylized, ritualistic, or satirical as later films such as CEDDO and XALA, BLACK GIRL can be read as Sembene's exorcizing his rage at cultural obliteration.
The film progressively delineates the particular dimensions of Diouana's subordinate position. At a luncheon where Diouana cooked African food, the guests talk about Senegal but not to her. Her objectification both as a woman and as African is further dramatized when a male guest asks to kiss her, saying that he has never kissed a black woman before. Diouana is offended. But no one reproaches him, though the hostess comes into the kitchen and offhandedly "apologizes" by minimizing the act. At coffee, a guest and the wife discuss Diouana's mastery of French. Seemingly she understands it "instinctively … like an animal." Diouana's inability to speak for herself is, in Sembene's terms, the crux of her cultural subordination. It’s the mark of French dominance over the African.
How can we account for Diouana's willingness to come to France under such conditions? Flashback sequences relate Diouana's recent history and trace her situation to economic and class factors. In a voice over, she articulates the classical storyteller's formula: It all began that morning in Dakar. The camera tracks Diouana's journey over the bridge that connects the poor African section of Dakar to the more prosperous area where she searches for woman's work, going from door to door, only to have them slammed in her face. As an African woman, her economic impotence is ironically worse than that of some well-dressed black men she passes. They reveal by their conversation and appearance that they are members of the French-speaking, French-dominated African bourgeoisie, frustrated at their political powerlessness as elected officials.
At a village square, she finds other women sitting and waiting for a potential employer. We witness the arrival of Diouana's future employer. Several times she passes in review of the women, peering over her dark glasses and leisurely regarding each of them as if they were slaves on a block before she makes her selection. In their eagerness, the women rush at the European woman while, in her inexperience, Diouana hangs back. By contrasting Diouana's reticence with the others' over-eagerness, Sembene establishes that the white woman selects Diouana as a rebuke to the other women's obvious financial desperation. The brevity of the scene, its minimal action and dialogue, and its unalleviated contrast between dominant and subordinate classes, brings into focus the situation of many black women in Dakar. They face a total dependence on the white elites for work, the scarcity of employment, and the degrading process of seeking work. Diouana's joy at getting the position underscores her naiveté.
This “naiveté" is further developed by means of an important image in the film, the African mask, which Diouana takes from a young boy, possibly her brother, to give as a gift to her employer. On her arrival, she hands the mask over to her mistress. The camera moves to reveal two other African masks hanging on the wall. The couple, after examining the mask, does not comment on the generosity of the gift or ask about its meaning for Africans. Nor could Diouana tell them. The husband comments, "It could be the real thing," as if it were an investment. The mask seems to signify the African culture appropriated and exploited by the French and rendered inert. Does Diouana's offering it to her employers symbolize for Africans willing, though unaware, collaboration with the European?
The history of Diouana's self-deception and gradual awakening can be read visually in her relationship to "things," in her abandonment of the mask and in her attachment to her wigs, shoes, jewelry and dresses. These consumer objects at first indicate Diouana's false expectations about going to France. Later she uses them to defend her selfhood against her employers' treatment of her as invisible or insubordinate. Finally, these objects seem fetishes that need to be destroyed. That is, these deceptive, appealing images of the power of consumer objects signify the complex obstacles that bind young Africans like Diouana to imperialism.
The film's depiction of the French couple seems calculated to counteract those French magazines and films to which Diouana is exposed, if not addicted. Sembene presents the couple in negative fashion, as if attempting point for point to destroy any attractiveness Africans might find in their style of life. They overeat, drink too much, and fight. Through image rather than dialogue, Sembene exposes their interpersonal relations, an alienation deriving from both indifference and hostility. The man drinks, even during the day, and sleeps. While he and Diouana are alone in the house, the camera focuses on him sprawled on his bed like a dead man, perhaps an ironic comment on the master's "potency." The exploiters' lives are aimless and joyless. “Is this living?" Diouana asks herself as she begins to define France as a kitchen, a black hole, and herself as alone and a prisoner.
There is a strategy of exorcism underlying the film. Sembene constructs the couple as composite figures or types rather than individuals, situating their roles within the film's allegory. They represent attitudes to be rejected. As the film depicts their behavior, it is full of innuendo and understatement. Sembene abstracts and attributes to them those qualities characteristic of bourgeois life in the domestic sphere. By situating Diouana here as an "invisible" domestic, Sembene provides a perspective on the European bourgeoisie. By creating flat characters, Sembene seems to be seeking to avoid melodramatic villainy, which could too easily be dismissed as exaggerated. Notwithstanding, Sembene is not unsympathetic to the couple's own dilemma. The wife, a contradictory figure, is herself oppressed. As a woman in an unpleasant domestic situation she oppresses another woman. Treated as an invisible presence by her husband, she, in turn, negates Diouana's presence, and has no recognition or empathy with Diouana's distaste for menial domestic work. Occasionally the bourgeoise woman is capable of a fleeting recognition of Diouana's discomfort, but the Frenchwoman dismisses or minimizes it, much as she refuses to confront her own subordinate situation.
Diouana's subordination expresses itself especially in terms of language. The role and importance of language surfaces fully in the sequence where Diouana receives a letter from Dakar, presumably from her mother. The husband, not his wife, reads the letter, which Diouana cannot read. Without asking Diouana's permission, he begins to write a response since Diouana cannot write. Like the male scribe in Diouana's community, this man will speak for her. The master's control over her communication expresses Diouana's subjection. Her inability to read and write confronts her starkly. Isolated from home, unable to communicate messages about her imprisonment to the people at home, and humiliated by her employer's appropriation of her reality, she insists in a reflection conveyed by voice over that the letter is not her mother's letter and that the letter the husband is writing for her is not her own letter, thus stressing that neither she nor her mother speak for themselves. She refuses to cooperate, and the mistress says, “She's mad."
Throughout the film, Sembene has emphasized Diouana's isolation. He uses voice over to depict that cultural and personal isolation. To examine the link between language and power is to expose patterns of cultural domination. Yet Sembene's use of Diouana as the narrative instrument to expose cultural imperialism speaks primarily to Sembene's economic and cultural concerns rather than to his concern for the subordination of women. Though sensitive to the oppression of women, here Sembene has only brushed the surface of patriarchal attitudes.
The letter-writing sequence establishes how much self-consciousness Diouana has of her situation. By merging the language theme with images of interiority and exteriority, Sembene provides the prologue to Diouana's suicide. Diouana's movements have become increasingly circumscribed: a long boat trip, a car ride, and then confinement to domestic service in the apartment. Seeing her outside in the flashback sequences in Dakar only heightens our sense of her imprisonment. Eventually she will retreat into her room, then into herself, as the external world ceases to exist for her.
By means of a second flashback, Sembene attempts to situate Diouana's domestic servitude within a larger historical context by linking it to the sacrifices of African soldiers in the service of the colonial power. Diouana spent a happy day with a young man she had met while job-hunting and was then unwilling to listen to his warnings about France. She climbs on a monument commemorating the Senegalese who died in the service of the French in WW2. Not only does Sembene here prefigure Diouana's death, but the irony of her going to France to serve the former colonial power is obvious. The image of her dancing on the monument, oblivious to its meaning, establishes for the viewer the specific import of her "remembering" this episode in France. Then she comes to terms with her earlier refusal to understand the nature and meaning of her servitude and its roots in Senegalese history.
This flashback provides the context for her confrontation with her employers. Significantly, the struggle takes place over the mask. Having reappropriated the mask, Diouana is unwilling to relinquish it to the wife, who fights with Diouana to possess it. The husband separates them, acknowledging that the mask is Diouana's. Alone in her room, Diouana articulates her rage and defiance:
In her anger, which leads to her suicide, she expresses the slave's classic and ultimate form of resistance to the master, the refusal to serve. Diouana's suicide has multiple significance. It is a reproach to her masters, who exploit her and do not even recognize their exploitative practices. It is also as the inevitable conclusion to her sense of total isolation and imprisonment. Her death has wider allegorical and didactic ramifications. Her refusal to continue in a condition of servitude is representative of the necessary refusal of other Africans, equally uneducated and imbued with false illusions, to identify with the white oppressor. Her death symbolizes the desired destruction of this old way of life as Sembene diagnoses it.
Sembene has identified Diouana's lusting after European culture as suicidal. In 1966, he is using her as a symbol to reveal and exorcise the false expectations of young Africans as they meet European culture. Vulnerability to European culture, as Fanon has also shown, afflicts young people in underdeveloped cultures:
BLACK GIRL is Sembene's attempt to dramatize these results.
The suicide at the end of BLACK GIRL raises a problem common to many neo-realist films. Namely, the death of the protagonist has implications of determinism. Neorealism poses a contradiction when it portrays oppression as the outgrowth of changing social conditions, while dramatizing individuals as immobilized and destroyed. Moreover, the narrative structures do not allow for alternatives, except perhaps mechanically. Also, in neorealist presentations, death can function as a rhetorical device to enlist the audience's sympathy often at the expense of analysis, offering catharsis rather than resistance. In his later films, Sembene adopts new strategies for depicting the oppressed. In his development of character, image, and theme, he orchestrates contrasts and alternatives more fully. And through foregrounding conflict rather than submission, he transforms his victims to active protagonists.
Sembene does attempt in BLACK GIRL to transform Diouana's suicide and use it to develop a new sense of class solidarity. After Diouana's death, shots present a brief newspaper clipping announcing that a black girl from Dakar has slit her throat; the tub, clean now, where she committed the act; and her suitcase repacked by her employers. By means of a repetition of images and gestures, Sembene moves us back to Dakar as to alter, if not reverse, the earlier events. Diouana's master returns over the same bridge, as he comes in penance with the suitcase and mask to Diouana's home. The public letter-writer seen earlier guides him to the black section. The young boy reclaims the mask; the mother refuses money and turns away. Isolated now and bewildered, the man leaves, but his movements are followed by the stares of the black men. They stare, not vacantly, but as if their faces are masks, their looks contemptuous and vengeful. In the last sequence the young boy, wearing the African mask, pursues the white man against the man's efforts to get away. The sound is of drums and African music. In this image, Sembene shows the conflict of black and white, Frenchmen and African, bourgeois and "indigene," old and young, colonizer and colonized at the point of confrontation.
This final image subsumes all the film's other images and events. The boy’s appropriation of the mask, wearing it as he pursues the man, and finally removing it to permit us to see his face, develops more fully the meaning of the mask, and hence the film's final didactic movement. Though we see the mask, we also see the boy's face fully. The final image of the film is double, the mask and the boy's face. Sembene thus suggests how a new culture can emerge based on recognition of the past. As the film dramatizes through Diouana the consequences of repressing "the cultural life of the colonized people," so these last sequences suggest what Amilcar Cabral describes as
The editing ties together the boy and the mask with the faces of the other Africans, who pursue the white man with their looks, thus stressing the collective struggle. Links are forged between the onlookers within the film and the film audience. In this manner, the film suggests that the resolution of the class and cultural conflict is not the property of a single individual but rather of the collective will of the African "audience” As BLACK GIRL grows out of a basis of common social needs so Sembene suggests, the solution must be found in collective social action.
Sembene understands, in all his works, that to face modern social conflict women's position in society must be transformed. Yet there are problems with Sembene's presentation of women and particularly with his portrait of Diouana. Sembene's foregrounding of economic and cultural conflict takes precedence over the conflicts deriving from sexual oppression. This political position has consequences for the ways in which his novels and films regard or disregard women's subordination. That Sembene frequently uses women as symbols or archetypes indicates that for all of his centering of women, he uses them as metaphors for other struggles. Furthermore, he has not plumbed the more subtle ways women are objectified through language.
By making Diouana a symbol for the African working class and using her as an intermediary, he repeats a common practice in fiction of designating women as the carriers of general cultural values, values which do not necessarily speak at all to women's own needs and problems. Moreover, by killing off Diouana, a practice Sembene avoids with women characters in later films, Sembene invokes the common image of woman as sacrificer, one who tends and bears life for others often at the expense of her own. Here Diouana's “sacrifice” awakens and bonds the community for its own survival. Finally, a boy in BLACK GIRL carries the message of political resistance. This last image reinforces Sembene's distinction between women as symbols of potential and the men as realizers of that potential. The young man who had attempted to warn Diouana was also actively involved in political struggle, as evidenced by the liberation banner in his room and his grasp of political realities, which is not at all the case with Diouana, the central female character.
Sembene's main formal and political concerns have been worked out in his experiment with narration. Being African involves for Sembene, as it must for all formerly colonized people, an inevitable conjunction of the European and indigenous cultures. Yet increasingly, after BLACK GIRL, which shows the stamp of Italian neo-realism, Sembene's films have become more African, even to the extent of being produced in the national language, Wolof, rather than French. Specifically, Sembene's mode of narration seems to have its roots in the African oral tradition of storytelling, though his uses of the tale are modified by modern narrative techniques. According to Walter Benjamin, the tale reflects an older, traditional, and collectivist world, whereas the modern narrative is an inevitable expression of industrial society, reflecting alienation and an individualistic outlook on the world.(4) Sembene's narration reveals an awareness of these differences, and an attempt to address them on the level of narration.
The storyteller has a didactic role, providing counsel for the audience by telling a basic, practical tale involving a person seeking to find his or her "way about the world." Death as a proof or sanction within the tale reinforces the teller's counsel. The events in the tale come out of history, that history unfolding in the simple, direct events recounted. (5) The tale itself is a record of events, both narrator and audience sharing a vital interest in retaining what is told. Mnemonic devices form part of the narrative apparatus. By means of similarities, oppositions, incremental repetition, and the use of typical modes of representation, the narrator seeks to reinforce memory. Sembene uses the suitcase, the mask, Diouana's clothing, the parallel events at beginning and end, the repetition of certain questions such as, “Why am I here?”, and the stark contrasts between Africa and France, black and white, bourgeois and worker, to assist the audience in differentiating situations and in remembering. Moreover, Sembene's avoidance of complex psychological analysis keeps the people and events grounded within the social conflict.
As Sembene uses narration, it is not solely the outgrowth of tradition, but a self-conscious exploration of storytelling as a factor in creating future political consciousness. Sembene expresses the African's need to draw from the past what is useful to the present. Again, on the level of form, Sembene seems to be echoing Frantz Fanon, who finds that in the storytelling process,
Sembene transforms traditional storytelling by grafting on to the tale certain modern narrative techniques. Concerned as he is with going beyond mere description of the painful events, and equally beyond a simple sentimental or moral response to the situations, he introduces devices which inhibit simple identification. For example, in the voice-over monologues of Diouana as she moves from confusion over her role, to clarification, to rage, and finally to resistance, Sembene takes us into her internal conflicts to show us the introjected patterns of servitude and her rejection of these patterns. Sembene's treatment of time moves serially, as it does in a tale's movement. It also goes beyond to include subjective states in monologues and in exploring Diouana's "history" through flashbacks. Time in the film moves forward. However, in his attempt to show sameness as well as differences, through his use of wipes, fades, dissolves, and cuts, Sembene allows us to see both the repetition of basic acts which could reflect the passage of days, years, or decades, and the actual changes which are taking place. We are thus permitted to experience Diouana's imprisonment in time and in her mind, while also experiencing the way out.
In "The Responsibility of the Artist," Aimé Cesaire asserts,
For Cesaire, as for Sembene, art is political.
Sembene's use of the African mask serves a reflexive function in the film. The mask is an artifact which expresses African culture and history. The film stands in relation to the historical and cultural present as the mask stood to the past. A contemporary artifact incorporates into its history this earlier cultural expression, bringing it into the present to reflect contemporary needs.(9) As the mask was functional, so Sembene attempts to make his film functional for his contemporary audience in behalf of political and cultural changes. Thus, the film's title derives from a newspaper article, which lets Sembene contrast journalism's cryptic, bureaucratic, and dispassionate language to film's story. The film humanizes, enlarges, and challenges the audience to engage in the problems presented. The “news” reveals yet again the French's indifference to the African's condition. Sembene's “retelling” of the black girl's history is thus not cast in a passive mode of documenting, objectifying, and forgetting. It serves to remind us of the historical, functional, and political dimensions of narration.
1. Return to the Source: Selected Speeches by Amilcar Cabral. Edited by Africa Information Service (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973), p. 39.
2. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth: A Negro Psychoanalyst's Study of the Problems of Racism and Colonialism in the World Today. Preface by Jean-Paul Sartre. (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1966), p. 12.
3. Ibid., p. 156.
4. Walter Benjamin, "The Storyteller," Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), p. 86.
5. Ibid., p. 94.
6. The Wretched of the Earth, p. 194.
7. Wilfred Cartney and Martin Kelson. The Africa Reader: Independent Africa. (New York: Vintage Books, 1970), p. 155.
8. Ibid. p. 154.
9. Sembene has said, "The works of yesterday, masks, statues, all the symbolism of the life of the audience … remain in the minds of the people and in their daily activities." “Man Is Culture,” Sixth Annual Hans Wolff Lecture, March 5, 1975, Bloomington, Indiana: African Studies Program.