Search Museum of the Moving Image

The Master, The Rebel, and the Artist: The Films of Ousmane Sembène, Djibril Diop Mambéty, and Moussa Sene Absa

Apr 2 — Apr 10, 2011

Presented in collaboration with the Institute of African Studies, Columbia University

Guest curator: June Givanni

The Senegalese filmmakers Ousmane Sembène (1923–2007) and Djibril Diop Mambéty (1945–1998) pioneered cinematic creativity in Africa. Among the many filmmakers they inspired is Moussa Sene Absa (b. 1958), a protégé and former assistant of Mambéty’s.

All three directors give voice to the African people through their films: they were screen griots, and their work has much in common. In their films, women are portrayed centrally as agents of change and as risk takers, reflecting their true revolutionary role in Senegalese society. The directors also choose to focus on the “little people” of everyday life. A less central but nonetheless frequent impulse in their work is the recognition and embrace of a pan-African relationship to the continent and the diaspora, a tension between the homeland and the West.

The Master: Ousmane Sembène

Sembène—docker, trade unionist, prolific novelist, and filmmaker for four decades—is widely known as the master of African cinema. This title reflects not just his storytelling and visual mastery but his vision of the role of cinema in social development, echoed in his famous quote about the function of African cinema not just as entertainment but as “night school for the masses.” Sembène’s films have almost always involved women characters in central roles, from his first feature, Black Girl, to his last, Moolaadé. Sembène said, “Africa can’t develop without the participation of its women.” As Sembène told his biographer, Samba Gadjigo, “I think that Africa is maternal. The African male is very maternal . . . According to our traditions, a man has no intrinsic value, he receives his value from his mother.”

The Rebel: Djibril Diop Mambéty

Speaking of his parents’ disappointment about his decision to become a filmmaker, Mambéty said “I was a rebel at a very young age.” His avant-garde, modernist, urban style of filmmaking chimed with the radical impulses of cinema in the 1960s. As British film critic Mark Cousins wrote, “Mambéty should have been on T-shirts like Che Guevara . . . He was the most wildly talented filmmaker to emerge from Africa at the end of the 1960s—many would say ever.” Mambéty’s films combine a wide range of influences from theater and film, in works marked by subversion, complexity, artistry, humor, and pathos. Mambéty worked closely with his brother—the internationally renowned musician Wasis Diop, who has scored many films over the years, including Mambéty’s Hyenas, and whose music was used in the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair.

The Artist: Moussa Sene Absa

Absa is known as “the Artist,” because he is a painter as well as a filmmaker. The artistry of his feature films draws heavily on performance art and visual art forms. As he once said, “I see the décor as a character, and this character is just as important as an actor. The sets speak to us. I like cinema verité, and I am inspired by reality.” Absa’s work exemplifies that of a generation of Senegalese filmmakers (including Mansour Sora Wade and Dyana Gaye) whose use of color, stunning imagery, and close collaboration with various forms of performance art is inspired by the culture’s “Masters.” Absa presents a Senegal that recognizes the value of all its people, speaking to and valuing the old and the young, men and women, the politics and the poetry of his society.