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Cinematic Senegalese gem featured in Cal film series

It is not too late to get a taste of the work of one of Africa’s most important cinematic gems, Ousmane Sembene. The 83-year-old Senegalese director’s films are the focus of this month’s series at UC Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive.

On Friday night Ceddo (1977) was shown. Ceddo critiqued colonialism in Africa in a language that only an African could use, but translated well to a global audience. Sembene tackled the impact of Islam on Senegal, acceptance of slave trade and women’s status in African culture. His critical take was told through the lens of a story about how these layers of power played out in one particular village. These gloomy subjects were ultimately a critique of the corruption of power that would resonate with any audience. Ceddo welcomed the viewer in with humor and by creating up-close, vivid characters.

Sembene’s wit also radiated in Ceddoand in Xala (1975), which was shown on Saturday night. Xala was a much more direct attack on the corruption of power. This film focused on the neo-Colonial black bourgeoisie Senegal’s capital city, Dakar. It gave a clever portrait of the city’s elite, who were ultimately the puppets of a Colonial bureaucracy rampant with corruption. His featured businessman, El Hadji, through the course of the film was exposed as a self-serving sellout. When he is cursed with xala (impotence), he is confronted and punished for his white-color crimes.

The beauty of Sembene’s work, for a Western audience, is that it offers snapshots into African life unlike the subjects of Discovery Channel intrigue. The audience is invited to examine the effects, and aftermath, of the colonial regime in Africa from the inside out.

“Sembene is a little like Noam Chomsky in that he consciously sets out to compile a kind of counter-history, a corrective to the official record,” one critic wrote in The Village Voice. This rare opportunity should not be missed, as many of Sembene’s films are difficult to find in the U.S.

The Pacific Film Archive is located on the UC Berkeley campus at 2575 Bancroft Way. Tickets are $5 for students. The Web site has more information.

  • Emitai (1971) The film’s title comes from the God of Thunder. It takes place after World War II and focuses on tribespeople who resist French authority and guard their traditions. It is a story of the awakening of a national consciousness.
    PFA, Fri., Oct. 20, 6:30 p.m.
  • Moolaade (Senegal/France, 2004) This film was awarded the Grand Prize at the Cannes film festival. It is the story of a mother’s courage to protect her daughter’s generation from the tradition of female genital mutilation.
    PFA, Fri., Oct. 20, 8:35 p.m.
  • Guelwaar (1992) This film tells of the events that nearly lead to a holy war, when a murdered activist’s body is discovered missing from the morgue.
    PFA, Sat., Oct. 21, 6:30 p.m.
  • Faat-Kine (2001) Also set in Dakar, this film focuses on a quick-witted gas station proprietress. This is the first part in Sembene’s series “everyday heroes” (Moolaade is the second). The film shows how in spite of Dakar’s contrast of shantytowns beside modern apartments, residents can still make a good life.
    PFA, Sat., Oct. 21, 8:45 p.m.
  • The Camp at Thiaroye (Senegal/Tunisia, 1988, co-directed with Thierno Faty Sow) This film is also set just after World War II. A “powerful indictment of colonialism … shows WWII’s effects on shaping the future of Africa,” Variety magazine wrote. The film tells a story of Senegalese troops who are held in a Dakar transit camp only slightly better than the concentration camps some of them have just braved … tension escalates to rebellion.
    PFA, Thu., Oct. 26, 7:30 p.m.

Information in this article regarding upcoming films comes from the Pacific Film Archive, UC Berkeley.