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JAMS 2 (1) pp.

107119 Intellect Limited 2010


Journal of African Media Studies
Volume 2 Number 1
2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/jams.2.1.107/1
107
KEYWORDS
African film
Senegalese cinema
film distribution
film exhibition
celluloid gap
Ousmane Sembne
BARRIE MCCLUNE
California Newsreel
In search of Sembne
ABSTRACT
This visual essay begins at the National Homage to Ousmane Sembne in Dakar,
Senegal in July 2008 and follows my search to find out whether Sembnes work is
accessible to the Dakar public. From conference rooms, to museums, to market stalls
and living rooms, I explore what has happened to Sembnes work in the city he
made his home, and thereby raise questions about the future of African film-makers
and African audiences.
INTRODUCTION
On 8 July 2008, hundreds of people assembled in Dakar, Senegal to pay
homage to the Father of African Cinema, Ousmane Sembne (Figure 1),
one year after his death. Among the high-profile attendees were Danny
Glover, Richard Bohringer and the President of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade.
After hours of heartfelt speeches and slow red carpet processions, the Place
de La Souvenir emptied and the fanfare was over. At this point a much
smaller group of about sixty participants gathered for an academic confer-
ence on the legacy of the legendary film-maker and writer. Following a
whirlwind of twelve papers, the conference floor was opened for questions.
A certain M. Fall stood up and said, [Sembnes] films [are not seen] []
outside of classes. Exhibitions and research [conferences] are the only places
we can see them. He continued, I bet, if you pick 20 people at random
leaving this conference, the majority will not have seen [Sembnes] films!
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I decided to take this comment as a starting point for an exploration of the
place of Sembnes films in Dakar.
THE FORMAL FILM SECTOR
Weeks of searching the city of Dakar for any copies of films made by the
Senegalese Father of African Cinema proved a frustrating task. The museum
exhibition that accompanied the Homage National displayed, in a glass
case, a newly released DVD collection of Sembnes oeuvre. Paradoxically,
the museum did not sell copies of the films and the guardian could not say
where one could purchase them. So I went to the Centre Culturelle Franaise,
which offers an annual membership for 12,000 CFA (14.45). Most African
films produced after the year 2000 and with a European distributor are avail-
able for rental through its library. However, very few Senegalese film-makers
are represented in the collection, and Sembnes films Faat Kin (2000) and
Moolaad (2004) are glaring omissions. The Centre Culturelle Franaise also
contains an outside projection area where they put on film series presenting
local work, including Senegalese classics (Figure 2). The centre screens these
films for free to the public. The Centre Culturelles location in the mostly com-
mercial downtown means expensive taxi rides for the audience. In addition,
Figure 1: Painting of Ousmane Sembne, erected at the Place de la Souvenir special exhibition on Ousmane
Sembne in Dakar, Senegal.
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the consciously academic framing betrayed the fact that this was not your
average audience: most likely academics and cinephiles, and a notably high
attendance of white Europeans.
Besides the Centre Culturelle Franaise, there are only two function-
ing cinemas in Dakar, the Cinma La Libert and the Cinma El Hadj,
and even these are under threat of closure. The Cinma La Libert has
been subjected to many different state exhibition policies since its founda-
tion in 1963. In 1974, when the Socit dImportation et de Distribution
Cinmatographe was founded, the state bought all the cinemas in an
attempt to indigenize the exhibition industry. However, in 1991, Structural
Adjustment Programmes, designed by the International Monetary Fund
and the World Bank, forced the industry to privatize (Sne 19 June 2008
interview). Despite new owners being contractually required to keep the
sites going as cultural institutions, the buildings have been sold to commer-
cial developers one by one (Sy 17 June 2008 interview). There have been
more than twenty cinema closures in the last 10 years in Dakar alone. The
Cinma La Plage has been converted into a shopping centre (Figure 3). The
Cinma Le Paris is to become a hotel (Figure 4). Others have been trans-
formed into churches or mosques.
Mamadou Sy, the programmer for the Cinma La Libert, argues that
Senegalese films have no audience and that many of his colleagues who
Figure 2: Audience members at the Centre Culturelle Franaise in Dakar, Senegal watching Barcelone ou La
Mort/Barcelona or Death for the July 2008 film series.
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Figure 4: The Cinma Le Paris in Dakar, Senegal, which recently closed.
Figure 3: The Cinma La Plage in Dakar, Senegal, which recently closed.
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work in the film industry have recently lost their jobs. He believes the waning
audiences (which are leading to these closures) are related to the dilapidated
state of cinemas in Dakar (Figure 5). As he narrated in 2008:
Sometimes I walk into the theatre and wonder how it is that people
can pay to come to this cinema []. If we could redo the chairs, make
it like new, show some nice films, avoid the competition that televi-
sion channels are posing us, I am sure that people would come to the
cinema again.
Sy explains that the theatre makes 1,000,500 CFA (1200) a week but that
the rental price of the films is 500,000 CFA (600). After paying electricity
bills and employee salaries, he is barely able to make ends meet. To try to
lower his costs, he has replaced the 35-mm projector with a video projector,
and he screens VHS tapes that he has copied from rented DVDs (Figure 6).
Sy acquires and screens 23 movies a week for the Cinma La Libert
(Figure 7). Most titles are new Hollywood releases that are being simultane-
ously publicized on French television channels, and which Sy screens with
French television commercials. In this way, in a strangely inverted publicity
process, the French television channels that show film previews of Hollywood
films help determine what films are going to be screened in Dakar cinemas. Sy
does not bother screening French films as he says he has never found them to
be popular with the audiences. However, he does follow new Indian releases
through a Bollywood satellite channel and he regularly orders these titles from
a cinema programmer in Mauritania. For asiatiques Kung Fu flicks he goes
to a local rental store. Sy makes extra cash by screening sports events. The
European Football Cup, for example, made him more money than a week of
screening movies (Sy 17 June 2008 interview).
Many assume that it is the structural constraints created by monopolis-
tic foreign distribution companies that explain why Senegalese publics and
Senegalese films remain unacquainted with one another. To such claims,
Mamadou Sy (17 June 2008 interview) provides an interesting answer:
African films dont work in Senegal. We have tried them many times.
Our last experience was with Moolaad by Ousmane Sembne, but
the film did not make in audience returns half of what a foreign DVD
would make. And the DVD rents for much less. The clientele will not
adapt to African films.
There are a couple of notable exceptions to the continued failure of African
films in Senegalese cinemas, suggesting that audiences are not simply
attracted to the big-budget foreign films that currently occupy booking slots.
The Ivorian film Bal Poussire/Dust Ball (Duparc, 1988) drew such crowds that
the front window of one of the cinemas was shattered by spectators trying to
push their way into the cinema (Sy 17 June 2008 interview; Ndiaye 30 June
2008 interview). Sy explains this films popularity as follows: Its a funny
story. It is about a man with five wives, a story that touches Africans (Sy
17 June 2008 interview). This suggests that Senegalese films would be more
popular if they were made within the genre of the social parody, and that if
there were a great enough demand for Sembnes films distributors, exhibi-
tors and audiences would have found a way to get them seen (probably by
pirating and widely distributing them).
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Figure 5: Mamadou Sy hopes to remodel the Cinma La Libert with these discarded cushions from a
remodelled Paris cinema.
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Figure 6: Mamadou Sy in the office of Cinma La Libert where he copies films on DVD to VHS.
Figure 7: The projection room of the Cinma La Libert with a celluloid projector that is no
longer functioning.
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Figure 8: An outdoor screening in Grand Yoff, an area in Dakar, Senegal.
In spite of the commercial orientation of the two for profit theatres, the
other cinema house, Cinma El Hadj, has a non-profit wing, Image et Vie,
which serves as a liaison point for film-makers, distributors, exhibitors, stu-
dents and cinephiles who are concerned about the lack of exhibition space
for African films. Partly founded in response to the closure of cinemas, Image
et Vies focus is on educating children by utilizing mobile cinemas in popular
neighbourhoods (Figure 8).
The director of Image et Vie, Hallioune Ndiaye, uses theatre, a popular
and familiar art form amongst children, as a mechanism to engage children
in active, critical participatory viewing of films. Funded by a combination
of local and French ministries, Image et Vie hires an acting troop that
introduces, interacts with and concludes the film screenings, encouraging
children to be active viewers. When not working on Image et Vie, Ndiaye
does the programme for Cinma El Hadj. He says that while he does
pay African directors for the right to screen their work, all of the foreign
(Hollywood, Bollywood and Kung Fu) films are pirated.
THE INFORMAL FILM SECTOR
As is evident from Mamadou Sy and Hallioune Ndiayes accounts, pirating
is rampant in Dakar. All of the films projected in the two existing cinemas
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Figure 9: Samba Niang, who is in charge of the acquisition of DVDs in an electronics store in Dakar, Senegal.
are pirated, and most of the movies shown on television judging from
their quality and from what film-makers such as Arfang Sarr narrated in
interviews are also pirated. There are no formal movie or music stores
where one can legally purchase films; however, items are widely availa-
ble informally at market stalls. An examination of the DVD collections at
stalls in Sandaga market showed that Sembnes films were nowhere to be
found. The stalls were stocked with VCDs of American college basketball
seasons, American series such as Boston Legal, and collections of Hollywood
action films. The fact that the VCDs can hold between 30 and 70 movies or
episodes surely adds to their popularity. Amidst the DVDs of Hollywood,
Bollywood and Kung Fu films, one can find, notably, an impressive collec-
tion of African films. These are not Sembnes films, however, but rather
Ivorian soap operas and filmed versions of Senegalese theatre (to which
entire stalls are dedicated). Fifty-six episodes of a popular Ivorian teledrama
cost around 3000 CFA (3.60).
I found only one store an electronics store with a small selection of
Senegalese films, among which were a few films by Sembne. Selling expen-
sive, imported goods such as washing machines and iPods, the store also has
a collection of legally acquired CDs and DVDs. A DVD of a Sembne film
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Figure 10: Assane Diouf and his DVD stall in Sandaga market in Dakar, Senegal.
costs 26,000 CFA (31.34), more than it costs to buy a DVD player, which can
be purchased for around 20,000 CFA (20) (Didhiou 2008: 7). Samba Niang,
the man in charge of acquisitions for the store, explained that the reason for
the exorbitant prices is that he obtains these films from a distributor in France
(Figure 9). The cost of the films, in combination with their transportation
costs, means that in spite of their price tags, he barely makes a profit on the
rare occasions these films are sold.
Other than the Sandaga and other market movie stalls (Figures 1012),
the only source of access many people have to DVDs are small rental libraries
where, for 500 CFA (60p), one can rent a pirated DVD (usually of a Hollywood,
Bollywood, Kung Fu or porn film) for 2 days.
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Figure 11: Close-up of Assane Dioufs DVD stall in Sandaga market in Dakar, Senegal.
Figure 12: Boubas DVD shop.
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CONCLUSION
The majority of Senegalese people are familiar with the name Ousmane
Sembne, even if they are not familiar with his books and films. Sembnes
novel Gods Bits of Wood (first published in 1960 as Les bouts de bois de Dieu) is
required reading in the Senegalese primary school curriculum, and Sembnes
film-making career was constantly covered in the local news during his lifetime.
Nevertheless, the homage to Sembne did not seem to have any relevance
in contemporary Dakar. The politicians and academics present at the event
seemed to focus on films that few Senegalese people had seen and that no one
knew where to find. In the month that I spent interviewing film professionals
and cinphiles in Dakar, no one could tell me where I could access Sembnes
films.
The situation should not solely be seen in a pessimistic light, however.
Despite political and academic reluctance to move beyond Senegals cel-
luloid past, there is a school of young film-makers (and an audience for
their films) emerging. Image et Vie has showcased short films made on dig-
ital formats by Dakarois students, and these quick-paced films hold their
audiences captive. In contrast, when Image et Vie screened Ezra (Newton
Aduaka, Nigeria, 2007; winner of the 2007 FESPACO Golden Stallion award
for best film), less than a third of the audience remained by the time the
credits had rolled. The patriotic pride in an illustrious cinematic past, the
proliferation of filmed versions of Senegalese theatre productions, and
the massive popularity of the Image et Vie projects all show that there is
the potential for a self-sufficient and popular Senegalese film industry to
develop. More diverse forms of exhibition multiple television channels and
DVD players also provide audiences with more affordable ways to engage
with films. Most importantly, the technological advances that have made
film-making and film viewing more affordable for people have also meant
that the local film industry can, for the first time, exist outside of a crip-
pling reliance on foreign subsidies, and can begin, therefore, to address the
desires of local audiences for the first time.
REFERENCES
Didhiou, Maria Dominica (2008), VCD, DVD, DVX, Telemovelas, Piraterie
Ces Leurres qui Affaissent le cinema sngalais, LObservateur, no. 1420,
p. 7.
Aduaka, Newton. (2007), Ezra, DVD, San Francisco: California Newsreel.
DuParc, Henri (1988), Bal Poussire/Dust Ball, VHS, Abidjan: Focal 13.
Guiro, Idrissa. (2007), Barcelone ou la Mort, DVD, Paris: France Prod. Simbadfi
Ims.
Sembne, Ousmane (2000), Faat Kin, DVD, San Francisco: California Newsreel.
(2004), Moolaad, DVD, New York: New Yorker Films.
INTERVIEWS
Diouf, Assane (2008), interview with the author on 12 June, Dakar, Senegal
(interview notes in possession of author).
Ndiaye, Halioune (2008), interview with the author on 30 June, Dakar, Senegal
(interview video and sound recording in possession of author).
Sne, Ousmane (2008), interview with the author on 19 June. Dakar, Senegal
(interview notes in possession of author).
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Sy, Mamadou (2008), interview with the author on 17 June, Dakar, Senegal
(interview video and sound recording in possession of author).
SUGGESTED CITATION
McClune, B. (2010), In search of Sembne, Journal of African Media Studies
2: 1, pp. 107119, doi: 10.1386/jams.2.1.107/1
CONTRIBUTOR DETAILS
Barrie McClune lives in San Francisco and works for the non-profit educa-
tional film distribution company California Newsreel.
E-mail: bmcclune@gmail.com
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