By Ekhua Agha
Described as the cinema of subversion, the phenomenon of Third Cinema, named after the so-called Third World, is a film movement defined by a rejection of European, consumerist and colonial cinematic aesthetics. It began in the 1960s-70s in Latin America, but quickly gained traction in Africa and Asia due to the shared common colonial heritage of these regions; the post-colonial rise of Third Cinema represented a shift from Eurocentric techniques and aesthetics. Not only did this mean the centering of African narratives and representation, but also the incorporation of local traditions into regional cultural production. In the African context, the filmmaker who epitomizes this paradigmatic change is the Senegalese filmmaker Sembène Ousmane (1923-2007).
From a former French colony, Sembène’s films fit into the category of Third Cinema because the Senegalese continued to feel the effects of colonialism’s socio-economic, political and cultural oppression even after the colonizer’s departure. As a young man growing up in colonial Senegal, Sembène’s experiences of cinema would have been of colonial films that, in representing Africa, did so by marginalizing Africans and their stories. Hence, Sembène’s films aimed to reverse these limited and often negative misrepresentations of Africans. La Noire de (Black Girl) (1966), one of Sembène’s earliest films, is an example of how the director challenges Eurocentric visions about contemporary Africa by casting a young black woman as the lead. Additionally, that the film revolves around the life of an ordinary person highlights the everyday struggles of average African people without relying on stereotypes or fantastic representations of the continent.
In Ceddo (The Outsiders) (1977), Sembène again places the lives of the marginalized at the forefront. Even so, Ceddo departs from the Senegalese director’s earlier works in that the film is set in pre-colonial Senegal, around the seventeenth century. A tumultuous era, it saw the rise of the slave trade, colonialism, and the growth of Islam, which was beginning to make influential inroads into Senegal. Sembène focuses his attention on the Ceddo who were ordinary people whose way of life was being threatened because of the effects of the colonization.
Although the film represents events from centuries ago, Sembène attempts to show Senegalese audiences of his day that some of the issues of the past are still extant. For example, the major problem Sembène touches on in Ceddo is the usurpation of power by colonial, Islamic, and African leaders, where these occurrences would serve as an allegory to a post-colonial African viewership. To them, the events of the past, as dramatized by Sembène, may have seemed similar to how the contemporary African bourgeoisie class exercised power without any consideration for the masses who had entrusted themselves to these leaders.
Ceddo begins with the dramatic kidnapping of Princess Dior, daughter of the King. Because this abduction is at the hands of the Ceddo, who are of the warrior class, the audience’s immediate assumption is that there is a power tussle between that group and the monarchy. However, this is not a coup d’état, but the result of the gripe of the Ceddo that their much beloved and long-held traditions are under threat because of their king’s conversion to Islam. Having no other recourse, the Ceddo take the princess hostage to get their ruler’s attention.
At the same time as Sembène weaves a tale that incorporates Senegalese history, the director also relies on African aesthetics and traditions. This is very much in keeping with Third Cinema’s deliberate attempt to move away from Hollywood methods by using traditional methods of representation. For instance, Sembène revives the African tradition of orality in his oeuvre, employing indigenous language and symbols to retell the story of Africa’s past, present and future. Hence, in Ceddo, the characters all speak Wolof and some of them even bear resemblance to those found in traditional African storytelling. For example, it is through the Jaraf, the royal griot or storyteller, that the audience is informed of all the events that happen in the community – from the princess’s abduction, the mission to rescue her, and the Imam’s final assault on the Ceddo community. Here, it is not solely the role of the griot to provide narrative continuity, but his very presence is a reminder of how story-tellers were an important part of West African community traditions, their role being to sustain community connections and heritage.
Sembène’s investment in the power of ordinary people comes through in his portrayal of the Ceddo’s resistance to Islamic authority. Their defiance is symbolized through the use of the Ceddo’s sacred staff – the saamp. When Jogomaay, the Ceddo’s spokesman faces the king, the camera zooms in on the saamp as soon as he assertively plants it on the ground. With this action, the entire court goes quiet and the only sound one can hear is a loud thud coming from the repeated striking of this sacred staff on the ground. The authority commanded by this action is underscored by the fact that even King Sall is visibly shaken. Once again, the power of the people is asserted when Jogomaay uses the saamp to appeal to King Sall to stop the oppression from those external forces that now hold sway in the kingdom:
We want the insurgency to stop. The yield from out harvests belongs to us. You are King Demba Waar, you must pass a decree that nobody becomes enslaved. The forced conversion to Islam must be abolished because no religious faith is worth dying for.
In another scene, the saamp as a symbol of resistance is used again when Jogomaay holds on to it and reminds Prince Biram of his duty as a member of the royal family: “Look carefully at the saamp, your duty is to go and rescue your sister.”
Apart from watching this ironic reversal of roles unfold, where an ordinary person is giving instructions to a member of the royal household, the audience also sees how governance can function without resorting to violence. With the events in the film, Sembène’s viewership is instructed about the potential for collaboration between the ruler and ruled where power need not be authoritarian in its exercise.
By using the Princess’s abduction as a narrative device, Sembène attempts to depict how people in power are alienated from ordinary people. As someone who is of royal heritage, the king knows nothing of human suffering and certainly not that of the commoners. Therefore, when the Ceddo kidnap the princess, they are giving the king a taste of what everyday life can be for people who are held hostage by the capriciousness of the ruling class. In this case, Sembène is not only using Senegalese history as a narrative vehicle, but also using it as an allegory for how abuses of power are visible in different eras and under various political dispositions. Sembène’s attempt to expose the consequences of cultural subjugation with reference to ancient Wolof history is also a reminder to his audience that ordinary people can learn from the past, its lessons neither being bound by time or influence.
Ekhua Agha is a pHD researcher at the University of Birbeck focusing on Senegalese filmmaker, Sembène Ousmane.