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OUSMANE SEMBENE

When I interviewed Ousmane Sembene for The New York Times in 1969, shortly after his “Mandabi” played The New York Film Festival, I felt he was in the movie-directing game for the long haul. Looks like I was right. Sembene's latest movie, “Moolaade,” was one of the highlights of the 2004 New York Film Festival. --Guy Flatley

“Aimez-vous Godard?” It was supposed to be a serious question, and yet the handsome black man threw back his head, clasped his hands together and laughed. When the answer finally came – in meticulous French – it was tactful. “There are those who like Godard, and there are those who do not.”

There may even be those who do not like Ousmane Sembene. But if they were in the vicinity of the recent New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, they were not very vocal. Sembene’s “Mandabi” – a poignant comedy about a poor bumbler in Dakar who comes into a small fortune, only to be cheated out of it by petty bureaucrats and greedy neighbors – was the surprise hit of the festival and will have its theatrical premiere here shortly.

The 45-year-old Senegalese director , who favors business suits and smokes a pipe, was in town for the showing of his movie. He seemed a bit bewildered by all the acclaim – and by questions that ranged from “Aimez-vous Godard?” to “Why did you at first refuse to come to the United States?”

“I was reluctant to come to this country for two reasons,” he says slowly. “First, because it is the Americans who are making war in Vietnam, and second, because I do not approve of reserving one place for whites and another for blacks. In Senegal, all men are equal.”

But once he changed his mind about coming, Sembene lost no time in getting here, and getting acquainted with the people. He roamed Times Square, met with the Black Panthers and the Muslims in Harlem, talked with middle-class black families, partied with the hip film crowd at the Ginger Man, and took bashful bows from his box at Alice Tully Hall. About the only thing he didn’t find time for was sitting through movies made by other directors.

“Films can travel,” he says, smiling. “New York can’t. I find this city fascinating and would like to know it much better than I do. I have the impression that it is really two cities. When one arrives in Harlem, one begins to sense the other city. I saw much sadness there. Sadness and dirtiness. Many cities are dirty, but why is it that in New York only the Puerto Rican and black sections are dirty?

“One cannot say, of course, that New York is America. But all over there is a certain amount of corruption. That is why black people in America want things that come from Africa to be superior. They have a nostalgic, idealistic vision of Africa. That’s the reason the middle-class blacks in New York feel badly about my movie ‘Mandabi’ – it doesn’t present a beautiful, glowing picture of Africa. The thing I was trying to do in it was to show Africans some of the deplorable conditions under which they themselves live. When one creates, one doesn’t think of the world; one thinks of his own country. It is, after all, the Africans who will ultimately bring about change in Africa – not the Americans or the French or the Russians or the Chinese.

“Black Americans have difficulty understanding Africa because they themselves are so busy searching for a cultural base. What they must come to realize is that they are Americans and we are Africans, and that our problems are not necessarily the same. The important question is what kind of society they want, and since America is what she is, the blacks will never be able to change things alone. Blacks and whites in America must work together – either toward capitalism or socialism – but they must work together. There is no other way.”

Sembene himself says that he would like to be a Marxist but that it is not easy to be one “in a society like Africa, where liberty is limited and the economy is controlled by the United States, France, England, Spain, Portugal and Germany. These countries talk of helping us, but it is really their own interests that they are defending. When you borrow money from America, she expects you to buy things from her in return.”

Money is not the great problem for Sembene that it once was, although his wife still works full time as a midwife to help make ends meet. But their 11-year-old son has never known the poverty that Sembene knew as a child.

Sembene’s father, a fisherman, lived the deprived life of a black man in a French territory – Senegal did not achieve her independence until 1960. “I have earned my own living since I was 15,” Sembene says without bitterness. “First as a fisherman, then a mason, then a mechanic.”

There was seldom money for luxuries, but whenever he could manage to get together the price of a ticket, he would head for one of Dakar’s movie palaces--dark, humid houses that thrust him into the big, bright world of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Wallace Beery and Shirley Temple.

During World War II, Sembene saw action with a Senegalese unit of the French army. Afterward, he settled in Marseilles in order to study French – his ambition was to become a writer, and books are seldom printed in Wolof, the native language of Senegal. To pay for his studies, he took a job as a dockworker. In a sense, that job shaped his entire career. When his first book was published in 1956, it was called “The Black Docker” and it told of the terrible working conditions on the Marseilles docks and of Sembene’s efforts to organize the black laborers.

“The Black Docker” was followed by several novels and a collection of short stories, and yet Sembene was not altogether happy with his success as a writer. He was not reaching the people he wanted most to reach – the natives of Senegal who could read only Wolof. It was this sense of frustration that led him finally into film, where the image is the message and where a story can be told in more than one language (“Mandabi” was shot over a 5-week period in both French and Wolof versions. The version shown here was the Wolof).

His movie career got under way when he accepted an invitation to go to Russia and study for a year at the Moscow Film School. Armed with cinematic concepts, he returned to Dakar and, in 1963, completed his first film, a downbeat short feature called “Borom Saret,” about a cart driver who is unable to feed his family. In 1966, he made “Black Girl,” the grim story of a Dakar Girl who is degraded by her French employers. While both films have their ardent supporters, it was not until “Mandabi” – his first comedy and his first color film – that Sembene became a director of international consequence.

And like most directors of consequence, Sembene has definite ideas about what makes a movie a movie. At a time when plots are about as fashionable as bobby sox, he stubbornly clings to the story line. “I cannot accept a movie that has no plot. You must have a story,” he insists. Nor has he warmed to the current trend toward nudity and sex. “It is really rather stupid. You go to a 90-minute movie and 10 minutes is spent on the credits, one-half hour is spent on sex, and then the camera starts searching and searching, endlessly searching. It doesn’t leave much time for the story.”

On the subject of actors, he is a bit more flexible. “Acting is not considered a profession in Senegal. The beautiful young woman in ‘Black Girl’ is still a seamstress, although she recently went to Moscow to play Mrs. Lumumba in a film. And Mamadou Guye, who was so marvelous as the hero of ‘Mandabi,' was discovered working behind a desk in a tiny office at an airline company. He’s still sitting behind that desk.”

But Sembene prefers such nonprofessionals for his movies. “Professional actors are simply not convincing as laborers, as ordinary human beings. Of course, if the story seems right,” he says, puffing thoughtfully on his pipe, “I might consider using a professional actor one day. They do make wonderful gangsters and dead kings.”

TO READ MORE OF GUY FLATLEY'S INTERVIEWS WITH DIRECTORS--INCLUDING JEAN-LUC GODARD, ALFRED HITCHCOCK, BILLY WILDER, FRANCOIS TRUFFAUT, MARTIN SCORSESE, MIKE NICHOLS, PIER PAOLO PASOLINI, LARS VON TRIER, MICHELANGEO ANTONIONI, FRANK CAPRA, VITTORIO DE SICA, DOROTHY ARZNER AND WOODY ALLEN--CLICK HERE.