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African film expert to discuss work of ‘father of African cinema’

The work of Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, dubbed "the father of African cinema" by The Los Angeles Times, will be the topic of a talk at UB by Françoise Pfaff, a Fulbright scholar and pioneer of African-American film studies.

By BERT GAMBINI

Published April 14, 2016

“Sembene’s success opened doors and paved the way for generations of independent cineastes from Africa and the Black Diaspora.”
Françoise Pfaff, professor emerita
Howard University

Françoise Pfaff, a Fulbright scholar and pioneer of African-American film studies, will visit UB April 19 to discuss the life and career of Ousmane Sembene (1932-2007), the writer and film director who The Los Angeles Times called “the father of African cinema.”

Her talk, “Maids, Wives and Women Warriors: Gender relations in the works of Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene,” will take place at 2 p.m. in 107 Capen Hall, North Campus. It is free and open to the public. A reception will immediately follow at 4:30 p.m.

The lecture will include clips and film stills from Sembene’s most influential works.

“Sembene uses forceful portrayals of African women to challenge patriarchy at both the domestic and national levels,” says Pfaff. “He stresses the resourcefulness and resilience of African women, as well as their activism as agents for social change.”

Pfaff, a professor emerita at Howard University, is the author of three books on African cinema and the recipient of several awards for her achievements as a teacher, translator, lecturer and writer.

“Sembene’s success opened doors and paved the way for generations of independent cineastes from Africa and the Black Diaspora,” she says.

Today, in fact, the Nigerian film industry, often referred to as Nollywood, is the second-largest film industry by volume in the world — ahead of Hollywood and behind Bollywood, according to Fortune Magazine.

Pfaff met Sembene in the late 1970s when he visited Howard University. She soon started to incorporate his novels and films into her courses and later received a grant to conduct research in Senegal. Her interviews there with Sembene resulted in the book “The Cinema of Ousmane Sembene: A Pioneer of African Cinema (1984),” the first about an African filmmaker written in English.

“I enjoy using his didactic approach to film as a pedagogical tool and my students consistently develop a more realistic perception of the continent,” says Pfaff.

Sembene began his career as a novelist, but turned to cinema not long after writing his 1960 masterpiece, “God’s Bits of Wood.”

Already established as one of Africa’s greatest writers, Sembene’s film work sprang from Senegal’s independence era. His filmography, beginning in 1963, touches five decades and has been noted for an authenticity that helped dismantle Western screen portrayals of Africans.

“African cinema has presented multifaceted views — by Africans, on Africa — that are in sharp contrast to stereotypical, monolithic, ‘otherizing’ Hollywood and European depictions,” says Pfaff.

“I create to talk to my people, my country,” Sembene told London’s Guardian newspaper in 2005. “The priority is that my people can understand me. Africa needs to see its own reflection. A society progresses by asking questions of itself, so I want to be an artist who questions his people.”

Prior to 1960, French colonial authorities prohibited Africans from making their own movies. Sembene’s entry into the medium was a personal artistic shift that took him from page to screen while simultaneously creating the African film industry.

“He was committed to social justice,” says Lillian S. Williams, associate professor in UB’s Department of Transnational Studies, who established the endowed lectureship, now in its second year, in the former Department of African American Studies, now a program within the Department of Transnational Studies.

“I think the issues that Sembene addresses are issues that we’re facing now when we look at Africa and other parts of the world.”

It was Pfaff’s scholarship that helped place African film in context and brought the work of noted filmmakers, including Sembene, into a wider public view, according to Williams, who was a Howard faculty member with Pfaff in the mid-1980s before coming to UB.

“Sembene’s films help us to better understand a culture,” Williams says.

It’s a body of work that Pfaff says uses a blend of art and politics.

“Rather than purvey Utopian dreams about the continent, his works project cinema as a ‘night school’ to present a wide range of real cultural, political and economic issues that have affected his country and other African nations,” she says.

Sembene is also the subject of recent film work.

The documentary “Sembene!,” co-directed by Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman, premiered last year at the Sundance Film Festival and also played at the Cannes Film Festival and the Venice Film Festival.