November 12-14

Spass (1982)

1.  Public letter-writer orders boy to take off mask, “which suggests a rejection of African values in favor of literacy”  Does Sembène see film as a way to circumvent the necessity to become literate through traditional means?  Was there a lack of African literature at the time?  Do Sembène’s films assert an African literature of the people?  If someone from Senegal was to become literate, would they have to consume only French and European works, thereby distancing themselves from the potential for literature based on true African values?

2.  Spass discusses the ambiguity of the film’s original title that is lost in the English translation. What other subtleties of this film might a viewer who doesn’t speak French be missing out on?

3. There is an underlying presence of gender-based oppression in this film but Sembene does not seem to address it directly. How do Diouana’s experiences with gender-based violence or subjugation change from Dakar to France? Why does it seem that Sembene chose to portray the boyfriend in Senegal as almost more coercive (like when he felt Diouana up) then the French husband (whose actions toward Diouana are almost generous in comparison to his wife’s treatment)? Spass explains, “Since he is not directly threatened by Diouana’s possible rebellion, the husband can be civil and more humane. Yet he still functions in the general context of exploitative capitalism.” Under this logic, is the husband an accurate representation of the white, male, European dominant forces as a whole? Is he aware of his role in the dynamic he has created between the wife and Diouana?

4.  Spass says, “In fact, the film suggests that the Senegalese government and the black elite at large participate in maintaining capitalist oppression. “ Can we talk about this – specifically the manner in which Senghor maintained Western capitalist oppression but also the ways that Sembene represented this in the film – in more detail?

5.  Lieve Spass comments on the “traditional prejudice” of the male/female treatment in “Black Girl”. We also saw in “Memories of Underdevelopment” the fairly sexist portrayal of women.  Both portrayals of women in the films may not reflect the directors’ attitudes towards women, but what do they reflect about the treatment and role of women in these countries? What are examples of female directors or screenwriters during this time, who react to these portrayals of women? Are there any?

6.  The Jump Cut article for Black Girl talks about how the film “blends traditional African ‘storytelling’ devices with experimental film language.” I picked up on the experimental film language, but since I am unfamiliar with African storytelling, I can’t exactly point to examples of such devices. What are some elements of African storytelling and where are they used in the film?

Scott (2007)

1.  Mandabi was “attacked in Africa for its portrayal of political corruption and economic devestation, and Emitai (1972) was surpressed in France for five years because of its harsh depiction of colonialism.” (65)  Sembène does not seem to be afraid to piss off people in power and detached from the real world around him.  But at the same time, his films were so effective because he did not eschew the common African.  Sembène “tempered moral fervor with warmth and humor,” (64) and his “trademark empathy” kept his films accessible to those he intended to be the primary viewers–the people of Africa.  Is this more effective than other avant-garde and formerly colonized artists of the 60s?

Mortimer (1972)

1.  “…a new written literature had been born to complement the rich heritage of the oral tradition.” (26)  Does film more accurately reflect the oral tradition?  Oral storytelling does not require the audience to be literate in a linguistic sense, but it does require the audience use their imagination to understand the story.  Literature requires a similar use of imagination, yet it also requires the capability to read.  Film on the other hand does not require viewers to be able to read.  However, film also takes away the imaginative aspect on the part of the viewers.  We are usually seeing the world as imagined by the director / producer, and in that case, it most accurately reflects the image they the director would like to instill in the audience.  Although, there are many oral stories that rely on the individuality of each audience member’s imagined take on the story.

2.  Ousmane Sembene is quoted in Robert Mortimer’s article “Ousmane Sembene and the Cinema of Decolonization,” saying that movies offered a greater opportunity than books to “crystallize a new consciousness among the masses” (64). Mortimer concludes that for Sembene “The step into filmmaking was as much a political act as an artistic choice” but that even given his political agenda he still was not willing to “sacrifice his artistic integrity” (64). I cannot help but compare the tension between art and politics within Sembene’s Black Girl and Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment. Sembene was an ardent Marxist, Alea a more detached social critic. Both were critical, but Sembene had a much more cogent agenda. Both are credited with creating films for their respective communities—Sembene’s art is for the Senegalese, Alea’s for the Cubans, but Sembene’s could perhaps be qualified as more legible and Alea’s as more avant-garde. My question then is – Whose filmmaking techniques (unique utilizations of Italian neo-realism amongst them) were more effective in balancing the political with the artistic? Were the differences in their approaches appropriate given their different contexts/positionalities? Whose work is more relevant for politicization of the people today?


Landy points out, “The mask seems to signify the African culture appropriated and exploited by the French and rendered inert. Does Diouana’s offering it to her employers symbolize for Africans willing, though unaware, collaboration with the European?” Can we explore this metaphor further? It seems as though this transaction could be misinterpreted as African complacency, or even enthusiasm, for not only collaboration with but also submission to the European forces. What exactly does Diouana’s handing of the African mask signify?

General Questions:

1.  Ousmane Sembene uses a woman as his central character in Black Girl; one of the articles says that in his later films, he moves to a more collective approach, without a singular protagonist. Why did he choose a woman as his central character for this movie? Are there many film schools in Africa, or are most African filmmakers trained in other parts of the world? And if so, can African Cinema still be used as a tool for decolonizing the mind?  Why do most of Sembene’s films have female protagonists and deal with feminine oppression? Why was he concerned with females when most other film makers at the time were not? How are his narrative techniques different from Alea’s? What is the significance of the French vacationers at the beach following the protagonist’s death?  Why did Sembene include that shot?

2.  Diouana displays a striking absence of facial expression throughout the entire film. Did Sembene intend this to have some deeper significance, or is it merely the consequence of having an untrained actress? What is the significance of the fact that she expresses nearly all of her emotions through background monologues and not explicitly in the unfolding action of the film?

3.  There is clearly something powerful and complex about the narration style of the film. We never really hear Diouna speak out loud (partly because she does not speak French), but we do hear her thoughts through a voice narrator. This is particularly interesting as the voice narrator is still in French, rather than with translations. The silencing of Diouna is a symbol of her inability to speak for herself and really shows the French colonial effects of cultural subordination over Africans. What effect does this choice of narration have, and what message does it send to the viewers?

4.  How can we apply Fanon’s movement to de-colonizing the mind to the narration of Diouana’s post-colonial thoughts, especially her European idealism, in both France and Dakar. How does Diouana’s experience in Dakar and France symbolize the racial but also connection to class troubles?

5.  The clothing that Diouana wears in the beginning represents her interest and desire to become more European and fit in, as the first scene she wears high heels, polka-dot dress, necklace of pearls and a wig that covers up most of her natural hair. What is the significance of the clothes she wears in the film, comparing the clothes she wore when she worked for the family in Dakar to when she moved to France? How is the apron and other scenes with clothing symbols of her entrapment and domestication? When she wears the heels to clean up the apartment, and not really to “send photos back to Dakar and make her friends jealous”, what feelings arise? Pity? Anger?

6.  What is the significance of the mask after it is returned to Dakar, especially when Diouana’s brother follows the husband until he gets in his car and the final screen shot is off the mask?

7.  In “I Wasn’t Always a Filmmaker,” Tomas Alea explains that movies “are, first of all, performances – and, therefore, esthetic productions, sources of pleasure…” and that because of this fact, any movie that attempts to make a statement or spur some kind of dialectic without respect to the visual/artistically pleasing aspect is not only not a good film but will fail in its message. Does Sembene share a similar view? How is his philosophy similar or different than Alea’s, and how does he incorporate aesthetic value into Black Girl without trivializing any aspect of it or its critiques of colonialism, de-colonization, gender politics, etc?

8.  Sembene’s work has been criticized and banned by both African and French governments alike for its depictions of political corruption, economic devastation, and colonialism. How was his work received by other parts of the world at the time and how is it remembered/talked about today, in both Western Africa and France?

9.  What other dichotomies are present in Black Girl besides black and white?

10.  What does Diouana’s suicide symbolize, other than simply her rejection of her captor’s oppression/aggression?

11. It was a little unclear to me (and perhaps it is meant to be unclear) but is the letter that Diouana receives from her mother supposedly actually from her mother? Or has her feeling of entrapment driving her into paranoia and delusion?

12.  After the sudden, jarring violence of the scene when Diouana kills herself, it opened up the possibility for more violence in what was left of the film and felt myself anticipating danger to befall the husband when he went back to Dakar to deliver Diouana’s suitcase to her mother. Is this an appropriate reaction? The suspense was built further as the child followed him back with the mask on, as if some omen haunting him for his involvement in Diouana’s death. Am I reading this correctly?

13. Just like in Cuban cinema, one main criticism that one could make about Ousmane Sembene’s cinema is that it still undermines the role of women (idea that, in Black Girl Diouana is the ‘sacrificer’, and that it is a boy who embodies hope and the future). How come we came to picture the 60’s as the decade of the liberation of women if worldwide, the same age-old archetypes were still used to depict women ?

14.  Sembene saw films as a way to educate and liberate people in an illiterate country, to create « a new consciousness among the masses ». To what extent did he achieve his goal ? Did his films have the impact he was hoping for ?

15. As we continue to watch Memories of Underdevelopment it is very clear that there is a lot of ambiguity in the Alea’s message. If he were trying to get a point across, why wouldn’t he make it more straightforward to allow it to disseminate at its full capacity? How and where should you draw the line between artistic or new elements and a widely comprehensible message?

16.  I found Black Girl very difficult to get through. Who made up the contemporary audience for this film and how was it received?  Who is Sembene’s ideal audience? How is he attempting to engage both Westerners and Africans? Would his message be the same for both groups of people? Why are his narrative techniques not meant to identify with the viewers?

17.  Ousmane Sembène wanted to have an open forum after the screenings of his films – how effective were these forums in raising awareness about pressing issues and conditions in Senegal or Africa?  How accessible were his films to the general public?

18.  The Spass article mentions that the film was created so that anyone of any literacy level could appreciate it. Because I don’t understand french and subtitles are sometimes difficult to capture the full range of a foreign language, I didn’t notice the simplicity of the language the first time around. I suppose I thought it was part of the poetry of the dialogue in the scope of the film world, not necessarily a consideration to make the film more accessible for people.

19.  How did studying in Russia affect Sembène’s development as a filmmaker? Would his style and message have differed had he studied elsewhere?

20.  How did Sembène get the funding to independently produce Black Girl?

21.  What characterizes neorealistic films?

Contributors: Kristen Aguilar, Elizabeth Foody, Caroline Goodwin, Stewart Hoffman, Aurore Jacques, Kristina Johansson, Joyce Ma, Hanna Mahon, Brian Parker, Adam Schreiber, Alex Strott

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