The Forgotten Auteur
At the end of the year, everyone will look back on what filmmakers are no longer with us. People will mourn Bergman and Antonioni, and some will mourn Adrienne Shelly. Few people will remember that this year we lost Ousmane Sembene, one of the great unrecognized directors. When his death was announced, I had no idea who he was. A little research gave me a basic introduction, and in the months since, I have seen Xala and Black Girl. This is hardly a comprehensive look at his feature films, but it is more than most people get, and his films deserve to be seen much more.
Sembene's films are surprisingly even-handed. His main characters are fully developed and three-dimensional, and Sembene is not afraid to show the negative sides of his protagonists. Though this comes naturally with the story of Xala, Sembene easily could have made the titular Black Girl into a martyr for Africa. He didn't, and the film benefits greatly from the character's negative aspects. Xala tells the story of a despicable man, yet we align ourselves with him and his plight. This kind of complication adds to the film's depth, and it tells of Sembene's storytelling abilities.
Sembene is also a strongly feminist director. His female characters are relatable, and his stories often involve women struggling against their positions in society. Black Girl is about an under-appreciated maid trying to prove her worth to herself. Xala involves a man and his third marriage. Occasionally, Sembene diverts from the main story to show the man's daughter reacting to her mother's position. This conflict is just as compelling as the man's attempt to undo the curse placed on him, because it is rooted in real characters facing real conflicts. It's also not metaphorical, unlike most of Sembene's stories.
This isn't meant to say that his metaphors are overbearing in any way. They're not. In fact, if I hadn't been told about it beforehand, I probably wouldn't have recognized the metaphor behind the powerlessness in Xala. It's there for the deeper interpretation, but it coexists with the surface plot in a way that allows a strong interaction without either one dominating. This sort of storytelling stands out in an age when subtlety may be the rarest narrative device that filmmakers use. Sembene was one of a kind, and his films should be seen much more widely than they are.