Two Films by Ousmane Sembène: Black Girl (La noire de...)/Borom Sarret Review
Diouana (M'Bissine Thèrèse Diop) is a young Senegalese woman who travels from Dakar to Antibes to work for a French couple (Anne-Marie Jelinek and Robert Fontaine). Expecting to be employed as a nanny, she finds herself as a maid of all work and is treated as little more than a servant. As she remembers her previous life in Senegal, she begins to question her new life in France.
The Senegalese Ousmane Sembène (1923-2007) was not the first filmmaker from sub-Saharan Africa – Paulin Vieyra, born in what was then Dahomey and is now Benin and educated in Senegal, who was his production manager on Xala and Mandabi, directed at least two short films in the 1950s, C'était il y a 4 ans (a film which does not have an IMDB entry at the time of writing) and Afrique sur Seine, both in 1955 – but his stature in the cinema of the continent is beyond doubt. Black Girl (La noire de...), a shade under an hour long, was the first feature film made in that part of the continent. Sembène was born in Senegal but was educated in a French school and served during World War II in a Senegalese corps of the French army. In 1947 he left for France where he worked in factories and on the docks and became involved with the trade union movement and joined the Communist Party. His first novel, Le docker noir (1956) drew on his experiences. Further novels appeared, but in the early 1960s, Sembène developed an interest in filmmaking and studied for a year at the Gorky Film School in Moscow.
Borom Sarret, made in 1963, was Sembène's first film, shot in black and white 35mm. The title translates as "The Wagoner", and the title character (Ly Abdoulay) is trying to make a living plying his trade on the streets of Dakar. However, it soon becomes clear that he is frequently taken advantage of, both by his customers and the authorities. The film shows the poverty of Sembène's native country, something that independence had not solved. Borom Sarret was clearly shot with limited resources: there's no direct sound, with the majority of the soundtrack given over to voiceover and music, and dialogue scenes in long shot to disguise the lack of lipsynch. However, Sembène's eye for an image is evident from the outset, and this short film (running 20:04 including restoration logos and captions) does linger in the mind.
Sembène was largely raised by his maternal grandmother, and a concern with the position of women is prevalent in his work. (His final film, Mooladé, from 2004, deals with the issue of female genital mutilation.) That concern is very apparent in Black Girl, based on his own novella and inspired by a true story. Diouana – pronounced, approximately, "Joanna" – is front and centre. As with Borom Sarret, much of the soundtrack is given to her voiceover, particularly in the flashbacks to Dakar, which show her with her family and also how she became to be employed by Madame. (Diouana's in the only character name spoken in the film's dialogue but if you look very quickly at the newspaper article late on – your pause button may be of use here – you'll see that her employers' surname is Petit.) The film also passes a retrospective Bechdel Test: there are many conversations between women – and not just employer-maid ones between Madame and Diouana – which are not about men. Visually, the film is striking, with documentary-like camerawork (again, black and white 35mm, benefiting considerably from this 4K restoration) influenced by the then-recent New Wave in the country Sembène had lived much of his life in. Black Girl is not an optimistic film, and is a despairing one, but it has considerable impact.
Two Films by Ousmane Sembène is a dual-format release by the BFI. A Blu-ray checkdisc was supplied for review. The transfers for both films are derived from 4K restorations by Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project. (A box set of three other films restored by the WCP was released in 2013 by Masters of Cinema and is reviewed by Clydefro Jones here.) This is the first time either film has been certified by the BBFC (Black Girl a 15 for reasons which are a plot spoiler, Borom Sarret a U), though they were both in 16mm distribution at least as far back as 1972, distributed then by Politkino.
Both films are transferred in the ratio of 1.33:1, which is unusual but not unheard of for mid-60s 35mm films. Both films were restored from the original camera negatives, in 4K resolution as stated above, and both look marvellous: sharp with plenty of natural grain. There's a slight softness to parts of Borom Sarret but that is I'm sure down to the original materials. Screengrabs follow, Borom Sarret first.
The soundtrack is the original mono in both cases, rendered in LCPM 2.0. Both are clear and well balanced, taken into consideration the limitations of the source in Borom Sarret especially. There is much more sync sound in Black Girl, though Madame and Monsieur's voices are provided by different actors to the ones playing them on screen. English subtitles are optionally available for these French-language films.
There are two versions of Black Girl on this disc: the all-black-and-white film which played theatrically and a version which includes one sequence which was black and white theatrically in colour. Both versions are otherwise identical, running 59:17 including the restoration logos and captions. This sequence runs from 4:06 to 4:55, just after Monsieur picks up Diouana from the airport and consists of shots of Antibes as he drives her to his house. This sequence was transferred from a 35mm archive print. There are two lines of dialogue heard during this sequence, and the subtitles are burned in to the print rather than being electronic and optional as they are elsewhere. Screengrab follows.
On to the extras, and there is what is billed as "Snatches of conversation with M'Bissine Thèrèse Diop" (13:48). This interview took place in 2005, forty years after the film was made, and Diop is clearly very proud of her place in the history of African cinema in her only screen acting role. She speaks in French, with optional subtitles provided.
Two documentaries concentrate on Ousmane Sembène. Sembène: A Portrait (12:03) was made in 2003 and covers, via still photographs and some film extracts with a voiceover narration (in French, with optional subtitles, the director's life and career. Although it was made while its subject was still alive – and had one more film to make – it has a regretful air towards the end when it refers to projects Sembène wanted to make and in fact never would. Sembène: The Making of African Cinema (60:36), made in 1994, meets the director at the Pan-African Film Festival in Ouagadougou where he is interviewed on stage and we see extracts from some of his films (which in the case of the two on the disc show what a difference a restoration can make). Sembène is also interviewed through an interpreter (though subtitles are still provided for the French parts) and is seen talking to students in Dakar and at his home overlooking the sea as he discusses his career in films, the effects of colonialism and claiming Africa as his home – something which his African-American interviewer takes to heart.
The BFI's booklet runs to sixteen pages and features an essay by Samba Gadjigo which is an overview of Sembène's life and career and which finishes with a brief discussion of both of the films on this disc. This is followed by a two-page memoir of Sembène by his son Alain, which takes us up to these films' restoration. Also in the booklet are credits for both films and brief notes and credits on the extras, stills and transfer notes.