Plot: The camera travels with a poor cart-driver through a day's work as he struggles to make a living. As he picks up and drops off passengers, including a man carrying his child's body to the cemetery, the harsh terms of daily life for the poor are dramatized. Crisis strikes when he drives his cart into the old colonial sector, where horse-carts are prohibited, and he suffers a seemingly unpayable fine.
Style: The black and white film, among Sembene's first, was filmed with an old camera capable only of a minute's shooting, which he brought back with him from film school in Moscow. There is no synch sound. It makes its statements--on the lives of the poor and the enduring legacy of inequality left by colonialism--through a neorealist, non-narrated, dialogue-less portrayal of a slice of life.
Background on director/film: Ousmane Sembene, perhaps sub-Saharan Africa's most noted director, sees himself as a modern incarnation of the griot, the tribal storyteller, king's "jester" and obstreperous voice of the people. Sembene describes his art as influenced by independence movements as much as by film movements. "We had to see, feel and understand ourselves through the mirror of film," he told Francoise Pfaff in The Cinema of Ousmane Sembene. "For us, African filmmakers, it was then necessary to become political, to become involved in a struggle against all the ills of man's cupidity, envy, individualism, the nouveau-riche mentality, and all the things we have inherited from the colonial and neocolonial systems."
Born in 1923 into a Muslim fishing family in Senegal, he dropped out of school in Dakar for lack of funds, and got involved both in union and theatrical activities in the city. After fighting in the French colonial troops during World War II, he worked as a longshoreman in Marseilles. In France, he participated in the politico-cultural activities of the international community, including the international Negritude movement and anti-colonial protest.
Determined to create politically engaged art, he began writing novels, drawing for his first on his political activity on the docks. His writing career sent him on international travels, including to the Soviet Union (where he met W.E.B. DuBois). Upon publishing the novel God's Bits of Wood, about a Senegal railroad strike he had participated in, he became one of the stars of the international creative community cultivated by French intellectuals such as Sartre.
Returning to Africa and observing the small circulation of his own novels, he became convinced that film would be a more powerful medium. His search for funds to study film netted him only one offer, in the Soviet Union, and he studied film for a year there.
Since then, Sembene has at several-year intervals produced narrative dramas typically drawn from his own novels and the tensions of Senegalese society, including Mandabi (The Money Order, 1968), Emitai (1971), Xala (1975) Ceddo (1976) and Camp de Thiaroye (1989). Sembene's style has evolved from the straightforward neorealism of Borom Sarret and La Noire de... to a style that has been called "disenchanted fables" (Pfaff) and "African realism" (Turvey and others). His films are narratives with highly defined and socially-exemplary characters. His films never carry a simple denunciation of white colonialism or a cheerleading endorsement of an officialist "African culture." Rather, his theme is the struggle to create an authentic national culture.
Film production context: Cinema has been an embattled cultural front in postcolonial, largely neocolonial black Africa. The few films produced per year (for instance, in the first half of the 1980s, some 68 features were produced in 13 countries) are supported in part by politically unpredictable governments, nurtured by their individual creators, and challenged by international distributors whose hold dates from colonial times. The founding fathers of African cinema have their roots in the Paris-based, pan-African Negritude movement, and have struggled to float several international projects, including film distribution and exhibition.
Importance: Borom Sarret demonstrates the influence of neorealism on international cinema in the developing world, and shows what can be done with minimal resources. It also serves as contrast to Sembene's more complex works. Finally, it offers a close-up view of the harsh contrasts existing within an African city, where horse carts and luxury cars co-exist but do not (except in violation) cross each others' paths.Other reading:
Last updated on September 17, 1996
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