A group of women sits in the searing African sun, their silence a potent, unmoving rebuke to the French soldiers who are holding them hostage for rice. An African princess, bathing in the ocean, is wordlessly captured by two of her Wolof brethren, who wish to protest their tribe's conversion to Islam by kidnapping their leader's daughter.
These are just two of the striking images from "Emitai" and "Ceddo," two rarely seen films by the Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, which open for a week's run tonight at the Orpheum Cinema in Fells Point.
Made in the 1970s, these films are considered classics by a man commonly acknowledged to be the most important filmmaker to emanate from Africa. Structurally complex and often poetically mystical, they challenge Western ways of seeing -- conditioned by years of hermetically pristine Hollywood constructions -- in their crude, sometimes primitive style. But for filmgoers willing to accompany Sembene on his trip through African history, their rewards are manifold.
Ousmane Sembene was born in 1923 in Senegal. He dropped out of school and eventually moved to France, where he worked as a mechanic and dockworker while working on his novels. In the early 1960s -- about the same time Martin Scorsese entered New York University film school -- Sembene decided that the cinema was the only way his stories would reach a wider audience; he went to Russia to study film with director Mark Donskoi. In 1965, he made his first film, "Black Girl," which traced the experiences of an African housekeeper living in France. A striking study of dislocation and loneliness, "Black Girl" also referred to African traditions and culture -- in this case, the metaphor of a mask -- which Sembene would revisit throughout his work.
"Emitai," which was released in 1971, is set in the waning days of World War II, when Vichy France is forcibly "enlisting" the men of that country's colonies. In a tiny Diola village, a revolt begins when the men defer to their gods rather than the white man's wishes; the women, having harvested the rice crop, hide the grain instead of giving it over as a "tax." Without a note of music or any other extraneous narrative device, "Emitai" plunges the viewer deep into the lives of the Diola, to the point where the subtitles translating the Diola and French languages are almost superfluous. When the posters of Marshal Petain are replaced with a portrait of de Gaulle, Sembene's point couldn't be clearer: World events may take their course, but for a colonized people, the change is moot. (It bears noting that "Emitai" was censored for five years in French-speaking Africa.)
"Ceddo" (pronouned ched-oh) was made in 1977 and is much more an explicit product of its time, most obviously reflected in its tinny 1970s musical score. A fable about the conflicting impulses of Islam, Christianity and tribal beliefs that beset Senegal in the 19th century, it is a fascinating conglomeration of time periods and states of consciousness: During a scene in a 19th-century village, for example, a contemporary patio umbrella will appear, along with a musical score featuring what sounds like American gospel hymns. The effect is disconcerting, and quite beautiful, and again Sembene makes his point -- about the repetitive nature of history, the relativity of time, the subtleties of interracial and intra-racial oppression -- using the rich imagery and spoken traditions of his country.
"Emitai" and "Ceddo" are the first installments of a monthlong tribute to African filmmakers at the Orpheum. On Feb. 16, Sembene's 1994 film, "Guelwaar," starts its week run, and on Feb. 23, "Samba Traore," by Burkina Faso filmmaker Idrissa Ouedraogo, begins. This is a terrific opportunity to see films that may not come through Baltimore for a very long time, and it's a chance to see filmmaking that has been considered so subversive that colonial governments have suppressed it. Go, open your eyes, and be dazzled.
Pub Date: 2/02/98