13:30 - 15:00
Room: Muirhead – Room 112
Stream: African Cinema Audiences
Anulika Agina
A Radical Cinema For The People By A Man Of The People: But Do The People Get The Message?
Firinne Ni Chreachain
Ahmadu Bello University (retired), Middlesex

Reception of Sembene’s films in 1960s and 1970s Senegal

This paper explores the reaction of Senegalese cinema-goers to Sembene’s films of the 1960s and 1970s, in the general context of producing radical, politically-committed cinema for the masses under the new neo-colonial dispensation. Radical cinema is this context was, from one perspective, all about audience reaction: Sembene’s pioneering switch of medium from literature in French to film in African languages was motivated primarily by the need to expose the exploitative neo-colonial system to the exploited themselves and inspire them to fight back. In other words, without the desired audience response and reaction, the film had missed the mark. On the other hand, this study takes as a given that the analysis of audience response, especially in the context of a politically committed, consciousness-raising, call-to-action cinema, cannot be isolated from the total journey made by the film from the contextually-conditioned head of the film-maker, through the vagaries of the neo-colonial modes of production and distribution, all the way to the architectural structure and social environment where the contextually-conditioned masses finally sit down and react to it. In other words, our approach to audience analysis is necessarily interdisciplinary, acknowledging the vital role of the historical, sociological, cultural and political determinants which condition both film-maker and audience.

Committed literature (Sartre’s littérature engagée) had been experimented with in the 1950s as a medium to raise African consciousness and inspire the masses to fight back. But the writers, the new Western educated petty-bourgeoisie, had quickly realised that they were separated from their target audience by a gulf of language (European v. African), education (Western v. traditional), choice of medium (written v. oral) and the world-view and way of life of their own class, relatively removed as they now were to varying degrees from their oppressed and exploited fellow-Africans.

Against such a backdrop, cinema and Sembene might appear as the answer to a revolutionary prayer:

  • Cinema because it would substitute images for written pages inaccessible to the target audience, most of whom had not be given the opportunity to attend the colonial school, and would introduce them to screen characters like themselves speaking Wolof or Mandinka as opposed to French, which 90% of the ‘francophone’ population did not speak after over 70 years of colonial rule.
  • Sembene because he was an exception to the rule among artists of the day, being from a socially and economically disadvantaged background like the audience he wanted to reach.

Only the very naïve, however, would be blind to the contradictions of such a pioneering venture. Film production requires capital and capitalists may not be in a hurry to finance films with anti-capitalist messages. Neo-colonial capitalist distributors may not be willing to risk showing obscure works by unknown African film-makers that nobody will pay money to see.

And even if all these challenges are overcome, will the film-maker be in cultural consonance with his target audience to such a degree that the revolutionary message will hit home?

This is the question the fieldwork research on which this study is based set out to answer. The fieldwork yielded a considerable body of oral and written material, collected in Dakar in the 1990s. Politicians, academics, journalists, other film-makers, actors, teachers, students and school pupils, technicians, motor mechanics, and of course, Sembene himself and members of his family, all gave generously of their time to produce hour upon hour of recorded interviews. The older generation had watched Sembene’s films when they came out for the first time in the 1960s and 1970s, while the younger interviewees had seen them more recently on TV. The library of Cheikh Anta Diop University delivered up kilometres of written responses to the films in contemporary national and local newspapers, both by professional reviewers and members of the public.

African cinema has evolved out of recognition since Sembene’s pioneering work first reached his own people. In 2018, with the Nollywood home video in the ascendant, and critical theory tackling very different ground and differently-conditioned audiences, this paper does not aspire to make a game-changing contribution. But it is hopefully of historical interest, capturing a pioneering stage of African cinema and the responses of some early African cinema audiences.

Th-A05 Cinema 3-P-003
Firinne Ni Chreachain
Presentation type:
Muirhead – Room 112
Anulika Agina
Thursday, 13 September
14:00 - 14:15
Session times:
13:30 - 15:00