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Short of the Week: An essential film by Ousmane Sembène

'Borom Sarret' - Ousmane Sembène

Ousmane Sembène is often regarded as one of the chief visionaries in the history of African cinema, more commonly known as the “father of African film”. Although he started out as a writer, Sembène managed to conduct unprecedented investigations when he eventually ventured into the uncharted territory of filmmaking.

Mostly known for his seminal classics such as Black Girl and Mandabi which gained international attention, Sembène had a crucial impact on the future of African cinema. His cinematic visions are indispensable texts when it comes to post-colonialism and are widely studied and discussed by students and scholars to this day.

For this edition of Short of the Week, we have chosen the first short film ever produced by Sembène in 1963 – Borom Sarret (The Wagoner). It was the first production that was fully controlled by the director and provides crucial insights into the problems of post-colonialism and the inherent divides of class.

In an interview, the director explained: “When I made Borom Sarret it was my first film and I didn’t have the awareness that I have now. But I wanted to show the European area and Africans who had adopted a European life style. The only music I could relate to them was the classical music, the minuets of the 18th century, because it conforms to their mentality.”

Sembène structures each and every element (including the music) very carefully in his early exploration of post-independence Senegal. Set in Dakar, it follows the daily activities of a poor wagoner who is punished by the authorities for taking a customer into the elite part of town which is off-limits for the oppressed.

Elaborating on his views, Sembène said: “I think all of this indicates a search on our part, a search for African filmmaking. Often in European films the music is gratuitous. It’s true that it is pleasant to hear, but culturally, does it leave us with anything? I think the best film you could possibly have would be one which left you with the question: ‘Was there any music in this film or not?'”

Watch the short below.