This semester, as part of my research into the state of Ethiopia’s film industry, I am auditing a seminar on African Cinema, and the class naturally has begun with films by one of the most famous African film-makers, Ousmane Sembene. After watching his films Borom Sarret, La Noire de…, Mandabi, and Xala, we have now watched his 1977 film Ceddo, a film set in the seventeenth century about the conflict between the local traditions of a west African town and the encroaching religions of Islam and Christianity. The film stages the tragic disintegration of a community and presents a dark view of religion (whether the traditional indigenous religion, Islam, or Catholic) as mere pretext for power politics and greed. The movie reminds me of the famous 1961 novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, but Sembene’s film is far darker than Achebe’s novel and more directly satirical in its mockery of religious leaders. In Sembene’s film, we have the short-of-stature, Napoleonic, power-hungry imam and the curiously mute European slave trader whom the common people hilariously call “the white man who sells alcohol” and who operates in concert with the Catholic missionary. Perhaps because of this dim view of religious leaders, and because things do actually fall apart as violence among factions escalates, and because the movie concludes with the killing of the king, the priest, and the imam, the movie was temporarily banned by the Senegalese government in 1977. You can watch the movie subtitled in its entirety on YouTube here:
There are many things to say about this movie. For example, the reversal of the colonial gaze back upon the colonizer, as Manthia Diawara discusses in his book African Film (2010), when he suggests that Sembene’s “naturalistic and documentary approach to creating fiction out of reality… is a kind of reverse anthropology in which the gaze and the voice belong to the Africans” (page 95). Alongside that, we might note the emphasis on the traditional art of political oratory and debate and the film’s thematic resemblance to Walter Rodney’s book about the “underdevelopment of Africa” due to the power politics of colonialism, published just a few years before Sembene made his film. We might also talk about the movie in terms of Frantz Fanon’s question of whether anti-colonial violence is justified in the name of national unity and the future of the “new man” who must emerge from that struggle. However, because the entire plot revolves around the character of the Princess Dior Yacine, who we might imagine to be a “new woman” representing the Fanonian dialectic, I want to focus on the question of the figuration of woman in Sembene’s movies.
In this film, the princess has been kidnapped by the “ceddo” (common people) in protest against the rising influence that the imam has with their king and the new oppressive decrees that disrupt their traditional lives. The catalyst that precipitates this event is when the imam insists that the inheritance of the king must be patrilineal according to Islamic law rather than matrilineal according to local custom, thus prompting the nephew to organize a rebellion. When the princess is first captured, she proudly asserts her Muslim identity and the alliance between her father (King Demba War) with the imam. The rest of the story is about the attempt to rescue the feisty princess from her captors by the various patrilineal heirs to the throne, who are killed in their attempt one by one, and which results in an escalation of violence and the need for guns, which the Catholic Europeans are more than happy to provide in exchange for slaves until the priest is killed when the Catholic compound is raided. Meanwhile, after all of the king’s sons have been killed in their attempts to gallantly rescue the princess, the king mysteriously dies (assassinated by the imam), and into the power vacuum the imam steps in and begins to force a mass conversion to Islam. The princess is finally rescued just as the imam is in the midst of shaving the heads of each and every ceddo male and giving him a new Muslim name, but in a dramatic plot twist, she takes up a rifle and shoots the iman with the apparent support of the community.
This plot twist is foreshadowed during the princess’s captivity as she gradually sheds her Muslim identity by shedding her clothes as she waits proudly and gorgeously for her chance at escape or rescue. According to an article in Jump Cut by Gorham Kindem and Martha Steele about the “Women in Sembene’s Films,” Sembene’s films show a connection between the forces of colonial oppression and gender oppression and suggest that women had a more “exalted position place” in traditional society than they did in the Islamic and Christian-influenced colonial society. The describe a typology of gender roles in Sembene’s films that includes the allegorical figure of the mother, the symbol of fertility, the trophy (or object of pursuit and patriarchal power), and the militant warrior leading her people against oppression. They argue that the pleasure of the film Ceddo is in the collective identification with Princess Dior and the allegory of Princess Dior’s transformation into a symbol of unity for the people, which she must accomplish by shedding the symbols of privilege, class, and religious distinction (her clothes) and taking up arms.
I find the argument by Kindem and Steele compelling, but I would suggest that it overemphasizes the return to the traditional culture of a matrilineal society through the invocation of an indigenous typology. In Sembene’s film, the traditionalists are just as guilty as the Muslims and Christians for using their religion as a means to political power. Although the article posits a complex “third-world” synthesis of Marxist neo-realist film style with African traditions and argues that Sembene’s female characters function in the narrative as a link between Africa’s past and future, it is unclear whether we are to celebrate Sembene’s progressive forward-looking feminism or the traditionalism that the cultural allegory invokes.
Rather, in my view, the figuration of woman in this way is an uneasy symbolic displacement of the tensions of postcolonial Africa and the debates about the film industry narrated in chapter four of Manthia Diawara’s book African Cinema (1992). There Diawara describes a tension between the nationalist, anti-colonialist goals of the Federation Panafricaine des Cineaste (FEPACI) in the 1970s and the freedom of film-makers to make aesthetically interesting, culturally complex, and political critical films that would not be mere propaganda subordinate to national interests. One discerns a classic ideological contradiction in the goal of developing “national” cinema in Africa at a moment of profound social transformation and the conflict between Afrocentric assertions about the value of traditional culture, the desire to modernize, and the leadership’s appeal to Muslim and Christian identities to give moral legitimacy to their positions of power. In this context, it seems to me that the figuration of “woman” in Ousmane Sembene’s films, and the scopophilic pleasure of her disrobing, is a fantasy of political unity — a desire for political unity that is allegorized by the figure of a beautiful woman. It is she whom all the town is looking for as it struggles to define itself and overcome dissent. In contrast to the men, who are constantly debating, we rarely hear the princess speak. Her symbolic power is naturalized in the narrative, which is why she need not speak, but can communicate with her people by a mere look. Thus it is her image that the camera focuses on, and the “looking relations” between her and the ceddo created by some fancy editing in the final scene that create a sense of the town’s potential political future.