Senegalese Cinema

What does a responsible traveler do when he finds out he’s bound for a country that, mere moments ago, he could not identify on a round of Worldle? Why, he hunts down its recent & famous films on the internet.

La Noire de… (Black Girl)

A shimmering black-and-white portrait of a Senegalese woman drawn into despair when she is spirited away to dispiriting France as a house-servant. The film, based on one of writer and director Ousmane Sembene’s short stories, is by turns haunting and shrill. Released in 1966, Black Girl was Sembene’s debut feature-length film, and despite its cardboard-cutout depiction of the French matriarch, it allows us to understand the residue of French colonialism through the eyes of those who have borne its brunt. The film offers indelible moments: the maid Diouana’s taunting walk across a monument commemorating the Senegalese who died in the service of the French in WW II, her masked brother pursuing her former master through the streets of their Dakar neighborhood, her family’s dignified refusal of wergeld. For a thoughtful, downright reverent review of the film, read Criterion Collection critic Ashley Clark‘s commentary at

Borom Serrat (The Wagoner)

This quiet 20-minute film was Sembene’s first—and among the first films produced in Sub-Saharan Africa. Those who know and love the great films of Italian neorealism will recognize their influence in Borom Serrat—perhaps most clearly from Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. Sembene’s film explores Dakar’s poverty as we follow the Wagoner through his daily labor—which sometimes includes payment and sometimes not. Most memorable is the Wagoner’s journey to a cemetery, where his riders include one living and one dead. For those wishing to sample Sembene’s narrative artistry, a brief search on Youtube will lead you to Borom Serrat.


The documentary that started my wife and I on our Senegalese film odyssey, Sembene! is an affectionate film biography of the legendary Dakar director Ousmane Sembene, which includes lengthy excerpts from most of his eleven signature film projects. Mt. Holyoke College professor Samba Gadjigo, who wrote a biography of Sembene that his film is based on, recalls his friendship with the great African director. Ousmane Sembene was not an easy companion, and while Gadjigo adores his biographical subject, Sembene! is no hagiography; interpolated interviews with Sembene’s son are particularly revelatory. Nonetheless, Gadjigo’s biography leaves us intrigued and inspired by this remarkable Senegalese artist. But then follows the challenge: finding all of Sembene’s films hiding out on the internet. One can only hope for a Sembene film festival in a not-too-distant city—or perhaps a featured retrospective on The Criterion Channel.

Grand Comme le Baobab (Tall as the Baobab Tree)

This lovely, complex film has what I might call “pastoral pacing”; one feels like a cowherd, watching this (usually) polite, excruciating family drama unfold. While I admire films that grab me by the collar and force me to stare into injustice (see the next film on my list, La Pirogue), Tall as the Baobab Tree asks me to listen patiently and understand injustice in the context of tradition and good intentions. We peer inside the daily lives of a Senegalese family, where the parents, their son, and the two sisters we come to know best, Coumba and 11-year-old Debo, speak to one another with unfailing kindness; you will wait in vain for the sort of “explosive confrontation” you expect from an American family drama. The plot line is simple: after his son falls from a tree whilst tending his herd, a father arranges a marriage for his younger daughter, in order to raise money for his family; Coumba, the college-bound elder daughter, works to prevent the marriage. The film’s resolution is not so simple, however.

La Pirogue (The Pirogue)

Between 2005 and 2010, some 30,000 climate refugees fled West Africa for Europe. This startling statistic I hadn’t encountered till the credits rolled in Dakar director Moussa Touré’s La Pirogue. Hollywood Reporter critic Stephen Dalton, reporting on the film’s 2012 screening at Cannes, declared that “Foreign interest will be limited” in La Pirogue—but in fact Touré tells the West a tale it has rarely heard in his documentary-style film. The director’s use of closeups and his avoidance of disaster-at-sea clichés grants us insight into the choice climate refugees must make between remaining in their impoverished homelands or tempting the Fates in a risky, almost foolhardy journey on the open ocean. In those aforementioned credits, Touré reports that of the 30,000 seaborne West African refugees, some 5000 died. As Dalton says (with a hint of condescension I will ignore): “[T]his universal story could easily serve as a dramatically gripping primer on topical immigration issues to schoolchildren across the globe, from Arizona to Afghanistan.” To his observation I would merely add, to us comfortable Western adults as well.