Ousmane Smbene’s Spatial Stories

Ousmane Sémbene is the most prominent name in African cinema. His films, ‘La Noire de …” and ‘Mandabi, were released in 1966 and 1968, respectively. They tell powerful stories about the legacy of colonialism and identity. These two films, which are slow-paced and’slices-of-life stories’, also provide a valuable spatial critique about the location where they were made. This helps to understand the intricacies and contrast between African and European cities.

“La Noire De …'” is a touching, poignant film about a Senegalese nurse who works in France for her white employers. Although she was previously employed in Senegal as a child carer, she now works in France as a housemaid, cleaning and cooking. She is treated with contempt by her employer. She feels lonely and is living in a high-rise apartment in France.

The film shows in vivid detail the urban qualities of a postcolonial African city. Mbissine Therese Diop plays the titular character Diouana. Medina is a “native neighborhood” that was established by French colonialists as a Cordon Sanitaire in 1914. This decree allowed the legal relocation of Dakar’s native residents into the city’s peripheries. Sembene shows this area in Sembene’s film as an informal collection housing with corrugated-iron roofs and wood. The dusty roads are a sign to the viewer that it is at most a section of the city intentionally left undiscovered by the colonial government.

The city’s segregated nature is exposed when Diouana leaves Medina for Dakar’s centre to search for work. To reach the city center, Diouana must climb a footbridge. This is implicitly closed off by the railway tracks. We see impressive high-rise apartments with breezeblocks and brisesoleil that are representative of the tropical modernist style found in Africa in the 1950s, 60s. While structures like these are often hailed as a symbol of a free Senegal, Diouana sees through her eyes how infrastructural elements function in an unjust society. The quiet streets and wide lanes of the city center seem a world away from the Medina area.

The Medina district. Image Courtesy of Janus Films

We are once again privy, when Diouana is forced to move to France by her employer, to another kind of spatial experience: that of the exploited immigrant. Diouana cannot see the beauty of the French Rivera because she is restricted to her apartment. Instead, she is restricted to her apartment, which includes the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and lounge. This makes her a prisoner who cannot enjoy the city of Marseille. This disturbing reality is still evident in modern society. Many domestic workers who are migrant have to live in cramped, uncomfortable spaces.

Mandabi is, however, a lighter film with a more scathing critique of colonialism. The film follows Ibrahim, the protagonist’s futile efforts to cash a money transfer he received from a relative in France. Ibrahim is an unemployed husband to two wives who lives in the most poorest part of Dakar. Ibrahim’s life is not ideal but viewers are left to marvel at the complex, communal nature this Senegalese area.

Diouana confined to her apartment. Image Courtesy of Janus Films

It is common for neighbors to spill into each others’ homes, and there is an informality with many chance encounters between the characters as they leave their houses. This is far from the neighborhood where Diouana is employed in ‘La Noire de …’. However, the area is more planned and orderly, but it is also less lonely. It is a gated community that Sembene considers to be a traditional, community-oriented way of living Senegalese.

Mandabi offers a confusing and dizzying view of modern Dakar, but it doesn’t limit its attention to Ibrahim’s neighborhood. Ibrahim was able to find an identity card and a birth certificate to help him process his money order. This bureaucratic circus takes place in a French-inspired administrative structure, which is housed within the city hall, bank, and Modernist Post Office. There is still informality outside these buildings and in central London. For example, a small studio for photography draws large crowds. This is a fascinating case because it reflects how post-colonial cities around world are made up many layers.

Ibrahim heading into the city hall. Image Courtesy of Janus Films

Although Mandabi and La Noire De… are only two of Sembene’s films, they tell a lot about the complexity of modernisation after colonialism. These films also serve as reminders that our spatial environment, which is part of our daily lives, is much more important than we may think.