Diouana: “Back in Dakar they must be saying: “Diouana is happy in France. She has a good life.” For me, France is the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom and my bedroom.”
Sometimes, on a whim, I like to imagine what would happen if the Catholic Church canonized filmmakers. The idea isn’t too far-fetched. After all, the Church already has patron saints for painters (St. Luke), actors (St. Genesius of Rome), and even singers (St. Gregory the Great). So who would be the patron saints for film directors? I usually like to think that each country has a patron saint. For France, I would choose Robert Bresson or Francois Truffaut. For Italy, it would be either Federico Fellini or Roberto Rossellini. Japan would get to pick from Kurosawa, Ozu, or Mizoguchi. As for America, that could be tricky. Common sense would say Cecil B. DeMille, John Ford, or D. W. Griffith, but I like to imagine Orson Welles or Martin Scorsese. Hey, it’s my list. They don’t have to be dead or even Catholic to be my choice.
I guess that my point is that every film-making culture has a director whose work is so important, so vital, and so influential that it borders on the sacred. Their work is a wellspring of cultural identity and pride which inspires their fellow countrymen to pick up movie cameras and to create great films. So how do we choose who to venerate? For countries that have a long history with the cinema, it can be difficult. But other times, the answer is obvious. Such is the case with Africa and their great godfather of cinema, the eternal Ousmane Sembène.
Born in Senegal in 1923, Sembène would spend his life documenting the plight of his fellow Africans. He started as an author, writing novels about the evils of colonial governments and later about corrupt African governments. His books would establish him as one of Africa’s greatest writers, along with Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. But he began to realize that if he wanted to reach a wider audience, he would have to expand beyond literature. After all, many of his novels remain un-translated, thereby limiting their appeal abroad. So, at forty years old, he decided to become a filmmaker.
His first feature film, La Noire de…, was the first feature length film released by a sub-Saharan African director. Essentially, with this film, Sembène became Africa’s first director. Jonathon Rosenbaum argues in his book Movies as Politics that La Noire de… was, “the symbolic genesis of sub-Saharan African filmmaking, at least to the extent that the authorship belonged to a born and bred African.” With it, Sembène proved to the world that Africa had its own distinct voice in the world of cinema.
The film centers around a young Senegalese woman from Dakar named Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) who is hired by a French couple to be their nanny. She moves to France to live with the couple. Moving from Africa was a difficult decision, but she is enthralled with the opportunity of living in France. She has dreams of buying expensive clothing with her wages. Until she gets her first paycheck, she even walks around in spike heels. But it soon becomes apparent that something is amiss.
There are no children at the couple’s house. At least, not at first. It seems that they are studying abroad. In the meantime, however, Diouana is made to do all kinds of housework. She has to sweep, scrub, do laundry, brew coffee, and all other manner of tedious chores. At one point she is even made to cook “African food” for the couple’s friends. She removes as much of the spices as she can, but alas, it is still too spicy. It dawns of Diouana that she was never meant to be a nanny. Instead, the couple have essentially bought a maid. But then again, the promise of a paycheck goes unfulfilled. In reality, the couple has purchased a slave.
They begin to order her with a bell. The housewife transforms into a tyrant, screaming at her for things like not making the coffee for her before she woke up. She doesn’t let her eat until she does her work. Diouana quickly becomes disillusioned with her job. Refusing to let herself become their servant (or dare I say slave) she slashes her throat in the bathtub. Her tragic end is only punctuated by the French man traveling back to Diouana’s home with the intent of paying her family her back wages. They refuse his money. By refusing the money, Diouana’s position as an unpaid servant is confirmed. Confused, the man walks back to his ship.
A short film (only clocking in at 65 minutes) it nevertheless remains a powerful piece of cinema. It speaks to the powerful topic of post-colonial identity. While many readers may be surprised at Diouana’s treatment, I would remind them that this was only a few years after Senegal formally declared its independence from France. Could it be that the couple was using Diouana to fulfill their subconscious need for superiority over their lost territory? It’s very possible. But I would propose another interpretation of the film. Instead of hiring Diouana as an act of revenge, I believe that they were hiring her because she was exotic. Let’s look at the facts.
She prepares African food for their friends. They wanted to impress them with their worldliness. Of course, this is foiled by the fact that the food was cooked in a way that was sensitive to their tastes. But no matter. The guests go on about impressed they are. At one point, one of the guests stands up and addresses Diouana, saying that he has never kissed a black woman before. He grabs and embraces her. Satisfied, he sits back down. To them, Diouana is an attraction. The couple is more than happy to show her off.
But then we need to examine a recurring symbol in the film: an African mask that Diouana gives the couple when they hire her. Overjoyed at her new position, she grabs a mask from a small boy in the street of her village and presents it to her new employers. They look at it, admire it, and announce that it appears to be the real thing. They proudly display it upon their wall for all to see. They don’t realize that it is a worthless mask. To them, it represents exotic Africa. Repeatedly throughout the film, it stares down at Diouana as she descends further and further into depression over her new lot in life. Finally, after she cannot take it anymore, she takes it off the wall. When she kills herself in the bathroom, the mask sits there in the room with her.
Anyone who sees La Noire de… will instantly realize the handiwork of a master craftsman. Perhaps it was because Sembène started as a director when he was so old that he was able to create such magnificently realized films. I like what Roger Ebert said about Sembène when he wrote about his last film, Moolaadé (2004), “[Sembène] must have lived enough, suffered enough and laughed enough to find the wisdom of age.” I couldn’t agree more. Even when we go back to his earlier work like La Noire de… we find a man who is in complete control of his story and what he wants to say. It is emotional without being melodramatic. It has a message without seeming preachy. All he does is tell a simple story. What else could we expect from the great Saint Sembène?
Rosenbaum, Jonathan (1997). Movies as Politics. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press. pp. 284.