This 1963 short film, considered the first African-made African film, remains relevant 40 years later
The renowned Senegalese novelist and director Ousmane Sembene is widely recognised as exploring the modernisation of traditional cultures as a central theme in his films. His early films like the 18-minute black-and-white Borom Sarret (Senegal, 1963) are often described as being more concerned with the desire to bring about social change in an emerging postcolonial African society than with an awareness of visual representation and filmic representation in particular. Yet a re-viewing of Borom Sarret some 40 years after it was made suggests to me that this view is too limited and that Sembene’s early work repays re-viewing in the light of contemporary social and cultural theories of modernity and identity. And further, that while it is true that the film is not visually innovative, it is premised on an intriguing theory of how film could be used to understand the self as a reflexive project in an emerging postcolonial society.
Borom Sarret is celebrated as the first film made by a black African. It is amongst the first, and certainly one of the most insightful, representations of the social life of a people lost in the space between traditional and postcolonial society. But Sembene was profoundly interested in social change and his raison d’etre for making films was to reach the widest audience of Africans living in a postcolonial world and draw them into the project of constructing their own future.
Borom Sarret is the story of a poor cart driver by that name who tries to earn a living by driving equally poor passengers around Dakar in his horse-drawn vehicle. Although he never asks for payment, he clearly expects it, but none is forthcoming, causing him to grumble and complain. His failure to understand that he must conclude a contract with his passengers whereby they pay him for his services means that he is always disappointed, taken advantage of and penniless. Eventually he picks up a man who is delivering his child’s body to the cemetery. The man is refused entry because he does not have the correct papers, so Sarret leaves the child’s body on the ground and departs. A well-dressed man persuades him to take him to a wealthy area of the city (“He’s happy to be leaving the native quarter”). Here the roads are lined with trees and the houses impress Sarret. European classical music replaces traditional Senegalese music on the soundtrack. He is stopped by a black policeman who fines him and takes his cart as payment. The well-to-do passenger leaves without paying and Sarret has now lost the means by which he attempted to earn his living. He returns home, blaming the chain of events and the people who led him into the wealthy quarter. When he tells his wife that he has no money and has lost his cart, she hands him the baby to mind and leaves to find money for food. The unspoken implication is that she is prostituting herself to feed her family.
The film has much in common with de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (The Bicycle Thief in the U.S.). Both narratives are structured like parables. Both are the stories of poor men whose misfortunes are made worse because they lose their means of earning a living (a cart, a bicycle). Both men are simple and naïve, less able than their wives to deal with the practicalities of daily life. The realist aesthetic of the films invites comparison. Both employ nonactors and are shot in the real streets of cities.
A crucial difference, however, is that Borom Sarret has none of the sentimentality found in Bicycle Thieves. Sembene is critical of his characters. The better-off refuse payment for services they accept while their victims are so servile and acquiescent that they make no protest. Sembene, unlike de Sica, is concerned with issues of race and postcolonial culture as well as issues of class. All the characters in Borom Sarret are black. Sembene alludes to European presence in the soundtrack accompanying the scenes in the wealthy quarter called “The Plateau” (“The Heights”) by shooting the buildings there from below so they appear as immense structures towering over Sarret, a wealthy and powerful force shaping and distorting social relations among the poor black Senegalese.
Sarret is one of the urban poor suspended between traditional African society and the modern urban society created by the Europeans. He makes several references to his “new life” (“The new life has reduced me to slavery but I am noble”) and to modern life (“Women nowadays — who can understand them?”). When he stops at some traffic lights, he reflects that their control of his actions is like being in prison. As a character, he can be seen as a traditional man unaware that he is now living in a radically new form of society — a modern society emerging in a postcolonial world.
In making this distinction between traditional and modern society I am drawing on the work of Anthony Giddens, who describes how social roles and identities are ascribed as “givens” in traditional societies but emerge as problematic lived experiences that must be continually created in the modernist context.
I would add that in a modern society many social relationships and particularly those we call “commercial” must be made explicit and constantly negotiated. Sarret fails to understand this and so never asks for payment from his passengers and is therefore never paid. Once again, he behaves as a “traditional” man who continues to assume that payment will be forthcoming because it is inscribed in the conditions of social life. However, he has failed to realise that every passenger in this new social context in which he now lives requires that the rules of reciprocity must be explicitly negotiated each time. His failure to create a contractual arrangement with his passengers means that he is constantly taken advantage of. His comment on the traffic lights can be understood in this same context. He experiences them as imposing an explicit set of rules (“stop”, “get ready”, “go”) that constrain his spontaneous actions.
When Sarret reflects on the causes of his poverty, he blames the passengers he picked up before he lost his cart because one led him to the cemetery and the next into the wealthy quarter. He does not take any responsibility himself. He fails to understand the role of his own actions in causing his loss because he sees himself as powerless and unable to influence events (“We’ll have to wait for God’s mercy”). He understands religion as the ultimate arbiter of events and does not see that he not only accepts injustice but perpetuates it when he gives away the family’s money to a storyteller he encounters at lunch-time and leaves the man with his dead child’s body at the gates of the cemetery. He is resigned to the plight of others and seems unable to empathise with them. His lack of awareness of the power of his own actions and the new social context he inhabits has dehumanised and demeaned him. His false understanding of his own position is tied up with his practice of his religion and his fascination with the storyteller. He seeks consolation and escape in religion and stories of his glorious past. But above all, his predicament is the result of his failure to understand the consequences for himself and his very self-identity of the new world he inhabits.
Storytelling and religion are depicted as legitimising existing power relations by appealing to the sanctity of immemorial traditions. They are ideologies that sustain the relations of domination and the power structure in which both Borom Sarret and the African audience to whom the film is addressed reside. The film is intended to subvert these ideologies by a particular use of visual representation.
Film for Sembene is a privileged form of representation because it allows him to communicate with an illiterate audience and, even more importantly, with an audience not used to seeing itself represented. The act of representing is an act of affirmation and a kind of bringing into being. Filmic representation has an immediacy and a kind of transparency created from the illusion that it is conjuring up the world directly before our eyes. If the late Edward Said continually posed the question of who has the authority to represent whom, Sembene can be seen as posing the prior question of who is even represented? Borom Sarret is not only an affirmation of a people denied but also a critique of their passivity, their treatment of each other, their subservience to tradition, and of the ways in which they have allowed themselves to become dehumanised. It is Sembene’s intention to show the black, urban poor of Senegal to themselves and reveal the true conditions of their social life and their own role in creating and maintaining it. His wish is that they acquire self-knowledge and fashion a new conception of themselves and the power of their own actions in order to bring about change. This is a modernist concept of the self — the idea of self-identity as something that is constructed — constructed through a series of choices made by individuals. It is an explicit recognition that self and society are concepts that are intertwined and constantly constructed, negotiated, made and remade. They are no longer the taken-for-granted certainties that anchor the traditional society but elusive experiences that only exist because of the subject’s constant effort that they should do so.
The premise of Borom Sarret is that self-awareness leading to self-knowledge is the beginning of all moral and political change and that filmic representation can be instrumental in creating that knowledge. Filmic representation is thereby privileged as a means of creating reflexivity in a certain context. This role of film as an instance of mass media is opposed to that of Adorno, who could only conceptualise the mass media as a means of stupefying the masses in a capitalist society. For Sembene, film can be a catalyst for social change because its ability to approximate the appearance of reality is more powerful and complete than that available in any other mass media.
Works cited for this article include T. Adorno et al.’s Culture Industry (Routledge, 2001), A. Giddens’Modernity and Self-Identity (Polity Press, 1991), and Edward Said’s Orientalism (Vintage Books, 1979). Note: This article previously appeared in different form in the estimable online journal Film-Philosophy. Reprinted with permission.