From Sembène to Today: Tracing the Vibrant History of Cinema in Senegal

Ousmane Sembène (1923-2007): the “Father of African Cinema” 

Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène made a lasting contribution to the African and international film scene. He used his films to portray the lives of Senegalese citizens while also asserting his political views. During World War II Sembène traveled to France to fight in the Free French forces in 1944. After the end of the war, Sembène remained in Marseille and worked as a dockhand while also teaching himself to read and write in French. His first passion was literature and many of his films began as short stories or novels that he wrote. Sembène wanted his work to reach the masses, but there were widespread illiteracy rates in Senegal and about 80% of the population did not know how to read or speak French. Film then became his desired medium and he trained at the Gorsky Film School for one year to hone his craft. Sembène created his first film Borom Sarret in 1963 on a used 16mm camera and leftover film that was sent from his friends in Europe. Borom Sarret made history as the first African film to be made by a black African. To bring this film to the masses, Sembène toured around remote villages in Senegal screening the film and leading discussions. Sembène continued to create successful films including Niaye (1964), La Noire de… (1966), and Mandabi (1968) which were all adapted from his short stories. La Noire de… (1966) which portrays the harsh reality of a Senegalese woman's journey to France became the first African film to win the Prix Jean Vigo. Sembène built the African film industry from the ground up with limited resources and funding. The success of his films paved the way for the creation of the African film industry notably in Nigeria and for the success of future African filmmakers. 

The Shifting Role of Cinema in Senegal 

During the period of French colonization in Senegal, film was used as a tool to affirm the colonial hierarchy. Cinemas were segregated and the films shown to African audiences were heavily censored by the government. Additionally, cinemas were mainly built in cities so rural communities did not have access to this form of entertainment. Ousmane Sembène’s film success in the 1960s created a growing desire for other Senegalese citizens to create and consume films. In 1973, filmmakers put pressure on the government to nationalize cinemas and the SIDEC (Société Sénégalaise d’Importation, de Distribution et d’Exploitation cinématographique) was created. SIDEC built theaters in smaller cities and by the late 1980s there were around 80 theaters throughout the country. This led to the Golden Age of cinema in Senegal with classic films released in this period such as Touki Bouki by Djibril Diop Mambéty. Senegal struggled with debt in the 1990s and its lenders the IMF and the World Bank advised the government to cut funding for cultural institutions which directly impacted the cinema industry. Many cinemas were sold and used for other purposes and Senegalese filmmakers struggled to find funding leading to a slower period for the film industry. In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in creating films in Senegal. Senegalese director Mati Diop won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019 for her movie Atlantics. Atlantics made history as the first film directed by a black woman to be presented at the festival. French companies have begun opening up cinemas in Senegal, notably in the capital of Dakar. Additionally, there have been investments in production companies and film workshops in Senegal which will likely lead to an increase in locally produced films. 

Marodi TV: The Success of Local Streaming

Due to the declining presence of cinemas, many Senegalese citizens began streaming content at home. To adapt to the new streaming landscape, there has been a recent increase in Senegalese television content made in Wolof language. Around 70% of the Senegal population speaks Wolof so this content is able to reach a wide audience. One example of a hit television show in Wolof is Dinama Nekh which first premiered in 2013. This show is a social satire that follows two women who create schemes for men to give them money. In recent years, Dinama Nekh has been dubbed in French in order to reach audiences in francophone Africa and France. Senegalese television shows are also being produced on a larger scale through the production company Marodi TV that offers a large selection of local shows. Marodi TV was created in 2015 and has 4.8 million subscribers on YouTube. A few examples of popular shows created by Marodi TV include Karma, Emprises, and Mistress of a Married Man. These shows are streamed on YouTube and local and Pan-African TV channels. In March of 2024, the Canal+ Group invested in Marodi TV and the two companies are working to create programming in Pulaar, which is spoken by the Fulani community in Senegal, Guinea, and Mali. In the coming years, we can expect to see a growing presence of Marodi TV shows on international and French streaming sites! 

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