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Translating the Postcolonial in Multilingual Contexts

Judith Misrahi-Barak
Srilata Ravi

Translators’ Africa

Enacting Postcolonial Translation: Voice, Color and Free Indirect Discourse in the Restored Version of Ousmane Sembène’s La Noire De

Tobias Warner


Ousmane Sembène encountered a host of financial, logistical, and bureaucratic problems during the production of La Noire de... (1966). This essay studies how those difficulties forced Sembène to make changes to the voices of characters and to the color of the film stock. Due to funding difficulties, the main character Diouana is played on-screen by the Senegalese actress Thérèse M’Bissine Diop but in the soundtrack the performance is that of the Haitian actress and singer Toto Bissainthe. Sembène also had to cut a short sequence in color because he lacked the proper accreditation to direct a feature film. I compare the widely available print of the film with a version recently restored by the Archives françaises du film. My argument is that La Noire de... foregrounds its own constraints to transform them into meditations on translatability, postcolonial subjectivity and the limits of authorial expressivity in film. I analyze Sembène’s use of voice and color as examples of free indirect discourse. Established understandings of free indirect discourse in cinema by Gilles Deleuze and Pier Paolo Pasolini frame the mode as transcending the distinction between character and camera. But La Noire de... uses free indirect discourse in a different way, to make the viewer feel the challenges of producing the film. Drawing on this expanded notion of free indirect discourse, I show how Sembène deploys both voice and color to thematize a further limitation he faced—the fact that he was not (yet) able to make a film in an African language.

Texte intégral

I started to make [La Noire de...] without the authorization of the National Center of the French Cinema. However, as it was a coproduction between Domirev (Dakar) and Les Actualités Françaises, it needed one. Due to a vicious circle I could not obtain authorization because I did not have the professional card since to obtain one it is necessary to have already made a film or to have been assistant (which I did not want to be). Finally we realized that by presenting La Noire de... as a short film (less than one hour) it would be easier to regularize the situation with the CNC. [...] So I cut all the color scenes....
Sembène, 1969 Interview with Guy Hennebelle (Busch and Annas 2008: 9)

  • 1 I am very grateful to Laurent Bismuth of the Archives françaises du film for helping me locate a re (...)
  • 2 For an excellent overview of the challenges faced by francophone African filmmakers in this period, (...)

1Ousmane Sembène encountered a host of financial, logistical, and bureaucratic problems as he tried to shoot, edit and distribute La Noire de...1 Although the film would go on to widespread acclaim upon its release, Sembène’s struggles to produce La Noire de... capture the many challenges that francophone African filmmakers faced in the early independence era, a period in which a variety of neocolonial institutions restricted access to capital, regulated the ability to work, and determined which bodies and performances could play a role on screen.2

  • 3 See Diawara 26 and Vieyra 82. As Diawara also notes, the Coopération nonetheless acquired the right (...)

2Sembène’s troubles began with the script for the film. La Noire de... was an adaptation of his own short story of the same name. Both the text and the film focus on Diouana, a young Senegalese woman who finds work as a maid with a French family in Dakar. But when Diouana moves back to France with her employers, she finds herself effectively trapped in their apartment. Subjected to their constant exploitation, contempt and casual racism, she takes her own life. Sembène had hoped for support from the French Ministry of Coopération, which had funded his first film, Borom Sarret in 1963. The Coopération was the principal way francophone African film was funded at the time. But the Coopération rejected the script for La Noire de... on the basis of its subject matter, meaning that Sembène had to find a way to produce the film independently. Although he found a partner in Les Actualités Françaises, the production itself ran short on cash and staff, leading to compromises in post-production.3

  • 4 There are somewhat conflicting accounts of this aspect of the story. See Sembène’s version in Busch (...)

3Sembène had also hoped to make La Noire de... as a full-length feature. But, as he explains in the 1969 interview quoted above, he lacked the proper accreditation to make a feature. In what amounted to a bureaucratic paradox, Sembène would have had to have already made a feature film in order to be authorized to make a feature film. Since his cameraman did not have a proper director of photography card either, the Centre Français de cinématographie put pressure on Sembène’s French co-producer to cut the print down to the length of a ‘moyen métrage’ (Vieyra 1972: 83).4

  • 5 See ‘Un entretien avec T. M’Bissine Diop’ in the DVD extras on the Médiathèque des Trois Mondes edi (...)

4This essay studies how the constraints imposed on the filmmaking process shaped La Noire de... by forcing Sembène to make key changes to the voices of characters in the soundtrack and to the color of the film stock. Due to his limited budget, Sembène was unable to bring the Senegalese actress Thérèse M’Bissine Diop, who plays Diouana in the film, to Paris to record her character’s dialogue;5 instead, Diouana’s speech and interior monologues were recorded separately during post-production, using the voice of the Haitian actress and singer Toto Bissainthe. Lacking the proper accreditation to make a feature also forced Sembène to make other changes: most notably, he had to cut a short sequence in color near the beginning of the film. An all-black-and-white print was distributed instead and this is still the only version of the film that is widely available today. However, an ‘uncut’ version of the film was recently restored by the Archives françaises du film, reinstating the missing color sequence.

5In this essay, I compare the widely available print with the restored version to analyze how restrictions on voice and color left traces on the finished film itself. My argument is that La Noire de... actually foregrounds these chromatic and sonic constraints, making them into meditations on translatability, postcolonial subjectivity and the limits of authorial expressivity in film. Rather than eliding the headaches he encountered in production, Sembène transforms the changes he had to make into palpable aspects of the viewing experience. La Noire de... draws our attention to its rough edges, to the ways in which Sembène did not get to make the film he wanted to make. The film presents itself a site of translation, turning the restrictions it confronted into an immanent aspect of its aesthetic.

6To approach the film’s poetic use of its own production issues, I will analyze these moments as examples of free indirect discourse. Free indirect discourse in cinema is typically understood to refer only to sequences in which a strict separation between a character and the camera collapses. This mode has been thoughtfully explored by Gilles Deleuze and Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose theorizations I take up and extend here. Both Deleuze and Pasolini offer useful insights into cinematic free indirect discourse, but they also understand the mode as the rupture or transcendence of a boundary that exists between camera and character, objective and subjective image. While this orientation is no doubt useful in many cases, it falters when applied to La Noire de...

7In Sembène’s case, free indirect discourse—typified in the use of voice and color—involves more than the consciousness of the camera and the point of view of the character dissolving into each other. Sembène’s free indirect discourse also collapses the distinction between the character and the process of making the film. Rather than making the boundary between filmmaker and character porous, La Noire de... stages a breakdown of the barrier between the subject of representation and the very means and process of representing the subject.

8I will begin by analyzing the uncanny qualities of speech in La Noire de.... All the voices in Sembène’s film are slightly estranged from the scenes and bodies they accompany. As Rofheart points out, the film was shot silently, so the speech of characters was dubbed in post-production by actors different than the ones we see on screen (28). But the disconnect this introduces is more noticeable for some performances than others. For Madame and Monsieur—Diouana’s employers—there is little to no difference between what the viewer expects and the voices encountered in the soundtrack. But with Toto Bissainthe’s performance of Diouana’s thoughts and speech, something different occurs. Bissainthe’s sonorous French seems slightly off as the voice of a character who is not supposed to be fluent in that language.

9A voiceover in a film often promises viewers unfettered access to a character’s thoughts, but Bissainthe’s performance as the voice of Diouana’s interiority has an almost extra-diegetic quality to it. The voiceover is keyed to the ‘sense’ of what is being performed, but Bissainthe’s accent, intonation and other vocal qualities index the uneven geographies of production through which this performance passed. In short, the film plays off (and subtly critiques) the relative immobility of Diop’s body and the mobility of Bissainthe’s voice.

10This substitution of voices evokes many kinds of dislocation. On a thematic level, the palimpsestic voice of ‘Diouana’ in La Noire de... is premised on the interchangeability of the character within the film itself. We see this memorably in the vagueness of the very title of the film, as well as in the scene in which Madame searches for a new maid in Dakar, scanning a group of women behind her sunglasses. The overlaying of voices also nods to the way in which Diouana’s voice is often subject to being captured and ventriloquized. Monsieur has Diouana ‘dictate’ to him a letter to her family—which will only ever tell them that she is doing just fine, thank you, since he is the one who is writing it.

11On the other hand, though, the superimposition of Bissainthe’s voice could also be read in a restorative light. Having the Haitian actress and singer voice the thoughts of the young Senegalese protagonist makes ‘Diouana’ into a diasporic performance. The ellipses of Sembène’s title would then point not only to the character’s anonymity and disposability but also to the way in which this is a story that is repeated elsewhere. Read in this way, the deployment of Bissainthe’s voice invites us to notice the resonance of Sembène’s critique of French neocolonial racism in a more transnational frame.

12There is another fundamental disconnect to the performance of Diouana’s voice: the character ‘ought’ to speak and think in a language other than French, but the film itself was required to use French. As Murphy and Williams note, the use of Bissainthe’s voice can plausibly be understood as a way of working around this limitation, and allowing the audience access to Diouana’s interior life (57). With La Noire de..., Sembène was not (yet) able to make a film in an African language (that would have to wait until 1967, with Mandabi, and even then the process of doing so met with as many, if not more, difficulties). This linguistic limitation is never named as such within the frame of the film itself. But through the composite performance of Bissainthe-Diop, Sembène makes the viewer aware that a substitution has taken place. In an innovative transposition, he uses one constraint (the impossibility of having Diop speak her own lines) and repurposes it to thematize another limitation (the impossibility for him at this point of making cinema in African languages). Sembène’s gesture concedes the impossibility of realizing a monologue in an African language—yet—but it nonetheless insists on making a francophone viewer feel that a switch has taken place.

13But to whom is this gesture addressed? The superimposition of Bissainthe’s voice and Diop’s body is not perceptible by just any audience. Sensing Bissainthe’s contribution depends on a certain competence on the part of the viewer—namely, an awareness of accent. This competence is, of course, embodied. A francophone viewer would need a certain lived familiarity with the discursive worlds from which these voices arise to have a sense of what Diouana’s voice might sound like and a corresponding sense that Bissainthe’s speech does not quite match up. I say ‘sense’ here because the substitution of voices seems to be intended for precisely this type of uptake—to be felt, somatically, without that intuition necessarily becoming entirely conscious. Rather than being merely a compromise, a mistake, or a mis-fit, Bissainthe’s accent and intonation—in a word, her French—is there to be felt by the viewer, to give them the sense that something is off with the film’s representation of Diouana, but in a way that is difficult to pin down.

14Interestingly, Sembène never clarifies what the language (s) of Diouana’s private thoughts actually are—the character has a Manjak surname (Gomis) and is described as being originally from plurilingual Casamance (like Sembène); she has also spent time in Dakar and likely speaks some Wolof and French as well. But Diouana’s interiority is only represented in the film through a kind of translation, without there ever being a clear sense of what her ‘original’ language (s) might be. Whatever lies behind the film’s enactment of Diouana’s subjectivity-in-translation remains opaque—perhaps deliberately so. Far from being a mere imposition, then, Bissainthe’s voiceover appears to have opened up a polysemous space of aesthetic possibility for Sembène.

  • 6 This same piece of music returns near the end, after a shocking jump cut from Diouana’s lifeless bo (...)

15If we turn now to the missing color sequence in La Noire de..., a similar interpretation can be made. The scene in question occurs near the beginning of the film. After Diouana first arrives in France to continue her work as a maid for a French family, she rides in a car with her employer from Marseilles to the family home in Antibes. As Monsieur and Diouana begin their car ride, they exchange a series of curt questions and answers. ‘As-tu fait bon voyage? Oui, Monsieur. C’est beau la France. Oui, Monsieur’. As these stiff pleasantries unfold, there are a series of shots from inside the car of the picturesque country and seaside. These are from the point of view of the passenger seat, where Diouana is seated—a significant shift, since the camera before and after this sequence does not attach itself to any one character’s vantage point. As the audience looks out the window with Diouana, a jarring, almost maniacally cheery piano theme appears.6

16This sequence of shots represents a liminal period for Diouana, just after her arrival but before she reaches the apartment where her illusions about the nature of her employment in France will be destroyed. This same sequence exists in both versions of the film. But in the restored version, however, a series of four shots from inside the car are in full color, marking a sharp departure from the rest of the film with its crisp, high-contrast black and white. The color sequence is quite short, approximately 50 seconds in total (from minute 3: 12 to minute 4: 02). In the unrestored version that has been widely available, this sequence of shots is in the same black and white as the rest of the film.

17The shift to color could be understood as an indication of Diouana’s idealizations of France upon her arrival. Sembène himself lent support to this reading when he described the missing scene:

[A]t the beginning of her stay in Antibes, the girl saw all in pink. All was perfect: she had so much dreamed to go to France! Little by little, reality appeared to her, and she sunk into it. Thus I passed into the black and white. (Busch and Annas 2008: 10)

  • 7 Vieyra shares this interpretation: ‘Elle découvre la France qu’elle trouve belle. La couleur veut d (...)

18The color sequence would then represent the ‘rose colored glasses’ through which Diouana sees France.7 Even in the version that only uses black and white, the camera still gazes longingly out the window from her point of view in the same series of shots. In both versions, these shots will turn out to be some of Diouana’s last exterior views of France. As soon as she arrives, the camera begins to be more limited its movements, taking on the claustrophobia of her confinement in the family’s apartment.

19But there is a density of perspectives in this sequence that goes beyond the interpretation Sembène proposes. The shots in color are unmistakably an index of Diouana’s affective disposition (optimistic, romantic) but they are also a commentary thereon by the filmmaker (such optimism might be naive, dangerous). And there is a further level: the dissonance of the colors and the soundtrack during the car ride relative to the rest of the work marks this sequence out as kind of a film within the film—Diouana watches herself ride along in this car (in France! At last!) as if her life were a technicolor movie.

20Sembène employs a similar dynamic in the short story from which the film is adapted. In the prose version of La Noire de..., Diouana’s subjectivity is often shown to be mediated through the vocabulary of film. As she despairs at her life abroad, she asks herself ‘où était la France? Les belles villes qu’elle avait vues sur les écrans dans les salles de cinéma de Dakar’ (177). Later, in a moment of nostalgia, she thinks back on her memories of her life before as a ‘film du passé’ (181). Evoking cinema allows Sembène to trace the contours of Diouana’s subjectivity for the reader in a rather complex way. A cinematic imaginary vividly narrates affective states—her frustrated desires, nostalgia, and alienation. But this use of cinema in prose also draws attention to the way in which Diouana’s subjectivity is being staged or screened for the reader—and for the character herself. In other words, in the prose version of the work, Sembène has Diouana relate to her own lived experience and memories as if she were watching a film.

21This, I want to suggest, is also the nature of the short sequence in the car that originally existed in color: we are watching Diouana watch herself as if the experience she is having were in a movie. Rather than just being an example of ‘rose colored glasses’, this sequence has a far more recursive structure: the character is viewing her own life from the position of a spectator in a cinema. But she is watching a very different film than the audience.

22Read against each other, then, the film and the short story suggest a way of understanding this sequence not only as a representation of Diouana’s interiority but also as a gesture that reveals a prior mediation. In the wild enthusiasm of those color shots, Diouana’s vantage is presented as a site of translation, the medium of which is cinema itself. The effect of this gesture, in both versions of the film, is therefore not merely to convey ‘what Diouana is feeling’ but rather to have the camera stage the space and texture of the character’s subjectivity in such a way that the audience notices the role that film itself is playing in this enactment. The scene in the car therefore appears as an example of cinematic free indirect discourse, in which the points of view of the camera and the character merge and perform a commentary on each other, without being totally indistinguishable.

23Both the shots in color and the voiceover seemed, at first, to represent Diouana’s interiority. The monologue appeared to offer direct access to her thoughts. The shots in color purported to capture her optimism. But both of these gestures now appear in a different light, as ways in which the film points to its own inability to represent Diouana’s subjectivity in an unmediated way. The accent and intonation of the supposedly interior monologue do not line up with the character to whom they are supposed to belong. The shots in color present not the character’s point of view but a combination of the character and the filmmaker’s commentary. In both cases, elements of the film’s production have become part of the aesthetic gesture.

24While the voiceover and the shots in color both have free indirect qualities, these two aspects of the film have had different afterlives. Bissainthe’s voiceover exists in both versions of La Noire de...—the wide-release and the restored version. But since the color shots were removed during post-production, only the restored version now contains the sequence in its entirety. This raises the question of how we might read the disappearance of color from the ‘final’ print of the film.

25On the one hand, traces of Sembène’s original plan for the sequence survive in the wide-release version—the soundtrack and the position of the camera still mark this sequence off from the rest of the work and bestow on it a free indirect quality that is markedly different from the rest of the film. On the other hand, though, the total removal of color from the film stock did not leave behind a trace, at least not one that functions in quite the same way as does Diouana’s voice. There is no visual equivalent for the superimposition of Bissainthe’s voice on Diop’s performance, and no corresponding sense on the part of the viewer of the wide-release version that full color shots are missing. The free indirect qualities of color in La Noire de... are legible to us today only in a comparative perspective, in which we refrain from privileging either version as the original and instead work differentially between them. In this perspective, the garish color of the restored version and the crisp black and white palette of the wide-release version may be read together, as two facets of an aesthetic gesture that aims to comment on the filmmaking process but which was itself made subject to the compromises of that very process.

26But if we are to argue that Sembène’s use of voice and color are examples of cinematic free indirect discourse, then we must be clear that in doing so we are departing from the usual sense of that term in film studies. Free indirect discourse in cinema typically refers to shots in which it is difficult or impossible to entirely disentangle the points of view of the character and the camera. Gilles Deleuze and Pier Paolo Pasolini, the primary theorists of this mode, both understand free indirect discourse as transcending or dissolving the character/camera or subjective/objective opposition in cinema. Deleuze understands the mode through the figure of the assemblage, while for Pasolini it is the concept of the ‘doubled’ film that is crucial. And yet both of their approaches have the paradoxical effect of restricting our understanding of free indirect discourse in cinema precisely by limiting the mode to the overcoming of a character/camera polarity. Deleuze and Pasolini’s theorizations will need to be revised to account for the ways in which Sembène’s use of free indirect discourse actually incorporates constraints on the filmmaking process.

27Deleuze refers to free indirect discourse in cinema as the ‘semi-subjective’ image. His focus is on the way in which the mode makes possible an ‘assemblage of enunciation’ that is split between the consciousness of the character and that of the camera (73). As he puts it,

a character acts on the screen, and is assumed to see the world in a certain way. But simultaneously the camera sees him, and sees his world, from another point of view which thinks, reflects and transforms the viewpoint of the character. (74)

28This assemblage of camera and character can never be broken down absolutely into its component parts, nor can it be thought of as simply a mixture or average of two subjects. With Deleuze’s semi-subjective, we are ‘caught in a correlation between a perception-image and a camera-consciousness which transforms it’ (74). The mode is about ‘going beyond the subjective and the objective towards a pure Form’ (74). With the semi-subjective image, Deleuze says, it is no longer about knowing whether an image is objective or subjective. It no longer matters. The mode is no longer ‘an oscillation between two poles’ but rather an ‘immobilization according to a higher aesthetic form’ (76).

29In Sembène, though, the correlation is not between a camera-consciousness and a perception-image. Deleuze’s schema is missing a third term—the means available to represent both the character and camera’s consciousness in the first place. While Deleuze’s approach to cinematic free indirect discourse as the semi-subjective assemblage transcends the poles of subjective and objective, it remains correlated with these two elements even as it leaves them behind in a flight towards pure form. By contrast, in the instances of the free indirect in La Noire de... we not only see Diouana seeing the world and the camera seeing her, but we also feel the limits of cinematic representation itself. In Sembène’s poetic use of vocal and chromatic constraints, we encounter a mode of free indirect discourse that highlights how it was possible for the filmmaker to make a world in this way. Recast in Deleuze’s terms, we feel the assembly of the assemblage.

  • 8 Pasolini’s 1965 analysis is nearly contemporaneous with Sembène’s 1966 film, and many of the films (...)

30Pasolini’s approach to cinematic free indirect discourse is less formalist and more technical than Deleuze’s, but it shares some of the same limitations.8 Pasolini defines free indirect discourse (in prose) as a moment when ‘the author penetrates entirely into the spirit of his character, of whom he thus adopts not only the psychology but also the language’ (5). For Pasolini, direct discourse in prose finds its analog in the cinema in the subjective shot, which would be from the point of view of a particular character (usually the protagonist). Free indirect discourse in the cinema, by contrast, makes use of a character’s viewpoint, which Pasolini calls a character’s language, but it does so ‘without quotation marks’—i. e., without the filmmaker clearly signaling that a transition between the ‘language’ of the character and that of the camera is taking place (6).

31What Pasolini finds compelling about free indirect discourse is that it pulls against the tendency of a character’s social condition to determine her cinematic ‘language’. In Pasolini’s example, the class background of a character inclines her to see the world in certain ways, so a filmmaker who captures the point of view of such a character in a subjective shot would need to use those languages. But free indirect discourse allows a filmmaker to sidestep the social determinism of cinematic language by rupturing the barrier between the filmmaker and the character. In cinematic free indirect discourse, we see the world the way a character sees it, but we also see the filmmaker’s point of view on that way of seeing (6–7).

32Pasolini’s two technical examples of free indirect discourse in film are, first, ‘a close follow-up of two viewpoints, scarcely different from each other, upon the same object’; and, second, a ‘succession of two shots which frame the same portion of reality first from close in, then from a little farther away; or else first-head-on, then a little obliquely; or else, finally, quite simply, on the same alignment but with two different lenses’ (7). The last example comes closest to describing the status of color in La Noire de..., where the color of the film stock shifts as the camera merges with Diouana’s consciousness. Interestingly, neither Deleuze nor Pasolini looks beyond the visual channel to consider how sound might also have free indirect qualities in film, as it clearly seems to do in Diouana’s dislocated monologue.

33Pasolini’s most useful claim for the present discussion of Sembène is his observation that the use of the free indirect in cinema tends to produce films ‘of a double nature’ (9). These two natures include ‘the dominant state of mind in the film’ behind which ‘unwinds the other film [...] the film the author would have made even without the pretext of the visual mimesis with the protagonist’ (9). Pasolini finds that the framings and montages of cinematic free indirect discourse point ‘to the existence of this underlying, unrealized film’ which would be ‘totally and freely expressive, even expressionist’ (9). Reading Pasolini’s insight back through Sembène, though, we would need a different take on this ‘underlying, unrealized’ film. In Sembène’s case, the film is unrealized not because of the limits of the form, but because of the limits of film production that were imposed on the filmmaker. If for Pasolini the free indirect gesture is a way of ‘making the camera felt’ (10) in Sembène this is replaced with ‘making the filmmaking process be felt’. Instead of a ‘freely expressive, even expressionist’ film, we get an expressionism of aesthetic constraint.

34In his reading of Pasolini, Peter Verstraten remarks that ‘free indirect discourse makes us wonder to whom an image is to be attributed’ (125). But in La Noire de..., one wonders not to whom but to what certain visual and sonic elements can be attributed. Neither the voiceover nor the scenes in color sit comfortably within Deleuze or Pasolini’s understandings of cinematic free indirect discourse. For Sembène, the constrained production process shares the position of the camera or filmmaker in the usual understandings of free indirect discourse. With his use of both voice and color, Sembène makes the apparatus of filmmaking palpable, by pointing obliquely toward the ways in which the aesthetic decisions available to him are enmeshed in the structures of power that are beyond his sole control.

35With its intense, close tracking of Diouana’s emotional isolation and detachment during her time in France, La Noire de... may at first seem to be committed to conveying its protagonist’s lived experience in an unmediated way, as a testament to and witnessing of her alienation. This is definitely its aim on one level. But if we privilege this interpretation too quickly or completely, we risk missing a more subtle and significant feature: La Noire de... often refers to its own inability to depict Diouana’s subjectivity and story in ways that could be understood as ‘authentic’ or ‘unmediated’.

36Sembène uses the twin constraints of voice and color to speak to each other, but also to another, equally fundamental one: the impossibility of making La Noire de... in any other language besides French. Since Sembène cannot (yet) make a film in which a character speaks in an African language, he makes the viewer who accesses Diouana’s subjectivity notice the fact that a translation has taken place. The texture of subjectivity in La Noire de...—conveyed through voiceover and color—is presented to the viewer as a site of translation, the original of which is left opaque.

37This dynamic carries over into later Sembène films as well, albeit in quite different ways and to different ends. Throughout the 1960s-70s, from Borom Sarret to Mandabi to Ceddo, Sembène regularly does not get to make the films he wants to make, or at least not entirely in the way he wants to make them. As I will show in a forthcoming study, the evidence of these constraints is all over the films themselves. Indeed, these two decades of Sembène’s career are the period in which he develops a distinct aesthetic strategy that is far subtler and less heavy-handed than the political allegories for which he is rather too well known. Put simply, not all of the aesthetic gestures in these early films are of the filmmaker’s own making or choosing. Sembène finds ways to make use of the constraints he faces in creative ways. The authorial position in early Sembène is revealed in one way or another to be the product of constraints on the filmmaking process. But this very fact becomes the grounds for an aesthetic strategy of a different order, which draws these constraints into the work itself.

38In this essay I have argued for approaching this tendency in La Noire de... through the optic of cinematic free indirect discourse. Along the way, I have shown how this requires modifying the approaches of Deleuze and Pasolini. My hope is that I have reconciled two possible orientations toward the use of voice and color in La Noire de... On the one hand, a formalist approach might identify the change in the color of the film stock and the use of a voiceover and analyze what these make possible as cinematic techniques. On the other hand, a historicist reading might argue that these same formal features are really just the traces of historical contingencies that took the forms of funding issues, lack of proper permits, etc. My aim has been to overturn neither method, nor to synthesize the two dialectically. I have sought instead a point of view that would see each approach through the other, illuminating the ways in which the formal features of a work can be historical accidents, while historical accidents can rise to the level of form in their own right.


Works Cited

Busch, Annett, and Max Annas. Ousmane Sembène: Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 2008.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Diawara, Manthia. African Cinema: Politics and Culture. Indiana University Press, 1992.

Murphy, David, and Patrick Williams. Postcolonial African Cinema: Ten Directors. Manchester University Press, 2007.

Pasolini, Pier Paolo. ‘The Cinema of Poetry’. Movies and Methods 1 (1976): 542–58.

Rofheart, Mahriana. Shifting Perceptions of Migration in Senegalese Literature, Film, and Social Media. Lexington Books, 2013.

Sembène, Ousmane. Voltaique. Présence Africaine, 1998.

Sembène, Ousmane. La Noire de.... DVD, La Médiathèque des Trois Mondes, 2008.

Sembène, Ousmane. La Noire de.... Film 35 mm, Les Archives françaises du film, Centre national du cinéma, Bois d’Arcy.

Ukadike, Nwachukwu Frank. Black African Cinema. University of California Press, 1994.

Verstraten, Peter. ‘A Cinema of Modernist Poetic Prose: On Antonioni and Malick’. Image & Narrative 13.2 (2012): 117–132.

Vieyra, P. S. ‘Sembene Ousmane: Cinéaste’. Présence Africaine, Paris (1972): n. pag.


1 I am very grateful to Laurent Bismuth of the Archives françaises du film for helping me locate a restored copy of La Noire de... Daniel Brémaud and the rest of the staff at the AFF/CNC provided valuable assistance in viewing the film at Bois d’Arcy. For an account of the production of La Noire de..., see Vieyra 78.

2 For an excellent overview of the challenges faced by francophone African filmmakers in this period, see Diawara 21–35.

3 See Diawara 26 and Vieyra 82. As Diawara also notes, the Coopération nonetheless acquired the rights to distribute La Noire de... after Sembène managed to produce it independently. Ukadike suggests that this may have been an attempt by the Coopération to control the impact of the film, since it could theoretically limit its distribution in Africa only to French Cultural Centers and obstruct a wide release (Ukadike 322).

4 There are somewhat conflicting accounts of this aspect of the story. See Sembène’s version in Busch and Annas, 9. Vieyra suggests, however, that the ill-fated decision to try to make La Noire de... at feature-length was made after shooting. Vieyra indicates that Sembène tried for a longer format only after he discovered the film’s ‘importance’ as it was being edited (79, 82).

5 See ‘Un entretien avec T. M’Bissine Diop’ in the DVD extras on the Médiathèque des Trois Mondes edition of La Noire de...

6 This same piece of music returns near the end, after a shocking jump cut from Diouana’s lifeless body in a bathtub (witnessed by her mask) to sunbathing white bodies on a Côte d’Azur beach.

7 Vieyra shares this interpretation: ‘Elle découvre la France qu’elle trouve belle. La couleur veut donner cette sensation de magnificence’ (82).

8 Pasolini’s 1965 analysis is nearly contemporaneous with Sembène’s 1966 film, and many of the films he analyzes are from roughly the same period. (Red Desert, 1964, and Before the Revolution, 1964). It is tempting to speculate how Pasolini’s understanding of free indirect discourse in film might have been different had he been writing just a bit later and looked beyond Antonioni, Godard, and Bertolucci.


University of California, Davis
Is an Assistant Professor in the Department of French and Italian at the University of California, Davis. He is currently completing a manuscript on the politics of language in Senegalese literature and film, from the colonial period to the neoliberal era. Drawing on archival research as well as an analysis of works in Wolof and French, the book shows how a debate about language produced the terms of a modern literary tradition. Since receiving his PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley in 2012, Warner’s research has been supported by the University of California Humanities Research Institute, the Mellon Foundation, the Davis Humanities Institute, and the Hellman Family Fund. His work has appeared in both PMLA and Research in African Literatures.

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