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Born: Ziguinchor, Senegal, 1 January 1923.

Ousmane Sembène (JPG, 17 KB)

His parents divorced when he was very young and he spent his childhood years divided between his father, his grandmother and several relatives in other regions. At the age of twelve he was sent to a French school in Dakar. Two years later he abandoned his studies and began to earn his living as a car mechanic, carpenter and fisherman. Sembène spent most of his spare time attending performances by local amateur theatre troupes and griots (African oral historians and traditional storytellers), as well as attending several evening classes. At the outbreak of World War II he was drafted into the French army and fought in Europe and Africa (1942-46). After his discharge he took part in the Dakar-Niger railroad strike (October 1947-March 1948), an experience which later inspired him to write the book Les bouts de bois de Dieu / God's Bits of Wood (1960). In 1948 Sembène went to France as a stowaway on a ship and was employed in a Citroën car factory near Paris. After three months he moved to Marseille where he began intense political and trade union activities and was nominated secretary general of the Association des Travailleurs Sénégalais en France, a Senegalese workers' union of which he was a founder member. He was also a member of the Confédération Générale des Travailleurs (CGT), a union affiliated to the Communist Party. In 1956 his first book Le docker noir / The Black Docker was published. The book recounts his years in Marseille and was followed by several others. However, Sembène began to realize the greater potential of cinema as a more effective method of communication for the largely illiterate mass audience. He went to Moscow to study cinema under Mark Donskoj at the Gorky Film Studio (1962). The following year he returned to Senegal to shoot his first short film, the unreleased documentary L'empire Songhaï / The Songhaï Empire. His next film, Borom Sarret, was hailed as the first professionally made African film and its success paved the way for the development of the fiction film in the mainly French-speaking parts of Africa. Sembène has written several other books and, as one of Africa's most prominent film-makers, is himself the subject of many books and articles. He founded a Wolof magazine Kaddu (1972) and formed his own production company, Domirev Films.

— Keith Shiri, Directory of African Film-Makers and Films

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