third world thirdcinema
homepage africa latin-america india theories history glossary links contact


This continent and its film industries are still marked by the influence of colonialism. The attitude of westerners to Africans under colonialism is aptly illustrated by the following.

"For this audience that we call primitive, we must make films for Africans. The scenario will be simple and will deal with few characters. The characters will be easily distinguishable from one another, and they will each have well-defined habits. The spectator must be able, without great effort, to identify with the heroes whom he will imitate... The technique for such films will generally be analogous to the one used when filming for children."

[Father Van den Heuvel, Director of the Congolese Centre for Catholic Action Cinema]

The representation of Africans in films made in the colonial countries was equally racist. Examples include films like 'Sanders of the River' [UK 1935] and 'King Solomon’s Mines' [USA 1950].

North of the Sahara, in the Arab countries, there are indigenous cinemas which, in the case of Egypt, go back to the 1920s. South of the Sahara indigenous filmmaking only became possible after the colonial powers loosened their direct hold. So Sub-Saharan African film only appeared in the 1960s. And even then it faced immense difficulties as there were almost no production facilities and Hollywood or European Corporations dominated both distribution and exhibition.

Tahar Cheriaa, founder of one of Africa's two film festivals once said "...each African cinema is like a 'monster': a head (of filmmakers and their films) without a body (without the marketing structure to support them and the audiences that such a structure would ensure)."

The form of neo-colonialism practised by the French meant that they did fund and support indigenous African film. For this reason most of the notable early Sub-Saharan African films were made in what is labelled Francophone Africa.

The limitations of the support can be gauged by the necessity of nearly all of these films being edited in France.

A major pioneer figure in African filmmaking is Ousmane Sembène from Senegal. 'Borom Sarret' [1963] was his first film in a career that continues today. Sembène was a founder member of the Fedération Panafricaine des Cinéastes [FEPACI] and a regular participant in the Festival Panafricain du Cinéma à Ouagadougou [FESPACO] in Burkina Faso. Sembène and his films provide the major case study in Sub-Saharan African films. His filmmaking practice clearly lies within the domain of Third Cinema. And his work has had a great influence on other politically conscious filmmakers around the continent. He also remains one of the few African filmmakers whose films can be accessed in the UK.

Such activities have helped develop African filmmaking. However, there are still few adequate production facilities. For example, a boom in filmmaking in Nigeria is totally dependent on video formats and distribution. Across Africa distribution and exhibition remain in thrall to Western Cinemas and to a lesser extent Bollywood and Hong Kong action movies.

to top of this section

click for full size image

click for full size image

Africa Chronology
A chronology of African Cinema


In 1978 Kwate Nee-Owoo listed 'What's On' with films in both Ghana and Upper Volta [later Burkina Faso]. He listed sixteen Hollywood films, twelve Hong Kong films, five European films and one specifically from the UK. There were no African films listed at all.

The Motion Picture Export Association of America, formed in 1946, co-ordinated the export of films from the Hollywood Majors. In the Maghreb, [Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia] they worked through sub-agencies of their subsidiaries in Paris. In the Anglophone area they formed American Motion Picture Export Company of America, which quickly achieved a dominance in distribution.

The exception to this US dominance was in the Francophone territories of western and Equatorial Africa, [including Senegal, Mali, and Upper Volta]. Here the Compagnie Africaine Cinématographique et Commercielle and Société d'Exploitation Cinématographique Africaine controlled the market. Both of these companies were controlled from Monaco and their profits were accumulated there. They owned 60 to 80% of the cinemas in Francophone Africa, these included 70 in Senegal, 12 in Upper Volta and 19 in Mali. The most common alternative exhibitor was of Lebanese origin. The companies directly ran some cinemas, other were run on a percentage basis. Their standard fare was most frequently small-budget films, acquired in Paris and dubbed into French. Commonly the films were acquired by outright purchase rather than on the normal percentage basis.

The creation of FEPACI in 1969 - 70 led to an organised offensive against the French dominance. At the same time Upper Volta and Mali nationalised their cinemas. This led to some assistance by SECMA in the production and distribution of an African feature film. However, Hollywood was now planning an expansion in the new markets of the independent African States. They created an organisation specifically for the Francophone area, Afro-American Films Inc. The main office was set-up in Dakar. The new organisation, with its European partners like Gaumont, imposed the percentage basis deals normal elsewhere on this market.

The French response involved two aspects.The French Ministry of Coopération proposed a 'multinational film consortium' to both import and distribute films in Francophone Africa. This was to include representatives from both African governments and Euro-American distributors, and was named Films Afrique. One important function was to distribute African films in their country of origin. Meanwhile the French Company Union Général Cinématographique bought out both SECMA and COMACICO in 1973. They then set up their own new company to run the networks, SOPACIA and a film purchasing company, CAA. This led to a conflict with AFRAM, but SOPACIA stock of films put it in an unusually strong position, and in 1976, after negotiations, distribution of Hollywood resumed, on a percentage basis.

to top of this section


The Exhibition network had been mainly urban based, despite 80% of the population living in rural areas. In the colonial era cinemas were divided into first class seating for the European elite, second class for the African elite and third class for the ordinary black people. Senegal was part of the market of COMACICO and SECMA in a northern region comprising Senegal, Mauritania, Mali and Guinea and centred on Dakar. By 1960 there were 180 cinemas equipped with 35mm projection in Francophone West Africa. Practically all of these were owned by either COACICO or SECMA; with the few remaining owned by individual entrepreneurs of either Lebanese or Syrian origin. The equivalent of the western first-run theatre was the Salle de premiére, found in the capital cities. Salles mixtes were for densely populated urban areas. Salles populaires were located in Medinas or ghettos. The turnover of films was faster in Salles populaires. In the early 1960s COMACICO and SECMA distributed annually 350 films, including 150 to 1260 Hollywood features, 90 to a 100 French features, and the remaining 80 or 90 from Indian, Arab or other cinemas. When their business empire rolled up in 1972 the two major companies had expanded to 250 cinemas with an annual gross of 120 million Francs.

Early African films, such as Sembène’s 'Black Girl' or 'The Money Order', though screened in Paris, were barred from audiences in Senegal by the monopolist practices of COMACICO and SECMA. By the late 1960s growing threats of nationalisation and French fears of the Hollywood AMPEA led to changes. Hollywood exports were now channelled through AFRAM and the French created SOPACIA. In Senegal the government created SIDEC, a semi-private company. An agreement with SOPACIA meant continuing degree of control by French commercial interests. In the 1970s SIDEC itself became a national company.

SIDEC now controls 80 projection sites in Senegal and an average of thirteen million spectators a year. They have a stock of 5,000 films and import about 400 new films every year. SIDEC now also exports to Niger, the Ivory Coast, Gabon and Cameroon. Since nationalisation French companies have tended to refuse the sale of films to SIDEC with a consequent increase in North American imports.

[Mainly drawn from Manthia Diawara's 'Senegal' in The International Movie Industry, edited by Corham Kindex, Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.]

to top of this section


  • Fepaci

  • SEMBÈNE Biography

  • SEMBÈNE Films


    (Fedération Panafricaine des Cinéastes)

    The French title points up the importance of Francophone filmmakers in Sub-Saharan Cinema. This organization was founded in 1969. It capped a number of years of struggle by African filmmakers against the dominance of the neo-colonial countries, especially France, both in the production and the distribution of film. The founding meeting took place at the Festival Panafricain de la Culture in Algiers. It early on sought affiliation to the Organization of African Unity. It was designed to be an association of National Film Organizations rather than open to individual filmmakers. By 1975 it had a membership of 39 countries. The ideological and political orientation is clear in 'The Algiers Charter on African Cinema' [1975]

    The manifesto clearly shares ideological views and aims with the Latin American manifestos. The work by the members, [like Sembčne] displays an attempt to develop both autonomous film production and autonomous distribution institutions. There is also a frequent overt critical stance on imperialism [e.g. Sembčne’s 'Camp de Thiaroye'] and on the indigenous elites in the pocket of imperialists, [e.g. Sembčne’s 'Xala'].

    There was a further meeting of the Association in 1982. By then there had been improvements in access to resources and exhibition for African filmmakers, and more indigenous films were being made. However, there was still no African film industry. Many films were European co-production and more likely to be seen at Western Festivals than in African cinemas. A group of younger filmmakers formed a Collectif L'Oeil Vert.

    "In 20 years, the African cinemas have achieved no more than the status of a circus animal, caged up in festivals where people come to see them as if they were sheep with five feet ... “.

    Despite the continuing struggle by filmmakers and the production of a number of fine films, these problems remain. The new generation filmmakers are still generally tied to Film Festivals and still dependent on external production finance. Work on video and digital video is providing alternatives, but it is not clear how far they can challenge the dominance of western controlled distribution and exhibition.

    to top of this section
  • The Algiers Charter
    A manifesto for African filmakers


  • Fepaci

  • SEMBÈNE Biography

  • SEMBÈNE Films

    SEMBÈNE Biography

    Ousmane Sembčne is generally acknowledged as both a founding figure and outstanding practitioner in Sub-Saharan African cinema. Sembène’s importance flows from a variety of influences and circumstances. He is an established writer, and just as he has fought to make films in African languages and cultural forms, so his writing has aimed at an African expression. His novel 'Ceddo', later filmed, was the first book written in Wolof, the indigenous language in Senegal. It is also clear that his experiences have fed into his art. His service in the French military in the Second World War relates directly to his film 'Camp De Thiaroye'. His industrial experience, especially in the Marseilles docks, fed into his early writings. And the experience of European colonialism and racism in all these areas has fed into his politics, which have a Marxist understanding of classes and the state, and awareness, like Fanon, of the particularities of racism.

    1923 He was born on 1 January 1923 in Ziguinchor, Senegal. He was of Lebou origin and Muslim extraction. His father was a fisherman.
    1935 Sembène went to Dakar where he studied for but did not take the Certificat d'Etudes exam.
    1938 He worked daytime as a mason, while evenings were spent at movies. He devoutly pursued Muslim faith. He made his first contacts with local union leaders. And he enjoyed listening to griots who taught him about Africa's rich epic past and familiarised him with traditional storytelling techniques.
    1942 He joined the French colonial troops and fought in Africa and Europe as an artilleryman.
    1946 He was demobilised in Dakar and subsequently participated in the Dakar-Niger railroad workers' strike for better wages and improved working conditions (October 1947-March 1948)
    1948 He started working as a longshoreman in Marseilles, where he took part in the political and cultural activities of African students. He joined workers' union (CGT) and took vehement stand against the French colonial presence in Indochina
    1956 He published his first novel, 'Le Docker Noir' ('The Black Dockworker'), which reflected his varied experiences as an African worker in France.
    1957 He published his novel, '0 Pays Mon Beau Peuple' ('0 My Country, My Beautiful People'), about the return of a Senegalese war veteran to his native village and his self-imposed mission of organising the peasants and modernising their farming techniques.
    1960 He published 'Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu' ('God's Bits of Wood'), an outgrowth of Sembène's involvement in the Dakar-Niger strike, a novel which launched his literary career.
    1961 He returned to Africa and realised the limited impact of African literature in Africa. He became convinced that a much greater access to African masses could be achieved through film.

    Sembène spent a year studying at the Gorki Studio in Moscow, under the tutelage of cinematographers Donskoy and Guerassimov.
    1963 He made a short film, 'L'Empire Sonhrai' ('The Sonhrai Empire'). Release of Sembène’s first significant film, 'Borom Sarret'.

    Since 1963 Sembène’s major focus has remained film. He has, though, continued writing and his involvement in cultural and political struggles. One was the development of a Wolof language newspaper. As in his writings his films both project a strong political and cultural stance and utilise his own studies and experiences. Thus Sembène film use the form of griot storytelling. 'Xala' features the Wolof Language newspaper. 'Camp de Thiaroye' deals with West Africans who fought under the French in World War II. And both 'Ceddo' and 'Guelwaar' deal with the question of Islam in West Africa.

    to top of this section


  • Fepaci

  • SEMBÈNE Biography

  • SEMBÈNE Films

    SEMBÈNE Films

    Sembčne has made only ten feature films in 40 years. 'Xala' is the fifth of these, and the only one generally accessible in the UK. He coined the term mégotage.

    "...the word mégot means cigarette butt; therefore, the concept means to make a film by the painful process of putting bits and pieces together. It means waiting - as one waits for a cigarette butt - for European remains such as film stock left over by rich producers. This is why it takes five to ten years to finish a film ... "

    [Diawara, 1992, FN p167]

    The Production Company he started, Films Domirev, has produced all of Sembène’s films. He writes his own scripts and several films have been adapted from his own novels or short stories. Many of the films have won awards – at the Carthage and Burkina Faso festivals and elsewhere.


    1963, in French, black and white, 20 minutes. Available on BFI video, 'Three African Shorts'.

    The simple story of a driver whose cart is confiscated dramatises the oppres-sive situation in a neo-colonial context.


    1964, in French, black and white, 35 minutes.

    From a Sembčne short story.


    1966, in French, black and white, 60 minutes. Available on 16m from the BFI - not a good print.

    Her employers take a black maid to France and her racist isolation leads to suicide.


    1968, in Wolof, colour, 105 minutes.

    An unemployed man receives a money order from his nephew in Paris. This turns out to be not good news but trouble.


    1970, in Wolof, colour, 24 minutes.


    1971, in Diola and French, colour, 95 minutes.

    During world war II French troops arrive at village to requisition grain. The women, whose husbands have been conscripted, resist the confiscation.


    1974, in French and Wolof, colour, 116 minutes. Available on retail video, on 16mm from the BFI and on 35mm.

    A corrupt businessman suffers a curse that renders him impotent. The results expose his fraud and theft. A richly ironic portrait of a neo-colonial elite.

    (also see 'Xala' subsection below)


    Senegal, 1976, in Wolof, colour, 120 minutes. Production Company: Films Domirev. Available on 16mm from the BFI and on 35m. Shown in Channel Four's World Cinema in 1980s

    In C17th Senegal Muslim missionaries seize power by manipulating the ruling family. But rebellion arises from among the ceddo [people]. Sembène’s most complex film, playing with narrative and time.


    1988, in Wolof and French, colour, 153 minutes. Screened by Channel 4.

    Set at the end of World War II. Just after the events depicted in Emitai. African conscripts mutiny when they are cheated of their just pay. The film moves to powerful climax with a challenging development of montage techniques.


    1992, in Wolof and French, colour, 115 minutes. Screened by Channel 4.

    Production Companies: Les Films Domirev / Galatée Films / FR3 Films

    The funeral of a political activist uncovers religious tensions. It also dramatises political stances around aid issues.


    2000, with English sub-titles.

    First in a planned trilogy of films dealing with women's' issues, the first a portrait of an independent working woman and the difficulties and sacrifices that follow from the fight for independence.


    2003 with English sub-titles. In colour, 124 minutes. Featured in a season of Sembčne films at the National Film Theatre in London, and given a fairly wide distribution in Arthouse and Independent Cinemas.

    Produced by Film Domirev Senegal, with support from Burkina Faso, Tunisia, Morocco, Cameroon and Europe.

    The women in a village in Burkina Faso resist the traditional 'purification', ritual genital mutilation.

    There has also been a Channel Four documentary on Ousmane Sembčne.

    The 'Journal BFM' ('Black Filmmakers Magazine') had a profile of Sembčne in the Winter 2003 issue. Their Film Club has also featured his films.

    to top of this section

  • click for full size image



  • 'Xala'



    African films quickly established a reputation at European and North American Festivals for 'art' films. The most noted directors were frequent winners of awards. And this success helped open up production finance from western companies. But neither aspect helped the artists reach their own indigenous African audiences.

    One arena where this has been achieved is in the Film Festivals based in Africa. The two longest running and most important are:

    Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage.

    The Tunisian Minister of Cultural Affairs created this in 1966. The programmes do include Western films but the emphasis is on films from Arabia and Sub-Saharan Africa. So, in 1966, Sembène's first feature length film, 'Le Noire de...' won the Tanit 'd'or award. The Festival also includes symposia and public debates. These were important arenas for the early discussions that led to FEPACI.

    Festival Panafricain du Cinéma de Ouagadougou.

    This began in 1968 organised by the Ministry of Information. From its inception the emphasis has been ideological:

    "Contrary to what the name suggests, the festivals are less a festivity than a militant reunion." Thus, there are regular debates and forums, and it has providing a regular forum for FEPACI. With the development of FESPACO, it and the JCC became bi-annual, alternating in consecutive years. Ouagadougou has also developed as a joint Film and Television festival. Sembène's 'Camp de Thiaroye' won the Prix Institut des Peuples Noirs at the Festival in 1989.

    to top of this section



  • 'Xala'


    Sembčne Ousmane is an established writer, and just as he has fought to make films in African languages and cultural forms, so his writing has aimed at an African expression. The experience of European colonialism and racism has fed into his politics, which have a Marxist understanding of classes and the state, and an awareness, like Fanon, of the particularities of racism. These are central to his 1974 film, 'Xala', which is his only film available on video in the UK. The film centres on the problems of a trader and member of the Chamber of Commerce, El Hadji. Taking a third and much younger wife, [as allowed under Islamic law] El Hadji’s pleasures are frustrated by impotence, apparently the result of a curse. The films follows his increasingly desperate efforts to reverse the curse, which also undermines his social and business position.

    He, and the Chamber of Commerce, are depicted as subservient to foreign capital. Thus the continual framing of Dupont-Durand [the representative of the neo-colonial economic power] in the frame behind the president. [the hand behind the throne]. Xala in the film refers not only to El Hadji's lack of potency in the sexual arena, but also to the lack of potency of his class in the economic field. They buy, sell, cheat and swindle, but they cannot exploit on the level of the neo-colonialists.

    In 'Xala', the contrast between El Hadji’s three wives is important. Françoise Pfaff interviewed Sembčne in 1984; he commented,

    "He [El Hadji] married his first wife before he became somebody. Having improved his economic and social status, he takes a second wife [Oumi], who, so to speak, parallels the second historical stage of his life. His third wife [N’Gone], who is his daughter's age but without her mentality, is only there for self-satisfaction."

    His daughter, Rama, on the other hand, is

    "...aggressive and assertive as N'Gone is passive and submissive. She is as articulate in her speech pattern as N'Gone is silent. As an unmarried student with intellectual potential and as a young militant for Africanization. Rama often defies her father by speaking Wolof, knowing that he prefers to use French. ... Sembčne visually stresses her independence of mind as well as her freedom as a character by presenting her alone in many more shots than the other female characters."

    The women are central to the problem of the narrative, and to the various symbols that add meanings. A key signifier is the map of Africa, seen behind Rama as she defies her father, he himself fronting a map of Africa broken up and partitioned by colonial boundaries. These portrayals of women are expressive of the ant-colonial ideology of Fanon. These films do actually position women within the revolution, and they also raise the contradictory position of women.

    Sembčne use of the type of production approach developed in neo-realism is clearly, in part, a product of circumstances. Foremost, he privileges African linguistic and stylistic traditions. Hence the use or non-use of Wolof is central to the development of the narrative. Whilst El Hadji is neither redeemed nor converted by the end of the film, his attempt to speak in Wolof at the Chamber of Commerce is both highly poetic and metaphoric. Similarly African or European clothes and accessories provide a continuing commentary on the characters.

    It is clearly a factor of the circumstances that Sembčne uses the production approach pioneered by neorealism. He also favours the use of non-professionals to a degree in the film and of actual locations. Many sequences share the same rough and impromptu feel found in neorealism. However, there is also a powerful overall formal control. Sembčne uses variations on the ideas of Sergei Eisenstein on montage and film rhetoric. The mental flashbacks by El Hadji of a sexual humiliation are clearly montage editing. But Sembčne is more inclined to use montage in the wider sense, both visually and aurally. The elliptical development of the narrative is thus modelled on Eisenstein's wider categories of montage. The editing together of scenes, especially the short scenes as with a robbery, produces a constant clash of characters and ideas. Sembčne re-inforces this by using the type of rhetoric favoured by Eisenstein: clothing and objects both represent characters traits and functions and comment upon these. Thus the ubiquitous briefcases in the Chamber of Commerce are a shorthand symbol for the corrupt bourgeoisie. Among the counter-Africanist symbols is the map that frames Rama in her dispute with her father.

    In the UK the songs in the film are not rendered with sub-titles:

    "Ghali: There are many songs in the film's soundtrack which have not been sub-titled. What do they say?

    Sembčne: It's a sort of popular song that I wrote myself in Wolof In one sense, it calls to revolt, to the struggle against injustice, against the powers-that-be, against the leaders of today who, if we do not get rid of them, will tomorrow be trees which are going to overrun the place and have to be cut down. The songs are tied in with the deeds and gestures that I have written. They did not come from folklore. I had thought at the start to have them translated, but in the end I gave up the idea because it is unnecessary for a European public.

    It is the allegory of a kind of lizard, a lizard who is a bad leader. When he walks in front and you behind, he kills you while saying you want to murder him. When you walk as tall as he does, he kills you while saying: "You want to be my equal." When you walk in front of him he kills you while saying: "You want to profit from my good luck." The song says we have to think very seriously indeed about these leaders who resemble this animal and get rid of them. It ends something like this: "Glory to the people, to the people's rule, to the people's government, which will not be government by a single individual!"

    [Interview published in 1976. It was translated by J. H. Downing and appears in 'Film & Politics in the Third World', J. Downing (ed), Autonomedia, 1987.]

    to top of this section

  • click for full size image


    As noted, the doyen of African filmmakers Ousmane Sembčne is still making powerful political films. The Festival Panafricain in Burkina Faso continues biannually, and there are other newer festivals. However, African production remains less than fully independent, and most feature length African films rely both on Western investment and western distribution.

    Jean-Marie Teno, a filmmaker from Cameroon, wrote recently: "If there is anything that can be called 'African Cinema,' it is certainly in a precarious state today. Over the last few years the production of African films (films made in Africa by Africans), already extremely limited, has declined noticeably. Each year fewer African films are presented at major world festivals and the one or two films that do make the selection are generally dismissed by the critics." Of the 170 films shown at the 2005 FESPAC only handful will be seen in the UK.

    A new generation of filmmakers has appeared, both in Africa and as exiles in Europe. Two really interesting films have been directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, 'Bye Bye Africa' [2000] and 'Abouna' [2002]. The latter film was a minor success on the western Arthouse circuits and has now appeared on DVD. However, 'Bye Bye Africa' is the more explicitly political film, as it address the parlous state of African film and its filmmakers.

    In an interview Haroun commented,

    "The present dilemma is that a lot of African countries don't have the money to produce movies, so in the French-speaking countries every film is produced with money coming from France. And when somebody gives you money, you know, he or she is expecting something in return. He or she has an idea, perhaps a fantasy of Africa. African filmmakers want or need their own images of Africa.

    The best way is to make our movies with our own means, and that's why with this movie, Bye Bye Africa, I tried to shoot it in video, and the budget is only about one hundred thousand American dollars."

    [See World Socialist Web Site,, under Film Festivals].

    Haroun faces the same battles already fought by pioneers like Sembčne.

    Another area of possible development is video, including digital film. There appear to be a number of young filmmakers working in these formats to make primarily short films. They come from many parts of the continent, South African townships, and right up to the shores of the Mediterranean. The Goteborg, Rotterdam and Leeds Film Festivals have screened a series of these films, under the generic title 'Mother Africa'. A refreshingly high proportion deal directly with the many oppressions operating in Africa, from neo-colonialism and foreign dominance, through the violence generated by imperialist and anti-imperialist wars, and from the contradictions that arise from the conflict between tradition and modernity.

    to top of this section

    Africa Menu

    to top menu