Colonial migrations in Sembene’s La Noire de…

Curator's Note

Movements and spaces figure prominently in the works filmmakers such as Med Hondo, Oumarou Ganda and Djibril Diop Mambéty, but perhaps nowhere as starkly described as in this clip. Diouana’s migration to France spells out an innocent journey into stifling carceral spaces and eventually death. She moves from the nurturing yet compartmentalized space of her native medina, a place with “sandy lanes”, wooden fences, lowly houses, a milieu drenched in familiarity to the closed (claustrophobic) space of the Ancerville. Very little is shown of the middle passage across the Atlantic. Yet, the site of her arrival, the place of her meeting with Monsieur (at the back of the landing stage, near imported boxes and stowed packages of goods), the indifference of the crowd as she searches for her “host”, the unresponsiveness of Monsieur when they meet, the vindictive unhappiness of Madame later on, all point to conditions similar to those of house slaves in the works of Orlando Patterson, Edward Brathwaite or Père Labat. Diouana graciously slips into the car, elegantly hangs a delicate arm on the rim of the front door, perhaps as a gesture of relief but most certainly as an expression of her dream for a better and refined life in “La France”. Silent and stern, Monsieur moves her swiftly away from the open sea, the warehouse-like hangar, along walls and trees, on narrow roads, and across neatly trimmed spaces. At a bend in the road, tall apartment buildings with balcony railings resembling the metallic windows of a prison obstruct her view. From here onwards, Diouna moves into ever closed and ever shrinking spaces. First the one entry door apartment in a tall building tucked in a dead end road magnificently named “chemin de l’ermitage”. Immediately afterwards, the film cuts to the windowless kitchen, before zooming onto Diouana scrubbing, wiping and brushing dirt away. Monsieur, Madame and the children she was contracted to look after are nowhere to be seen. Suddenly Diouana discovers what might have prompted countless number of slaves to suicide: the middle passage has rendered her nameless, soul-less, mindless, reduced to a body performing mechanical gestures for the comfort of others and proscribed of taking care of itself. Coming at the beginning of Sembene’s career, Diouana’s La noire de…heralds more mature characters like Mety, Aram (The Money Order), Ngone War Thiandum (Ceddo), Colle Ardo (Molaade).


But when you compare “La Noire De” with others films such as, M’weze’s Pieces d’Identites, Gerima’s “Sankofa” or Youssou N’dour’s “retour a Goree”, with their unified messages that “you can always go back home,” I am left wondering what Diouana is telling us at the end of the film?

I think that "La Noire de.." despite the fact that you are placing it in a historical context is actually what we live today: the aspiration of Developing World's people for a better life in the West. Unfortunately, not everybody makes it. There are plenty of Diouanas and you've cited a number of them. I personally know some of them here (originally from other countries especially from the African communities in the States) who under the stress become suicidal. I would like to add that Sembene has anticipated this migration movement which is prominent todays by just following everyday international news about people taking all kinds of risks to cross the Atlantic Ocean aboard traditional african fishing boats. The story of Diouana may also partially be that of Sembene and his adventures, except that he survived tell it to us. This is a nice piece which really says something to us.

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