Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 13, June 2003



Andrea Dahlberg


On the Fortieth Anniversary of _Borom Sarret_



_Borom Sarret_

Written and Directed by Ousmane Sembene

Senegal, Africa, 1963

Black and white, 18 minutes


_Borom Sarret_ is the first film made by the renowned novelist and director, Ousmane Sembene. Although only 18 minutes long its place in film history is assured, not because it is the first film made by a black African, but because it is the among the first and certainly one of the most insightful representations of the social life of a people lost in the space between traditional and post-colonial society. But even beyond this Sembene rewards the perceptive viewer with a theory of representation and its role in forming self-identity and bringing about social change.


The film is the story of Boron Sarret, who tries to earn a living by driving equally poor passengers around Dakar in his horse-drawn cart. Although he never asks for payment he clearly expects it, but none is forthcoming, causing him to grumble and complain. Penniless and with only kola nut for lunch he picks up a man who is delivering his child's body to the cemetery. The man is refused entry because he does not have the correct papers, so Borom Sarret leaves the man with his dead child's body at the gates of the cemetery and departs. Then a well-dressed man persuades him to take him to a wealthy area of the city ('He's happy to be leaving the native quarter'). Here the roads are lined with trees and the houses impress Borom Sarret. European classical music replaces traditional Senegalese music on the soundtrack. Borom Sarret is stopped by a black policeman who fines him and takes his cart as payment. The well-to-do passenger leaves without paying and Borom Sarret has now lost the means by which he attempted to earn his living. He returns home blaming the chain of events and the people who led him into the wealthy quarter. When he tells his wife that he has no money and has lost his cart she hands him the baby to mind and leaves to find money for food. The unspoken implication is that she is prostituting herself to feed her family.


The film has much in common with de Sica's _Bicycle Thieves_. Both narratives are structured like parables. Both are the stories of poor men whose misfortunes are made worse because they lose their means of earning a living (a cart, a bicycle). Both men are simple and naive, less able than their wives to deal with the practicalities of daily life. The realist aesthetic of the films invites comparison. Both employ non-actors and are shot in the real streets of cities.


A crucial difference, however, is that _Borom Sarret_ has none of the sentimentality found in _Bicycle Thieves_. Sembene is critical of his characters. The better-off refuse to pay for services, while their victims are so servile and acquiescent that they make no protest. Sembene, unlike de Sica, is concerned with issues of race and post-colonial culture as well as issues of class. All the characters in _Borom Sarret_ are black. Sembene alludes to a European presence in the soundtrack accompanying the scenes in the wealthy quarter called 'The Plateau' ('The Heights'). Sembene shoots the buildings there from below so they appear as immense structures towering over Borom Sarret, a wealthy and powerful force shaping and distorting social relations among the poor black Senegalese.


Borom Sarret is one of the urban poor suspended between traditional African society and the modern urban society created by the Europeans. He makes several references to his 'new life' ('The new life has reduced me to slavery but I am noble') and to modern life ('Women nowadays -- who can understand them?'). When he stops at some traffic lights he reflects that their control of his actions is like being in prison.


When Borom Sarret reflects on the causes of his loss he blames the passengers he picked up, because one led him to the cemetery and the next into the wealthy quarter. He does not take any responsibility himself. He fails to understand the role of his own actions in causing his loss because he sees himself as powerless and unable to influence events ('We'll have to wait for God's mercy'). He fails to see that he not only accepts injustice but he perpetuates it when he gives away the family's money to a story-teller he encounters at lunch-time, and leaves the man with his dead child's body at the gates of the cemetery. He is resigned to the plight of others and seems unable to empathise with them. His social position and lack of awareness of self have dehumanised and demeaned him. His false understanding of his own position is tied up with his practice of his religion and his fascination with the storyteller. He seeks consolation and escape in religion and stories of his glorious past.


Film for Sembene is a privileged form of representation because it allows him to communicate with an illiterate audience and, even more importantly, with an audience not used to seeing itself represented. The act of representing is an act of affirmation and a kind of bringing into being. Filmic representation has an immediacy and a kind of transparency created from the illusion that it is conjuring up the world directly before our eyes.


_Borom Sarret_ is not only an affirmation of a people denied but also a critique of their passivity, their treatment of each other, their subservience to tradition, and the ways in which they have allowed themselves to become dehumanised. It is Sembene's intention to show the black, urban poor of Senegal to themselves and reveal the true conditions of their social life and their own role in creating and maintaining it. His wish is that they acquire self-knowledge and fashion a new conception of themselves and the power of their own actions in order to bring about change. The premise of _Borom Sarret_ is that self-knowledge is the beginning of all moral and political change and that filmic representation is instrumental in creating that knowledge.


London, England



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003



Andrea Dahlberg, 'On the Fortieth Anniversary of _Borom Sarret_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 13, June 2003 <>.


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