Is a religion worth the life of a man?
— Diogomaye (Leader of the Ceddo)
Ousmane Sembene keeps this question at an echo throughout the film, grounding it in the film’s thematic core. Ceddo is a story of a people, their traditions, and of how the actions of the corrupt representatives of social forces disrupt a way of life. It is a study of post-colonial struggle for identity, and the divisiveness that came with the power politics of colonialism. The film begins with a premise not so different from that of a folk tale; Princess Dior Yacine has been kidnapped by the “ceddo” (outsiders) in response to Islam’s fast-spreading influence. The King’s son, Biriam, and the brave warrior Saxewar attempt to rescue her, but fail to do so and die in the process. As the film progresses, the story evolves further into a conflict of doctrines/philosophies between traditional, Islam and Christian practices. It flows seamlessly into an allegorical momentum, ultimately becoming a struggle for dominance between the three ways of life. In this essay, I wish to assess the nuances of Sembene’ socio-political commentary, dissecting motifs, symbolism and themes he used in conveying his message of cultural struggle. In fully evaluating the film’s substance, I will also look at Frantz Fanon’s ideas on anti-colonial violence and whether it is vindicated in the name of liberation
Sembene presents the influences of religion in a systematic fashion, one that starts out fairly innocuous in its genesis and escalates into something devious and indomitable at its maturity. During the first village meeting, after news of the kidnapping of Princess Dior, the king – whose royal household has converted to Islam – meets with the Ceddo to discuss the kidnapping of his daughter. It is important to note a stark contrast here: During this meeting, the Imam is the least vocal main character there. He hardly speaks save for when asked to a couple of times. However, halfway through the second act, a whole new Imam reveals himself to us. As reverence for him grows among the people, he becomes much more insistent and forceful. By allowing the Imam this character arc, Sembene makes an implicit reference to the evolution of the colonialism process. The seemingly harmless missionaries were soon followed by colonizers whose first and foremost priority was to exploit by any means necessary.
Sembene juxtaposes the meek Imam and the choleric Imam to depict religion and colonialism as two heads on the same beast, and just as one cannot separate the two versions of the Imam from a single entity, so it is for religion and colonialism.
The disruptive nature of these two concepts is made evident during this first meeting, a 20 minute scene that is very pivotal to the plot. The meek Imam, in one of his brief yet relevant contributions, insisted that the inheritance order be patrilineal as according to Islamic law, denouncing the matrilineal order of the traditional practice. This had a deeply discordant effect among the royalty, mainly between the King’s nephew who was to be heir, Madior, and the King’s son, Biriam, who became the new heir. Madior then renounces Islam and the King, when the latter fails to defend Madior’s right to the throne. This is the first instance Sembene uses to convey the subjugation of a culture and way of life. Madior, blindsided by the news of this change in royal succession, desperately tries to defend his claim to the throne. As he goes on, he becomes more aware of his surroundings, more self-conscious, as he realizes how alone he is. He finally laments the loving bond he and the king once shared, and publicly denounces Islam and the king (whose character I interpret as representative of a naive Senegal). Sembene sets the foundation for a growing rift between traditional and revealed religion, using the difference in order of succession of the two doctrines to highlight the uncompromising nature of religion, as depicted in the Imam’s foreboding words; “I warn you that whosoever, attempts to resurrect this idolatry (the old succession order) will meet with me”
The imam grows in boldness as the film progresses, refusing to recognize King Demba War as king: “Don’t you know that the only king is Allah?” Ironically, it is he who eventually assassinates the king and usurps his throne, another emphasis on the duplicitous nature of religion’s men in power. The death of the king symbolizes the downfall of a naïve Senegal and the introduction and dominance of a religious and colonial dawn.
The imam later sends men to rescue Princess Dior Yacine from the resisting ceddo, in order for him to marry her and solidify his position on the throne. What he does not know, however, is that Yacine has experienced a profound change in ideology during her time in captivity. She is brought forward to the Imam and in a plot twist, snatches a rifle and shoots him in the chest. This twist is foreshadowed earlier at a point during her captivity, when she walked naked and proud to bathe in the sea, metaphorically shedding her muslim identity.
According to an article by Stephen W. Thomas (2014), Sembene’s films draw parallels between colonial oppression and gender oppression, and present the idea of women in more advanced roles in traditional society than in Islamic influenced colonial society. Sembene uses the metaphor of Princess Dior’s transformation to portray the shedding of privilege, class and religious distinction, and presents her to us at the height of her evolution as a character, a symbol of solidarity (Thomas, 2014). When she shoots the Imam, the community rallies to her support, sensing immediately a hope for the preservation of tradition.
This final burst of violence inevitably leads us to a discourse on violence as a necessary tool for the oppressed. In his famous book, Wretched of The Earth (1965), Frantz Fanon argues that violence is the primary instrument of the colonizer. He pilfers and pillages with violence and imposes his dominance with violence. There are striking similarities between Fanon’s ideas and those Sembene presents in Ceddo. In one particular scene in the film, the sequence fades out from the sound of muslim prayers to a night-time shot of Africans trading slaves for weapons with a European slave trader as they prepare to set fire to the huts of the Ceddo. African American gospel music plays in the backdrop, contrasting heavily with infernal images of burning huts falling apart and animals screaming in the midst of the flames.
The scene cuts to Ceddo filing out of their land carrying their belongings on their heads as the music reaches a climax, “…I’ll make it home someday”. Sembene presents this as a preamble to the establishing of new identities for the victims and the deletion of their old ones. This ultimate act of violence asserts dominance, and causes the remaining ceddo to succumb to the Imam’s will. In a later sequence, we see the ceddo, their heads shaven, sitting mute and subjugated, while the imam and Jaraaf, the linguist, announce to the people that their old king is dead, and the new one is bound only to Allah (Amkpa & SenGupta, 2010). The imam gives the newly converted new muslim names and iterates rules that condemn the worship of traditional charms and idols and the carving and weaving of human forms—the very lifeblood of African ritual and art. We see here the “alienation of the native” that Fanon speaks of in his work. The colonizer’s might suppresses and traps the consciousness of the native, hence the lethargic state we see the Ceddo in when they are before the Imam king. They are herded together before their master, dehumanized.
Fanon argues that in order to destroy this alienation, violence is essential. It is needed to liberate the native’s consciousness and restore humanity to him. Sembene adheres to this in the turn of events that follow: Yacine enters the fray, the new standard-bearer of traditional culture. She walks gracefully across the compound, eyes surveying over what remained of her dehumanized kin. When she snatches the gun, the people immediately snap out of their lethargy and turn on their masters, finally acting of their own will. She shoots the imam in a final act of restoring the lost humanity to the native. In accordance with Fanon’s dialectic, a complete reversal of societal order occurs here; “The last shall be the first and the first shall be the last”(Fanon, Sartre, et. al 1965). The native is liberated from alienation, and has evolved from animal to human again. Sembene presents violence as an alternative and uses a woman, who would normally be associated with non-violence, to exact this reckoning on the colonizer, further emphasizing the gravity of the need for decolonization.
Social control is at the forefront of Sembene’s picture. Who the true “outsiders” are can be seen through an alternative lens. From this perspective, the outsiders can be said to be the Imam and the European trader in the film. Turkanian (2007) concurs that the two symbolically “represent the imposition of culturally unfamiliar economic and religious/political systems.” The European trader represents the avenue through which the African and his belongings become commoditized and the Imam represents the introduction of religious decrees that jeopardize native spiritual and temporal structures. The European trader stays a silent observer throughout the entire film, merely reaping off of the discord between the Africans. Sembene juxtaposes the trader’s silence and his pivotal role in the violence against the Ceddo to present an allegorical rhetoric on the vulturine nature of the European traders of history, who came with the gift of weapons, watched as Africans self-destructed with this gift, and preyed when they were at their most vulnerable.
Rhetoric and imagery of slavery and imperialism is rife in the film. Images depicting Imperialism and the slave trade are what we are introduced to in the first few shots of the film. An African trades two slaves with the European for a rifle, and other shots of a Catholic priest and Muslims in prayer. Furthermore, the European is also depicted as a humbled guest of the king’s court, as he is one of the privileged few who go up to embrace the king. Against contrasting Western gospel music, the scene cuts through images of slaves wincing in pain as they are branded and prepared to be shipped. Sembene presents these images first to the viewer to establish the foundations for themes he builds upon subsequently.
“I believe today that Africans must get beyond the question of colour, they must recognise the problems which confront the whole world, as human beings like other human beings. If others undervalue us, that has no further significance for us. Africa must get beyond deriving everything from the European view. Africa must consider itself, recognise its problems and attempt to resolve them.”
Ousmane Sembene (2004)
Ceddo is Ousmane Sembene’s reaction to imperialist and religious discourse. He creates characters in a radically changing environment, making potent the threat of a sophisticated culture in peril of destruction. In allowing Yacine to rebel against religious authorities, Sembene doctors history in order to hint at the possibilities of what might have transpired if African ancestors had made different choices. By concluding the film without a solid resolution, where Yacine walks toward the camera after shooting the Imam, Sembene allows space for subjective interpretation for the viewer. This end, this lack of resolution, is a figurative call to arms for the post-colonial African and a hope for the realization of the endless possibilities for the liberated native.
Amkpa, A. & SenGupta, G. (2010). History in Ousmane Sembene’s Guelwaar and Ceddo. Nka Journal Of Contemporary African Art, 2010(27), 14-21. http://dx.doi.org/10.1215/10757163-2010-27-14
Ceddo. (1977). Senegal.
Fanon, F., Sartre, J., & Farrington, C. (1965). The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, Inc.
Sembene, O. (2004).
Thomas, S. (2014). The Figuration of Gender in Ousmane Sembene’s Ceddo. Film and Media. Retrieved 2 May 2016, from https://filmandmedia.net/2014/02/21/figuration-of-gender-in-ceddo/
Turkanian, K. (1993). Ceddo: A Review. Critical Arts, 7(1-2), 121-156. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02560049385310071