What the father of African cinema taught me about independence and being alone.
By Victor Omojola
“Back in Dakar they must be saying: ‘Diouana is happy in France … She has a good life.’ For me, France is the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom and my bedroom. Where are the people who live in this country?” Black Girl (1966)
Shot in as illuminating a black and white as I have ever seen, Ousmane Sembène’s La Noire de… (Black Girl) follows a young Senegalese woman named Diouana who travels to Paris to work for a wealthy family. Confronted with the contradictions of European colonization through her racist employers, who at times feel more like captors, she quickly begins to question whether the wage she is paid and the “modernity” she is offered by France are worth her plight.
I was around 11 when my dad dragged me to the academic conference where I first watched Black Girl. I remember feeling like a children’s toy, taken from a box set and thrust into an awkward setting where I did not belong. This is all to say that that day, I think I felt a little bit like Diouana does in Black Girl. Surrounded by people I didn’t comprehend, a child among a sea of academics, I felt particularly alone. It wasn’t the first time I had felt this way, and I remember realizing, while watching Diouana, that it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Black Girl is largely about the consequences of the alienation inherent in systems that have governed the world for the past few hundred years. At the end of the film, Diouana decides to kill herself.
These days, it seems for many that finding a community where you belong, not to mention harnessing its collective support, is a nearly impossible feat. Surrounded by tens of thousands of students who are themselves surrounded by New York’s millions, I, too, often catch myself asking where all the people are.
Essayists and experts have attempted to solve the riddle of loneliness in the country’s most widely-read publications. According to them, the solutions are perhaps elusive, but nonetheless straightforward. In a New York Times essay titled “We Know the Cure for Loneliness. So Why Do We Suffer?” Nicholas Kristof argues the U.S. should install a Minister of Loneliness and encourage people to eat more meals together. Other pieces from The Conversation and Forbes focus on the effect of the problem in the workplace, suggesting that CEOs can increase corporate value by combating loneliness. Many cling to the idea that the problem is a particularly male one, proposing pickleball as a potential remedy. The U.S. surgeon general refers to the dilemma as an epidemic. Even Hillary Clinton has chimed in.
I’m not as certain as the former Secretary of State that I have all the answers, but I’m also not sure the answers are as attainable as many of these pieces posit. I think part of that is due to a mischaracterization of being alone as unequivocally negative.
I can’t remember the first time I saw a movie in theaters by myself—it’s been my preferred means of seeing them for a while now. I’m assuming, though, that it was sometime shortly after the height of the pandemic. I’ve never had an abundance of friends, but in that Covid-heightened limbo between high school and college, I found myself with a particular lack. I turned to the screen to alleviate this paucity. My theater of choice quickly became Amherst Cinema, an arthouse theater in the heart of the Pioneer Valley. Its independent nature became a crucial feature of my experience as a movie-goer, even after I moved away from Western Massachusetts.
The independent theater cannot substitute a close pal, but it has served me well as a wise, old tutor. Whether it’s a brilliantly comedic crash course in post-Civil War Black migration (Buck and the Preacher (1972)) or a comprehensive overlook at the father of video art (Nam June Paik: Moon Is The Oldest TV (2023)), I know that each time I leave the theater, I will walk out understanding something new about the world and myself.
In this way, the movies have been my other university. The sum of hundreds of matinee discounts: my secondary tuition fee. Sembène and filmmakers of his ilk: my impossibly sagacious instructors.
Ousmane Sembène was born and raised in Ziguinchor, Senegal, before he was drafted into the French army during World War II. His 1975 film Xala—equal parts sex comedy and political satire—is about the way in which France’s lingering influence on a purportedly independent Senegal has hampered the progress of its people. In my favorite photo of the filmmaker, he is surrounded by people. His signature pipe balances between his lips and his black sunglasses perch on his nose, unable to hide his cool gaze from staring directly into the lens. To me, the photo is not only a reminder of Sembène’s authorial magnetism, but also of the way he centered his community in the stories he told.
Illustration by Jorja Garcia
Filmmakers of color like Lino Brocka, Sara Gómez, William Greaves, and Sembène spent their careers using the moving image to redefine their position as colonial subjects. However, Western distribution monopolies made it nearly impossible for people to see their work, not to mention the censorship from their own governments that hindered their most ambitious visions. In response, these directors worked outside of established norms of production in order to complete their projects.
We might refer to this mode of operation as independent filmmaking. And yet, such works tend to be excluded from popular discourses about indie film.
Certainly in a filmic context, the “indie” category does not solely refer to how a movie is produced. Films deemed independent are still often made with large budgets, and many are produced within a Hollywood studio system. Cinematic technique, thematic content, and the subjects that are portrayed, are, at the very least, just as relevant when considering whether a film is considered indie in popular discourse. In Indie: An American Film Culture, Michael Z. Newman explains that many indie films are quotidian in scope, offering representations of “ordinary people and their indiscretions, foibles, and minor key victories.” Indie films in “the popular imagination” tend to have meandering narratives where characters don’t do much more than talk to one another. Think Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites (1994) or, for a more modern exemplar, Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2014). Substantively, the general indie film aesthetic consists of long takes, realistic dialogue, and a focus on “everyday people.”
The issue here, however, for Black and other non-white filmmakers is that these visual cues are heavily associated with white American and European cinema. Indeed, films from the “Third World” are often categorized under the radical criterion of Third Cinema, a film movement started in the 1960s by Latin American directors and theorists, even if they are much better suited for the “independent” tag. As articulated towards the end of Medicine for Melancholy, Barry Jenkins’s debut feature, “everything, everything about being indie is all tied to not being black.”
It doesn’t help that academic institutions reinforce Jenkins’s point. At Columbia, I have often heard professors express a desire to expose students to underseen, unconventional works. Yet I have been astounded by the number of courses offered that entirely neglect African or Latin American films. I have sat in classes that were meant to cover decade-long periods of “cinema history” that failed to feature a single film by a non-white director from the Global South.
The exclusion of the Black film from common conceptions of the independent film is not dissimilar to the contemporary discourse concerning loneliness. Like Diouana was forced to confront firsthand, in a world haunted by colonialism and racial capitalism, the Black subject is almost always systematically isolated.
As I’ve read essay after essay over the past few months, seeking remedies for solitude, one piece has stood out. The Malignant Melancholy by Amba Azaad splits the contemporary loneliness crisis along a binary. “There are, broadly, two kinds of structural loneliness. One is the benign loneliness of the socially alienated, the other the malignant melancholy of the erstwhile master,” she writes.
Like Azaad, I see something absurd in who exactly is centered in the current conversation surrounding loneliness. She argues that men (I would emphasize, white men) decry the unkind and isolationist norms that cause their social suffering, but fail to see “any rigorous structural analyses of their culpability in oppression.” I’ve read far too many essays in which those who benefit from the societal norms which render them lonely center themselves in this discussion. Everyone suffers from the day-to-day loneliness that is manifest in a society that depends on alienation. But poor people, racial minorities, the LGBTQ community, and immigrants are, like Sembène’s Diouana, additionally oppressed by virtue of who they are relative to their surroundings. A secondary, more weighty loneliness is wrought by this reality.
As a Black man who moved to the United States at a young age, I recognize this dichotomy in my own life. In a broad sense, I have come to realize that I experience loneliness not just because I live in a society that thrives on individualism, but also because I’ve spent my life dealing with institutions that are riddled with anti-Blackness. The latter of these, however, becomes so regular that it becomes mundane.
Just as the indie film world tends to present an image of whiteness as the heuristic through which the independent film is recalled, ultimately neglecting the stories of racialized people, the narrative around modern loneliness, too, largely excludes the Other, the oppressed.
It did not take long for my love for independent theater to develop into a desperate desire to work in the world of independent film myself. I voraciously began to write scripts, work on student sets, and seek out internships, all in an effort to ensure that one day it would be my own work showing to a two o’clock crowd of a dozen or so retirees on an insignificant Tuesday afternoon. I saw the independent film world as a haven of unbridled creativity and ambitious storytelling—a staunch challenger to the world of Hollywood profit-prioritizing and adaptation-mania. I still think I do.
However, as I spent time on (predominantly white) independent film sets, I started to see all that they left to be desired. The working environments of many indie films were just as under-paid, long-houred, and occasionally-abusive as those in industry projects, and these flaws were merely hidden by an aesthetic of nonconformity. I still admire much of the work being produced by young, ambitious voices, but I was forced to acknowledge that these works are not always created in arenas of harmonious horizontality. I have since wondered just how attainable that image of Sembène, surrounded by a cadre of collaborators, actually is.
The independent film world’s more structural problem lies in the fact that it, too, has become an industry. For those the godsons of producers or nieces of executives, making it to the indie-sphere is a simple road. For those of us who are not, a more precarious pipeline is optioned: pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to attend a top film school, make contacts within the world’s top independent film festivals and distribution companies, submit to those festivals re: those contacts, and sell rights to those distributors re: those other contacts. In short, the American independent film is not as liberated as we might think it to be. A wealth of connections is the barrier to entry to the world of independence and a wealthier background goes a long way in surmounting it.
To make matters worse, current distribution patterns seriously limit the audience for these films. There are few truly independent or arthouse theaters remaining, and the insular crowd they tend to draw is predominantly white, wealthy, and old.
It’s through the imagination of film researchers and artists of color like Sophia Haid and Keisha N. Knight, who recently curated a series on the U.S.-Mexico border for asylum seekers, that we can reenvision film distribution. They yearn for a future where Sundance is no longer “the beginning and end of all things independent film in the United States”: a future in which movies are shown to people who might be impacted by them, because they respond to discourse that matters to them.
This would mean valuing innovation over intellectual property intended for adaptation, crafting challenging narratives over hollow ones, and ultimately, placing process over profit. If these sound more like hurdles associated with Hollywood than the independent film space, they are. The idea of the independent film only emerged in opposition to the rigidity of the industry. A true solution to its issues would require also solving Hollywood’s. Unfortunately, the ugly greed and brazen disregard for working class people recently displayed by studio heads makes one feel the prospects of that happening anytime soon are highly unlikely.
As Azaad contends, loneliness is largely a byproduct of the hierarchies that organize modern society—racism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, capitalism. Though these systems ultimately harm even those who have the most to gain from them, these privileged individuals still generally favor their continuation. They want to have it both ways: They wish for their loneliness to subside so they offer solutions that amount to “being kinder to one another,” but they reject any critical evaluation of the conditions that produce their loneliness in the first place.
Like independent film’s incestuous industrialization, our universal plague of loneliness is wrought with contradiction. For young people like myself, who in their marginalization recognize this irony, I would encourage a reconceptualization of loneliness. Indeed, I am coming to realize that though my identity at an institution like Columbia can be extremely isolating, it has also led me to examine how I might best contribute something worthwhile, even when institutional forces stifle my vision. It has compelled me to reconsider my values as they pertain to the film world and the “real” world. If there is one thing that I have learned during my time at this university, it is that resisting hegemony is my priority. It is a simple lesson, but it is an actionable one: all it takes is asserting the value of my own narrative. I owe a lot of this to Sembène. He has taught me the importance of telling stories about myself and my community.
As far as loneliness on campus goes, resistance looks like leaning into my position as a socially alienated subject and forming incredibly close bonds with the relatively few Black students at this school. I think that a prerequisite for finding community is finding out who you are, yourself. Ideally, this is the transformation that births the independent filmmaker: from someone who wanders in the wilderness, alone in their distinct perspective, into someone who, in recognizing their positionality, allies with those who share their marginal status in order to challenge the industry and substantively change it. From one sort of independence to another. From loneliness to liberation.