In French, the word “de” can mean “from” or “of.” This distinction, along with the ambiguity of the ellipsis, make the original title of Ousmane Sembène’s first feature film, La Noire De… enigmatic. It becomes a question: is Diouana the woman from Senegal, or is she the girl who belongs to her French employers? The film opens with a question as well, Diouna steps off a boat into a new world, and wonders, “Will someone be waiting for me?” a question that echoes in the loneliness she experiences throughout the film.
Diouna has moved from Senegal to France to work as a nanny, a position she held in Senegal that allowed her some freedom and dignity to lead her own life. This all changes when she reaches France. There is someone to meet her at the dock, but he is coldly polite. He does not carry her bag or open the car door for her. She answers him with the same tone, saying no more than “Oui, Monsieur,” to his perfunctory inquiries.
Sembène shot the film in 1965, in a short time on a very low budget, but he transformed the constraints of production and used his limitations to beautiful advantage. The film was shot without sound and post-synched, but the dialog between Diouana and her employers is so clipped and minimal that this doesn’t become a problem. She doesn’t have a voice in their presence. They scold her with increasing petulance and ferocity, but she goes silently about her chores. What we get instead is the rich, intelligent voice of her thoughts and her memories.
We hear her hopes about starting this new life as a nanny, her anxieties as it becomes obvious she’s not a nanny but a maid of all work, and finally her disappointment and bitterness at being mislead and mistreated. She had expected to have some freedom, to discover France, to make a new and joyful start for herself. Instead she is stuck in the house as surely as if she was locked up there, cut off from her hopes of this new world, from her memories of the freedom of her old life, and from any kind or respectful human contact. This painful, voiceless isolation is at its worst when she receives a letter from her mother. Neither of them can read or write. Her mother had to hire a letter-writer, and Diouana relies on her employer to read the letter to her. He takes it upon himself to write back, taking down not her words, nothing close to her thoughts, just trite niceties about her situation that he wishes were true. She’s seething, furious, with his actions, but she doesn’t say so aloud. She doesn’t tell him so.
The jarring space between his words and her reality, between her hopeful memories and her present situation, between her articulate imagination and her silent life is so great and dark that she falls into it and can’t find her way back out. The ending to this film is shocking and tragic, and all the more so when you learn that it was based on a true story of a real woman named Diouana, whose story Sembène would have seen when he himself was living in Marseille and working as a docker, “one of many Africans who came to the south of France after World War II to work or study.” In giving her a voice and letting her tell her story, Sembène’s film is groundbreaking and crucial, and we can only wish, with sadness, that someone had done so in her real life.
The film is beautifully filmed–it is one of the most aesthetically thoughtful black-and-white films that I have ever seen. From Diouana’s graphically patterned hand-me-down dresses to the gleaming white tub and toilet she must scrub, every shot is so full of contrasts of light and shadow that it becomes more than metaphor, it becomes the whole world. This is a movie I want to read. Every image, every shot and movement seems full of shifting significant meaning that I want to notice and understand. I want Diouana to explain it to me. I want to hear her voice.