Ceddo (1976 Sénégal 117 mins)

Source: ACMI Collections Prod Co: Filmi Doomi Reew Prod: Robert Loko Dir, Scr: Sembène Ousmane Phot: Georges Caristan, Orlando Lopez, Bara Diokhane, Seydina O. Gaye Ed: Florence Eymon, Dominique Blain Art Dir: Alpha W. Diallo Mus: Manu Dibango

Cast: Tabura N’diaye, Alioune Fall, Moustapha Yade, Mamadou N’diaye Diagne, Ousmane Camara, Nar Sene, Makhouredia Gueye, Mamadou Dioum, Oumar Guèye, Pierre Orma, Eloi Coly, Marek Tollik, Ismaila Diagne

Introduction and Warning

The following article has been adapted from the review of Ceddo which appeared in the Monthly Film Bulletin (vol. 49, no. 576, January 1982) on the film’s initial U.K. release. The M.F.B. format (analytical plot synopsis followed by a critical review) has nevertheless been retained. Reading the plot synopsis before the screening will lessen the force of the film’s extraordinarily powerful and beautiful ending.

Analytical Plot Synopsis

A Wolof-speaking village at an unspecified time in the past. The Ceddo (the outsiders, or non-Moslems) have kidnapped Princess Dior Yacine, daughter of the King Demba War, to hold her hostage in protest against forcible conversion to Islam. A village meeting is summoned. Three young men dominate the debate: Saxewar, betrothed to Dior; Madior, Demba War’s sister’s son, who, according to traditional custom, should be Dior’s betrothed and Demba War’s heir; Biram, the King’s son, who is now, according to the new Islamic law, the King’s heir. Madior and Biram argue the legality of their respective claims. Demba War rules in favour of Biram: “The laws of Islam guide us”. Madior renounces his religion and his uncle; Demba War declares that Biram shall confront the kidnapper, the champion of the Ceddo. He goes forth to battle, preceded by the Samp, the ceremonial staff, and its bearer. Despite his superior arms (two single-shot rifles against a bow) he is killed, as is Saxewar, who follows him in turn. The King summons his council; the Ceddo ask to be admitted; they express their sorrow and a desire for peace: “Is religion worth a man’s life?” The Imam violently opposes them: infidels should not speak in an Islamic council. His marabouts show the Ceddo out. Demba War rebukes the Imam for going beyond his duty, and not acknowledging him as King, but important councillors (including the linguist, or ceremonial spokesman) are for the Imam and against Madior, describing the Ceddo as a threat.

The council breaks up, and the councillors plot to install the Imam on the throne, and marry Dior to him. The Ceddo, too, survey the future: to fight, without firearms or slaves to trade for them, to go into exile, or to convert? The Imam plans a pre-emptive strike, and one group of Ceddo is slaughtered as they attempt to trade members of their own family to the white man for rifles. The Samp is burnt. The next morning, vultures pick over the embers of huts burnt in the conflict as Ceddo sheltered in them. Demba War’s death in the night (from a snake-bite) is announced, and subsequently reported to Dior and her kidnapper by a group of Ceddo who have chosen exile. As the village prepares for the mass conversion to Islam, two warriors are sent to fetch Dior. They kill the kidnapper, and return Dior to the village as the conversion is completed. She seizes a rifle, and approaches the Imam, who is seated on her father’s throne. The recently converted Ceddo thrust the muzzles of the marabouts’ single-shot rifles into their mouths, effectively immobilizing them. Dior shoots the Imam; the camera moves into a close-up of her (one of very few in the film); she throws the rifle down, turns, and walks away. The frame freezes.

Critical Review

Although the film is set in the past, apparently at the time of both an ongoing Islamic and an early European penetration of traditional African society, its director, Sembène Ousmane, insists: “I can’t give a date. These events occurred in the 18th and 19th century and are still occurring” (1). Indeed, one crucial period for the expansion and consolidation of Islam amongst Wolof-speakers did not occur till after 1871 and the termination of the slave-trade. Thus, just as the village in the film is an exemplary microcosm of African (or at least West African) society in the throes of a crucial transition brought about by external pressures, and internal greed, ambition and dissension, so the time-span of the film (approximately a day and a half) offers an exemplary survey of two or more centuries of West African history.

Whilst for the most part there is little in the filming or staging to suggest other than a precise and naturalistic reconstruction of a particular historical era, a particular place and time, certain passages are clearly organised to encourage the viewer to move from this specific drama to a more general experience of West African history, including the African-American diaspora. Thus attempts to confine the film within the straitjacket generated by the rigid application of academic criteria of narrative motivation and coherence miss the point. They fail to acknowledge that the film’s discontinuities, its changes of pace and tone, are a prime source of its impact, its poetry and its meaning. This is not a village tale, but a film about the revelation of historic processes. This, clearly, is the effect of the English-language gospel song associated with the slaves. It is a device of almost diagrammatic simplicity, startling and disconcerting when first heard because apparently unconnected with the action on the screen, and evoking neither mood, atmosphere nor identification with the chained slaves. However, in the course of the film it becomes meaningful as a precise evocation of the slaves’ future, and that of their descendants, Christianised in America. In doing so, it extends the geographical range of the film’s reference, from the Francophone world (the slaves are branded with the fleur de lys, the emblem of monarchical France) to the Anglophone. The shared references to Christianity link this aural “flash forward” to the passage in the film most clearly marked as subjective: the Catholic priest’s ambitious fantasy of the future. This, though in the context of the film a moment of broad and humorous irony, retains simultaneously a dimension of precise naturalism in the sketch it offers of modern African Christianity. Thus the viewer is encouraged to engage with a whole history, particularly aspects of it that have been denied to and appropriated from the people of Africa by first slavery, then colonialism and Islamic hegemony.

For Sembène, the Ceddo embody the resistance of a culture and a traditional way of life to the encroachments of Islam, Christianity and colonialism. This magnificent film is a comparable act of resistance, an attempt to write a segment of history for Africans and in African terms. It is a work of great organisational and thematic complexity, beautifully staged, mainly in depth, and possessing extraordinary kinesic grace and rhythmic control, two of the most powerful and evocative aspects of film form. The rhetoric of the highly ritualised village and formal council meetings contrasts with Dior’s enigmatic silence, her gestures and movements – controlled, delicate, yet suggestive of underlying strength and power – and the sudden bursts of violence when the conflicts become so intense that traditional structures can no longer contain, let alone resolve, them. Thus the viewer becomes aware of a subtle and sophisticated culture in peril of destruction. One is moved not through identification with a hero, but rather by the plight of the group, and outraged by the disruption of a whole way of life. This is something rare in the history of cinema. “Can an uncle inherit from the nephew?” asks one Ceddo leader when it is suggested they should trade their own children for firearms to fight the Imam and his disciples. Market forces and the cash economy, in which human beings as well as human services and labour may be bought and sold, inverts the natural order of the generations, and entangles in its web even some who wish to preserve the old ways.

Sembène argues:

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.

These words represent an explicit rejection of the notion of that specifically black engagement with the world proposed by the influential concept of négritude, a notion first articulated in the late 1930s by a prominent group of writers including the future first President of Senegal, the poet Léopold Sédar Senghor.

Sembène further adds: “Often in Africa it’s only the men who speak, but one forgets the role, interest of women. I think the princess is the incarnation of modern Africa… There can be no development in Africa if women are left out of the account” (2). Sembène goes so far as to articulate something completely ignored in the discourse of the male protagonists of the village’s internal war: the desire of this strong, silent, beautiful young woman. This is revealed in what I read as a subjective flashforward to a possible future, similar to that of the priest. It is characteristic of the complexity of Sembène’s analysis of the interaction between the individual, history and traditional practice that this shows her married to her kidnapper and finding happiness in the role of a traditional wife serving her husband. Others have read this as flashback to their first encounter. Even if this is so, the moment remains equally evocative in terms of the possibilities it suggests.

It is a tragedy of African filmmakers that their work is, for political and financial reasons, often more likely to be seen by Europeans than by the large and enthusiastic African audience to whom it is directed. Sadly, Ceddo is banned in the country of its production, Sembène’s home, Senegal.


In fact, by the time Ceddo was released in the United Kingdom, and the review above written, Senegal had a new President, Abdou Diouf, and was moving towards a more democratic system, one which permitted the screening of Ceddo, and acknowledged Sembène and his work. Sembène had also imposed a ban of his own, a refusal to make multiple prints of the film available to the agents of the Shah, for use in Iran as a propaganda weapon against the appeal of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

The ostensible reason for the Senegalese ban had been the spelling of the title. President Senghor argued that the title should be written “Cedo”, with a single “d”. Sembène had been a major supporter of the pioneering efforts to develop a system for the transcription of the Wolof language, and of the first Wolof-language publications, and spoke with contempt about Senghor’s knowledge of Wolof, or lack thereof. Senghor was a Serere, and in his language, unlike Wolof and other languages spoken in Senegal, consonants were not doubled.

To the distant observer, this seems a minor issue, and one wonders why it was so important to the two men, making one inclined to suspect that other forces were at work. Certainly Senghor, a Christian, was aware of his dependence on Islamic political leaders, the marabouts, particularly since 1968. He had then been saved from students protesting the country’s lack of democracy and its neo-colonial economic policies (the continuation, for example, of the “groundnut policy” of French colonialism, whereby, rather than subsistence crops that might feed the country, groundnuts were grown for export) by the intervention of the chief marabout of the country’s most powerful Islamic confrérie (brotherhood). The latter had transported an army of peasants loyal to him and the confrérie to Dakar, the capital, where they saved the President from the students. Having given an account of these events in a brilliant presentation to the seventh annual conference of the Association for the Study of Caribbean and African Literature in French (London, November 1994) the Irish scholar Fírinne ni Chreachaín went on to report that she had questioned hundreds of people in Senegal about the banning, and all, even leftist intellectuals, had stated that spelling was indeed the issue. Her theory was that, in the days of Senghor’s repressive one-party rule, all political debate was displaced on to issues of cultural nationalism, the only arena in which debate was possible. The core of Fírinne’s presentation, however, argued the deep ambiguity of Sembène’s use of the Ceddo as a symbol of traditional resistance. She presented an account of Senegalese history according to which the Ceddo represented a military aristocracy made powerful by the slave-trade, not “a warrior of just causes” (3), “innocent”, in Sembène’s words, “of sin and transgression…jealous of his/her absolute liberty” (4).


  1. Interview with Ulrich Gregor recorded during the 1977 Cannes Festival, and published in Framework no. 7/8, spring 1978.
  2. Sembène, quoted in Gregor.
  3. Teshome Gabriel, ”Ceddo”, Framework no. 15/16/17, summer 1981.
  4. Sembène translated and quoted from Nations Nouvelles, 1976.

About The Author

James Leahy is a film historian and screenwriter, and has worked with Nick Ray, Ken McMullen (he co-wrote 1871, an official selection at Cannes in 1990) and Med Hondo. His writings on cinema have appeared in The Guardian, Sight & Sound, Cahiers du cinéma in English, Vertigo and PIX.

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