Paulin Soumanou Vieyra (1925 – 1987)

The oldest of eight children, Paulin Soumanou Vieyra was born in Porto Novo, Benin (former Dahomey) on January 30, 1925, His great-grandfather, a Muslim Yoruba, was a member of a Bida royal family in Nigeria who was sent to Brazil as slaves. Following the 1835 Muslim slave rebellion in Bahia and emancipation in Brazil, Vieyra’s great-grandfather settled in the former Portuguese slave port of Porto Novo (New Port), which was said to be a tributary of the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo. He brought with him a mulatto wife, the daughter of his former Jewish Portuguese master and a black slave, and the Portuguese last name Vieyra.

Paulin S. Vieyra’s father was a Yoruba railroad administrator. His mother, originally from Sierra Leone, was a merchant. In 1935, they sent Paulin, then 10, to France to attend boarding school. During the war, his school was closed. Moving from family to family, Vieyra’s precarious situation led to poor health, including tuberculosis. After the war and upon graduation from high school in 1947, Vieyra, then 22, enrolled at the Universite de Paris to study biological science. That same year, Vieyra, who had already discovered and developed some love for cinema, made an encounter that would forever change the course of his life and career. For his adaptation of the short story Le diable au corps by Raymond Radiquet, Claude-Autant-Lara cast Vieyra in as an extra, playing a black African soldier. After that first experience, Vieyra dropped out of the university and his biology major to enroll as the first and then only sub-Saharan African at Paris’ Institute des hautes études cinématographiques (Institute for Cinema Studies (IDHEC), in 1947.

In 1950, he had to interrupt his film training to have half of his lungs removed due to tuberculosis and heavy smoking.  In 1954, he graduated from IDHEC with a thesis on cinema in French-speaking Africa. As a part of his requirements, Vieyra directed the five-minute short film C’était il y a quatre ans (It was four years Ago), with the central subject the alienation of an African student in Paris. In 1955, Vieyra made history by directing the first substantial film by a French-speaking sub-Saharan African, Afrique sur Seine, 21-minute, 16mm black-and-white fiction film with Marpessa Dawn, star of Black Orpheus (1959). It was produced by the French Ministry of Cooperation, co-directed by aspiring filmmakers Jacques Melo Kane and Mamadou Sarr and shot by Robert Caristan. This quartet became known as le groupe africain de cinema (The African Cinema Group).

By necessity, this first African film was made in Paris, due to the 1934 French law Decret Laval. Named after its sponsor, French Minister of the Colonies Pierre Laval, it prohibited any filming in Africa without a proper license from this ministry. Thus unable to shoot in Africa, Vieyra used footage from militant film director Rene Vautier’s Afrique 50, shot in Côte d’Ivoire in the 50s. Afrique sur Seine serves both as birth certificate for sub-Saharan African cinema and ushered in a new era of self-representation and cultural revalorization through film. Vieyra gave voice to an exiled generation of African artists and students living in France and in search for their own future and that of their continent. Furthermore, as a direct echo of the 1955 Bandoeng Conference that allowed the peoples of Africa and Asia to voice their natural right to self determination, Afrique sur Seine defined the paradigm of the newborn African cinema. It would be a cinema of resistance, an alternative to the Euro-American commercial, dream-making cinema.

While in Paris, Vieyra was an active member of Presence Africaine, a panafrican quarterly review founded in Paris in 1947 by Senegalese scholar Alioune Diop and also known as the Cultural Review of the Black World. At Presence, Vieyra met and worked with an impressive cast of African, American and European writers, intellectuals, scientists, cultural, and political activists: founders of the Negritude Movement including Léopold Senghor, Léon Damas and Aimé Césaire; the African-American writer Richard Wright; and French progressive intelligentsia including Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Georges Balandier. He helped produce the First Congress of Black Writers and Artists at the Sorbonne in 1956 and played the crucial role of memory keeper by filming the proceedings. He played the same role during the second congress held (Rome, 1959). In the late 1950s, Vieyra became the film review editor and film critic for Presence Africaine and visited eastern bloc capitals including Warsaw, Budapest, Prague, and Sofia.

In 1956, the French National Assembly’s Overseas Reform Act (The Loi-cadre) transferred certain powers to elected territorial governments of French West Africa. A year later, sensing the possibilities of independence, Vieyra left France for Dakar, Senegal, the headquarter of French West Africa. For 23 years, from 1957 to his retirement in 1980, he played a pivotal role in the newly created Ministry of Information. He served as director of the Actualites sénégalaises, a popular newsreel program shown in West African theaters. He also produced more than 30 short fiction and documentary films (see appendix) and served as chief reporter of all official trips made by President Leopold S. Senghor between 1960 and 1975. From 1972 to 1975, Vieyra also served as the first director of programming of the first Senegalese television station.

Throughout his career, Vieyra made only one feature, En residence surveillée (House Arrest, 1981). Still, he is a key figure in African cinema history, the first sub-Saharan African to direct a film and the first to make one in an indigenous African language (his 11-minute-long 1964 film Sindiély was shot in Wolof, the national language of Senegal).

After retiring from Senegalese radio and television, Paulin received his doctorate in cinema studies from the Sorbonne under the guidance of French anthropologist and film director Jean Rouch in 1982. He taught at the (CESTI) Centre d’Etudes des Sciences et Techniques de l’Information – (Centre of Studies in Information Sciences and Techniques ), a school of journalism created in Dakar in 1965 with the help of UNESCO.

Vieyra was a groundbreaking critic of sub-Saharan Africa cinema. His  works included Le cinema et l’Afrique (Cinema and Africa, 1969), Ousmane Sembene cinéaste (1972), a monograph that documents works from Borom Sarret (1963) to Emitai (1971); Le cinema africain des origins à 1973 (1974). In 1983 he published the first comprehensive study of Senegalese film production, Le cinema au Senegal (Cinema in Senegal). Vieyra also served as a mentor and production director for Senegalese filmmakers including Sembene and Ababacar Samb Makaram and as a founding member of film institutions including The Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) and the Pan-African Film Festival (FESPACO). Vieyra also produced Sembene’s films Mandabi (1968), Emitaï (1971), Xala (1974) and Ceddo (1977).

Upon returning from the 1987 edition of FESPACO, Vieyra was hospitalized in Paris for three months. He died on November 4, 1987 at age 62.


– 1969: Le cinéma et l’Afrique, (Africa and the Cinema) Présence Africaine
– 1972: Sembène Ousmane Cinéaste tome 1, Présence Africaine
– 1974: Le cinéma Africain: des Origines à 1973 tome 1, Présence Africaine
– 1983: Le Cinéma au Sénégal, collection Cinémédia, éditions OCIC l’Harmattan

Selected Filmography

1) Shorts
– 1954: C’était il y a 4 ans (It Was Four Years Ago) 5’
– 1955: Afrique sur Seine (Africa on the Seine), co directed with Mamadou Sarr): 16mm, 22’
– 1957: Un homme, un idéal, une vie (A Man, an Ideal, a Life) 16mm, 26’
– 1962: Une nation est née (A Nation is Born) 35mm, 20’
– 1963: Lamb, Lutte sénégalaise (Lamb, Senegalese Wrestling) 35mm, 18’
– 1964: Sindiély: 35mm, 11’
– 1982: Birago Diop, conteur (Birago Diop, A Storyteller): 16mm, 26’
– 1982: Iba N’Diaye peintre, (Iba Ndiaye Painter) 16mm, 45’

2) Features
– 1981: En résidence surveillée: LM; 35mm, coul, 90’

3) Director of Production
– 1968: Le Mandat (The Money Order) by Sembène Ousmane
– 1971: Emitaï by Sembène Ousmane
– 1971: Kodou by Ababacar Samb
– 1974: Xala by Sembène Ousmane
– 1976: Ceddo by Sembène Ousmane

Featured Director

Paulin Soumanou Vieyra

Paulin Soumanou Vieyra was born in Porto-Novo, Benin in January of 1925, but grew up in Senegal. He was a director, writer, critic and historian of African cinema. His film Afrique sur Seine, co-directed by aspiring filmmakers Jacques Melo Kane and Mamadou Sarr and shot by Robert Caristan, is credited as being one of the first francophone African films to ever be released. This quartet became known as "The African Cinema Group." Vieyra was a founding member of film institutions including The Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) and the Pan-African Film Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO). Vieyra was the mentor of great figures of the seventh art, such as Ousmane Sembène, Djibril Diop Mambéty, and Ababacar Samb-Makharam. He passed away in November of 1987 at the age of 62. Learn More

About the Author

Samba Gadjigo

Samba Gadjigo is writer, producer and director. He was the official biographer of the late filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, and acted as his agent in the United States. Born and raised in Senegal, Gadjigo was educated at the University of Dakar and the École Normale Supérieure, also in Dakar, and received his PhD from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. His dissertation, published in 1990, analyzed representations of the French system of schooling in West Africa. In addition to having written and edited several books, he frequently contributes articles about French and francophone African literature and film. In 1986, Samba Gadjigo joined the faculty of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., is former chair of the French Department and member of the African American and African Studies departments. He is director of The Making of Moolaadé, a documentary that was shown at film festivals and is available on the DVD of Sembène's award-winning film Moolaadé. He is also the co-director of the 2015 documentary, SEMBENE!, profiling the African freedom fighter and "father of African cinema." Learn More