was born in Porto Novo, Benin, on January 30, 1925. His great-grandfather, a Muslim Yorouba, was a member of a Bida royal family in Nigeria and was sent to Brazil as a slave. 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, as well as 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 years old, to France to attend boarding school. In 1954, he graduated from IDHEC School with a thesis on cinema in French-speaking Africa. 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). Vieyra also served as a mentor and production director for Senegalese film- makers including Sembene and Ababacar Samb Makaram and was a founding member of film institutions including The Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) and the Pan-African Film Festival (FESPACO). (Samba Gadjigo)
Vieyra’s multidisciplinary career as a filmmaker, producer, and scholar is central to West African film history. In 1955, Vieyra directed the first substantial film by a French-speaking sub-Saharan African, Afrique sur Seine. This 21-minute, 16mm black-and-white fiction film with Marpessa Dawn, star of Black Orpheus (1959), was co-directed by aspiring filmmakers Jacques Melo Kane and Mamadou Sarr and shot by Robert Caristan. This quartet became known as The African Cinema Group. The film’s ironic title highlights the incongruous locations of Africa and the Seine River in Paris, where Vieyra was the first African admitted to study at the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC, now known as La Fémis). Vieyra went on to serve as a mentor and production manager for Senegalese filmmakers including Ousmane Sembène and Ababacar Samb Makaram and he was a founding member of film institutions that have an enduring impact today, particularly The Pan-African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) and the Pan-African Film Festival (FESPACO). Vieyra organized equipment and personnel for Sembène’s Borom Sarret (1963), the first of many transformative films by Sembène. Vieyra produced Le Mandat (1968), Taaw (1970), Xala (1974), and Ceddo (1977). Vieyra wrote Sembène into film history with Ousmane Sembène, cinéaste: première période, 1962-1971 and Le cinéma au Sénégal.
Vieyra returned to Dakar, Senegal, in the late 1950s, staying through the 1960s, where he took on a supervisory role at the Actualités Sénégalaises. Léopold Sédar Senghor, the first president of independent Senegal, had appointed Vieyra as the first director of the Senegalese Office for Radio Broadcasting and Television and the Science and Information Technology Research Centre to organize the media office in charge of news production, educational movie screenings, and state funding of film production and education.
Vieyra’s position was crucial because, under colonialism, many European powers perceived cinema as a threat, leading them to impose strict limits on the production and distribution of African films, such as the Laval Decree of 1934 which effectively forced the creation of Afrique sur Seine in Paris. The British and French administrations had both developed systems of screening films in the colonized nations, often for propaganda purposes and the lieutenant governor had to authorize filming in the area. In reality, this meant that Africans were barred from filming in Africa.
As Vieyra wrote in Le cinéma africain, des origines à 1973, “In 1955, while a small group of Africans and Europeans discussed cinema in the smoke-filled rooms of Europe, no one paid them any attention. In wanting and in working for the advent of an African Cinema, at the time, they fought for independence in their own way, since it was never in doubt that only the national sovereignty of African nations allowed the cinematographic expression of an authentic African reality.”