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Ousmane Sembene will always be an important name in cinema history because he was the first indigenous director to begin making films in sub-Saharan Africa, beginning in the mid-1960s. However, it’s a good bet than hardly anyone under 30 has ever heard of him, an issue for which the new documentary Sembene! will provide the beginnings of a corrective.
Academic in its approach but very informative as well as surprising in the degree to which it addresses the man’s foibles and ethical shortcomings, the film turns a welcome spotlight on a resourceful and singular artist who was forced to do everything from scratch in the absence of any local industry infrastructure. Theatrically and in museum and scholarly settings, the documentary could serve to anchor retrospective programs of the director’s work, while educational and cinema-oriented TV outlets represent a natural eventual home internationally.
Sembene, who died at age 84 in 2007, managed to direct nine features over a 38-year career, but only with great difficulty, given not only the lack of a domestic cinematic tradition in his native Senegal, but due to the often inflammatory political and cultural topics he often took on. Fortuitously, his struggle “to give voice to the voiceless,” as he described his creative mission, is told to a significant extent in Sembene’s own voice and words, as the film’s co-director, Samba Gadjigo, is also the artist’s official biographer and conducted many interviews with his subject.
The son of a fisherman, Sembene left school early, served in the French Free Forces during World War II, was a dock worker in Marseille, joined the communist party, studied film in Moscow and, during a six-month hospital stay after he broke his back, became immersed in literature. After establishing himself as a novelist in the 1950s (on a continent that, according to him, was 85 per cent illiterate), he experienced quick disenchantment with the despotic African rulers who replaced the previous colonial masters, as well as with the increasing role of Islam.
Gadjigo, who is seen at the outset exploring Sembene’s sadly derelict beachside house and examining the rusty film cans left there for years, co-directed the documentary with Jason Silverman, who is Cinematheque director of the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe, and they give a good account of their subject’s feature films. The first, in 1966, was Black Girl, a devastating, New Wave-influenced look at a Senegalese maid’s experience working on the French Riviera that at once put Sembene on the international festival map.
Among the films that followed were Xala, which equated the matrimonial impotence of a modern African businessman with the ineffectual new African governments, and Ceddo, which featured attacks on both colonialists and Muslims so fierce that the director was thereafter unable to find financial backing for a decade.
What happened next is quite shocking. According to Gadjigo, Sembene, who was teaching at the time, became so frustrated over not being able to make a film that he not only stole the script for a new project from a student but also appropriated money from a young filmmakers’ fund to launch his own picture. The result was the tough and tragic Camp du Thiaroye, about the historical mutiny by and subsequent massacre of African soldiers serving in the French army in Dakar in 1944. Confronted about his behavior, Sembene dissembles, rationalizing it as all being in the cause of art and allowing that he would “sleep with the devil” to make a film. Sembene’s son Alain then weighs in about how entirely absent a father the man was. The whole episode was so disgraceful that Sembene went into a partial artistic exile once again, although he did manage to make three more features before his death, including his final work, the internationally seen Moolaade, a ferocious attack on African female genital mutilation.
The documentary is weighed down a bit by Gadjiho’s deliberate and rather pedantic manner of speaking and there is excess footage of him in his role as a professor at the all-female Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, where Sembene eventually turns up as a rather unlikely guest. Still, one can easily understand Gadjiho’s pride in being the custodian and passionate advocate of Sembene’s work, and his honesty about is hero’s deficiencies is not a trait often seen in the countless hagiographies and PR-controlled profiles of American and other film business figures.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Production: Galle Ceddo Projects, Impact Partners, New Mexico Media Partners
Directors: Samba Gadjigo, Jason Silverman
Producers: Jason Silverman, Samba Gadjigo
Directors of photography: David Aubrey, Jim Bitterman, Salvador
Bolivar, Cliff Charles, Abdoul Aziz Cisse, Justin Francese, Samba
Gadjigo, Allison Humanek, Terryl Loffler, Jason Silverman
Editor: Ricardo Acosta
Music: Ken Myhr, Chris Jonas
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