Film Review: Sembene!

'Sembene!' is driven by the memories of co-director Samba Gadjigo, a friend of the late Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, and it serves as a good introduction to the work of “the father of African cinema.”
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Sembene!, a documentary by Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman, is about the eponymous Senegalese writer-director often called “the father of African cinema.” For Gadjigo, the author of Ousmane Sembène: The Making of a Militant Artist, his subject was also a revered “uncle,” the African honorific for a wise teacher and friend. In the opening sequence of the documentary, Gadjigo explains that he was a student schooled in the French language and literature of Senegal’s colonizers when, in his late teens, he first discovered Sembene’s written work. It is Gadjigo’s memory of that coming-of-age, of his realization of his African identity, that serves as the inspiration for the documentary, which is an excellent introduction to Sembene.

If there are a few pedantic passages where Gadjigo seems to lecture rather than narrate, and some self-serving ones, where he is seen in the classroom, Sembene! is nevertheless suffused with the great affection and esteem in which the filmmakers hold their subject. Ousmane Sembene was indeed a remarkable artist, the first to make a movie in Wolof, an indigenous language of Senegal (and his native language), at a time when there was no filmmaking infrastructure in his country. His oeuvre also includes documentaries and short subjects. Before becoming a filmmaker, Sembene authored fiction and nonfiction in French, and during the dry years, when his movies were banned or he was unable to get funding for new ones, he wrote and edited the first Wolof-language periodical, which he founded.

Sembene is best known here for his feature films, among them Black Girl (1966), about the eponymous maid in the employ of a French couple; Emitaï (1971, named for the Diola god of thunder), which chronicles a village’s resistance to French troops during World War II; Xala (1975, aka Impotence), a political satire of modern Africa; and Ceddo (1977), the story of an African princess and her subjects who save their village from Islamization. Sembene’s final film, Moolaadé (2004), is also about the effect of Islamization on Senegalese culture; its title is the Wolof word for “sanctuary,” which refers to that setting in the film, a safe house for girls confronting genital mutilation.

Sembenebegins with a sequence from Emitaï and then goes on to features clips from his other narrative films, as well as still photos and footage of and interviews with Sembene during production in Senegal and in his travels with Gadjigo. The documentary is divided into sections representing different aspects of the filmmaker’s life and work, each marked by delightful animated drawings. While Gadjigo narrates some portions of the film, much of it is Sembene in his own words. There are also a few interviews, one with his son Alain and another with Boris Boubacar Diop, a journalist and novelist as well as Sembene’s literary protégé. Diop also figures in a story about Sembene that is quite shocking; apparently, the filmmaker used funds earmarked for a project written by Diop to make Camp de Thiaroye (1986), his film about the massacre of African soldiers by French forces.

As the discussion of this incident in the documentary suggests, Sembene! is not a simple homage. Alain discusses his father’s irascibility and his long absences, and Sembene’s African-American wife complains that his creative life interferes with their marriage. What emerges is a portrait of a committed filmmaker, one who may have been feted by European society but was also just as often rejected by it. Some of Sembene’s films were simultaneously banned in France and in Senegal, and while his anti-Islamization stance was accepted by European and American audiences, it was scorned by many of his fellow Africans. As the documentary points out, he was often broke and once mortgaged his home, which he built himself, in order to make a movie.

Sembene’s triumph was that he was a trailblazer and an iconoclast. Few filmmakers have so consistently challenged established authority with movies that are as beautifully conceived as Sembene’s and that both explain and represent Senegalese and, by extension, African sensibilities. Even in his early work in black-and-white, such as in Black Girl, Sembene’s framing and lighting of the maid’s face, his tableaux of her supine on her bed and then slumped in indecision, are unforgettable. An entire review could be devoted to the African mask that hangs on an otherwise blank wall of the French couple’s home and which serves as a focal point of the maid’s radicalization.

In 2004, this magazine and its present editor assigned me an interview with Sembene for Moolaadé. (Gadjigo served as interpreter.) On my way to the filmmaker’s hotel, I passed a fruit vendor and on impulse bought several oranges; it seemed to offer the possibility of bridging the vast cultural differences I feared would arise in the course of our conversation. Sembene was also twice my age, and I wished to show a certain respect for him. More than anything, I wanted to ask about each of his sublime portrayals of courageous girls and women in Black GirlEmitaï, CeddoFaat Kiné and Moolaadé, and Sembene, who died three years later, complied somewhat.

He wanted to sum up his career, and it seemed to me that he had even read my mind. He began our interview by saying that I was the sole woman journalist he would be speaking with in New York City. He repeated what he had told another journalist in 1980, that Emitaï was based on an actual revolt, one that had been led by a woman. Sembene’s deep understanding for the predicament of women, particularly in Senegalese society, but also the struggle of women in all patriarchal cultures, is a large part of his legacy. Unfortunately, there is no discussion of it in Sembene!, nor do any women figure in the archival or original footage, save for a clip of Sembene’s wife, Carrie Moore, and a brief interview with his longtime housekeeper whose tearful reminiscences speak to her affection for him. The eliding of women’s voices in a biography of Sembene is no small heresy.

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