SEMBENE! (2015) review
written by: Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman
produced by: Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman
directed by: Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman
runtime: 86 min.
U.S. release date: January 15, 2015 & and January 21, 2015 (Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL)
Before Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman’s documentary “Sembene!” begins the following quote, “If Africans do not tell their own stories, Africa will soon disappear”, from Ousman Sembene, a Senegalese writer/director considered to be the father of African cinema. Co-director Gadjigo, also a native of Senegal as well as a French professor at Massachusett’s Mount Holyoke College is doing just that, by telling the story of his friend and former mentor. If you are of African descent and have never heard of Sembene, you owe it to yourself to seek this movie out, but even if you’re not and are a fellow film enthusiast, you owe it to yourself to see “Sembene!” I had never heard of the filmmaker and seeing this film was fascinating and engaging learning experience.
Since Gadjigo served as Sembene’s collaborator and biographer and was taken in like a son, it is appropriate that he not only co-directed this film, but also be the one whose voice is heard. He provides narration here and it is as insightful as it is informative and it “Sembene!” is as much his story as it is the titular filmmaker. Gadjigo tells us of his own childhood, growing up in Senegal, how he didn’t have TV, newspapers or radio, just the stories of his grandmother -which I’m sure were infinitely better. From those stories, he gleaned a respect for his heritage and eventually developed an appreciation of those from his country involved in the arts.
“Sembene!” lists specific chapters that breakdown pivotal moments in Sembene’s life, as Gadjigo and Silverman introduce us to the pioneering director. Gadjigo takes us to Sembene’s home (which he built with his own hands) in Senegal called Galle Ceddo in a chapter called “House of the Rebel”. It is now empty and deteriorating, but at one time it was used as a forum and a classroom, bustling with activity. Now there are reels of film in canisters and who knows what else. Gadjiro goes through these reels in an effort to preserve the films of his friend and reacquaint himself with his work.
In “Young Fisherman”chapter, we learn that Sembene was born in 1923, a fisherman’s son at a time when Senegal was still under French rule. His education ended at elementary school level after he was kicked out for insubordination and then he spent most of his childhood fishing in the Casamance River, like his father taught him. His father told him, “I’ve never worked for a white man and I never will.” Sembene eventually did though. Out of curiosity, he travelled to France in the 1950s, where he labored as a dock worker in Marseilles, lugging bags of coffee beans. It was there that he received a political awakening and joined the French Communist party. It’s also where Sembene was swept up by the power and beauty of European art.
One day, Sembene broke his back lifting a bag on the docks and spent six months in the hospital on his belly. He used that time to educate himself, reading Richard Wright, Jack London and other classic writers. In doing so, he realized that the Africa he knew, of the common man, was absent – just moribund Africa. So, as he says it, “like a blind person coming to light”, this is how Sembene came to literature. As Gadjigo says, Sembene began writing so he could give a voice to the voiceless. Gadjigo discovered the literary works of Sembene at age seventeen and it was the first time he was proud to be an African.
In the chapter entitled, “A Mirror for Africa”, we learn that most African nations began to experience freedom in the 1960s, as they became liberated from countries such as France, Belgium and England. In 1961, Sembene was invited to Russia to study filmmaking and one year later he returned to Africa with a used 16mm camera. His offering to the movement was his first film, “Borom Sarret” (Cart Driver), a short that was a straightforward film narratively, following a horse-drawn cart driver through a bustling village with the camera either looking down from the cart or observing from ground level. The goal was simply to show life as the filmmaker sees it.
As he toured Africa, he learned that his homeland’s literature was not being read because most of the people were illiterate. Sembene turned to movies to tell his stories. Before Senegals’ liberation, the French would not allow anyone to pick up a camera and tell their stories, so when he made “Borom Sarret”, it was the first ever of its kind – the first sub-Saharan film made in Africa, by an African for Africans.
Making the films was all Sembene. He used actors off the streets and his family served as crew, but he had no editor, no studio or critics who knew of his work – just his creativity and his environment – and leftover film from his European friends. He would cast people he would see in his village and use his family as his crew.
Manthia Diawara, director at Institute of Afro-American Affairs, NYU, that no one paid attention to Africans humanity before Sembene, stating he “came to cinema and invented a new language to represent black people,” he uses “Black Girl” (1966) as an example, which was the first African film to become an international success and resulted in Sembene becoming the first African to be invited to be a jury member at Cannes. How exhilarating and overwhelming that must have been for the director.
“The Rebel” is the chapter where Gadjigo reflects that by the time he was in college, Africa’s independence was short-lived and “our heroes had been ousted, corrupted or killed, resulting in a nightmare for the dream of a new Africa. With 1972’s “Emita!”, Sembene provided an outlet for those oppressed by the African militants, it was the first in a trilogy that offering a look at political corruption and popular resistance. At the time of this film’s release, Sembene had become one of Africa’s most influential artists.
Gadjigo and Silverman tell Sembene’s story by using video clips of various Sembene interviews that provide insight into the artist’s motivations and perspectives. We also see photos of Sembene with the likes of filmmakers such as Orson Welles and Glauber Rocha and American intellectual. W. E. B. DuBois.
“Sembene!” also touches on the director as a father when we hear from his mixed-race son, Alain Sembene. He describes how there were two sides to his father, demanding by day and contemplative, relaxing by night. We also see that, as the director continued his controversial trilogy with 1975’s “Xala” (a satire on the corruption of African post-independence politicians) and 1977’s “Ceddo” (a clear attack on how Islam was imposed on African culture), he experienced a short-lived marriage and found his films banned un Senegal for its depictions of the conflict of religious and traditional beliefs. After his divorce was final and “Ceddo” was banned, it seemed like Sembene played low.
The chapter entitled, “Finding Sembene”, we catch up with Gadjigo at Mount Holyoke, teaching in his classroom and how he reached out to Sembene, who was still living in Senegal. Gadjigo invited him to America to help make Africa known to his students, but the director wasn’t having it, stating he “had more important things to do in Africa, then waste my time with American academics.”
Ten years later, Sembene returned with 1988’s “Camp de Thiaroye” his most controversial film yet, which he made after he moved to France. The film, which depicted the Thiaroye massacre, that followed the mutiny by and mass killing of French West African troops by French forces on the night of November 30 to December 1, 1944, wound up being censored in France and banned in Senegal. The making of this film formed resentment in some younger Senegalese filmmakers who were in the process of making their own film of the Thiaroye massacre.
At this time, Gadjigo states he convinced his colleagues to pay for him to fly to Senegal to meet Sembene, who greeted him rather abruptly and rudely. Sembene turned him away, but Gadjigo was resilient and would show up and his idol’s door everyday. They’d have conversations and Gadjigo realized Sembene was testing him and eventually he agreed to go back with Gadjigo to America. For the next seventeen years, Gadjigo became Sembene’s guide, translator and biographer, bringing his films to universities and festivals to people who’d never seen his films before. Such an experience taught Sembene realize that he was more valued as an artist outside his Senegal, which increased his self-confidence. We see him meeting with Hollywood actors and directors, university professors, successful photographers and activists, all of whom had sought out Sembene.
The final chapter, “God’s Bits of Woods”, covers the time period when Sembene made his last film 2004’s “Moolaade”, a film about female genital mutilation that was so frequent in African countries. Sembene made the film in extreme heat in Africa at the age of 82 and near-blind. He was still as stubborn to work with as always and something of a curmudgeon to boot, as Gadjigo reflects Sembene saying, “after I die, I will have plenty of time to rest”. He died two years later in 2007 at his home in Dakar, Senegal.
The goal of “Sembene!” is to tell the uninformed about this groundbreaking African director – and who better to tell such a story than his apprentice and close friend? Although many sides of Sembene is shown, any aggrandizing here is warranted due to his important body of work. It’s actually quite heartwarming to see how the friendship bewtweeb Gadjigo and Sembene developed. We’ve all had people with certain talents or in specific professions who we looked up to and meeting them doesn’t always work out so great. Here, we see a tenacious admirer in Gadjigo, pursue an artist who had no clue of the exuberant reception he would receive – and I was moved by that touching relationship.
“Sembene” premiered at last year at Sundance Film Festival and traveled the festival circuit, stopping at Cannes, Venice and Telluride and is slowly seeing a wider release. You have one more chance to see it in Chicago – at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Thursday, January 21st.