Described as “the father of African cinema,” Ousmane Sembène receives a mostly conventional biodocumentary in Sembene!, but it is enlivened by biographer Samba Gadjigo’s personal perspectives and an impressive array of contextual footage, personal photographs, rare archival footage, interviews with intimates, and clips of Sembène’s films that are only now being preserved.
Sembène had much in common with Fela Kuti, as seen last year in Alex Gibney’s Finding Fela. Both were born under colonial rule (Fela in 1938 Nigeria, Sembène in 1923 Senegal), educated about revolution in the ruling country (Fela in England, Sembène in France), inspired by African Americans (Sembène by Richard Wright and W.E.B. Du Bois, Fela by James Brown), and married a radical African-American woman who tired of their polygamy. When these artists grew disenchanted with post-independence governments, they created a new African interpretation of popular culture to reach the masses with messages of change and empowerment (Fela through Afrobeat, Sembène through movies). The two also faced censorship and restrictions because their art spoke out against religious and political oppression.
Professor Gadjigo speaks emotionally how Sembène’s short stories and novels, that began getting published in 1956, were a revelation to him as a high school senior in Senegal in 1972. They were the first works he read that reflected local traditions and people. The documentary tracks how Sembène had to leave his homeland to achieve that, after quitting Islamic classes, expulsion from a Francophone school for insubordination, and years working with his fisherman father, who warned him, “Never work for the white man.”
As a young man, he joined so many other African migrants to Marseilles, where the only work for an uneducated black man was carrying heavy loads on the docks and where he joined a labor union and the Communist Party. When a horrible accident broke his back and left him practically bedridden for a year, he seized on the time and opportunity to take advantage of libraries and classes. Unnecessarily, Gadjigo makes Sembène even more of an amazing autodidact for self-education by leaving out the French Communist mentors interviewed for his biography Making of a Militant Artist. They included the women who helped Sembène edit, and get published, his early literary efforts. (He would eventually publish 10 books, including novels, stories, poems, and essays.)
These connections for sponsorship were important because Sembène didn’t even consider making movies until he was 40, when he studied at Moscow’s Gorky Film Studio in 1962. The documentary well covers the artistic enthusiasm that burst out across the continent after 17 African countries achieved independence in 1960. Sembène returned to Senegal to reach a wider African audience for films that were the first to “mirror” Senegalese lives (and in their indigenous languages).
The wonderful selection of clips beautifully illustrate how he achieved those goals, starting with his first short, Borom Sarret (1963), a day in the life of a Dakar cart driver. It still looks fresh, regardless of the lack of professional equipment and crew. His first feature, Black Girl (1966), based on his short story, is considered a masterpiece, as attested here by expert talking heads, and it brought him international acclaim. It vividly climaxes in an African maid’s rebellion against her insufferably condescending French employer. The recent restoration by the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project has been shown at festivals this year. After other successes, Ceddo (1977) seems even more daring now, with its controversial depiction of Islam as an outside, colonizing imposition against native spiritual practices. It was banned by many countries.
The documentary is frank about Sembène’s failings as they affected his ability to get financing and his creative output. Protégé Boubacar Boris Diop recounts how his mentor diverted funds that were supposed to reward the younger filmmaker so he could make his stymied epic, Camp de Thiaroye (1986), on French colonial brutality. This overview also leaves out Sembène’s service in the imperial army that gave him a very personal take on massacres France wanted covered up. That film resulted in a scandal that isolated him for years.
In later years, Gadjigo, as his biographer and translator on speaking tours, had become a friend, and his anecdotes of the interplays between nervous acolyte and grouchy master are amusing, even if details of the older man’s personal life remain confusing. (A “mixed race” son, Alain, is interviewed extensively, without explaining who his mother is.) Gadjigo also speaks familiarly of the difficulties Sembène overcame to make his last film, Moolaadé (2004). Losing his sight and working in primitive conditions in extreme heat, he insisted on taking on the controversial issue of female genital mutilation.
Gadjigo’s personal approach makes us gasp at the neglect of Sembène’s oceanfront house and its art and film collections, as well as cheer at Gadjigo’s preservation efforts of Sembène’s work. He is an effective guardian of Sembène’s legacy at home and abroad.