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‘SEMBENE!’ Doc Directors on the Legacy of the “Father of African Cinema” pt. 1

‘SEMBENE!’ Doc Directors on the Legacy of the “Father of African Cinema” pt. 1

Written about a number of times here on Shadow and Act as
the film traveled the world from Sundance, to Cannes, to the Telluride Film
Festival and so many more, the new documentary “SEMBENE!” on Senegalese film
auteur and ‘Father of African Cinema,’ Ousmane Sembene, makes its theatrical
premiere this Friday, November 6th in New York City at Lincoln Plaza
Cinema for one full week.

For those unfamiliar, Ousmane Sembene had a career spanning
40 years in cinema, beginning with his first short film “Borom Sarret” (1963)
and continuing with the film most (outside of Africa) still know him best for,
“La noire de” (Black Girl), the story of a domestic worker enslaved by her
white employers. Many of his films are based on his well-known novels, and he
was the first sub-Saharan film director to achieve worldwide acclaim with
stories ‘by Africans and for Africans,’ inspiring generations of artists and
filmmakers to do the same.  Still, Sembene
tasted the highs and the lows of success, only to re-invent himself with his powerful
auteurist blend of documentary, French New Wave, and Realism, creating films
that shocked the sociopolitical power structures of the day. He did whatever he
had to do to get his films made, and with classics like “Xala,” Ceddo,” and “Moolaade,” established his cinematic vision and made him an international emissary who presented the inner lives of his people on film.

I recently got to chat with the directors of “SEMBENE!” African
Studies scholar Samba Gadjigo and award-winning filmmaker Jason Silverman,
about their experience in making the film, Gadjigo’s friendship with his cantankerous
and conflicted subject, as well the future of Sembene’s legacy. 

The film opens with an obvious African-voiced accent, and
you are at first unsure whether it is Sembene speaking, or someone else.  You quickly find that it is indeed
Gadjigo, as his perspective on Sembene is the guiding force, visually and narrative-wise,
of the documentary. The film evokes a personal essay. Gadjigo shares that this
perspective took them years to develop, “We felt it would be better to have
someone who had a personal connection and was influenced by him to be the voice
of the film.  My voice is just not
the story of Sembene, but the story of myself.”

Silverman continues how, “I usually have a aversion to using
the first person voice as it usually is used to fill holes in the narrative. But
that wasn’t the case here.  We
struggled with that narrative direction for years. Sembene’s goal, as laid out
in his poem [“Liberté,” his first published work which imagines Africa after
independence], laid out his mission for years. Samba is the recipient of all
that knowledge, and as he thought about how to layout African progress…he’s a
product of that knowledge. And that he carried that, he is the authentic person
to tell the authentic story.”

Yet beyond Gadjigo, fellow African film intellectual,
Sembene documentarian, and friend Manthia Diawara, and one or two others, I was
surprised to not see more African directors featured in the film.  I had to ask whether it was of because
Sembene’s polarizing presence.  He
could be a difficult person to deal with, as Gadjigo himself relays in the
film. 

Both men exclaim about the ton of interviews they gathered,
and the decision on how to move forward. “We decided to not make it an academic
thing,” Silverman says of the chosen story direction. “People had nice things
to say about him, but couldn’t really advance the story and give emotional
weight to the story.” On the decision to feature Diawara pretty heavily, he
continues that, “Manthia knowing him personally and academically took the place
of all of those people [we didn’t use]. We also have his son [Alain] and
[Sembene’s] maid.”

The maid herself is a significant personal connection to
Sembene who stays with you well after viewing the documentary.  Gadjigo agrees, “The maid has a unique
perspective. She spent over 25 years with Sembene, and literally closed his
eyes when he died in her arms.  She
presents a whole court of emotional charges.”

It is apparent that Sembene remained a man of complexity and
contradiction.  The film portrays
him as an outsider as much as he was a ‘man of the people.’ I had to wonder if
this is an accurate reading of Sembene? 
“That’s a great observation,” Silverman remarks.  “There was a line in an earlier version
that says “Africa’s man of the people is now alone.” During the day, as [Alain]
says, he was a military leader, and at night, quiet.  An artist of his caliber needs to process, to be in his
books, and digest all of that. 
Sembene wasn’t that good at people. Everything was subject to his work…He
wanted to empower the working class, but didn’t go over walking over bodies [to
get there].” 

Gadjigo intercedes, “Yes, even that’s a contradiction.  [Sembene’s] grand project was to serve
THE people, but sometimes you have the strong impression that people were just his
resource to getting what he needed from them.” This makes sense, as late in the
documentary, during the footage on the filming of his final film “Moolaade,” as
a young girl playing a version of herself is being brought for female circumcision,
and quite vividly recounts that feeling through her screams, Sembene holds the
camera on the girl screaming and her imagining of the cutting far longer than
anyone else would.  The emotional pangs
of this prove much to the chagrin of everyone on set, and it is the assistant
director has to end the scene.  “I’m
not unpleasant.  It’s the way I was
born,” says Sembene of that moment.

Gadjigo continues on Sembene’s sometimes impersonal nature
that, “An artist needs solitude, but cannot do without immersion of the people.
But he himself says, “Even when I am alone I am always inhabited by my people.”

In the second part of our interview, Gadjigo and Silverman
speak on Sembene’s international reputation, the future of African cinema, and
more.  Read it here tomorrow.  See more information  about “SEMBENE!”
on the film website, including future screening dates in Washington D.C., Pasadena, Pittsburgh, and other cities.

This Article is related to: Interviews