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‘SEMBENE!’ Documentary Directors on the Legacy of the “Father of African Cinema” pt. 2

‘SEMBENE!’ Documentary Directors on the Legacy of the “Father of African Cinema” pt. 2

In part one of my interview with the directors of the new
documentary “SEMBENE!”, a chronicle of the life of Ousmane Sembene, the justly
titled ‘Father of African Cinema,’ we focused on the narrative direction of the
film through co-director and Sembene colleague and expert Samba Gadjigo, the
auteur’s intense dedication to getting his films made, no matter what, and his
legacy among African filmmakers. 

Here in part two, we speak further with Jason Silverman and
Gadjigo about their crafting of the film and what Sembene’s work means for the
international community.  “SEMBENE!”
makes its theatrical release today in NYC until November 12th before
traveling the country in the coming weeks.

Continuing the conversation, I asked Samba Gadjigo about Sembene’s
reputation outside of Africa.  One
aspect that still did not sit well with me is that it though it came across how
highly lauded Sembene was in Africa, he seemed to be even more the toast of the
town in France, the United States, and other countries.  Was this an access thing, a
socio-ecominic thing?  “He gets more attention outside
than in because of film distribution…because of the system, answers Gadjigo.  “All African Francophone countries [Senegal, Mali, etc.] had film
distribution from the French in those countries.”  Still, Sembene did travel Africa with his films, ensuring
that the people he made them for were able to see them.

Furthering
the conversation about Sembene’s reputation with younger filmmakers, Gadjigo
relates that Sembene, while respecting his peers and protégés, felt that young
African filmmakers have to do their own thing. “Sembene said, “You have to kill
the father to make progress.” Whether they want to emulate or go around him,
he’s always there.”  Sembene’s
presence, he continues, “will always be in whatever style [African filmmakers]
make their films. 90% of African films have strong political and activist-leaning
content.” 

What struck me upon watching the film was how quotable
Sembene was.  I assume this greatly
helped the direction of Samba’s narration and how the well-written script
played out.  Jason Silverman took
the lead on answering this, “As a filmmaker, it’s always hard to nail down that
voice…we had to figure out ways to take the Samba that I know, and get the
personal, non-academic, storytelling voice.” He shared how the many interviews
with Gadjigo telling stories and laying out historical knowledge about Sembene
were transcribed and scripted to create a ‘real feel’ to the narration.  He continues that, “If Samba was not
authentic in the film, it would not work.”

That authenticity is indeed what makes the film work.  Yet the animated chapter title screens
help to film to excel as well.  On
choosing to use these instead of more traditional means, Silverman shares how,
“At an early stage of the film, we thought of telling the film as a fable,
interspersing the story with the animation.  It was a bad idea as it really wouldn’t meld story wise, but
the work from Edwina White and James Dunlap was so strong that we had to use
it.”  When editing, those pieces
came back up at every turn, so they ended up re-cutting them to chapterize the
film.  “Plus,” adds Silverman, “for
a film about an artist like Sembene, it reminds viewers of the nature of
storytelling.”  The look of those sequences also made it into the film’s poster.

Almost at our end, another fascinating piece of the film
dealt with Sembene’s marriage to an American woman named Carrie Moore.  Moore studied under Sembene for her
thesis, and was so enamored by him, that they married.  But like his other personal
relationships, it didn’t stand the test of his artistic temperament and lack of
time.  “We tried to interview her
[for the film],” Gadjigo says, “but she refused multiple times. Still, her work
on him is essential.  She’s an
important Sembene scholar.”  An
important quote of hers does make it into the film, coolly remarking that,
“Creation becomes his first wife, in a way that when my husband his home, he is
not really with me,” a sentiment about Sembene’s detachment that becomes his standard. 

We had to officially end, but I had to ask Gadjigo again
about modern African filmmakers.  I
wondered directly: Does the African artist that has achieved consciousness need
to feel obligated to freeing other African minds? 

Gadjigo left us with this:  “There is no art without freedom. That being said, the
reason we decided to do Ousmane Sembene’s story is because he is an
activist.  And being African, and
an activist, Sembene was a trailblazer – he opened the doors. No one should
censor [filmmakers], but we cannot, in this point of history, just do a cinema
that just promotes a cinema of consumerism.  It should not just be a cinema of just ‘kiss, kiss…bang,
bang.’” 

“SEMBENE!” makes it theatrical premiere today, November 6th,
at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York City.  It continues throughout the country at: 

Dartmouth College – Hanover, NH (November 8th)

Virginia Film Festival – Charlottesville, PA (November 8th)

Sembene Film & Arts Festival – Pittsburgh, PA (November
12)

Angelika Pop-Up at Union Station – Washington D.C. (November
20-26

Laemmle Playhouse
7
– Pasadena, CA (November 23 to December 3rd)

See more information about “SEMBENE!” on the film’s
website

Curtis Caesar John is a film programmer
and founder of the soon-to-come Brooklyn-based microcinema The Luminal Theater. He also serves
as the Film Editor for Bold As Love Magazine and is a longtime writer for
Shadow and Act.  He is born, raised
and resides in Brooklyn, NY, of course. Follow him on Twitter at @MediaManCurt.

This Article is related to: Interviews