Sembene, the “father of African cinema,” rescued Africa for Africans, in a way: He put the life of the continent and its people on screen, magnifying and mythologizing them, the way so many other peoples had been magnified and mythologized. He provided a mirror. He provided a model: African artists, too, could bring their stories to the world, avail themselves of the medium, and stop being interpreted via the fiction of outsiders — who, let’s face it, didn’t always have their best interests at heart. He was the first African on a Cannes jury; he was an early critic of radical Islamic influence on sub-Saharan African.
Opening Nov. 6, “Sembene!” is predictably worshipful about Sembene’s contributions to African and world culture, directed as it is by one of the subject’s admitted disciples (Gadjigo) and Jason Silverman. What you don’t expect, however, is how brutally frank the film can be about its subject’s failings: At a low point in his own career, Sembene appropriated funds intended for young African filmmakers to finance his own movie about the same subject (“Camp de Thiaroye”), a film subsequently banned in France. In shooting a scene for “Moolaade,” his last feature and a protest film against female genital mutilation, he used a young girl who had already been circumcised and thoroughly believed she was about to be being cut again – her screams are horrifying real, and chilling. Which was Sembene’s intention. To him, the message of the film was more important than the trauma of one girl. One can argue about Sembene’s ethics, but the moral judgment of his biographers is rigorous.
Gadjigo’s journey through the film begin at Sembene’s deserted house on the coast of Senegal, called Calle Ceddo – “house of the free man” – which is in disgraceful disrepair, its walls water stained and buckling, the floor scattered with the rusting canisters of Sembene’s films. (“His legacy is rotting,” Gadjigo says). Are they totally forgotten? Is he? “Sembene!” should be a major step in drawing attention back to a titan of world cinema, whose influence was never contained by the frame, or the screen.